College football's true first game of the year hasn't gotten a lot of publicity. But with a potential national champion, two high-scoring offenses, a blooming rivalry, and BLOOOOOD, it should.
The death of the college football offseason is nearer than you think.
Many circle Aug. 30, the first full college football Saturday, as our favorite sport's return. Others pick Thursday, Aug. 28, which includes Texas A&M-South Carolina and others. The truly bold pick Aug. 27, when FBS-minted Georgia State takes on Abilene Christian.
But on Aug. 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, FCS No. 1 Eastern Washington will host No. 17 Sam Houston State.
As all Eagles should, Eastern Washington slashes the lifeblood out of its opposition through a menacing air attack, led by perhaps the best player in FCS, quarterback Vernon Adams. And they long ago dyed their field red, so all that blood won't leave a stain. They'd like to find a partner for their 2010 title in the trophy case, and their turf demands fresh sacrifice.
Sam Houston State of Huntsville, Texas, is a team that's stood in their way. The four-time Southland Conference champion Bearkats -- the K is for "kill," according to a legend I just made up -- have knocked off the Eagles two years running. They're the second-to-last team to win on the red turf, taking down the No. 2 Eagles in the 2012 semifinals, and they beat the Eagles last September down in Texas.
No, it's not an FBS game. But this is not palliative football. This is not munching on meaningless CFL games, knowing they won't provide us with sustenance. These are two kickass squads, and if you love college football, this is the real season opener.
Here's why you must watch.
1. Both these teams could beat a bunch of FBS teams.
EWU was the last team to win a Division I playoff national title before North Dakota State's three-peat. (NDSU graduates a ton of talent and lost head coach Craig Bohl to Wyoming, which bumped the Bison to No. 2 in the preseason polls.) And the Eagles have beaten FBS teams two years in a row.
Last year it was No. 25 Oregon State in Week 1, behind now-senior QB Adams, who scored six touchdowns in a 49-46 shootout. The year before, they won at Idaho by 17 points. It's almost three years -- Washington stole one in 2011, emerging with a 30-27 win thanks to a last-minute end zone interception despite being outgained, 504-250.
Sam Houston State hasn't beaten an FBS squad since 2011 when they beat New Mexico -- they've lost twice to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M and once to Baylor, so, not terrible outcomes -- but can do the whole transitive property thing due to beating EWU. The Bearkats finished last year ranked No. 105 in Jeff Sagarin's ratings, ahead of Virginia, Cal, NC State, Kansas, and other teams with much bigger budgets.
We won't guarantee either will beat an FBS foe this year -- Sam Houston State won't beat LSU, and while the Eagles have a chance against Washington, they'll always be the underdogs there. But if these teams played full FBS slates, they'd get their fair share.
Keshawn Hill by David Barfield, Sam Houston State
Even in the run-and-gun world of FCS football, Sam Houston State and Eastern Washington are amongst the runniest and gunniest. The Bearkats averaged 41.1 points per game, fourth in the subdivision. The Eagles averaged 39.5, seventh.
So when they meet, the two put up pinball numbers. Last year, SHSU won 49-34, running for 450 yards. The semifinal matchup from 2012 was a 45-42 free-for-all. That's an average of 85 points. POINTZ.
The Eagles like to get their yards through the air, leading the nation with 5,247 yards passing, including 1,691 to star receiver Cooper Kupp. SHSU was fourth in rushing with 3,710. And while Sam Houston State lost head coach Willie Fritz to Georgia Southern and has an offensive backfield overhaul, they have several preseason awards considerations and pick up former Texas Longhorns four-star Jalen Overstreet.
When it's time for great defense, you will get your great defense. You will get at least 13 games each of Alabama, Florida State, Michigan State, and Stanford.
But this is the first game of the year. Let us take these touchdowns and grind them into a fine dust and snort them. Our lifeblood has been depleted of pointz. Now it is time to let pointz surge through our veins.
This game will be played at Roos Field, whose turf is DYED RED WITH THE BLOOD OF ITS ENEMIES.
The story of the red turf goes back to 2010, when EWU alumnus MIchael Roos, now an offensive tackle for the Tennessee Titans, paid $500,000 for the installation of the new field.
Some whisper an anonymous donor then purchased Michael Jackson's jacket from the "Thriller" video and had it shredded into grass-like blades, then covered the entire field with it. However, this color was deemed too flashy, so groundskeepers painstakingly applied small amounts of pure, innocent kitten blood to each blade, giving the field its distinctive murder-y hue.
Some might call this field a distraction, because we're used to watching players on green, and our eyes aren't used to picking up players on red. This is made worse by the fact that EWU often wears red jerseys, making each jersey a de facto camouflage.
This is hogwash. We never complain about teams wearing green-on-green, even though quite frankly, it has a similar effect, because we're used to it. What makes college football great are the tiny idiosyncrasies that make people we've never met go crazy. The bloodthirsty Eagles are one of those idiosyncracies, and please do not say otherwise, because they'll kill you for grass dye if they have to.
4. A reminder that playoffs don't ruin football.
Were you one of the 13 people not earning tons of money from a bowl game and/or the BCS who pointed out that a playoff could and would ruin college football? That what made college football great was the fact that every week mattered? Are you worried that the new College Football Playoff will make for a boring season?
This game will further prove those fears false.
EWU could just about sleepwalk to a playoff berth, but I can guarantee you they'll come out fired up to beat a team that's beaten them two years running.
For SHSU, on the other hand, games like this are huge for their chances of making it in. As the third-ranked team in the Southland Conference behind Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese State, they can't bank on a conference championship auto-bid. A Week 1 win against the top team in the land would go a long way to ensuring a postseason.
A playoff doesn't eradicate week-to-week competitive desire. It changes what teams are fighting for. Most people realize this, but I imagine there's a small camp out there worried that FBS change has caused a bad thing. If you fall into that camp and need solace that everything will be all right, watch this game and feed off the fury.