In the FCS Huddle: A small step to something bigger?

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Updated: 1/31 12:13 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Many FCS programs have been announcing their 2014 schedules recently, but Eastern Washington and Sam Houston State are lagging behind - which is not necessarily a bad fact.

ESPN's desire to have a Saturday devoted to FCS coverage prior to the start of FBS action has zeroed in on this year's Sam Houston State-Eastern Washington matchup on the red turf in Cheney.

It may be the only FCS game in the potential spotlight on Aug. 23 - five days prior to the usual Thursday night openers across the nation - but at least it would be a start for what was dubbed the "FCS Football Challenge," and isn't ready to become that quite yet.

Eastern Washington and Sam Houston, both FCS powers in recent seasons, want this spotlight. They still need to get wavers from the NCAA to start their season early, but it's happened before with ESPN televising early season college basketball games. So the pieces seem like they would fall into place for the early opener.

It's long been assumed almost any FCS program would go out of its way to garner a nationally televised game, but the biggest non-conference matchup for potential ratings - Montana at North Dakota State - is considered a no-go.

NDSU, which in 2014 will pursue a record fourth straight FCS national title, has made the difficult choice not to pursue playing Montana on Aug. 23 because it would mean first-year head coach Chris Klieman would open with that matchup and then come back with a trip to Iowa State one week later. NDSU wants to spread out those two games, so Montana's visit to the Fargodome is expected to remain on Sept. 20.

But the Sam Houston-Eastern Washington matchup isn't just a consolation prize, although knowledgeable fans would expect Sam Houston to take a step back this year following big losses with last year's senior class.

EWU should open the 2014 season ranked No. 1 or 2, and quarterback Vernon Adams will head into his junior campaign as the most heralded FCS player, so a spotlight on one of the ESPN networks would be a jump-start for his Walter Payton Award candidacy. Plus, K.C. Keeler would be making his debut as Sam Houston's head coach. With an impact transfer or two, the outlook could improve quickly for the former national championship-winning coach at Delaware.

The two are attractive programs with a budding rivalry. Sam Houston won last season's meeting in Texas, 49-34, just nine months after the Bearkats also won a 45-42 thriller at EWU in a 2012 national semifinal, when Adams came off the bench to throw six touchdown passes in his team's loss.

With most of the national scheduling made well in advance of this push by ESPN to create an early season FCS spotlight, some of the other expected top teams, such as Southeastern Louisiana, New Hampshire, Northern Iowa and Towson, aren't facing strong-enough FCS opponents to expect decent national ratings and be a part of a doubleheader with Sam Houston-EWU.

Maybe the best chance of another game would be Central Arkansas at Montana State. There's no doubt those teams would want to get into the mix, but it doesn't appear ESPN will try to push ahead that already-announced Sept. 13 game (of course, it would have helped if the game was on UCA's striped turf, and ESPN could pursue a colored-field doubleheader).

Chattanooga-Jacksonville State (Sept. 6) and Fordham-Villanova (Sept. 13) could be considered other possibilities, though more regionally, and the interest by ESPN toward either matchup doesn't seem to be there.

A school can't sell its soul to get a nationally televised game, but, of course, it happens all the time in college athletics. That makes North Dakota State's decision to stay out of the mix even more noteworthy as interest in the FCS grows.

Baby steps come first for this potential early season spotlight.

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