College Football - What's the difference between FBS and FCS

We welcome our new writer David Burgess to explain all about the FCS and why you shouldn't dismiss watching it .

Most of those familiar with college football will know the big boys: Alabama, winners of 5 national championships in the last nine years, and quite a few in decades previous; Notre Dame, who first came to prominence by defeating powerhouse Army in 1913; Clemson, national champions in 1981, 2016 and 2018 and yearly contenders for the CFP; or Michigan, whose 963 wins are good for 1st all time among FBS teams. There are others of course, but these are among the varied array of college football’s finest.


Often lost in college football though, are the other levels and divisions who also produce quality teams and send players to the NFL. That would include teams such as North Dakota State, an FCS level school that has won 8 FCS National Championships in the last ten years. Yes, that’s the same NDSU that produced Trey Lance and Carson Wentz, among others. Full disclosure: My favorite team is the Montana Grizzlies (also FCS), but don’t get me started on them or I’ll never get around to the actual content.

Trey Lance & Carson Wentz playing for North Dakota State
Trey Lance & Carson Wentz playing for North Dakota State

What do all those initials mean?


Division I is the highest level of NCAA football. In 1978, the NCAA split the division into two subdivisions: I-A and I-AA. This created a bit of separation between larger and smaller programs while also allowing for parity among the teams in the same subdivision. In 2006 the two were renamed Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). The FCS, like the FBS, has conferences and some of those conferences have divisions within them. Currently there are 15 FCS conferences. And though there have been some independents, every current FCS team has a conference affiliation.


Who are the major players?


Just like the FBS, the FCS has its own royalty. The Missouri Valley Conference has eleven teams, including North Dakota State. The Big Sky Conference is the largest with 13 teams, including most recent conference champ Weber State. The Big Sky also sent four teams to the playoffs in 2018, the first conference to do so.


North Dakota State has been the most dominant team in the last decade, their championship runs interrupted only by James Madison in 2016 and Sam Houston in 2020.


How do the divisions determine their national champions?


FBS has Bowl games yearly, which are essentially exhibition games filled by invitation or conference affiliation. However, the top four teams are chosen by committee to compete in semifinal bowls followed by the FBS championship game. For more info on how the FBS works, read James Hill’s Beginner’s Guide article.


FCS has a 24 team playoff, with conference champions given an automatic berth. After that, a selection committee (similar to March Madness for you basketball fans) selects the remaining participants. It is single elimination, with games played at the higher seed’s home stadium prior the championship. That game is currently played at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. This format makes the FCS more like the NFL in terms of how it determines a champion.


FCS Playoff Bracket 2021
FCS Playoff Bracket 2021

Do FBS and FCS teams play each other?


Yes. Most of the time FBS teams schedule their FCS brothers as tune-up games to prepare them for tough conference games later. FBS teams usually win these contests, and for many years FCS wins did not count toward bowl eligibility. These days they do. Likely the most famous FBS/FCS contest is Michigan vs Appalachian State in 2007, when the Mountaineers won a thriller over the No 5 ranked Wolverines at the Big House.


May teams move up from FCS to FBS?


Yes. Without getting too technical: If a school sponsors 16 varsity sports, agrees to play 60% of their games against FBS opponents, averages at least 15,000 in attendance and provides 90% of the allowable scholarships per year it can move up.


There are advantages to the upward move. Among them: increased scholarships (85 in FBS vs 63 in FCS); more money from bigger conferences, and increased exposure via televised games. Disadvantages are: these upward movers start in lesser conferences and usually take many years to attain much national notice. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers were an exception to the latter rule, though. They caught quite a bit of notice in 2020 with their play, teal field, mullet haircuts and response to Pat McAfee’s comments about them.


Marshall, the gold standard of FCS football for many years, advanced to FBS in 1997. Coastal Carolina moved up in 2017. Appalachian State joined the FBS in 2014. The Idaho Vandals are an example of one who moved up (1996) then back to FCS (2018).


Wrap it up


Hopefully this has given you a bit of a handle on the FCS and the differences between it and the FBS. Who knows? Maybe you’ll slide past the 80,000 seat stadium to enjoy a cozy but loud 20,000 seat stadium where the fans are just as passionate.


So if you want to step outside the box of Buckeyes, Tigers, Crimson Tide or Trojans—you may turn your attention to the Bison, Great Danes, Fighting Camels or maybe even the Griz (sorry, shameless plug).


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