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FCS teams throw scare into Pac-12

Coach Jon Embree and his Colorado Buffaloes fell to Sacramento State last Saturday. (Associated Press)
Coach Jon Embree and his Colorado Buffaloes fell to Sacramento State last Saturday. (Associated Press)
It used to be that if a Pac-12 team lost – or came close to losing – against an opponent from the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision, the assumption was that the FCS team was merely overlooked. Until those teams actually got competitive enough to give major-conference teams a scare despite having their full attention. Last week’s slate of Pac-12 games was evidence enough that things might be changing in that regard. Colorado lost 30-28 at home on Saturday to Sacramento State, a Big Sky team that also pulled an upset over Oregon State in Corvallis last season. UNLV, Washington State’s opponent this week, lost 17-14 to Northern Arizona. And Eastern Washington gave WSU everything it could handle in a 24-20 game ultimately won by the Cougars. “There are still those cases out there where some real good players, for whatever reason – late development, maybe they’re not on a great, productive team – they slip through the cracks,” OSU coach Mike Riley said on Tuesday’s Pac-12 coaches conference call. “So these great players, really good guys end up everywhere.” It’s the Appalachian State phenomenon. Michigan was roundly mocked in 2007 when it opened its season by losing at home to the FCS Mountaineers, a result considered one of the biggest upsets in college football history. It was. But there have been enough competitive games between teams of the FBS and FCS ranks recently – in the Pac-12 alone, even – that it would seem parity has seeped into Division I’s lower division. That’s how Colorado coach Jon Embree sees it. “I definitely felt like that really when you watched Appalachian State and the kind of team they had, I think that was kind of a wake-up call to the rest of the country that all those schools, they’ve got players,” Embree said. So why schedule them? The perception in some corners is that Pac-12 teams have no business even allowing those kinds of teams to hang around, let alone lose to them. Steve Sarkisian, whose Washington team hosts Portland State of the Big Sky on Saturday, concurred with other coaches in saying that the 85-player scholarship limit at the FBS level means better athletes accepting scholarships to FCS schools. “I think what we’ve tried to do is identify teams in our region that not only can support our home game and all of that, but also them and their program,” Sarkisian said. “Every game counts and you’d better play well because if you don’t, you will get beat. And we are seeing that more around the country now than ever.” Not a bad weekend UCLA beat a ranked Nebraska team. Oregon State stunned then-No. 13 Wisconsin. And Arizona jumped into the national rankings with a 59-38 drubbing of then-No. 18 Oklahoma State. It was the kind of weekend the Pac-12 needed as it tries to establish itself as a powerhouse conference again – UW’s 41-3 loss to LSU, Utah’s loss at Utah State and Colorado’s aforementioned face-plant notwithstanding. “This conference is probably at an all-time high” in terms of competitiveness from top to bottom, Riley said. “The competitiveness will be awesome as the season unfolds here before us.” “It doesn’t surprise me that much,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “Yes, I think it helps, but I think there’s ups and downs for leagues and teams and whatnot. It’s real early in the season. Again, doesn’t surprise me.” Keeping it fresh Arizona State coach Todd Graham wants his players to be comfortable on the road. So comfortable, in fact, that he even uses the same air freshener plug-ins on the road as ASU uses in its home locker room. “I want the locker room to smell the same,” Graham said. “Try to make everything the same as it can be.”
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