Those who have listened to my FCS Football Talk podcast know I’ve talked about this subject (maybe too much) during the offseason. And that’s how the overly top-heaviness and further divide at the top of the FCS is not good for the subdivision.
The FCS needs to get to a point where there are at least 4-5 legit national title contenders. Because, as I’ve said on the podcast, more and more fans of FCS teams (whether they are in the bracket or not in the bracket) are growing bored of the playoffs as there’s been little to no suspense/intrigue/excitement in the championship picture. The best way to grow interest in the FCS nationally isn’t to try and grab casual college football fans, in my opinion, it’s to get fans across the country within the FCS to engage in storylines and discussions about other conferences besides their own. That can be hard to do if fans are bored of the national FCS picture where the same team is at the top every year.
Now, how realistic is it for multiple teams to reach North Dakota State’s ever-growing standard? I don’t know, to be honest. Most FCS teams just don’t have the internal or external support or the overall momentum (rings, trophies, facilities, cost of attendance, draft picks, etc.) that NDSU has. It’s a freight train that is going to be very tough to get off its tracks.
But contrary to popular beliefs in some upper parts of the country, the FCS cupboard isn’t bare. Even with James Madison, Sam Houston, and Jacksonville State joining the FBS with the likes of former FCS powers like Georgia Southern and App State, there are several FCS “bluebloods” still in the subdivision. Ones with great tradition, past success, and solid fan bases. The problem is some of these programs have slipped in the last decade, which has resulted in us not hearing much from these fan bases because they just haven’t been relevant on a national scale.
That needs to change in the 2020s.
The FCS needs at least a small handful of teams to consistently and legitimately challenge for a national title every year. Most sports leagues are top-heavy, but not this top-heavy. And the FCS needs several more programs to improve their play to, at the minimum, add more quality depth to the bracket.
Who knows what the future of D1 football looks like? Many are clamoring for a P5 split and a G5/upper FCS merger. That seems to be more social media talk than actual industry experts like Matt Brown believing it will occur. Until that ever happens, the FCS will see more teams make the FBS jump. It’s the constant in this subdivision. Programs like Tarleton State, Eastern Kentucky, Missouri State, McNeese State, Kennesaw State, and Central Arkansas are likely candidates.
Top teams leaving the FCS has always happened. The difference in this cycle is the undisputed top team has not moved up. NDSU doesn’t have the geography to garner a proper FBS invite, which most should know by now is a bigger factor than on-field success.
So now, instead of the top teams moving up and other FCS teams stepping in as the top dogs, this recent cycle of reclassification has seen the top team stay and other programs that have a shot at challenging that top team are moving up. Which makes the divide even bigger and the national title race even smaller. Not ideal.
What does the FCS championship picture look like throughout the 2020s? Is it NDSU winning it all just about every year and the semifinals filled with programs putting a lot of resources into football like Montana, Montana State, and South Dakota State? Is that good (guaranteed great semifinal and title game crowds and engaging online chatter and buildup) or bad (the staleness of the FCS playoffs felt by many continues to grow)?
While it may be tough to reach NDSU’s level on a consistent basis for a majority of programs, there are a few teams getting there. And there are plenty of more teams that can either get there too or add needed depth to the playoff field by upping their play in the 2020s:
A few important notes:
- This list includes blueblood programs that have past FCS success and have fallen off recently, teams who are just beginning to rise, and/or teams with potential.
- This isn’t to say every single one of these teams can get to a national title level in this current state of the FCS. But they can hit a higher standard to make the postseason more competitive.
- This list does not include teams who have already risen their play and/or have made postseason runs in recent years, like South Dakota State, Weber State, Eastern Washington, Montana, Montana State, ETSU, Kennesaw State, and Sac State (who has been ranked and seeded high the last two seasons). Nor will it include SWAC or MEAC teams since they don’t send their top teams to the playoffs.
Chattanooga likes its FCS football, hosting the championship game at Finley Stadium from 1997 to 2009. The team who plays in that stadium, the Mocs, has seemed to be a preseason team in the last five or so years that always had “potential” thrown around its expectations but has never delivered.
They reached the quarterfinals in 2014 and the second round in 2015 and 2016. But no playoff appearances since.
Once again, Chattanooga looks to be a team with talent and potential entering 2022. If it can get some momentum going, the program as a whole has potential. The SoCon has been looking for a team to emerge in the national title picture for years now, and UTC along with ETSU are the best candidates to do so. A recent first-round NFL Draft pick in OL Cole Strange results in a stronger recruiting pitch in a great area of prospects.
Now that JMU’s roughly $58 million athletic budget is off to the FBS, Delaware now has the largest in the FCS at around $48 million. For comparison, the athletic budgets for NDSU, SDSU, Montana, and Montana State are in the mid-$20 million range.
Football is the top sport at UD. It isn’t a basketball-first school like many FCS-level departments are. It has the resources and support to be a top team in all of the FCS. But the Blue Hens have made the playoffs just twice in the last 10 years — a first-round loss in 2018 and a 2021 spring semifinal appearance.
At its peak in the 2000s, Delaware had crowds of over 20,000 people as its teams made the semifinals in 2000, won the national title in 2003, reached the quarterfinals in 2004, and lost in the championship game in 2007 and 2010. It can be one of the more engaging fan bases in the FCS if it’s involved in more national storylines.
With the hiring of Ryan Carty, new facilities, upgrades to Delaware Stadium, and the level of resources devoted to football, there is no reason UD can’t be the new top team in the CAA and compete on a national level in the 2020s.
EKU has hovered around above average recently, going 7-4 in 2018, 7-5 in 2018, and 7-4 last fall. This is a program rich in FCS history, though.
The Colonels won 21 OVC titles from 1954-2011, including nine from 1981-1991. They appeared in four-straight D1-AA/FCS title games from 1979-1982, winning two of them. EKU also has 21 FCS/D1-AA playoff appearances, third all-time in the subdivision. However, the last came in 2014.
EKU has been on the playoff fringe the last few years. This fall looks to be its best team in a while, so a postseason appearance is an expectation. The program’s history and standard should want more than just playoff appearances.
Big-picture, it’s common knowledge that EKU, now in the ASUN, wants to go FBS. It is a top target whenever C-USA decides to expand, although Western Kentucky would maybe try to stop that from happening. But until/if EKU-to-the-FBS ever happens, if your aspirations are high enough to be in the top level of college football, you should at least be a playoff-worthy FCS team.
Idaho made the unprecedented decision to go from FBS to the FCS just a couple of years after finishing 9-4 with a bowl win in 2016. It hasn’t gone to plan after believing it would immediately compete for Big Sky and FCS rings, further proof that the top of the FCS is on par or better than a good portion (but obviously not all) of the G5. The Vandals have gone 4-7, 5-7, 2-4, and 4-7 in their first four seasons back in the subdivision.
Idaho has had some really good individual players recently but just hasn’t been able to put it all together as a team. That could change with the hiring of South Dakota State OC Jason Eck as its new head coach, who will bring much-needed swagger to the program.
The Vandals were once the top dog in the Big Sky, winning six conference titles from 1982-1992. They appeared in the D1-AA/FCS playoffs 11 times from 1982-1995, reaching the semifinals twice. The Big Sky is a deep conference with several teams investing in facilities. Idaho should be one of those better teams in the football standings. The infrastructure is in place to do so.
McNeese is another FCS program with tradition and history that hasn’t been relevant nationally in quite some time. A passionate fan base with a cool home environment is yearning for more football success. Stability at the top will be needed after multiple head coaching changes in the last few years.
McNeese has 17 postseason appearances. It has won 14 Southland Conference titles, including six in the 2000s. The Cowboys went 9-2 in 2017, yet were left out of the bracket due to their bad strength of schedule. They have hovered around .500 since.
The Cowboys are a team in FBS move-up talks. Like EKU above, if your goal is to play in the top subdivision, you should be competitive at your current level. McNeese is in a recruiting hotbed, has a supportive fan base, and has the tradition to be a playoff constant.
Bobby Petrino’s hiring at Mo State has shown instant success. The Bears made the playoffs for the first time in 30 years in his first season during the 2021 spring. They then finished 8-4 in the fall with another bracket appearance out of the tough MVFC.
Petrino could parlay this quick success into another FBS job. Or maybe he automatically becomes an FBS head coach if Missouri State makes the jump. The Bears and C-USA were reportedly in talks last fall before the Bears said they weren’t interested in that conference’s current makeup. And Mo State to the Sun Belt has been floated around lately. In the near term, the upward trajectory of the football program is high and the Bears should be an FCS contender in 2022 and beyond.
They have a very underrated stadium, a solid athletic budget just outside of the Top 10 in the FCS at around $28 million, a good coaching staff, and are in a great region for recruiting.
UNH is a blueblood FCS program that has fallen off of the national radar in the last few years. The Wildcats made 14 straight playoff appearances from 2004-2017. They reached the quarterfinals six times from 2004-2010 and again in 2017 along with semifinal appearances in 2013 and 2014.
The history and fairly recent success show UNH can get right back to national success in the 2020s. It has the seventh-highest athletic budget in the FCS at around $30 million. And the opportunity is open to be the top team in the CAA after JMU’s departure. If you’re a top team in the CAA, you should be one of the top teams in the FCS.
North Carolina A&T
NC A&T has high aspirations for its football program. The Aggies won four Celebration Bowls from 2015-19. They then made the move with a split reaction from its fan base to leave the MEAC for the Big South, switching out competing for the Celebration Bowl to competing for an FCS playoff run. And then a couple of months ago, it was announced NC A&T is heading to the CAA. The football team’s first season in the stronger FCS conference is 2023.
The Aggies went 5-6 in its first season in the Big South last fall. It’s a sign the program will need to step up its overall investment in football and recruit better talent if it wants to compete at an FCS playoff level. Moving to the CAA shows the school wants to take athletics to another level. The NC A&T fan base is one of the better ones in the FCS. And this program has a strong track record of sending guys to the NFL. The potential is there to grow into a contender.
Stephen F. Austin
Stephen F. Austin is on the rise, seeing a breakthrough season in 2021 with a first-round appearance. A balanced team with a ton of production coming back, the Lumberjacks are getting Top 10 love this offseason.
SFA has a great AD in Ryan Ivey who wants football success. Colby Carthel has been a tremendous head coach who has helped get the program back on track in his first three seasons. The Lumberjacks have seen a 389% increase in football ticket sales in the last three years. More success means more attention, more fans, and more financial support. SFA is known for its basketball, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a football school too. And the FCS could use another power in Texas as Sam Houston exits.
Out of all these teams, Tarleton may have the biggest aspirations. Just two years into its transition from D2, Tarleton (Texas) is already a top candidate to be the next FCS-to-FBS move-up. It’s no secret the athletic department’s ultimate goal is to be in the top subdivision sooner than later.
Tarleton, currently a member of the WAC, may not ever make the FCS playoffs if it moves up soon. The Texans aren’t eligible until 2024 unless new NCAA bylaws change the reclassification eligibility timeline. But Tarleton is already investing in football more than most FCS programs are. It has great facilities and is undergoing a football stadium expansion to increase its capacity to 24,000.
If Tarleton happens to stay in the FCS, this program will be competing at a national level by the mid-2020s.
UC Davis has everything in place to be an FCS contender. A good D2 program making the playoffs 18 times from 1977-2002, the Aggies joined D1 in 2004. They didn’t make the FCS playoffs until 2018, narrowly losing in the quarterfinals to eventual national runner-up Eastern Washington. They returned to the bracket last fall, losing in the first round.
The Aggies have the talent on their roster. It’s located in a recruiting hotbed. They have a great coaching staff led by veteran Dan Hawkins. The athletic department has the second-highest budget in the FCS at around $40 million. And it is investing in athletics success with new facilities. UC Davis has great promise to hit another level in FCS football.
Villanova is another CAA program with past success that has slipped in the late-2010s. The Wildcats had a good stretch for a bit, making the quarterfinals in 2008, winning the national title in 2009, reaching the semifinals in 2010, making the playoffs but losing in the first round in 2012, and advancing to the quarterfinals in 2014.
They made the second round in 2016 and the first round in 2019 but was not at the standard the program had established. Last fall saw a 10-3 overall campaign, a 7-1 record in the CAA, and a trip to the quarterfinals. Was that a culmination of a talented senior class making a run? Or a sign that Nova is back on the rise in the 2020s?
Mark Ferrante and his staff have recruited extremely well. The program has been bitten by injuries in multiple seasons, not helping in the team falling short of preseason ranking expectations. Villanova is a basketball power, and the athletic department is naturally going to funnel more resources there. And unfortunately, despite being one of the better teams in the FCS last fall, the Wildcats were 58th in attendance. Despite these hurdles the football team has to overcome in competing for attention, it’s still a quality FCS program that should be consistently making a playoff run.
When it comes to FCS bluebloods falling out of national relevancy, YSU takes the cake.
The Penguins won four D1-AA/FCS national titles in 1991, 1993, 1994, and 1997. It also appeared in the championship game in 1992 and 1999. After a 2006 trip to the semifinals, they have made the playoffs just once. That was a surprising run to the 2016 title game as an unseeded team. Outside of that, YSU has fallen into FCS oblivion.
Jim Tressel, who won those four national titles as the head coach before taking the same job at Ohio State, is now the university president. You can bet he wants to see the football program return to its glory. The internal support is there. YSU has one of the better indoor practice facilities in the FCS and stadium enhancements have been made. After the Bo Pelini era didn’t work, the Penguins hired Doug Phillips, who Tressel knows well. Small steps have been noticeable in his first couple of seasons.
Just like the FCS is better when Delaware, Montana, and Montana State are good, the FCS would be better if YSU can rise into an FCS contender again and start to fill its 20,000-seat stadium.