Up until the last few years, Football Bowl Subdivision teams scheduled Football Championship Subdivision teams during their non-conference schedule in order to make the road to a bowl game that much easier.
Appalachian State’s 34-32 victory over Michigan on Sept. 1, 2007 certainly made the BCS stop, if not pause that line of thinking. Also, in case any teams thought that game was a fluke, the upsets have only piled on since then.
Granted, most FBS-FCS matchups usually end up in favor of the FBS school (the FCS went 4-86 against the FBS), but for teams trying to compete for a bowl game, the risk is starting to be a little too high.
This year, the FCS already has six upsets against FBS schools.
In basketball, the time for smaller schools to shine comes in March. In football, however, the postseason is essentially divided up by how many people can fit in your stadium. That’s why teams like James Madison treat games against teams like Virginia Tech as if it’s a championship game instead of simply being grateful for the experience and the six-figure check.
Even though the game makes no difference to JMU’s chances at making the postseason (which starts in December), the game in September is the only chance it gets at being a “Cinderella.”
On the other hand, the FBS schools – especially the ones trying to make a bowl game – look at these games as exhibitions and most of the time, they are.
The school with more scholarships and depth overwhelms the smaller school by halftime, which gives the bench a chance to get quality minutes in these games.
This year, the FCS schools are much more difficult to beat. The most significant win for the FCS came when JMU defeated the then-No. 13 Hokies and essentially knocked the school out of the Associated Press Top 25.
Last week, Massachusetts gave the Wolverines all they could handle with a 20-point fourth quarter rally, eventually falling short, 42-37.
FCS teams in the top 10 were already beginning to get blacklisted by FBS teams for this exact reason and this season, FBS coaches across the country are vowing never to schedule an FCS team in order to avoid getting embarrassed at home.
“The dirty little secret is the top six to eight teams at our level can play with anyone,” Dukes coach Mickey Matthews said to ESPN on Sept. 13. “We struggle to find guaranteed games because no one wants to play us.”
Several things are happening in the landscape of college football that is making these upsets more frequent.
Aside from FBS teams overlooking their FCS matchups, the smaller division teams themselves are beginning to produce better players.
Nineteen FCS players heard their names called during the 2010 NFL Draft. The earliest selection came in the second round when the New York Jets selected offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse from UMass.
That number should go up over the years as the FCS continues to improve.
Another factor is playing time.
Minutemen quarterback Kyle Havens probably would’ve had to redshirt last year transferring from a junior college had he chosen to play for an FBS school. In fact, there’s no guarantee he would’ve seen the field throughout the remainder of his college career.
Such is not the case with UMass, where he started right away and is now arguably the best quarterback in the Colonial Athletic Association.
In fact, the transfer rules in general encourage disgruntled players to play for an FCS school. The NCAA forces players transferring within the FBS to sit out one season, but when transferring to an FCS school, players are allowed to play immediately.
Former Michigan State running back Caulton Ray is a great example of someone who took advantage of the rule. After two seasons of very limited playing time (redshirted as a freshman and had 40 carries as a redshirt freshman), Ray transferred to Western Illinois, where he made an impact immediately.
As a sophomore, Ray has 228 yards rushing on 51 carries with three touchdowns. Had he transferred to anywhere in the FBS, he would have to sit out another season and surely wouldn’t be making the impact that he is now.
The bottom line is that the margin between the FBS and the FCS is much smaller than it used to be and that difference will only continue to shrink. Villanova is currently considering an invitation to join the Big East, something that would normally be a no-brainer.
However, considering the fact that the Wildcats are probably one of the best-kept secrets in all of college football – a team that dominates the FCS every year and is good enough to at least be in the middle of the pack in any BCS conference – a move to the Big East would likely ruin their mystique and they would be wise to stay where they are now.
The days where the size of a school’s checkbook dictated the success of its program are long gone. As the FBS is finding out, these so called “second-rate programs” have first-rate talent.
Adam Miller is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.