Can you imagine Florida International playing Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl?
What about Howard Schnellenberger going for his second national title with Florida Atlantic in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma?
|Don Strock is strategically coaxing FIU football up the Div. I food chain. (Provided to SportsLine)|
Playing in a BCS bowl game is a farfetched idea now or anytime in the near future, but FIU and FAU move a step closer to that dream as both schools jump from I-AA to the big time this season, giving the NCAA 119 I-A programs.
Florida International is located in Miami and is coached by former NFL quarterback Don Strock; Florida Atlantic, located in Boca Raton (60 miles north of FIU) is guided by legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger.
Both schools get a quick taste of the big time as FAU opens up at Kansas, before returning home to host Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, FIU starts the season at Kansas State before playing at Texas Tech.
"You aren't going to play Division I-A football in South Florida with a second-class schedule," said Schnellenberger, who returns for his fifth season at FAU. "You've gotta grow in a hurry to be up there with the best and that's what our goal is -- to play with the Kansases and Oklahoma States. We went into this non-conference schedule because it's pretty obvious we aren't going to win the national championship this year. The next best thing you can do to be the best is play the teams on paper that are supposed to be better than you are."
FIU, which is entering only its fourth season of football, is following the same plan. Strock knows they won't get any better unless his squad plays some of the big boys, too.
"Kansas State, Texas Tech this year, then (in the future) South Florida, Kansas, Alabama, Bowling Green, Maryland and on and on and on," said Strock. "That should interest a lot of student athletes and hopefully pay off in the long run."
Florida Atlantic has a one-year head start over its neighbor to the south and has already enjoyed some success.
The Owls finished 11-3 in just their third season of existence, advancing to the I-AA semifinals and last season defeated Hawaii as well as Sun Belt foes North Texas and Middle Tennessee.
"I kind of felt we were Division I-A last year," added Schnellenberger. "We did quite well, finishing 9-3 with virtually a Division I-A schedule. We are the only team to beat North Texas in conference play. The don't count us because we weren't members of the conference yet, but we kind of think it was legitimate."
Florida Atlantic will be a member of the Sun Belt this season and is eligible for a bowl game, including the New Orleans Bowl, which goes to the conference champ.
FIU started its program in 2002 going 5-6, but struggled the past two seasons, going 2-10 in 2003 and 3-7 in 2004.
The Golden Panthers are already a member of the conference in the rest of the sports at the school and will be eligible for the conference title and bowl game in 2006.
"I think the decision was kind of made for us with the reshuffling of the ACC and some teams moving," said Strock. "Every sport here at FIU is Division I-A in the Sun Belt, so it was a natural for us to go there. It was quick, no question about it, but if you are not in the screen, you are off the picture."
Both schools are following in the footsteps of other schools which have taken the leap from I-AA to I-A in recent years -- Buffalo, South Florida, Connecticut and Troy, some finding more success than others.
Connecticut had a losing record its first three seasons in I-A, before going 9-3 in 2003 and last season finished 8-4 and played Toledo in the Motor City Bowl.
South Florida, located in Tampa, fielded its first team in 1997, moved to I-A in 2001 and had three consecutive winning seasons before finishing 4-7 last year.
|FAU and FIU I-AA History|
But for every South Florida, there is a Buffalo, which hasn't won more than two games a season since joining Division I-A in 1999.
Both FAU and FIU have set aside small goals, but in the first year of Division I, the first step is clearly obvious.
"We look forward to competing for the conference title and take a visit to New Orleans," added Schnellenberger. "But we've got to bone up and be ready to go in a hurry."
For all the excitement on each campus, there is one area of concern for both -- home attendance. Division I-A rules state that a team must average at least 15,000 once every two years, and FAU and FIU haven't done that yet.
Both schools averaged around 10,000 fans last season playing a home schedule full of I-AA schools. FAU has plans for an on-campus stadium in 2007 or 2008, which the athletic department describes as an updated version of the Carrier Dome, seating around 42,000. FIU already has a stadium on campus, seating 17,000, but there are plans to upgrade the current facility to seat 30,000.
"Attendance wise, the first year it was a novelty, then the second year it got tougher, third year it got tougher and then the fourth year even tougher," stated Strock. "We have our work cut out for us, but you can't build a program and go backwards."
With both teams ready to tackle the life of a Division I-A program, playing state foes Miami, Florida or Florida State could be on the horizon.
"If we reach our goal and become a solid contender in Division I-A, there is going to be a time we run into each other," added Schnellenberger.