Valparaiso’s game against New Mexico State on December 3 is a rare sight for Pioneer Football League fans as it will only be the conference’s fourth game against an FBS program. While it will be Valparaiso’s first December game ever, it is far from the conference’s first game in December. In the mid-2000s, the Pioneer Football League was a fixture on the first Saturday of December.
In 2006, the FCS Playoffs consisted of a 20-team field, and conferences such as the Big South, Pioneer Football League, and Northeast Conference did not have an automatic bid. As a result, the Pioneer Football League and the Northeast Conference took matters into their own hands and created their own bowl game, the Gridiron Classic, which would be played on the first Saturday of December. Both conferences’ champions would participate in the game in the event they did not make the FCS playoffs.
The game began in 2006 and had some outstanding matchups. Below are the matchups in the four-year history of the game:
- 2006: 10-1 San Diego 27 @ 10-1 Monmouth 7. Game held at Monmouth’s Kessler Field in front of 4,032 fans (% capacity)
- 2007: 8-3 Albany 21 @ 10-1 Dayton 42. Game held at Dayton’s Welcome Stadium in front of 2703 fans (% capacity)
- 2008: 9-3 Jacksonville 0 @ 9-3 Albany. Game held at Albany’s University Field in front of 2264 fans (% capacity)
- 2009: 9-2 Central Connecticut State @ 10-1 Butler. Game held at Butler’s Butler Bowl in front of 1577 fans (% capacity, *please note the Butler Bowl held 2500 before renovations in 2010).
The game also brought exposure to conferences being televised twice. In 2006, CSTV (now CBS Sports Network), aired the game; in 2008, the YES Network aired the game. The 2006 game only competed with the ACC Championship and a matchup between 10-1 Louisville and 4-7 UConn. The ACC Championship was a 9-6 game and Louisville beat UConn 48-17, so it's reasonable to believe that the Gridiron Classic got a fair amount of viewers.
All good things must come to an end as beginning in 2010, the NEC gained an automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs and the Gridiron Classic went away. The PFL would not gain an automatic playoff bit until 2013.
While Valparaiso is not the PFL champion, in some ways it is a resurrection of the Gridiron Classic with the Beacons playing a marquee opponent. Additionally, the game will be televised regionally on Bally Sports Arizona as well as streamed on Flosports. A big win for the program. In the end, the Valparaiso-New Mexico State fan will have Pioneer Football League lifers reminiscing about stranger times for the conference.