Will college football realignment be the end of FCS vs. FBS?

ByRyan McGee ESPN logo
Friday, November 18, 2022

Welcome to Week 12, aka the penultimate weekend of the 2022 regular-season schedule, aka the final go-round for one of the most divisive, borderline bar fight-igniting topics among college football fans, especially as the fandom's collective blood begins to simmer toward boil ahead of Rivalry Week.

FCS vs. FBS matchups.

Saturday, there will be four of them. It begins at noon ET whenAustin PeayandEast Tennessee Statekick it off at Alabamaand Mississippi State, respectively,and will wrap up in the evening as the midafternoon matchups ofNorth Alabamaat MemphisandUtah Techat BYUwind down just in time for dinner on the East Coast.

They are the last of this year's 119 games scheduled between the teams that play at college football's highest level and those that live their gridiron lives one rung down the ladder. But as the sport as a whole continues to change directions more often and more unpredictably than a Hogwarts staircase, there are questions about when and if that previous sentence, the one that began "They are the last ..." might one day end with "... FCS vs. FBS games ever scheduled."

"Do I think these games are going to go away? Yes, I do." Russ Huesman said it flatly at the start of this 2022 season. His Richmond Spiders were preparing to travel south to Virginia, a game they lost 34-17. In 14 seasons as head coach atChattanoogaand Richmond, he has taken FCS teams into Auburn, Nebraska, Tennessee, Florida State, Boston College, Virginia Techand made three trips to Alabama. His teams are 0-13 in those games. "I do know some of those FBS coaches don't want these games to go away. I think they know that Division I college football, which we play at the FCS level, is really important. We'll just have to see how important it is to some people."

Before we get too far down the road of what the future of FCS vs. FBS might look like, let's dispel some of the more popular myths about these matchups in the here and now.

First, there is a perception that these games have decreased in frequency in recent years, as some coaches (see: Saban, Nick) have become more vocal about the idea of moving to an all-Power 5 schedule, presumably to strengthen their College Football Playoff résumés. But the reality is that not only do they happen all the time, but there are more now than ever. See: those 119 games this season.

In fact, of the 131 teams at the FBS level, only 15 did not play at least one game against an FCS school this year. That's actually an increase of three participants from two years ago, when 18 teams didn't have an FCS opponent on their 2020 schedules prior to the pandemic reshuffling.

During the 1990s there was an average of around 70 FCS vs. FBS games per season. Since the 2010s that has increased to more than 105 each fall. Every SEC team played at least one FCS opponent this season, as did the schools of the MAC and Mountain West. Even the Big Ten, which attempted to clamp down on FCS matchups in 2016 but relaxed those rules just one year later, saw nine of its 14 members book games with teams from the land formerly known as I-AA.

Second, some believe FBS schools make noise about walking away from FCS crossover games because they fear the upset loss, aka Appalachian State-Michigan2007. But the truth is since college football was split into two divisions in 1978, only six ranked FBS schools have lost to FCS teams. In fairness, the losses have increased in frequency, though only slightly. The Mountaineers' win over the Wolverines was the second ever and the first since 1983, when Cincinnatistunned No. 20 Penn State. The other four have all happened since 2010, the most recent being Montana's win over No. 20 Washingtonin 2021.

According to fearthefcs.com, there have been 3,339 games played between FCS and FBS schools, and the FBS schools lead with a record of 2837-486-16. A huge chunk of those FCS wins came in the years immediately following that 1978 I-A/I-AA schism, when the competitive and financial gap between the levels was still minimal.

And thirdly, there has always been that "big boys" perception, the idea that every FBS team looks like the Monstars and every FCS team resembles the Tune Squad without MJ or LeBron. Poor weakling football peasants sent into battle to trade injuries and humiliation for paychecks. The reality is not only do FCS players and coaches relish the opportunity to step onto college football's biggest stages, but those coaches recruit those players by promising chances to play in those games. The larger curve of history aside, FCS does have eight wins over FBS schools this season, to go with a dozen victories one year ago.

"We absolutely recruited on the basis of, 'Hey, you're going to get to play at North Carolina, at Alabama, at Auburn,'" Mercerhead coach Drew Cronic explained leading into the Bears' Sept. 3 visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium. His team is scheduled to visit Ole Missin 2023. "These guys, these are competitors, athletes who grew up here, dreaming of playing football in those places. We can make that happen. And we might just give them more than they expected."

"If you see ever see our school on the schedule of an FBS school, you can stop with that feeling sorry for us stuff, because we love it,"Nichollscoach Tim Rebowe said one year ago as his Colonels, members of the Southland Conference, prepared for the second of their season-opening back-to-back FBS matchups vs. Memphis andLouisiana, all while stuck in a hotel away from home due to Hurricane Ida.

During his eight seasons in Thibodaux, Louisiana, Rebowe's teams have played 13 games against FBS opponents. They won once, a 26-23 OT win at Kansasthat started a season that ended in the second round of the FCS playoffs. In 2018 they gave Texas A&Mall it wanted before losing 24-14, and in '16 they famously rallied in the fourth quarter to scare the dawg collars off Georgiabefore losing 26-24.

"Those trips, for us, those are a measuring stick of where we are as a program," Rebowe said. "We're in Athens, Georgia, and came in at halftime and our guys said, 'Hey, we have a chance to be in this game if we limit big plays.'"

That game was only Kirby Smart's second Saturday as his alma mater's head football coach. He remembers it well, still rolling his eyes whenever it is mentioned, even seven seasons later. In the five FCS games his teams have played since, UGA has won by an average score of 48-8. But the head coach of the No. 1-ranked FBS team, defending national champs and current flagship program of the almighty SEC, does not roll his eyes when the topic of FBS vs. FCS is raised.

"I do know it's critical for these programs to be able to survive," Smart said earlier this season, speaking of Georgia's Week 2 game with Samford. "High schools are our feeder programs, just like we are for the NFL. And if you're going to have good high school programs, you've got to have kids getting opportunities to play at all levels. Because there's a lot more kids playing at a non-Power 5 level than at the Power 5 level. So, if you're a supplier of talent and the growth of the game comes from your youth sports and your high school sports, you're going to diminish that as these programs fade away."

He reminded that his coaching career began at NCAA Division II school Valdosta State,and that his father, longtime high school coach Sonny Smart, was a two-year starter at center for the Samford Bulldogs. Kirby later attended football camps at Samford and was hired at Valdosta State by head coach Chris Hatcher, who has held that same position at Samford since 2015.

To host Samford this season, Georgia paid its guests from the Southern Conference $500,000. That sum sits squarely on the average of this year's 119 payouts that range from the $750,000 Floridapaid Eastern Washingtonto fly east to the $215,000Hawai'ipaid Duquesneto fly even further west. This weekend ETSU will receive a $415,000 check from Mississippi State. Last year the Buccaneers received that exact same amount of money fromVanderbiltand won the game 23-3. ETSU's entire football budget is around $3.8 million.

By the way, that's a bargain for a nice ease-into-September or ease-into-Rivalry Week home game. The home stadium will still sell plenty of tickets and concessions, and it's a much cheaper date for a Power 5 school than booking another Group of 5 matchup. Remember the carnage of Week 2? Notre Dame, Nebraska and Texas A&M paid Marshall, Georgia Southernand Appalachian State an average of $1.4 million to lose all three games.

"Some of these FCS programs cannot survive without these games," Smart continued. "That doesn't mean that I embrace them and love them. It just means that the programs can't survive without the kind of funding without these games. For the overall health of college football, the sport we all love, we need to be supporting it at all levels."

That's great, Coach. But when we all look into our crystal footballs, will that support from above keep going?

"You know, I think it depends on where it goes," Smart responded. "What they require you to do and where the FCS, some of those conferences, end up with the realignment and some of those things ... the scheduling, how many conference games you're playing. I honestly don't know."

No one does. But many seem to believe that a glimpse of the FBS vs. FCS future came in 2020, when the college football calendar was thrown into the COVID-19 shredder and the SEC led the charge into a conference-only schedule. FCS conferences pushed their schedules into spring 2021. That summer, right smack in the middle of Southern Conference media day, the news of Oklahomaand Texaskick-starting a new wave of realignment broke the internet and left those in Asheville, North Carolina, wondering if it might also break their banks.

"A lot of where I work, what I work with and even what my guys wear, that comes from the funding those games provide, but also the pride we have feeling like we're all in this together," said then-ETSU Buccaneers head coach Randy Sanders, who spent three decades on the other side of those matchups as an assistant coach at Tennessee, Kentuckyand Florida State. "I don't think I fully understood that until I took this job. Now I make sure I tell all my friends still coaching at the FBS level how important their cooperation is."

The push toward a nine-game conference schedule has been verbally led by Saban, the de facto commissioner of college football. He has never shied away from his belief that college football should be strong at all levels, but he also has done the post-realignment math. It's not Toledoscience. Take the SEC alone. When it expands to 16 teams, a nine-game conference schedule becomes necessary to ensure every member gets a shot at all the others at least occasionally. Saban has even said it might take 10 games to make that happen. That leaves only three, or even two, nonconference weekends. Once that calendar fills up with traditional cross-conference rivalries, CFP-friendly Power 5 cross-conference games and maybe one Group of 5 matchup, there are no chairs left for FCS when the fight songs stop playing.

Publicly, many have downplayed the financial impact if that were to happen. Earlier this season, Mercer athletic director Jim Cole told Georgia beat writer Seth Emerson, "Just speaking for myself, if we were to lose a game, I'd just go raise more money. I'd have to spend more time on the phone."

But privately, there is admission of a lot of wringing of hands. That deleted line on the financial spreadsheet might be replaceable, but those one shining moments -- OK, those 119 shining moments -- of lining up across from FBS opponents, there's a relevance and spotlight that comes with that stage many believe is worth more than even a big paycheck. A group of 130 proud football programs don't want the game they love to leave them behind.

"I love this level of football and this brand of football. It is where I have spent my entire adult life," said South Dakota Statehead coach John Stiegelmeier last month prior to the Dakota Marker game against the king of FBS slayers, North Dakota State. "Coach Stig" has been on the Jackrabbits staff since 1988 and head coach since '97. His Jacks are currently ranked No. 1 in FCS. They opened the season with a 7-3 loss at Iowa. Last year they won 43-23 at Colorado State,and in 2015 they won at Kansas.

"Maybe to a lot of people it seems like there is a big gap between FBS and FCS, but there is so much DNA that crosses over," Stiegelmeier said. "There are so many coaches in FBS who have their roots here and vice versa. One day it might all move on, stop scheduling games, cut ties, all of that. I hope not. But if it does, I don't think you could find any real football people, even those who made that happen, that deep down wouldn't feel like something was missing from the game of college football if it did."

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