James Madison Coach Mike Houston smiles following last season’s 28-14 win over Youngstown State in the FCS championship game. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
Sports columnist

Barry Svrluga

These are the words of Kyre Hawkins, senior linebacker for James Madison University, who will finish practice in Harrisonburg, Va., on Wednesday morning, travel home to Baltimore for Thanksgiving with family and friends, and then return for another week's work Saturday: "Everybody starts a new, second half of the season 0-0."

In the Football Championship Subdivision — Division I-AA to you old-school types — that second half of the season means everything, and out-of-the-way, marginal bowl games are scoffed at. Pay attention to what JMU already has done (winning last year's national title) and will try to do over the next six weeks (back that up with a perfect, undefeated season), because this is a model others could — or perhaps should — try to copy.

The upcoming weekend in football brings NFL games both meaningful (Vikings-Lions) and mediocre (Giants-Redskins), college games with an impact on the national championship (Alabama-Auburn) and rivalries named after groceries (the Egg Bowl, the Apple Cup, etc.).

But those teams starting the "second half of the season," as Hawkins said and knows? They're all from the FCS.

"The regular season is done," JMU Coach Mike Houston said by phone Monday. "We obviously had a very special one and achieved some great things. But we push that over to the side now, and you're starting a new season."

Why couldn't Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Wisconsin be the top four seeds in a thrilling, 16-team, month-long College Football Playoff? After all, the NCAA already sponsors one — with even more teams — just a rung below.

The 24-team FCS tournament begins Saturday with eight on-campus games across the country. Watching those games intensely will be the eight teams who earned byes — including JMU, the top seed, which awaits the winner of Stony Brook-Lehigh. That second-round game will be played Dec. 2 in Harrisonburg.

"It's going to be exciting," JMU quarterback Bryan Schor said. "I know our students love the playoffs, and the home games. I recommend they bring a jacket."

And off we go. The Dukes have earned the right to host as many as three playoff games, culminating in the national semifinals the weekend of Dec. 16. That leads to the national title game in Frisco, Tex., on Jan. 6, two days before Atlanta hosts the championship game for the (absurdly named) Football Bowl Subdivision.

Yet doesn't the larger tournament produce a more legitimate champion?

"I love it," Schor said. "I think it's a great way to end the season, and it's exciting for the entire country to watch. It's almost a little bit like March Madness. You get to see a bunch of different matchups. And in the end, you feel confident that the best team in the country is the national champion."

What a concept.

Now, the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world are a lot more confident that their national champion is determined on the field than they were even five years ago, because the four-team College Football Playoff at least provides a mini-tournament to crown a victor.

The fourth version of the College Football Playoff awaits us New Year's Day, and it comes at a time when the powers that run it aren't really talking about expanding to eight or 16 teams. The FBS schools aren't giving up their conference championship games, and they're not giving up their lucrative ties to the approximately 348,152 bowl games that occasionally pit 6-6 teams against each other to determine who has a losing season.

So the presidents and athletic directors from FBS schools present expanding beyond a four-team playoff as an impossibility, conveniently leaning on obstacles such as "student-athlete welfare" and "academics" as potential obstacles.

And yet, programs such as James Madison balance all those needs while potentially playing 15 games — or, if one of the teams that didn't earn a bye advanced to the title game, 16 games — just fine.

"We do a good job of handling all the different types of scenarios," said Hawkins, the senior linebacker. "We're good at handling a distraction. We enjoy something when we have time to, but at other times, we block out the distractions, and when it's time to get down and handle business, we do that."

The business, during the playoffs, can include final exams — a hurdle college presidents at FBS schools have cited as a problem in expanding the highest-level playoff (even though not all schools are on the same academic calendar). Last year, James Madison's national semifinal game coincided with the school's exam week, when the Dukes were in Fargo, N.D., to face North Dakota State, which had won five national championships in a row.

So the Dukes brought along an associate athletic director to help coordinate academic issues, and several academic support staff members to proctor exams. Hawkins, for example, took his Italian final in the dining area of a Fargo hotel.

"It was just like being in the classroom," Hawkins said. "We still had to tend to our schoolwork."

Hawkins tended to his exam Thursday. On Friday, the Dukes tended to North Dakota State, winning 27-17.

Still, 15 games is a lot of football. JMU's opponent in last year's title game, Youngstown State, didn't have the first-round bye, so it played 16 times.

"If the FBS schools wanted to go to a [larger] playoff system, they'd have to do something about the regular season," Houston said. "If you get to where you're playing 18 games or something like that, I worry about student-athlete well-being. We try to be very, very conscientious about the work we do with our kids as we get deeper into the playoffs."

So how to set up an FCS-style playoff for the FBS schools?

Take, say, Alabama. Should the Crimson Tide reach the national title game for the third straight year, it likely would play 15 games: 12 in the regular season, the Southeastern Conference championship game (should the Tide beat Auburn on Saturday), and then two games in the College Football Playoff.

We already know, however, that NCAA officials (who don't run the College Football Playoff) have sanctioned 16-game seasons. Witness Youngstown State, 2016. So adding a national quarterfinal game wouldn't be that hard, and JMU's experience juggling an exam week on the road easily could be applied to an Alabama.

So allow the Tide to host a national quarterfinal in Tuscaloosa. Grant the champs of each of the Power Five conferences automatic bids, and issue invitations to three at-large programs, each of them worthy.

Getting to eight is easy. Getting to 16? That requires more work, but it's doable. Axe one of the (meaningless) nonconference games the Power Five programs play. Did Alabama need to play Mercer the week before it travels to Auburn? A scoreboard that read 56-0 and a box score that showed the Tide with a 530-161 advantage in total yards would say no. Taking away one regular season game would allow for it all: a conference title game, then as many as four playoff games.

What a world.

For now, that's all a dream. Unless you play at James Madison's level.

"We have a chance to do something very, very special," Houston said.

And they have a special format in which to do it.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.