What is the difference between FBS vs. FCS College Football?
When it comes to Division I football, most people think about the Football Bowl Subdivision, which includes all the major programs that dominate national headlines. The FBS certainly is the highest level of college football in the United States, but it is not the only Division I subdivision.
There is also the Football Championship Subdivision, which features many of the mid-major Division I schools you tend to root for each March during the NCAA basketball tournament
For the first 50 or so years of organized college football, there was no distinction between any of the divisions in the NCAA historical structure. But when the NCAA divided itself into divisions, there was also a split in the Division I membership.
In 1978, there was the first split between Division I-A and Division I-AA based on the resources the schools were willing to devote to football.
At the Football Bowl Subdivision level, there are 85 scholarships allowed as well as more stringent rules for the number of sports a school must sponsor as well as attendance minimums and other requirements. The Football Championship Subdivision allows only 63 scholarships, though there are two FCS leagues that do not allow athletic scholarships.
The number of scholarships is the only nominal difference between FBS and FCS college football because otherwise, it is both Divisions I football. There are of course other slight differences between the two subdivisions, including the one dictated by their names. The Football Bowl Subdivision’s postseason is not run by the NCAA, but by the bowl games themselves, and in the case of the national championship, the independent College Football Playoff.
At the Football Championship Subdivision level, the NCAA controls the postseason with a 24-team tournament that crowns a national champion in early January. As a result, FCS teams are only allowed to play 11 games in the regular season compared to the FBS allowing 12 games in the regular season, but that is again a very minor difference.
Only FBS teams are allowed to play in the traditional bowl games, but there is one bowl game at the Division I FCS level, and that is the Celebration Bowl. It is unofficially deemed the HBCU National Championship because it pits the champion of the Southwestern Athletic Conference against the winner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
The two conferences do not accept an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, so the conferences can send teams as at-large recipients if they are selected. The Ivy League is the only other conference that does not send a representative to the postseason, but that is more of a traditional stance than anything else.
Division I College Football Structure
Within the FBS, there is a split between the Power 5 conferences – ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC, and the Group of Five conferences.
There are also independents, but you can read more about those schools here.
Although many people would like to assume there is better competition at the FBS level, that is not always the case. There are teams at the FCS level that have consistently competed with and beaten FBS programs, both in Power Five and Group of Five conferences.
North Dakota State and the Missouri Valley Football Conference as well as JMU in the Colonial Athletic Association, probably play at the same level as many of the teams in the FBS conferences, like the MAC or Sun Belt.
That is why James Madison is moving to the Sun Belt starting next football season, and several conferences have tried to gauge interest from North Dakota State about moving leagues.
For a more in-depth review of the D1 FBS league see our FBS Football Overview article.
There is a similar divide at the FCS levels between the conferences like the CAA and the Missouri Valley that produce multiple playoff teams each year and the one-bid leagues that rarely last past the second round. There are some exceptions of course with a team like Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State being perennial contenders from a weaker conference.
However, for the most part, the Big Sky, CAA, and Missouri Valley dominate the FCS landscape. In the last 30 years, the FCS national champion has come from one of those three leagues or is now an FBS program, with the exception of the 2021 spring season when Sam Houston State won the title.
For a more in-depth review of the D1 FCS league see our FCS Football Overview article.
All of the minor differences between the Group of Five schools and the FCS schools can be seen on a yearly basis when many teams around FBS football schedule a matchup with an FCS opponent. Most of the time, the FBS school schedules this game as an easy victory and a guaranteed home game that will cost the school a minimum guaranteed payout for the matchup.
However, some of the best teams in FCS football consistently beat some of the weaker FBS teams, sending shockwaves through the nation. No one can forget Appalachian State shocking Michigan at the Big House in 2007, but in recent years we’ve also seen North Dakota State beat both Iowa and Kansas State, as well as Portland State, knock off Washington State.
Many would consider those upsets college football at its finest as it proved just how little difference there can be between FBS and FCS programs.
In the recruiting world, there is not much of a difference in the way FBS vs. FCS teams scout and find players.
Although it might seem more prestigious to play at one of the FBS schools, there are plenty of FCS programs that have produced stellar NFL players. Terrell Owens played at Chattanooga, NFL Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp played at Eastern Washington, and Jaguars running back James Robinson played at Illinois State.
Both the FBS and FCS schools offer full scholarships and plenty of chances to play in front of scouts and earn the attention of NFL teams. There is nothing that can be done in FBS football that cannot also be accomplished in FCS football.
When delving into Division I football recruiting, it is important to remember there are two leagues for FCS schools that do not want to offer athletic scholarships in football. They all offer partial scholarships based on academics, but there are no athletic scholarships available for schools in the Ivy League or the Pioneer League.
Everyone has heard of the Ivy League and its focus on academics, but the Pioneer League is filled with well-known schools that decided against awarding athletic scholarships in football, whether they be full scholarships or partial scholarships. Some of the teams in the Pioneer include Butler, Davidson, San Diego, and the latest Division I member, St. Thomas.
Otherwise, there is no real difference between getting recruited by FBS schools and being recruited by FCS schools. All of them except for the two conferences I mentioned offer full scholarships as NCAA institutions and abide by the same NCAA bylaws. The only major difference is the number of scholarship players allowed on the roster, and that doesn’t particularly affect how the coaches discover and recruit talent, just how many kids might receive offers.
FBS vs. FCS: The Facts
The most obvious reason for the FBS being more popular than the FCS is national exposure. Every league from the Power Five to the Group of Five has some television contract that spreads their games to a nationwide audience every Saturday.
It is extremely rare for an FCS team to appear on national television unless they are playing in the postseason or facing an FBS foe in a contract game. The FCS leagues for the most part either have deals with streaming services like the Missouri Valley Football Conference with ESPN+ or they have deals with regional sports networks like the Colonial Athletic Association does. If not for the difference in media exposure, the perceived difference between FBS and FCS would be far smaller.
We mentioned the biggest upsets of FCS teams over FBS teams, but those aren’t the only victories for the Football Championship Subdivision over the Football Bowl Subdivision. Just last season, 12 FCS schools defeated an FBS opponent, which includes four wins over Power Five opponents.
There have typically been between seven and nine FCS wins over FBS foes every year, but only six times has an FCS team ever upended a ranked FBS opponent. And it isn’t a surprise when some of the better teams in the FCS end up beating some of the worse teams at the FBS level with several FCS playoff teams holding wins over lower-level MAC programs or an independent such as UMass.
FCS Teams Jumping to FBS
In 2022, James Madison will become the latest FCS school to make the jump to the FBS level, joining an elite handful of programs that have made the switch since the reclassification in 2006. Appalachian State has easily been the most successful of the bunch and is now a perennial contender in the Sun Belt, but Coastal Carolina has had a string of recent success as well under Jamey Chadwell. Liberty has secured itself as a successful FBS program over the past few years as well while Georgia Southern has found pockets of success. The only real team to have struggled with the move is UMass, which has not had a winning record since jumping up in 2012.