It’s been two weeks since the Super Bowl. Two long, difficult weeks without America’s favorite sport. So, ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL? You better be, because the longest, strangest season in college football history is kicking off … again. It’s time for the 2021 FCS spring season.
The FCS, in case you’re unfamiliar, is the second tier of Division I football. Normally, its season takes place in the fall, like that of every other college football league. But while the top tier of college football forged ahead with its season during the worst months of the pandemic, the FCS held off until the spring, and most of its teams will now participate in an eight-game season that will culminate in a 16-team playoff.
The FCS spring season kicked off last Saturday with a game between the McNeese State Cowboys—whose stadium got flooded by two hurricanes this fall, as if the pandemic weren’t enough—and the Tarleton State Texans, a team playing its first Division I game. The FCS does not mess around. The Cowboys scored 14 points in the final three minutes of regulation and won on a Cody Orgeron rushing touchdown in double overtime. (Yes, that’s Ed Orgeron’s son.)
In most years, FCS games are afterthoughts for many football fans, as they’re buried on fall Saturdays behind Alabama, Clemson, and 130 or so other FBS teams eating up every available broadcast slot. FCS teams really have to work to get attention, by doing things like playing their season openers in August. But on Saturdays (and Sundays!) over the next few months, the FCS will be the only mainstream football product around, and its playoffs, which run from April 24 to May 15, will be sandwiched neatly between March Madness and the NBA postseason.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime spotlight for a league with a knack for producing surprisingly good players and surprisingly good football. Here’s everything you need to know about the FCS and its unprecedented spring season.
What Exactly Is Going on Here?
As the pandemic spread across the country last fall, college football split primarily into two camps. Most of the 130ish teams eligible for the College Football Playoff decided to play their seasons, knowing how much money they would lose if they didn’t. Division II and Division III teams, meanwhile, generally postponed their seasons, knowing that their schools tend to lose money on football anyway, and that they couldn’t sustain the costs of additional testing to ensure a safe season.
But one group of colleges fell between those extremes: the FCS, which contains the Division I schools that aren’t eligible for the College Football Playoff. A top-tier FCS team can generate as much as $10 million from a football season. It’s not a $100-million machine like Alabama or Ohio State, but it’s not a money loser either. At many of these schools, football is a big deal, but not big enough to have justified going full steam ahead with a fall season in the middle of a pandemic.
There are some catches to this spring format. First of all, not every team will play. The Ivy League is out, along with roughly 20 teams from other conferences. But that leaves about 100 teams playing, including 17 of the 25 in the FCS preseason coaches poll. Secondly, some teams chose to play games this fall, even if they couldn’t go against their usual competition. Jacksonville State, for example, played four games, including a loss to Florida State in which the Gamecocks led at halftime and a victory over FBS program Florida International. The NCAA has said that it’ll consider these results when selecting playoff teams, so it’s possible that Jacksonville State’s October win over FIU will push it into the playoffs in April.
But the strangest part about this spring season is that there are no plans to repeat it. The FCS will go back to playing football in the fall in a few months. While the spring schedule is contracted—teams will play a maximum of eight regular-season games and four postseason games—a school that makes the national championship in back-to-back seasons could play 28 football games in one calendar year. That’s brutal. As excited as I am for the FCS to get its shine, I wouldn’t be surprised if some teams take the spring season less seriously than the average season. A few teams with championship hopes, like Montana and Montana State, have opted out.
What Makes the FCS Special?
It has the best championship in college football. In fact, that’s what FCS stands for—Football Championship Subdivision. Historically, the two subgroupings of Division I football were classified as 1-A and 1-AA. But in 2006, the powers that be decided to change it—perhaps because 1-AA felt too belittling to the teams involved; perhaps because the people who understand sports lettering only through the construct of minor league baseball got the wrong impression. So the two divisions were renamed based on their respective postseasons: 1-A, which ends with bowl season, became the Football Bowl Subdivision; 1-AA, which ends with a playoff tournament, became the Football Championship Subdivision.
Normally, the FCS playoffs feature 24 teams, with the top eight receiving a bye. Compare this to the College Football Playoff, which includes a measly four participants. The FCS playoffs rule. We’re talking about a 24-team single-elimination football tournament! There aren’t many of those in the world! This year’s playoffs will be a little different, since they have just 16 slots. That means there will be fierce competition for the six at-large spots among teams that don’t win their leagues.
While the College Football Playoff selection process is exclusionary, the FCS playoff is egalitarian. Eleven conferences will play this season, and the champions of 10 will receive automatic playoff bids. (The SWAC doesn’t participate in the FCS playoffs—we’ll get to that more later.) So virtually every team playing has a legitimate chance to win the title. That’s never true in the FBS, where teams can go 13-0 and play in the Peach Bowl instead of having a shot to win it all.
So Who’s Gonna Win the FCS Championship?
North Dakota State.
Are You Sure?
Yes. 100 percent. I haven’t found a sportsbook willing to take an NDSU national championship futures bet, but if I do I will instantly put a large sum of money on the Bison winning, whatever the odds.
What Other Teams Might Win?
None of them.
Aren’t You Worried This Will End Up on Old Takes Exposed?
No. North Dakota State will win the national title. The Bison have won 38 straight games dating back to November 2017. 2017! The last time NDSU lost a football game, Patrick Mahomes hadn’t yet played an NFL down, and people still thought Carson Wentz was good! (If anything, Wentz’s flailing NFL career is a testament to the power of North Dakota State football—he looked superhuman in Fargo.) In addition to posting back-to-back undefeated seasons and capturing back-to-back-to-back national championships, the Bison have won eight of nine FCS titles.
NDSU is not merely better than its competition—it is so dominant that it can beat many FBS teams, in spite of the fact that FBS teams get 85 allotted scholarships while FCS teams get only 63. But 63 Bison are enough to trample just about anybody. NDSU has won its last six games against FBS opponents, a streak that dates back to 2010. It’s taken down Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado State, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Iowa. These aren’t even cellar-dwellers! (Well, besides Kansas.) FBS teams have largely stopped scheduling the Bison to avoid losing, although Arizona has them on the schedule in 2022.
North Dakota State received all 147 first-place votes in the preseason FCS coaches poll. Its dominance might make the FCS seem boring, but I like watching it run opponents through the wood chipper. It’s horrifying and soothing, like a TikTok of a guy methodically chopping an onion, but with every other team’s hopes and dreams.
Isn’t North Dakota State the School With Trey Lance? Will I Get to See Trey Lance Play?
Yes, NDSU is the Trey Lance school! You’ve probably heard of Lance, the quarterback with the rocket arm and linebacker’s frame who is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft. But Lance, along with NDSU teammate and potential first-round pick Dillon Radunz, chose to participate in the predraft process rather than play in the spring season. The Bison played exactly one game in the fall—most likely as a showcase for Lance and Radunz, so scouts could watch them one last time—and then the duo declared for the pros.
The departures of Lance and Radunz shouldn’t hamper NDSU too much. Even with Lance, the Bison were a run-first team: In 2019, their offense rushed for 4,815 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry, while Lance threw for only 2,786 yards. This roster is still bigger, beefier, and brawnier than everyone it will face. And NDSU has never struggled to replace top quarterback production. In 2016, Carson Wentz went no. 2 in the NFL draft, and the Bison simply moved on to Easton Stick. In 2019, Stick went in the fifth round of the draft, and the Bison simply moved on to Lance. Next up is Zeb Noland, a transfer from Iowa State who threw for 360 yards with two touchdowns in a game against Oklahoma in 2018. Noland, a three-star recruit in the 2016 class, transferred to NDSU with the expectation of starting in 2019—only for Lance to emerge as a superstar. NDSU has been great at developing quarterbacks—and Noland was once seen as a better prospect than any of the three guys who made the NFL.
I guess the point is, the team in Fargo is a lot like the TV show Fargo. It swaps out the characters every year, and it’s always pretty good.
Are There Any NFL Prospects to Watch?
Yes, but the season’s move to the spring and the cancellation of the in-person scouting combine has been bad for the NFL dreams of FCS players. The FCS routinely produces NFL players—all 32 NFL teams this season had at least one FCS player, and there were 119 FCS players in the latest NFL playoffs. Some FCS players you may have heard of: San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, and Jaguars running back James Robinson, just to name a few. (We’re skipping over Wentz.)
In the 2019 NFL draft, 13 FCS players were selected. But in 2020, that total dropped to six—the fewest ever. It seems likely that this had to do with the cancellation of pro days, where FCS players often get invited to participate alongside prospects from top-tier programs, putting them on the radar of scouts. In 2021, FCS players’ NFL hopes could be hurt even more, as the draft will happen smack dab in the middle of their season.
The NFL hasn’t given any guidelines for how it plans to deal with this. It didn’t set a date by which players had to decide whether they wanted to play in the 2021 spring season or prepare for the draft. Honestly, I’m not even sure whether seniors who play in the spring season are eligible to be drafted. Seriously—I can’t find info on this anywhere. The NFL simply says that players are eligible for the draft if they “have used up their college eligibility before the start of the next college football season”; I suppose that would be true for a fifth-year senior like NDSU left tackle Cordell Volson, who chose to play this season. But it would be unprecedented for a draftee to be selected while his college team was still playing.
Given that FCS prospects are traditionally late bloomers, this confusion likely put several players in a bind. On the one hand, the chance at having a breakout season and improving their draft stock is a good reason to play as a senior. On the other hand … will scouts even watch this season? They’ll probably be pretty damn busy helping their teams finalize their 2021 draft boards until April.
I like that the FCS is getting this spotlight, but not how the spring season limits the potential of hidden gems who are talented enough to make the next level.
Besides NDSU, Who Might Come Close to Winning It All?
The only legitimate choice here is James Madison. The Dukes—named, for some reason, after the system of government that James Madison helped overthrow—represent the lone blip in NDSU’s decade of dominance. They beat NDSU in the 2016 semifinals en route to a national championship, and then played the Bison close in the title games following the 2017 and 2019 seasons, losing by a combined 12 points. NDSU has played in only five one-score games during its 38-game win streak; two came against JMU. The Dukes were actually ranked higher than NDSU in ESPN’s SP+ ranking for most of the 2019 season. But they recently lost their quarterback, Ben DiNucci, who briefly played for the Cowboys in 2020.
South Dakota State is a perennial contender too, though it’s overshadowed by its juggernaut rivals to the north. (If you’re sick and tired of pro sports leagues that bend over backward to ensure the success of teams from major media markets, FCS football is the sport for you. It’s all Dakotas all the time.) The Jackrabbits play NDSU every year for a trophy shaped like a highway mile marker; they won in 2016 and 2017, and lost one-score games against the Bison in 2018 and 2019. But their matchups with the Bison in the 2016 and 2018 playoffs were both blowouts. SDSU is cursed to live the life of Auburn; consistently great, but doomed to live just down the road from the most dominant team in the sport.
The team with the shortest Vegas odds outside of NDSU is Weber State—the Fighting Damian Lillards! Weber played one-score games against FBS teams San Diego State and Nevada in 2019 and made the semifinals of the FCS playoffs.
My dark horse pick is the aforementioned Jacksonville State Gamecocks—the question is whether Zerrick Cooper, a former four-star prospect who transferred out of Clemson after wisely deciding not to wait for playing time behind Trevor Lawrence, is healthy. I could see Cooper and 6-foot-7 tight end Trae Berry making the NFL.
Is There Anybody Else I Should Know About?
The buzziest FCS team by far is Jackson State, which in September hired NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders as its head coach. The hire came with all the hype that Neon Deion brings: He was chauffeured into his opening press conference in an Escalade that was led by the school’s marching band, the Sonic Boom of the South.
For all the flash, there seems to be some substance here. Pre–Prime Time, Jackson State hadn’t hadn’t landed a recruit who earned a star rating in the 247Sports composite rankings since 2017. Sanders’s first signing class was the highest rated in FCS history, featuring three four-star recruits and seven three-star prospects. (One of the four-star recruits is Deion’s son, Shadeur, a quarterback who had previously committed to Florida Atlantic.) In fact, Jackson State landed the 86th-best class in college football, per the 247Sports composite ratings. Not just the FCS—all of college football. No other FCS team ranked higher than 128th. And those recruiting ratings don’t account for how Sanders landed 14 transfers from FBS schools, including players from Auburn, Florida State, and USC.
The catch? Sanders’s squad may never play for a national championship. Jackson State is a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, composed of historically Black colleges and universities. While there have been periods of HBCU football greatness—Jerry Rice! Steve McNair! Grambling State’s powerhouse of the 1970s!—these underfunded schools have struggled to compete against bigger-budgeted competition for most of the past 50 years. The SWAC went 0-19 in the FCS playoffs before eventually deciding to stop sending teams to the event. Its champion now plays the champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, also composed of HBCUs, in the Celebration Bowl.
So I can’t say that Jackson State is a national championship contender. Even if it goes undefeated, it’ll play in the SWAC championship game on May 1 instead of taking part in the FCS playoffs. Plus, there’s the question of whether Sanders’s many transfers are eligible—since this is technically the same season as the fall, any players who took the field for FBS teams probably won’t be allowed to play. And another big concern is Sanders’s questionable history as a leader in our education system. The high school he founded and coached, Prime Prep, was a disaster from every perspective, from football to, uh, the law.
Still, it’s hard not to be excited about Prime Time at Jackson State. HBCU football has a rich, beautiful history and tradition that has been cast aside because the financial state of these universities has made it impossible for their teams to stay nationally relevant. But if Sanders can keep bringing in players like this, Jacksonville State will be more talented than just about every other team in the FCS—including NDSU. Deion is putting HBCU football back in the national mainstream: Six of Jackson State’s seven games will be carried on an ESPN platform.
Which Team Should I Root For?
This is the easiest question of all. Just look around! There are 127 FCS teams in 37 states. These teams are located everywhere that FBS teams aren’t, from big cities to rural states. Chances are you live closer to an FCS team than an FBS team. (I think there are five FCS teams located between where I live and the closest FBS team.)
Figure out who’s close to you and support them. Spend a Saturday or Sunday posted up on your couch watching some FCS football. For the only time ever, the second tier of college football is about to be the only tier of college football. Let’s treat the FCS as the biggest sport in America over the next three months.