Non-conference games in the FCS are fascinating.
Whether it’s helping determine the playoff field, shifting the postseason seeding discussion, assisting in arguments on which conference is better than the other, or just cool matchups that are new to us, some of the more exciting games are early in the season before league games begin.
The 2021 season features several terrific non-conference games that will impact the playoff picture. And there will also be some highly entertaining games between SWAC and MEAC teams with juicy storylines after the conference shakeups this offseason.
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Biggest FCS vs. FCS Non-Conference Games
The five honorable mention: North Carolina A&T @ South Carolina State, Bethune-Cookman @ South Carolina State, Dartmouth @ New Hampshire, Southern Illinois @ SEMO, North Carolina A&T @ Furman
10. UAlbany @ North Dakota State
The Bison were underwhelming in the spring, yet still made the quarterfinals and were 17 yards away from scoring and beating eventual national champion Sam Houston. With players back from injuries and the addition of a few transfers, including four-star recruit and former Virginia Tech QB Quincy Patterson, we’ll get our first glimpse of an improved NDSU team looking to take back its throne.
Albany is far from a cupcake, though, and is a playoff-caliber team. Jeff Undercuffler is one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS, and he has weapons around him. The Great Danes reached the second round of the 2019 FCS playoffs but endured a tough and COVID-disrupted spring season with a 1-3 record.
9. Austin Peay @ Chattanooga
Two playoff-contending teams go at it in a great non-conference game. Austin Peay is our projected favorite to win the OVC, and Chattanooga will be a top team in the SoCon. The Mocs went 3-1 in the spring standings before opting out midseason.
The OVC and SoCon are battling for more national respect and to be valued higher by the playoff committee. When determining which conference gets an at-large bid to fill out the last spots in the playoff bracket, these non-conference matchups play a role in those decisions.
A second-place Austin Peay team that beats the SoCon champs Chattanooga could get the OVC two teams into the bracket. Or if UTC finishes third but beats OVC champ APSU, that builds up the perceived strength of the SoCon to get multiple at-large bids.
8. South Carolina State @ Alabama A&M
Perhaps a preview of the Celebration Bowl? SC State is the favorite out of the MEAC. Alabama A&M is the defending SWAC champion, but the conference race is more loaded in the fall with Alcorn State, Florida A&M, and Bethune-Cookman in the mix.
Speaking of which, SC State has a fantastic non-conference slate, including playing the three teams that left the MEAC — NC A&T, Bethune-Cookman, and FAMU.
7. Kennesaw State @ Wofford
KSU has quite the three-game stretch before Big South play begins. The Owls play at FBS Georgia Tech, at Wofford, and versus Jacksonville State. Plus, they’ll take on North Carolina A&T and Monmouth in the conference schedule. That is a loaded schedule to try and make the playoffs.
Wofford, meanwhile, is hoping to rebound from a 1-4 spring season after winning the SoCon title in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Neither team made the playoffs in the spring, snapping a four-season streak for Wofford and a three-season streak for KSU. Both could be on the playoff bubble come November, increasing the importance of this game.
6. Central Arkansas @ Missouri State
UCA earned the No. 8 seed in the 2019 playoffs but then lost right away in the second round to unseeded Illinois State. After playing a full fall schedule and not taking part in the spring’s championship season, the Bears are looking to show they have taken the next step to competing deeper into the postseason. Beating an MVFC team coming off of a playoff appearance is a solid win.
On the flip side, these are the kind of games where the Valley can flex its muscle. If Mo State finishes fifth in the MVFC and beats the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the AQ7, expect the Valley to hog plenty of at-large bids.
5. South Carolina State @ Florida A&M
As mentioned above, SC State has a great non-conference schedule. And this could be another preview of the Celebration Bowl.
FAMU joins the SWAC from the MEAC after finishing atop the conference standings in 2019 with a 7-1 record and a 9-2 overall record. The Rattlers were postseason ineligible that season, though. It would be quite the debut season if they won the SWAC title in 2021. And quite the storyline for a team like SC State to play a recent conference foe in the Celebration Bowl.
4. Northern Iowa @ Sacramento State
It’s been nearly two years since Sac State played a game. The Hornets were a top story in the FCS in 2019, going from 2-8 in 2018 to a 9-3 regular-season record, a share of the Big Sky title, and the No. 4 playoff seed. That came to a crashing halt with a 42-28 loss in the second round to unseeded Austin Peay.
The buzz around Sac State isn’t quite there anymore. It can get some of that back with a win against UNI. The Panthers won’t be highly-ranked at the time of this game after a 3-4 spring season but will still likely be in the Top 25.
They will also try to get some national buzz back with a big win in Week 2. If UNI loses, it’s staring at an 0-2 start unless it scores an upset at Iowa State in Week 1.
3. Princeton @ Monmouth
We often wonder how the top Ivy League schools would compete in the FCS playoffs. After all, they bring in some of the best FCS recruiting classes and are well-represented in the NFL. But there usually isn’t a good non-conference game involving an Ivy League team to gauge how good they are.
The 2018 Princeton team that finished 10-0 was getting Top 10 votes, but the Tigers played Butler, Monmouth, and Lehigh in the non-conference. Monmouth did finish 8-3 that year but didn’t have a resume strong enough to make the playoffs.
This season is different, though, as the Hawks look like a Top 10 team. And Princeton will be a top team in its conference again. It’s one of the more intriguing non-conference games in 2021 and will help shape our opinion on the strength of the Ivy League.
2. Jacksonville State @ Kennesaw State
JSU and KSU will be in the ASUN Conference in 2022. This fall, Kennesaw is staying in the Big South and JSU is a part of the WAC-ASUN Challenge. A few years ago, these two dominated their respective conferences. Going into this fall, they are arguably the preseason No. 3 teams in their leagues.
The playoff implications here are big. There will be two, maybe three at-large bids split between the Big South and AQ7. That’s 4-5 total bids likely being fought for between six schools — KSU, Monmouth, NC A&T, JSU, UCA, and SHSU.
1. James Madison @ Weber State
Weber State has won at least a share of the Big Sky title from 2017 to the spring of 2021. The Wildcats have reached the playoffs in each of those four seasons, including two trips to the quarterfinals and one semifinal appearance. They lost to JMU in the 2017 quarterfinals and 2019 semis.
JMU has won the CAA title from 2015-2017 and 2019. The Dukes have made the playoffs every season since 2014, including one national title, two runner-up finishes, and a semifinal appearance.
It’s safe to say this game between two top 10 ranked teams will have a massive impact on the playoff seeds and national title favorites discussion.