For the first time in the modern history of college football, a season is starting in February. Just over a month after one half of NCAA Division I finished its pandemic-altered fall season, the other half—FCS football—is beginning an unprecedented and likely one-time event: a spring season.
The top level of college football (the Football Bowl Subdivision) mostly soldiered through the 2020 season despite rising COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in many locker rooms. It all ended when Alabama beat Ohio State for the national title. The lower half (FCS, or the Football Championship Subdivision) largely skipped a fall season, and only a handful of teams played a few games each.
Now FCS football teams are set to play a schedule that’ll run until the national championship game on May 15. Here’s what you need to know about this unusual spring season.
Who’s playing and when?
About 90 teams are expected to play at least some games this spring, while some 35 are expected to sit out altogether. The conferences sitting out are the Ivy League, which doesn’t heavily prioritize sports, and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), which had to cancel its season after six of nine teams opted out (three schools will play partial schedules).
A few teams kicked off back in the fall, and they’re mostly playing scaled back spring schedules or not playing at all. But most of the best FCS teams are going to play. Out of 25 teams in the preseason rankings from the fall, 20 are slated for at least some spring games. That group includes the dynastic North Dakota State, which owns eight of the last nine national titles.
Though Tarleton State and McNeese played on Feb. 13, the schedule kicks off in earnest with 19 games between Feb. 19 and Feb. 21. Here’s the full season schedule.
How many games are they playing?
It varies by conference, and some teams are only scheduled to play one or two games. But the most common arrangements are for schedules of between four and eight games per team.
The leagues playing eight games are the Missouri Valley (NDSU’s league, which also includes North Dakota, South Dakota State, Illinois State, Youngstown State, and Indiana State, among others) and the Southern Conference, which is made up of teams in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. A conference-by-conference breakdown is available on the NCAA website.
How can I watch?
Most games will be available for streaming on ESPN+, which costs $5.99 per month. Occasional games will likely move to ESPNU, and the FCS national championship game has recently aired on ABC while playoff games aired on ESPN and ESPN2. In addition, schools will sometimes stream games on their websites.
So, is this a real college football season?
Yes. Don’t get preoccupied with FCS football being a level lower than Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson. FCS is still Division I, and the players and coaches are among the best at what they do. In some ways, FCS is more enjoyable than FBS, and the top teams in FCS are better than many of the teams in the higher level. The main difference is that FCS teams have fewer scholarship slots for players (63) than their FBS counterparts (85), so weaker FCS teams have low roster depth.
What are the biggest storylines?
COVID issues: The fall season was a coronavirus disaster—cases surged through various teams and the virus spawned absurd denialism in many athletic departments. FCS teams have less money to spend on testing and treatment than their FBS counterparts. Will they control the virus, or will it cause teams to cancel lots of games and threaten the viability of the season?
Spring hasn’t sprung: We’re calling this a “spring” season, but if you’ve paid any attention to weather reports over the last week, you know it doesn’t feel spring-like in much of the United States. FCS teams are scattered all over the country, including in states where February and March temps can hover around (or below) zero degrees. How will the climate affect the games?
Can anyone beat the Bison? North Dakota State is in the midst of the most impressive run of championships in NCAA football history. Their eight titles in nine years might never be matched. But they are losing quarterback Trey Lance, who’s off to the NFL draft. Lance was one of the best college players in the country over the last two years—including FBS—and maybe NDSU will falter without him.
“In some ways, NDSU might have a greater advantage,” Chris Vannini of The Athletic tells Men’s Journal, “but they’re also uniquely vulnerable this time.”
As Vannini laid out in his season preview, the Bison must not only replace Lance but also get production out of an inexperienced defense that struggled in its lone game of the fall, when NDSU allowed 28 points to Central Arkansas in what amounted to a draft showcase game for Lance. The Bison are historically great, but they’re probably not a shoo-in champion.
“NDSU should be the favorite, obviously, but this might be their toughest path in a while,” Vannini says. “It’s definitely the one with the most questions.”
That’s true of NDSU’s championship prospects—and the whole FCS football season.
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