Welcome to another article in my series on demystifying the world of sports conferences. This week, I’m taking on a topic many people vaguely know about but rarely hear more than passing news regarding: the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision. Formerly known as Division I-AA, the FCS contains a number of Division I conferences that do not play football on the top tier, and are thus ineligible for the traditional bowl games (as the FBS, formerly I-A, schools are.) However, because these schools don’t have to deal with bowl games, Heisman receptions, or much media coverage, they’re free to hold what the NCAA is just now starting to create: a college football playoff.
While FBS postseason games are controlled by polls, the FCS playoff teams (currently 20) are made up of conference champions and at-large teams picked by a selection committee, like in basketball. There are thirteen conferences, but the champions of three of these conferences generally have not participated. The Ivy league keeps its teams out for academic reasons, the SWAC’s schedule conflicts with the playoffs, and the Pioneer Football league did not have an automatic bid until this upcoming season. Both the Ivy League and Pioneer Football League do not offer athletic scholarships (Ivy in any sport, PFL in football), while other conferences can provide up to 63 football scholarships per team (FBS gets 85). Let’s take a look at these conferences, starting with the exceptions to the rule:
Ivy League: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth: these are some of the oldest, most respected schools in the country. Games among these schools include some of the oldest rivalries in football, notably Princeton-Yale, the second oldest in the nation (behind Lafayette and Lehigh). As mentioned above, their conference champion is offered a place in the FCS playoffs, but the school invariably declines, because smashing heads and studying for finals don’t mix. The Ivy League also does not offer any athletic scholarships, though obviously that doesn’t stop many successful student-athletes from coming to their schools.
Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC): This conference is populated by ten Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The SWAC teams generally do not participate in the FCS playoffs, though they are allowed to if their schedule does not interfere. Still, when three of the schools have annual games on Thanksgiving weekend, and the championship game is held in December, both after the FCS playoffs have begun, the likelihood of them being available is quite slim. However, the SWAC does have some of the highest attendance in FCS, and it has some of the more well known teams in FCS, such as Grambling and Southern.
Pioneer Football League (PFL): In 1991, the NCAA passed a rule that all Division I schools had to play all sports they fielded (other than at the club level) in Division I. Several schools that had been playing football in Division II agreed to found the PFL as a way to follow the rule without having to give costly scholarships to play there. The schools in the PFL are spread from New York to California, though many are in the East Cost or Great Lakes regions, and have their other sports in various conferences. Because there are no scholarships, the PFL has not gotten any at-large invitations to the FCS playoffs, but next year it will have an automatic bid.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC): The other fully HBCU conference, with 11 football-playing members reaching from Delaware to Florida. Unlike the SWAC, the MEAC does send its champion to the FCS playoffs, as do all the conferences named below. While the MEAC hasn’t had much opportunity in the Championship, Florida A&M was the original I-AA champion.
Big Sky Conference: This is practically the only conference west of the Rockies. Thirteen schools play here, including Perennial power Montana, 2010 champion Eastern Washington, and, when they won their FCS title, Mountain West stars Boise State. The Big Sky is always a strong conference in the FCS playoffs, and often multiple teams are taken from the Big Sky. If Idaho or New Mexico State are forced to downgrade their football teams, they’ll have a strong FCS conference for a landing pad.
Big South Conference: This group only has seven football-playing teams, and will again have seven after Stony Brook leaves for the CAA and Monmouth joins in football only. While generally the conference will get an at-large bid to add to their automatic bid, they have not traditionally made it to the final. If the NEC doesn’t regain teams and fails, it may consider expanding north for Wagner or whoever it can grab.
Colonial Athletic Conference(CAA): Oh yes, these guys. The CAA has had a lot of realignment lately, and some of its football schools, such as Old Dominion and Georgia State, are on their way out. Unique about the CAA is the patchwork nature of the conference, with about half its football teams coming from other conferences, including the America East, Atlantic 10, and even Big East Conferences. Teams like Delaware, James Madison, Richmond, and Villanova have won titles, and the CAA is used to having a say in the FCS playoffs. If other conferences start shedding members, they’ll have pick of the litter if they want it.
Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC): It is key to note that this conference is wholly seperate from the similarly-named Missouri Valley Conference, which does not sponsor football, though they share 5 schools. Another 4 have their non-football sports in the Summit League, with the final school currently in the Horizon League. These 10 schools are also a common power conference in FCS, boasting reigning Champions North Dakota State, as well as contenders Northern Iowa and Youngstown State.
Northeast Conference (NEC): The NEC’s football ranks will thin this year as Albany leaves for the CAA and Monmouth takes their football team independent for a year before joining the Big South. Of the remaining teams, only Wagner finished with a record above .500, conference or otherwise. Unless the NEC signs some schools, they could be irrelevant in football, and if they lose any more schools, they might have to give up sponsoring football. Not quite WAC-level meltdown, but definitely on the verge.
Ohio Valley Conference (OVC): This is a pretty solid conference, alignment-wise. Their most likely school to leave, Morehead State, doesn’t even play football in the OVC. On the football side, however, they’re a bit weak. Last year the OVC champion, Eastern Illinois, was blown out by South Dakota State 58-10 in the first round, and then saw SDSU lose to neighbors and eventual champions North Dakota State 28-3.
Patriot League: Unfortunately the best two teams in the Patriot League don’t play their football in the Patriot League. Army and Navy are FBS Independents (Navy joining the AAC in 2015), and in their place are Fordham and Georgetown. The Patriot League also didn’t allow scholarships for Football, leading to Fordham being ineligible for conference honors the last few years, but with limited scholarships allowed in 2013, all eight schools will be eligible. The scholarships might be needed, since the Patriot League is also in the basement of FCS, with Colgate, last year’s champs, also losing in the first round.
Southern Conference (SoCon): The SoCon has been ground zero for the FCS-to-FBS migration, as Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, two of last season’s three FCS qualifiers, will leave for the FBS Sun Belt in 2014. This means opportunity for the remaining schools, especially Wofford, Samford, Chattanooga, and The Citadel. What schools the SoCon adds, and what direction they choose to expand, will determine how far the losses will drop the conference.
Southland Conference: Everyone knows how strong football in Texas is, and, with all due respect to the SWAC, this is where some of the best FCS Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas teams are at. Sam Houston State is the reigning two-time runner up for the FCS title. McNeese State has also played in two championships. Stephen F Austin has been to the title game, too. With Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist, Incarnate Word, and New Orleans joining the conference next year, with football to follow for most if not all, this conference is as tough as they come, and relatively safe from school poaching from other conferences.
So that is the FCS structure. Of the 21 schools that have won the I-AA/FCS title since its inception in 1978, seven, a full third, are either now in FBS (Boise State, Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Monroe, Marshall, UMass) or have their FBS invite (Appalachian State and Georgia Southern). Realignment has taken its toll before, and the FBS will keep grabbing the choicest schools when needed, but that doesn’t mean FCS won’t keep producing tough teams, great action, and some of the greatest athletes in NCAA, and NFL, history. Just ask Jerry Rice, Kurt Warner, Michael Strahan, or Tony Zendejas.