Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: the spring FCS playoff bracket is watered down. There’s no spin-zoning that. With teams like Montana, Montana State, Central Arkansas, and Sacramento State not playing, the playoff field was already weakened.
Add in factors like dozens of standout players transferring or declaring for the NFL Draft plus only six at-large bids instead of the usual 14, the strength of the playoff field isn’t close to what it would have been in a normal 2020 fall season.
I thought the lower number of at-large bids was going to result in one or two top-10 teams from the MVFC or the CAA being left out to make room for a second-place team from a Tier 2 conference. But in reality, and with how the season has shaken out, the playoff bracket is actually a bit stronger than I expected it to be back in February.
The top 12 teams in the latest Stats Perform Top 25 are all in the 16-team field. Thirteen of the top 15 teams are in the bracket, the exceptions being No. 13 UC Davis (who called it a season after its last game on April 3 and a 3-2 finish) and No. 15 Richmond. While many of us wished the spring playoff format would get rid of AQs and just take the top 16 overall teams, getting 13 of the best squads into the field is a better scenario than we thought.
So that brings us to the main question surrounding this spring season: Will there be an asterisk next to the national champion?
The short-term answer is yes. The long-term answer is no.
Whoever wins the national championship is going to hear it from the other fan bases throughout the summer and into the fall season. People will point to the messy regular season, unbalanced schedules, a reduced playoff bracket, and top teams like Montana and Montana State not participating as reasons to degrade the champ. And frankly, those are all valid points.
But unless COVID wreaks havoc on the playoffs and eliminates top contenders, the team celebrating on the Frisco stage is still going to be a legitimate champion.
It’s not like this spring has a four-team, FBS-style playoff to determine the national champion between South Dakota State, Sam Houston, James Madison, and Jacksonville State. To win the national championship, you have to go through a 16-team field that features blueblood programs like SDSU, SHSU, JMU, JSU, Weber State, Delaware, North Dakota State, and Eastern Washington.
When the champion is crowned, fans and some media members will put an asterisk next to it. But what does an imaginary asterisk even mean? And how long will that “asterisk” be there?
The big talking point around the NBA bubble was the champion was going to have an asterisk next to it. After the Lakers won it, that was the embrace debate for a few weeks to fill air time. But fans and talking heads have since moved past it, and it’s no longer a discussion. When we talk about LeBron James right now and in the future, it’s “he has four championship rings” and not “he has three championship rings and then that ring from the bubble.”
The NBA and NHL played in a bubble with no fans. The MLB played half a season. The Big Ten changed a rule so Ohio State could play in the College Football Playoff. College basketball teams had to withdraw from their conference tournaments due to COVID cases. Everything about playing sports during a global pandemic is not normal (obviously), and we’ll always look back on these seasons and champions and remember how bizarre it was. But that doesn’t mean the champion isn’t worthy.
I get the counterargument is the NBA/NHL/MLB still had every team playing. The FCS does not. But a majority of the FCS heavyweights are in this bracket where a team has to win four games to claim the trophy.
If No. 1 seed SDSU beats Weber State, Delaware, and JMU or NDSU in Frisco to win the championship, you mean to tell me that’s not legit?
If SDSU does win the title, other fan bases or media will immediately downplay it. That downplaying will extend into the summer and probably into the fall season. But in the summer of 2022 when we’re previewing the season and discussing the Jacks, we’ll be saying “this is a really good program that consistently makes deep playoff runs and has a national championship” and not “this is a really good program that consistently makes deep playoff runs and has a national championship, but not really.”
Heck, if NDSU wins it, we’ll be saying “the Bison have won nine of the last 10 national titles” and not “the Bison have won eight of the last nine national titles plus the spring championship.”
The trophy won’t have an asterisk on it. Neither will the championship rings or the banner. An online article listing the history of FCS national champs won’t have an asterisk next to it.
If the FCS playoffs go off without a hitch, AKA no COVID cancellations, a true champion will be crowned. And for whatever it’s worth, I don’t think we’re going to see cancellations. Even though getting COVID can be out of one’s control, especially on a college campus, teams and players will take extra precautions. Plus, there were instances in the regular season where a team could have played shorthanded if they wanted to, but (rightfully so) decided it wasn’t worth it. If a team has to move two backup offensive linemen to be rotational defensive linemen in the quarterfinals, you can bet they’re going to do it instead of canceling the game.
The FCS spring season has been a hot mess. No one is denying that. I think we’re all ready for it to be over and move on to a (hopefully) normal fall. There was a stretch this spring where top-ranked teams like JMU, SDSU, NDSU, and UND went multiple weeks without playing. That left a black eye on this season. Yet those top teams are still in the bracket, and maybe in the long run it’ll be a good thing for the players that some games were taken off the schedule. At the end of the day and at the end of a rollercoaster regular season, all of the title-contending teams playing this spring are in the bracket.
This isn’t a participation season. Ninety-two out of 127 teams played. There were only eight midseason opt-outs, who had a combined record of 11-27 with only Chattanooga being a playoff contender. The FCS was able to play 80 percent of its games.
And again, while it’s easy to talk about who’s not participating like 2019 quarterfinalist Montana and 2019 semifinalist Montana State, that shouldn’t overshadow who is playing.
Go ahead and name the top 10 blueblood programs in the FCS right now. I bet eight of the 10 you named are in the spring playoffs. Sounds like a legit national championship bracket to me.