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13 things FBS should learn from FCS

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The lower half of Division I does a bunch of things that could make the upper half better.

Appalachian State beats Michigan. Photo By Leon Halip/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

1. FCS has a BIG, FAT PLAYOFF.

The FCS postseason is a 24-team playoff, in which eight teams get byes into the equivalent of college basketball’s Sweet 16. Every conference that wants a reserved bid can have one, meaning a championship path for almost every program. It’s nothing like FBS, where practically the only Playoff-eligible teams appear to be the 65 in power conferences (plus Notre Dame).

A four-team FBS playoff feels ultra-inclusive because of that level’s long history of having either no playoff or a two-team playoff, but it’s hard to argue eight or 12 would wreck everything when FCS has 24. (Not to mention Division II has 28 and Division III has 32.)

There’s no playoff size that won’t make people furious. But the FCS playoff is a blast in ways that should carry lessons for FBS’ powers: having a bunch of teams involved is fun and inherently fairer. It also means there are no FCS national championship disputes, something FBS hasn’t been able to avoid even by installing its own little playoff.

FBS schools could expand their playoff any time they and ESPN want, by the way.

2. Those FCS playoff games are on campuses.

The FCS playoff system has every game until the final being played on the campus of the higher-ranked team, rewarding good teams with revenue and packed crowds — as opposed to lifeless, faraway NFL stadiums.

3. In FBS, cowardly teams play teams from lower levels and get clowned for it. In FCS, brave, valorous teams play teams from higher levels.

There is honor (and money) in being the sacrificial lamb in a guarantee game. The FBS power gets made fun of for hosting an FCS team, but the FCS team often needs that money to meet its budget.

What can FBS learn from this? FBS teams should balance out their FCS games by scheduling the Miami Dolphins.

Of course, FCS teams play DII teams sometimes (let me direct you to this Davidson-Guilford game that had a 91-61 final score and one team getting 964 yards of offense). But that just continues the flow of cash from FBS on downward. If your 63-scholarship team has to go to Tuscaloosa, you’ve earned an easy game.

4. Ole Miss or Mississippi State should’ve copied FCS Alcorn State’s strategy of “having Steve McNair.”

Both would’ve had better years in the ‘90s if they’d landed the Mount Olive, Mississippi native.

McNair is an example of the broader point: FCS has good football players. This is Division I football, with good teams and good games — as people often forget until the FCS quarterfinals are on TV at the same time as some bowl game neither team cares about. The best players in the country aren’t generally choosing to play FCS ball, but the level has produced plenty of NFL stars.

5. FCS is open to a broad range of schemes.

Similar to how FBS is more schematically diverse than the NFL, and how high school is more schematically diverse (if you take a wide enough lens) than any college level.

In FCS, it’s not weird when regular public schools spend whole games running nothing but the triple option. Georgia Southern built a bona fide dynasty in FCS, and in recent years, other flexbone-style teams and their offshoots have enjoyed a lot of success.

Like any other level, FCS can be a laboratory for cool football ideas, and there’s less of a stigma against certain schemes.

6. FCS has fewer regular season games (11, not 12), helping preserve players for actual playoffs.

Would you give up a regular season game every year if it meant a full postseason that matters matters?

7. Seriously, FCS has teams in places like Montana, Maine, and the Dakotas that host playoff games.

Some regions of the country are almost entirely ignored in the FBS ranks, save for the one night a year when a few people watching football at 11:57 p.m. ET realize Laramie, Wyoming is hosting a decent game.

In FCS, overlooked regions can have central roles. That could never happen in FBS, where a small playoff and difficult recruiting geography keep teams from less talent-rich areas out of the hunt.

8. Despite having a massive playoff, a few FCS conferences have found different ways to make their seasons ultra-high-stakes.

The Ivy League often has some of the best teams in FCS, but it’s just decided not to play in the playoffs. For teams there, winning the Ivy League is enough to be more than happy, and that makes every Ivy League game have a lot on the line. It gives their students and players something exciting to get into before they head off to law school or McKinsey.

The MEAC and SWAC, the two FCS leagues of HBCUs, send their champions to Atlanta’s Celebration Bowl, which happens during the FCS playoffs. The winner (it’s probably gonna be North Carolina A&T) is as much a national champion of something as the playoff winner (it’s probably gonna be North Dakota State).

Power 5 coaches, ADs, and fans tend to be deeply obsessed with the College Football Playoff, even though if you’re not Alabama or Clemson, you’re probably not winning it.

These FCS leagues have found equally holy grails for themselves, and why not? Sports should be fun. As long as FBS’ playoff shuts out Group of 5 teams, maybe it’d be fun for those schools to follow the HBCUs and stage their own title game.

9. FBS teams can learn from FCS schools not to schedule North Dakota State.

You see, FCS schools usually have no choice. But FBS schools do, and they should look at what’s happened to their FCS brethren, then decide to play someone else.

FBS schools that have scheduled NDSU have lost repeatedly. In any given year, NDSU would be liable to whoop most of FBS. In 2018, for example, I deduced only about 30 teams from the top level would be favorites against the Bison.

10. FCS schools usually don’t overdo it with enormous stadiums they can’t fill.

Both levels have smaller teams that rent out massive NFL stadiums and then do their best to fill them, but FBS also has a lot more big campus venues that often look ... ambitious.

Even when Cal is decent, like in 2018, they can still average about 20,000 empty seats. It makes for a cavernous, quiet atmosphere.

That same year, the five leading FCS schools put between 18,000 and 25,000 butts in the seats. Four of those five stadiums seat between 19,000 and 25,000 people.

It’s a lot more fun to have a 19,000-person sellout at NDSU’s Fargodome than to have a half-full stadium for anybody. And if the home team is bad, way less real estate is going to waste.

11. However, FCS stadiums are much more ambitious with their turf colors.

Do you think Boise State’s blue is out there? Let me introduce you to Eastern Washington’s dystopian red field, which appears to have been stained with blood ...

... and Central Arkansas’ purple field, which looks like the set of a PBS show:

You probably already knew about these, but that doesn’t make it any less bizarre, if you think about it. The teams at the bottom of FBS might as well at least make their playing surfaces interesting.

12. About 30 FBS teams should take after FCS by ... literally dropping down to FCS.

About half the Group of 5 lacks the resources to ever seriously compete in FBS and lacks the fan interest to make it clear why they’re still trying. A bunch of schools don’t really meet the FBS requirement of 15,000 fans in attendance for the average home game, but get away with falling short by playing accounting tricks nobody cares about.

If you’re not winning, people aren’t bothering to watch, and you’ve got few prospects of ever getting better, then why not play at a less demanding level? Storing UConn-like substances in FCS would also make FBS’ quality of play better.

Schools could save a fortune. FCS schools can only give out 63 scholarships (or less in some leagues), while FBS schools give out 85. FCS schools also have smaller coaching and support staffs. Fewer mouths to feed means a better experience for the people who are actually there.

13. HBCUs have the best bands, and lots of HBCUs are in FCS.

Case closed.