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Eagles to open football season on national stage

Now the whole country will be seeing red.

After months of negotiations, Eastern Washington’s Roos Field will open the college football season – for all levels – in a potentially groundbreaking, nationally-televised game against Sam Houston State on Aug. 23.

“It’ll be great to have the mother ship in Cheney,” Eastern Washington athletic director Bill Chaves said Thursday after the announcement by ESPN of the inaugural FCS Kickoff event. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m.

The game was finalized only after the Big Sky Conference and EWU reached an agreement with ESPN – after the NCAA granted a waiver of the Aug. 28 start date for games.

The agreement also finalized Eastern’s 12-game schedule, which includes six home games, including an unprecedented pair of games before Labor Day. The Eagles face Division II Montana Western on Aug. 30, then travel to Washington on Sept. 6.

The Sam Houston State game had originally been scheduled for Sept. 13; that is now an open date. The Eagles travel to Big Sky Conference rival Montana State on Sept. 20, but that game has been designated as a non-conference game. Eastern opens its eight-game conference schedule on Sept. 27 at UC-Davis.

The FCS Kickoff game matches two of the top programs in FCS; Eastern won the title in 2010 and has reached the semfinals the last two seasons. Sam Houston State played in the championship game in Frisco, Texas, after the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

“It’s exciting, to think we’re at that point as a program to have a chance to play this kind of game,” Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. “When you think back to six years ago in ‘08 when I took over the program, you might never think that was a possibility.”

Possibility became reality largely through the work of Big Sky Conference commissioner Doug Fullerton, who along with Southland Conference chief Tom Burnett requested a waiver from the NCAA to open the season earlier than usual. The move was backed by the commissioners of every other FCS league (except for the Ivy, which does not compete in the FCS playoffs and opted to abstain).

The waiver was granted, allowing both teams to move up fall camp.

“I was just going over that, and figuring when that could be,” Baldwin said Thursday afternoon. Firm dates will be set later, but fall camp will begin in the final days of July, Baldwin said.

Concurrently with Fullerton’s efforts, ESPN saw interest in creating a “tentpole type” event around FCS football, said Brent Colborne, the network’s Director of Programming for NCAA championships.

Colborne said he looked at the schedule and found Sam Houston State and Eastern Washington already were set to play in 2014. “Talk about a tailor-made matchup for something like this,” Colborne said.

“Come August 23, right before Labor Day, people are starving for college football,” Colborne said. “This is a really cool opportunity to serve those fans.”

If the event goes well, Fullerton said he might push for legislation to standardize the earlier start date for FCS schools, whose schedules leave little flexibility between Aug. 28 and the opening of the FCS playoffs in late November.

Meanwhile, Chaves is looking forward to Aug. 23.

“For us to be chose to be part of that, it’s almost program-changing,” Chaves said.

Aug. 23Sam Houston St. (12:30, ESPN)
Aug. 30Montana Western
Sept. 6 at Washington
Sept. 20at Montana St.
Sept. 27at UC Davis
Oct. 4Idaho St.
Oct. 11at Southern Utah
Oct. 18Northern Colorado
Oct. 25at Northern Arizona
Nov. 1 North Dakota
Nov. 8Montana
Nov. 22at Portland St.
Notes: Times TBA; home games in bold; Sam Houston State televised live on ESPN; Montana State game is nonleague