INDIANAPOLIS - Beginning in 2013, the Pioneer Football League will gain access to the Division I Football Championship through an automatic bid as a result of the NCAA Board of Directors approving a budget that will allow expansion of the tournament to 24 teams that season.
That expansion means that the Stetson Hatters will have access to a berth in the national championship tournament in their very first year back on the field. The Hatters will play their first intercollegiate football game in 57 years when they open the 2013 season.
“We are very excited,” Hatters coach Roger Hughes said. “Any time you are competing you want to have a chance to compete for the ultimate goal, and for us that is the national championship. For the Pioneer League to have been awarded an automatic bid not only attests to the level of play in the league, but it also shows that the NCAA wants to give every team at the FCS level a chance to play for the championship.”
The championship's 2013 expansion will be the second this decade. The bracket grew from 16 to 20 teams in 2010, its first expansion since 1978.
The PFL will join 10 conferences currently awarded an automatic bid. They will be placed into the 24-team bracket by the NCAA Football Championship selection committee along with 13 at-large qualifiers. The committee will select its eight national seeds which will receive first-round byes. The remaining 16 teams will then be placed in the bracket with an emphasis on geographical proximity.
“Having the Pioneer Football League champion automatically qualify for the FCS Playoffs is hugely important to our teams,” PFL commissioner Patty Viverito said. “This opportunity seemed a distant hope just one year ago, but will become a reality when the FCS bracket expands to 24 teams in 2013.”
The Pioneer Football League, which began with four members upon its inception in 1991, will expand to 12 members in 2013. It is the nation's only non-scholarship, football-only NCAA Football Championship Subdivision conference.
“I think our kids are excited about this move,” Hughes said. “This should certainly help us in recruiting and, frankly, it should bring credibility to our league opponents as well.”
The PFL is a truly national conference with members on each coast and throughout the nation's heartland. The league still retains four of its charter members - Butler University, the University of Dayton, Drake University and Valparaiso University, plus the University of San Diego (joining in 1992).
Those schools were joined in 2001 by Davidson College, Jacksonville University and Morehead State University. Campbell University joined the PFL in 2008, its first season of intercollegiate football. Marist College, which joined prior to the 2009 season, further extended the league's footprint into the northeast.
The league will add Mercer University and Stetson University in 2013, improving the league's representation in the southeast.
With Stetson and Mercer joining for the 2013 season, the Pioneer League will split into two divisions, with the Hatters and Bears joining with Jacksonville, Davidson, Campbell and Marist. Those schools will appear annually on the Stetson schedule, along with three cross-over opponents from the other division.
“Obviously we won’t be able to play everyone in the league every year, but we will go off the best league record to determine the league champion,” Hughes said.