The ultimate FCS spring preview: The Bison return, Deion Sanders arrives and more


Did you enjoy your college football offseason? Get a lot done? Get the flowers planted? Reconnect with your family and (non-football) friends? Decompress a bit?

Good, because the offseason is over. Sort of. The Football Championship Subdivision, which had its championships and most of its games canceled or postponed last fall, gets rolling with a one-time-only spring season this weekend. It technically began with McNeese State’s overtime win over Tarleton State last Saturday, but we’ll call that Week Zero. Starting with South Dakota State’s Friday night trip to Northern Iowa on ESPN+, it officially gets rolling in earnest. Eleven of 13 conferences — everyone but the Ivy League and MEAC — are playing partial schedules over the next nine weeks, with a 16-team playoff (down from the usual 24) beginning in late April.

It’s weird, it’s abbreviated, it’s competing with March Madness … but it’s football. And pretty good football at that.

Games and storylines for every week of the season

Each conference has its own start date and number of games, but over the course of the next two months you’re going to have the opportunity to catch a lot of interesting teams and players.

With an eye to variety, here are the five games that could be most worth watching each week, along with the storyline most worth paying attention to. The rankings listed next to each team are their preseason rankings from last August. Not every preseason top-25 team is playing this spring, but most are.

(It probably goes without saying for anyone who watched college football in the fall, but schedules are very, very much subject to change.)

Feb. 19-21: Missouri Valley Week

No. 5 South Dakota State at No. 3 Northern Iowa (Friday), No. 24 Southern Illinois at North Dakota, Samford at ETSU, Youngstown State at No. 1 North Dakota State (Sunday), Tarleton State at New Mexico State (Sunday).

The Missouri Valley Conference is the closest thing to an FCS SEC, and last fall’s preseason rankings illustrated that as much as anything: the MVC boasted the No. 1 (NDSU), No. 3 (UNI), No. 5 (SDSU) and No. 9 (Illinois State) teams, not to mention No. 24 (SIU) and a rebuilding power receiving votes (Youngstown State, which I guess is the Tennessee of the conference in this scenario).

Like the SEC, the MVC is also attempting to play a larger conference schedule than most — eight games per team. While NDSU remains the team to beat, as always, the MVC season starts with a bang in Cedar Falls, pitting John Stiegelmeier’s always-tricky SDSU offense against Northern Iowa and what was an utterly nasty defense in 2019.

An SDSU-UNI battle is always big, but it will take on even more significance this spring — with the playoff field smaller than normal, conference champions will occupy a lion’s share of the 16 slots. There’s room for a few at-large bids, but the loser of this game will face a pretty small margin for error when it comes to snaring one of them.

Feb. 26-28: Eric Barriere Week

No. 18 Eastern Washington at Idaho, No. 3 Northern Iowa at Youngstown State, South Dakota at No. 9 Illinois State, No. 16 Wofford at Chattanooga, Prairie View A&M at Grambling State.

About three decades ago in 2019, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance won the FCS’ Walter Payton Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding offensive player. The other finalists were Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus, Monmouth’s Pete Guerriero and Sacramento State’s Kevin Thomson.

All four finalists are gone. Lance played a showcase game this past fall and entered the NFL draft, Thomson took a grad transfer to Washington in 2020, and both Cookus and Guerriero are attempting to carve out niches in the NFL. So that leaves EWU’s Eric Barriere, the fifth-place finisher, as the Payton Award clubhouse leader. The senior from Inglewood, California, threw for 3,712 yards in 2019, and despite a pretty aggressive offense (he averaged 14.4 yards per completion), he managed a sterling 31-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio. EWU averaged over 40 points per game that year and always has an offense worth watching. So watch them.

March 5-7: Coach Prime Week

Jackson State at Grambling State, No. 9 Illinois State at No. 3 Northern Iowa, No. 17 Albany at No. 20 New Hampshire, No. 2 James Madison at Elon, No. 4 Weber State at Cal Poly.

Jackson State’s hire of Deion Sanders as its head coach made waves for any number of reasons. For one, he’s Deion Sanders. For another, Coach Prime then went out and signed an army of FBS transfers — 14 commits and counting, including former blue-chippers like Florida State receiver Isaiah Bolden, Auburn defensive tackle Coynis Miller and USC linebacker Abdul-Malik McClain.

Granted, most of the newbies aren’t playing this spring, but star linebacker Keonte Hampton is, and we’ll still get a chance to find out the playing style Sanders and an intriguing coaching staff — which includes former Houston offensive coordinator Jason Phillips and former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman — want to unleash on the SWAC. After tuneups against Edward Waters and Mississippi Valley State, the first big test will likely come against the G-Men on March 6. We’ll pretty quickly learn if JSU is the de facto SWAC East favorite, or if those honors should go to Alabama A&M or Alabama State instead.

March 12-14: Jeff Undercuffler Week

No. 17 Albany at Maine, No. 9 Illinois State at No. 1 North Dakota State, William & Mary at No. 2 James Madison, UC Davis at No. 4 Weber State, Holy Cross at Lehigh.

If Barriere isn’t the most proven quarterback in FCS, it might instead be the towering Jeff Undercuffler. The 6-5, 231-pound Holy Cross Academy product would have been by far the standout freshman of 2019 had he not emerged in the same year as Trey Lance. Still, he threw for 3,543 yards and 41 touchdowns, and the Great Danes improved from 3-8 to 9-5 and reached the second round of the FCS playoffs.

Albany and other Colonial teams could face the same issue as the Missouri Valley’s non-NDSU contenders: lots of quality, few at-large bids. While James Madison is far and away the top team in the conference, any of Villanova, Albany, New Hampshire, Richmond and/or Maine could all be playoff-worthy and left without a bid. Undercuffler should give the Danes a chance against just about anyone, though.

March 19-21: Zeb Noland Week

North Dakota at No. 1 North Dakota State, No. 5 South Dakota State at No. 24 Southern Illinois, Delaware at No. 20 New Hampshire, No. 25 Southeast Missouri at Jacksonville State, Maine at Stony Brook

If Zeb Noland’s name rings a bell, well, it should: The Watkinsville, Georgia, product played a handful of games for Iowa State in 2017-18, including a 360-yard, two-touchdown performance against Kyler Murray and Oklahoma in early 2018. He transferred to NDSU late that fall and backed up Lance in 2019; while he’ll have to compete with Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson this coming fall, he takes the spring reins in Fargo.

It’s easy to simply assume that NDSU will remain NDSU — you get the benefit of the doubt when you win eight of nine national titles. But by this point in the spring, we’ll know if the Bison are more or less vulnerable than usual. And in this game, they’ll play North Dakota not only as Nickel Trophy rivals but also as conference foes for the first time since 2003. After spending a few years in the Big Sky, UND comes over to the more geographically-sensible MVC.

March 26-28: Dukes Week

No. 2 James Madison at William & Mary, No. 20 New Hampshire at No. 8 Villanova, Cal Poly at No. 18 Eastern Washington, No. 13 Austin Peay at Jacksonville State (Sunday), Prairie View A&M at Jackson State (Sunday).

JMU has become the definitive No. 2 program in FCS, winning the 2016 national title and four of the past five Colonial crowns. Former Alabama assistant and Elon head coach Curt Cignetti took over for Mike Houston in 2019 and led the Dukes to a 28-20 national title game loss to NDSU in his first year.

The Dukes have to replace quarterback Ben DiNucci — senior Cole Johnson starts the season atop the depth chart — but Percy Agyei-Obese and former UCF back Jawon Hamilton will lead one of the best RB groups in FCS, and Duke transfer Scott Bracey could add some pop in the receiving corps. JMU is still the team to beat in the CAA, but it wouldn’t take that much regression for the Villanovas and Albanys of the world to catch up.

(Not that they play either Albany or Villanova: Their CAA schedule consists of three home-and-homes against Elon, W&M and Richmond. Everything’s funky in 2020-21.)

April 2-4: Dakota Marker Week

No. 5 South Dakota State at No. 1 North Dakota State, No. 8 Villanova at Maine, Lehigh at Lafayette, Cal Poly at Northern Arizona, Davidson at San Diego.

Say this much for South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits will have more than enough opportunities to prove themselves. After a challenging few weeks in the MVC, SDSU will head off to Fargo for the Dakota Marker. This is one of the biggest annual games in FCS — big enough to bring College GameDay to town in 2019 — even if NDSU has won 12 of the last 14 battles.

While there are other big games on April 3 — Lehigh-Lafayette, of course, plus the biggest battle of the Pioneer Conference season, Davidson-USD — SDSU-NDSU will suck up most of the oxygen, and college football is better for it.

April 9-11: Owls-Hawks Week

No. 10 Kennesaw State at No. 23 Monmouth, No. 1 North Dakota State at No. 3 Northern Iowa, No. 21 Southeastern Louisiana at No. 14 Nicholls, Elon at No. 2 James Madison, UC Davis at Cal Poly

In terms of aesthetics, it’s really easy to buy what Brian Bohannon and Kennesaw State are selling. It’s pretty easy from a quality perspective, too: the young Owls program has gone 34-7 over the past three seasons. They combine a relentless option attack — they averaged 342 rushing yards per game in 2019 — with an equally relentless defense. In his first year succeeding current Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry, Danny Verpaele directed a defense that racked up 104 tackles for loss, picked off 13 passes and allowed only 4.8 yards per play. This team really enjoys invading your personal space.

The Owls are basically co-favorites in the Big South with a Monmouth program that also has top-25 potential. Owls-Hawks is, therefore, the biggest game of the BSC season.

April 16-18: Bayou Classic Week

Grambling vs. Southern, No. 16 Wofford at No. 15 Furman, Delaware at No. 8 Villanova, No. 20 New Hampshire at Maine, Alabama State vs. Alabama A&M

It appears the SWAC will forgo participation in the FCS playoffs, opting instead to hold a conference title game on May 1. While the spring edition of the Bayou Classic will take place in Shreveport instead of New Orleans, it should remain the biggest game in the SWAC West title race.

Alcorn State’s spring opt-out assures that we’ll see a new East division champion for the first time since 2013, but it’s likely that either SU or GSU will represent the West for the eighth straight season. Prairie View A&M could throw a kink into that, but odds are good this is yet again a huge game.

April 24-May 15: Playoff Time
As with a given FBS season, we probably know how this FCS campaign is going to end. North Dakota State is your title favorite, and the likely No. 2 favorite is the only other team to win a ring since 2010, JMU. As with FBS, you hope that the journey trumps the destination.

Unlike FBS, however, FCS actually offers an inclusive playoff. Theoretically any team in a participating conference can, at the start of the season, dream of a miracle season and a national title run. After an intriguing couple of months, this hopefully once-in-a-lifetime season will end with a four week playoff before crowning a champ in mid-May. Then we begin another super-short offseason before what will hopefully be a far more normal fall.

The new FBS spring football model?

New Mexico State was one of three FBS teams to postpone or cancel their 2020 fall seasons, along with UConn and Old Dominion. The Aggies chose to schedule home games for three consecutive winter/spring Saturdays: FCS newcomers Tarleton State and Dixie State on Feb. 20 and March 6, respectively, and Division II’s New Mexico Highlands in between.

There have been some changes. The state of New Mexico is still holding off on allowing athletic competitions in the state, which means “home” games will be an hour away in El Paso. The Tarleton game is now on Sunday. Plus, NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia told The Athletic that New Mexico Highlands hasn’t practiced, so the first Aggies-Cowboys game since 1999 likely won’t take place. So maybe it’s just a two-game schedule. But it’s still Aggie football.

Coach Doug Martin has told local media he probably won’t give starters major minutes and he’s basically folding these two games into the Aggies’ overall spring practice structure, albeit with more practices than normal. That makes this a rather interesting experiment.

Unless television ratings are absolute gangbusters, it’s unlikely that there will be another FCS spring season anytime soon. (Considering the circumstances that got us here, let’s hope not.) But as the college football landscape shifts, and as FBS power conferences tinker with the thought of larger conference schedules and fewer non-conference games, it is at least possible that a lot of the FBS-vs.-FCS games that we see in the fall — the buy games that (usually) give FBS teams an easy win and FCS a key paycheck — could disappear to a degree.

From a competitive standpoint, that’s fine; fans don’t exactly love those games. But as Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said a few years ago, “If you don’t play an FCS … how do they make their budget? By playing a big school. How’s the Division IIs make their budget? Playing an FCS. When you start taking these budgets away, where are all the high school football players going to go? Why are they going to play football when all these teams drop football? You’re killing the sport for ego.”

Taking buy games out of the fall schedule would potentially do a number on the budgets of smaller schools. It might result in fewer total college football opportunities for athletes. But what if we started playing them in the spring? Instead of the “spring game” scrimmage to which we’ve grown accustomed, what if FBS teams scheduled a couple of FCS opponents? Are you telling me fans wouldn’t enjoy a nice LSU-Southern battle in mid-April? Florida State vs. Florida A&M? Rutgers vs. Princeton? Montana vs. Washington? Virginia vs. James Madison? Cal vs. Cal Poly?

The money might not quite be the same, but if teams got to schedule a couple of these games, and if ticket proceeds were split in some way, it could still be a healthy chunk of change. And just remember, if this idea ever takes hold for real, know that it started with New Mexico State-Tarleton State.

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