There was a time when ESPN’s “College Game Day” rarely went anywhere except the Power 5 schools, meaning an FCS visit was virtually out of the question. Before 2013, the marquee show was probably at Penn for the annual Penn vs. Harvard clash in 2002 from historic Franklin Field in Philadelphia. The thinking of Lee Fitting and the decision makers started to change in 2013 when the “Game Day” crew was in Fargo and the result was a blockbuster show. It went so well that the show came back in 2014 and the downtown crowd was even bigger.
It was the result, certainly, of the Bison being in the midst of their five-year run of titles. It was a good story to tell, no matter what division, and ESPN liked the results. They liked the result so much that the FCS remained on their radar, this time shifting to James Madison. The show went to Harrisonburg, Va., in 2015 for the rival matchup between the Dukes and Richmond. Although not the crowds of downtown Fargo, it was still a success.
“Game Day” took a year off from the FCS in 2016, but returned to JMU this year making it four visits to an FCS school in five years. There’s no reason to believe that run won’t end, now that NDSU is back on the radar after winning its sixth title in seven years and tying Georgia Southern for most championships in FCS history. So the question is now: If NDSU is on the front burner again, what date is looking most possible?
All of the FBS schedules aren’t finalized, but a scan of teams in the final top 25 FBS poll revealed the following: the best bet could possibly be Sept. 29, when South Dakota State comes to Gate City Bank Field.
For starters, September is optimal for weather reasons. I’m not sure “Game Day” would want to mess with the potential cold morning in October, much less September. NDSU is home on Sept. 15 (North Alabama), 22 (Delaware) and 29 (SDSU) so from there, you look at the best FBS matchups on those dates. The best, so far, on Sept. 15 are Ohio State at TCU, USC at Texas, LSU at Auburn, Washington at Utah, Oklahoma at Iowa State and Alabama at Ole Miss. On Sept. 22, you have Texas A&M at Alabama, Stanford at Oregon, Wisconsin at Iowa and Texas Tech at Oklahoma State. On Sept. 29: Tennessee at Georgia, Ohio State at Penn State, Michigan at Northwestern, Iowa State at TCU and Stanford at Notre Dame.
For starters, the FCS opponent doesn’t really matter. NDSU played Delaware State and the University of The Incarnate Word in its two “Game Day” appearances. But SDSU makes for a nice story. The theory here is “Game Day” will do the Oklahoma at Iowa State game on Sept. 15, taking advantage of Iowa State’s great tailgating atmosphere and renewed enthusiasm in the program. On Sept. 22, it’s always a natural story to go back to the defending champ in its first decent game, which would be Texas A&M at Alabama. That brings us to Sept. 29, far enough into the season where the show has sufficiently covered FBS to that point. Ohio State at Penn State is a good matchup, but maybe too predictable by that time of the year.
Of course, ESPN doesn’t make this decision until it has to, but nothing wrong with looking ahead to a potential show on the corner of ESPN Boulevard and Bison Way.