The Football Championship Subdivision, formerly know as Division 1-AA, is a part of Division 1 along with the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division 1-A. The pervasive attitude among the majority of college football fans is that the FBS is significantly better than the FCS at football. Most think that FBS and FCS are two separate levels of Division 1 football, and that FBS is simply the higher level.
However, three years ago, the proper description of Division 1-AA changed to Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), and Division 1-A became the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). This change in terminology was made because the NCAA believed that by categorizing the subdivisions as D1-A and D1-AA, it created an unfounded assertion that D1-A was better than D1-AA. The NCAA did not want to send that incorrect message, and therefore the terminology was changed. The FCS includes many talented football teams that are fully capable of competing with and defeating solid, marquee FBS programs.
FCS football is characterized differently than the FBS because of the amount of money that is dedicated to a school’s football program. Competitive schools in the FBS are funded inordinate amounts of money from the athletic departments, sponsors, and patrons. These are the schools that often have the 75,000+ seat stadiums. Schools in the FCS are funded by the athletic department, but often are not the center focus of athletics at the university. For example, the Villanova Wildcats basketball team is funded much more by the athletic department, sponsors, and patrons than the football team is. The same relationship exists at other FCS schools like Georgetown and Dayton.
FCS teams often have smaller stadiums that hold anywhere from 10,000-25,000 fans. In 2006, statistics were recorded about the attendance ratings for college football. It found that the average attendance for an FBS game was 45,828 fans, while the team who averaged the highest attendance was Michigan with 110,026 fans per game. FCS average attendance was 8,029 fans per game, and the team with the highest average attendance was Montana with 22,600 fans per game. Therefore, the separation between FBS and FCS teams is not made because the FBS was thought to be much better than the FCS. The distinction is made because FBS schools’ football programs receive more funding and more revenue than FCS programs do.
A common argument against the quality of FCS play is that because the FBS schools devote more money to their football programs, those schools consistently get the best recruits, and whoever is left simply falls to FCS schools. This notion is not true because the high school football talent has been expanding exponentially over the past 15 years. Many high schools have either begun a football program, reinstated a football program, or drastically improved their football program over the past few decades. High school football has expanded across the country and has produced many more talented players than ever before. The quality of the top high school players in the country has not drastically improved, but the number of talented players has increased greatly. This trend has created a surplus of quality talent across the high school football circuit.
FCS programs have benefited greatly from the rapid expansion of high school football. These schools can now recruit players that before would not have been interested in the football program. Consider the decision facing a current high school senior who is being recruited by a solid FBS school and a reputable FCS school. Should he go to play for an FBS school, face a lot of bench time, and possibly play as a walk on, or should he go to an FCS school and play for all four years and be under scholarship? Many high school athletes are realizing that the more financially responsible and the more enjoyable option is to go to an FCS school and be a star football player for four years. In addition, FBS schools no longer have the clear advantage in recruiting because the top high school players are no longer much more talented than those players recruited by FCS schools. This new trend has leveled the playing field in college football and has allowed FCS schools to keep pace with FBS schools in terms of recruiting.
Another argument attempting to belittle the quality of play in the Football Championship Subdivision is that the top tier FBS schools, such as Florida, Alabama, and Texas, would beat the top FCS schools, and therefore the FBS is so much better than the FCS. It is definitely true that Florida could beat Villanova, Alabama could beat Richmond, and Texas could beat Montana. However, in the November 28th, 2009 BCS rankings, Florida, Alabama, and Texas were the three teams who were ranked far ahead of the rest. In addition to a numerical ranking system, the BCS uses percentages, which calculates how well teams have played while also considering the difficulty of their schedules. Florida (.987), Alabama (.951), and Texas (.928), are all rated much higher by percentage than the next rated team (TCU .869). The 10th team in the country, Georgia Tech, had a .580 percentage, which shows how quickly the ratings drop after the top teams. When people argue that the three top teams in the FBS would defeat the top three FCS teams, they are correct, but they also need to realize that these teams would defeat every other FBS team, and often quite handily. This is also evident when one looks at the top three team’s records. Neither Florida, Alabama, nor Texas was beaten in the regular season last year, and all three teams play in one of the top two conferences in the country. Therefore, one can not say that the FBS as a whole is better than the FCS by citing the quality of only the top three teams in the FBS. One must examine the quality of the majority of teams in both subdivisions before making a statement about which subdivision is better.
There have been numerous games where FCS teams have shown their talent by beating solid, competitive FBS teams. Many of these games were shown on national or regional television, which increased the viewership. The most recognizable FCS victory over an FBS school was Appalachian State’s victory over then fifth ranked Michigan on the road in 2007. This year was not just a down year for Michigan. The powerhouse Michigan Wolverines still finished the season ranked in the top 15 and defeated Florida in the Capital One Bowl, regarded as the best non-BCS Bowl and the sixth best bowl in the country. In 2009, the success of the FCS has continued, with many FCS victories over FBS opponents.
On September 3rd, 2009, the Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls to capture the inaugural Mayor’s Cup. The Temple Owls went 9-3 in the regular season last year, with the only other losses coming to number 11 ranked Penn State, and Ohio, the MAC East Champions. Temple had a 9 game win streak at one point during the season and was nearly ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll.
On September 5th, 2009, the William and Mary Tribe beat the Virginia Cavaliers, a solid ACC program who went 5-7 last year. The Tribe played on the road and defeated the Cavs convincingly 26-13. Also on September 5th, the Richmond Spiders defeated Duke, from the ACC, by a score of 24-16. Duke went 5-7 last year and started 5-3 before finishing with a four game losing streak.
Iowa and Northern Iowa also played on September 5th, 2009. Northern Iowa lost to Iowa by one point on the road and had two chances to kick a last minute field goal to win the game. Iowa proceeded to start the season 9-0, finish second in the Big 10 Conference, and be ranked in the BCS top 10. The Hawkeyes only missed the conference championship because of an overtime loss to number 8 ranked Ohio State. Northern Iowa gave Iowa a test at home and arguably played better than Iowa. These same Iowa Hawkeyes earned a BCS Bowl berth and beat Penn State by 11 points on the road. These games are just a few examples of FCS teams competing well with and often defeating quality FBS teams in 2009.
Early in the 2010 season, things have not changed. FCS teams have continued to surprise and scare big name FBS teams. Notable efforts include Jacksonville State (on the road) defeating Ole Miss from the SEC, James Madison (on the road) defeating Virginia Tech from the ACC, who lost to Boise State by only 3 points in Week 1 and beat perennial mid-major standout East Carolina by 22 points in Week 3. Finally, just this past weekend, Massachusetts, a solid but not stellar program from the FCS, played undefeated and much-heralded Michigan close, and lost by only 5 points on the road. The Minutemen scored 37 points on a team that gave up 10 points to Connecticut and 24 to Notre Dame. These are only a few examples of FCS victories over FBS marquee programs over just the past 2 years.
Jeff Sagarin is a USA Today journalist who has provided a unique college football ranking system since 1985. He has produced the most well-renowned college football rankings that include both FBS and FCS teams. In the November 28th, 2009 rankings, the top ranked FCS team was Villanova at 40. William and Mary and Richmond were ranked 55 and 56 respectively. Notable FBS teams ranked lower than 40th included Florida State, UCLA, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Notre Dame. Some FBS teams that were ranked lower than 56 include: Texas A&M, Wake Forest, Michigan State, Temple, and Minnesota. These top FCS teams were ranked higher than many traditional college football powerhouses.
When fans are watching college football on a fall Saturday, they need to realize the talent and strength of FCS football as a whole. FCS football does not get the respect it deserves for the talent it produces and the success it has against the FBS. For years the quality of the FCS has been neglected by the public, but this ignorance is beginning to fade. The many FCS victories over FBS opponents are no longer upsets, they will become more prevalent as the playing field becomes even more level. It has been proven that FCS programs have caught up to many FBS football programs in terms of recruiting and success. It has been shown that many FCS teams have played well against and defeated quality FBS teams in 2009 and 2010. Fans will be reluctant to accept the fact that the FCS is in fact extremely competitive, but given the rapid increase in the quality of play, people need to begin to give it more respect.