The NEC’s CAA Matchups Should Have Been Moved to Week Zero

The 2024 Week Zero slate is weak. The NEC’s CBS Sports deal presents an opportunity for exposure. Still, the NEC did not move their marquee matchups. What gives?

CBS Sports Network has a TV deal with the NEC.
Source: Jim Stankiewicz

In the Northeast, the Coastal Athletic Association is the regional hegemon, while the Northeast Conference is merely a fiefdom. Chances are, if you have just a casual knowledge of FCS football, you are aware of the CAA's reputation in the FCS.

Consequentially, any time a Northeast Conference team hosts a CAA team, it is a big deal. This season, two NEC schools will host CAA schools. Merrimack hosts Maine and Rhode Island visits Long Island this year. These are landmark games for the conference, an opportunity for the league to enhance its national reputation. Yet, they represent a missed opportunity.

For the past decade, Week Zero has been a crucial opportunity for FCS schools to gain exposure at the beginning of the season. Week Zero FCS games on linear TV draw respectable ratings for FCS schools normally relegated to streaming.

The 2024 Week Zero slate is likely the weakest slate of games ever. So far, Week Zero of 2024 consists of:

  • Eastern Illinois-Illinois
  • Montana State-New Mexico
  • Georgia Tech-Florida State (in Ireland)

The FCS Kickoff will likely join those ranks, but it does not do much to contribute to a slate with only four games with hardly any national relevance. People will tune into the Florida State-Georgia Tech game because Florida State is a national brand, and Ireland games are great for the sport.

Still, Florida State went 13-1 last year while Georgia Tech went 7-6, so a blowout is not unlikely. Eastern Illinois-Illinois and Montana State-New Mexico are potential FCS-over-FBS upsets. However, the FBS schools involved are middle-the-pack (Illinois) and bottom-feeders (New Mexico) in their conference.

Week Zero would have been a golden opportunity for the Northeast Conference to showcase itself and potentially be the best game on TV that day. Due to European time zones, the Georgia Tech-Florida State game will likely receive a noon ET kickoff, leaving the late afternoon and evening time frame open for the rest of the games.

In all likelihood, the NEC could have moved Maine-Merrimack or Rhode Island-LIU to Week Zero and aired it on CBS Sports Network as part of their deal with the broadcaster. Last year, CBS Sports Network aired a pair of weeknight games in the first year of the conference’s deal with the network.

If aired at 3:30 ET, the game would only compete with the potential FCS Kickoff and maybe Eastern Illinois-Illinois. Eastern Illinois-Illinois could become a blowout early. The Panthers’ lone FBS game last year was a 23-point loss to Bowling Green.

The FCS Kickoff struggled to field a nationally relevant matchup last season when #20 Mercer was the headliner, but they faced a North Alabama squad that went 1-10 the previous year. Maine-Merrimack or Rhode Island-LIU could have stolen viewers from both games.

Finally, both Maine-Merrimack and Rhode Island-LIU are relevant in large TV markets. LIU would be the only team playing in the New York City metro during Week Zero. Merrimack would be the lone Week Zero representative of the Boston TV market.

Capturing even a small share of viewers from these markets is significant exposure for the NEC. The NEC cares about its presence in big Northeast markets. Two of the NEC’s schools in the New York City metro played in their CBS Sports Network Thursday night games. Neglecting these markets on a rare, light college football Saturday slate is malpractice for the conference.

Surprisingly, the NEC is one of the few FCS conferences to receive guaranteed linear TV time. They join heavyweights and brand names like the Missouri Valley Football Conference and Ivy League as linear TV beneficiaries.

The NEC’s refusal to fill the Week Zero airwaves is baffling. The NEC can benefit considerably from a national TV closeup against one of the FCS’ most-respected leagues. Not airing either of the conference’s two home games against CAA schools is a missed opportunity.