FCS Football

Divisions Blog

What does FCS stand for

FCS stands for the Football Championship Subdivision. It was formerly called Division I-AA and featured 128 teams for the 2021 college football season. There are several schools currently making the transition to FCS football with full membership expected to be completed by 2025 for those beginning the process.

Table of Contents

    FCS college football history

    The first college football game dates back to the 19th century with Princeton and Rutgers both honored as the first official champions in 1869 by the National Championship Foundation. However, most would consider the 1936 Associated Press national champion, Minnesota, as the first modern-era Division I championship because the 1937 AP poll was the first poll to officially name a champion. The polls continued to dominate the championship selections until 1978 when the NCAA divided Division I into the FBS and FCS subdivisions. FCS was called Division-IAA until 2006 when it was renamed the Football Championship Subdivision.

    The first FCS playoff in 1978 had just four teams with Florida A&M defeating UMass in the national championship game. The bracket slowly evolved to eight teams in 1981 then expanded to 12 teams in 1982 before settling into 16 teams from 1986-2009. The field grew to 20 teams for the 2010 season before settling on 24 in 2013 where the field currently stands. The current bracket features eight seeded teams that receive byes with 11 conference champions earning automatic bids and 13 teams receiving at-large selections. North Dakota State is the most successful FCS program of all time with nine national championships (all since 2011) while Georgia Southern has won six titles and Youngstown State has four championships. As of the 2021 season, seven FBS programs have won FCS titles.

    D1 FCS Football
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    FCS college football teams

    This list of FCS football teams and FCS football conferences is current of as of the 2021 season. It does not include the future realignment that is scheduled to take place over the next few years within various conferences. Any changes will be made once schools officially join a new conference or officially join the list of FCS schools.

    Atlantic Sun

    Technically, the ASUN as it will be known starting next year didn’t sponsor football in 2021 and instead, these three teams played WAC schedules. They weren’t eligible to win the WAC title, but they played their schedules as if they were members of the WAC. There are several other schools that will join the ASUN for the 2022-23 academic year, but they played in their previous conferences this season. The three teams listed joined the ASUN in all sports this year but left their football programs in limbo for the year.

    • Central Arkansas Bears
    • Eastern Kentucky Colonels
    • Jacksonville State Gamecocks

    Big Sky

    The Big Sky has been a sneaky good conference for much of the past few years, not only having some success against FBS foes but also putting a team deep into the FCS playoffs. Since 2000, four different Big Sky programs have played for a national championship, and two have even won the title over the past 22 seasons. Several others have made long runs in the postseason to the national semifinals or reached the top 10 in the FCS polls. It might not have the depth of the two premier conferences in FCS football, but the best of the Big Sky each season is among the best in the nation.

    • Cal Poly Mustangs
    • Eastern Washington Eagles
    • Idaho Vandals
    • Idaho State Bengals
    • Montana Grizzlies
    • Montana State Bobcats
    • Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
    • Northern Colorado Bears
    • Portland State Vikings
    • Sacramento State Hornets
    • Southern Utah Thunderbirds
    • UC-Davis Aggies
    • Weber State Wildcats

    Big South

    The Big South is a conference still fighting for respect in FCS football as its champions have not found much success in the postseason. It is historically a one-bid league with that champion oftentimes not even being seeded for the playoffs. Kennesaw State had consecutive quarterfinals appearances as a seeded team, but otherwise, the results have been largely underwhelming for the conference champion.

    • Campbell Fighting Campbells
    • Charleston Southern Buccaneers
    • Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs
    • Hampton Pirates
    • Kennesaw State Owls
    • Monmouth Hawks
    • North Alabama Lions
    • North Carolina A&T Aggies
    • Robert Morris Colonials

    Colonial

    Dating back to the days when the Atlantic 10 organized this conference, the Colonial Athletic Association has always been one of the strongest conferences in the nation. The departing James Madison carried the load nationally at the top of the polls for much of the last six or seven years, but Delaware, Towson, and Villanova have all made deep playoff runs over the past decade. The depth of this league is the strength with four or five teams consistently qualifying for the playoffs, and the lack of easy games is unique at the FCS level. No matter if their teams are seeded or not, the CAA is a danger to put a team in the national title game with eight appearances since taking over the league in 2008.

    • Albany Great Danes
    • Delaware Blue Hens
    • Elon Phoenix
    • James Madison Dukes
    • Maine Black Bears
    • New Hampshire Wildcats
    • Rhode Island Rams
    • Richmond Spiders
    • Stony Brook Seawolves
    • Towson Tigers
    • William & Mary Tribe
    • Villanova Wildcats

    Ivy League

    The Ivy League doesn’t participate in the FCS playoffs due to academic concerns, so there is only conference pride on the line for these teams. The eight teams in this league are the legacy programs that helped college football grow in the 19th and early parts of the 20th century. The Harvard-Yale rivalry game is still a monumental game across the country, especially when the conference title is on the line for one or both of the teams. It is impossible to write the history of the sport without these schools, and although they don’t play in any postseason games, they are still critical members of the FCS.

    • Brown Bears
    • Columbia Lions
    • Cornell Big Red
    • Dartmouth Big Green
    • Harvard Crimson
    • Pennsylvania Quakers
    • Princeton Tigers
    • Yale Bulldogs

    Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

    The MEAC champion has forgone its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs since 2015 when the Celebration Bowl was created to battle against the SWAC champion. Members can accept at-large bids to the postseason, as North Carolina A&T did in 2016, but the best team in the league is ineligible to participate in the playoffs. As one of the two conferences that feature HBCUs, the MEAC is one of the best FCS conferences to watch for the pageantry of college football. The rivalries are intense, but the gameday atmospheres are some of the most unique in the country. Historically, the MEAC has dominated the Celebration Bowl as well, winning five of the six games that have been played so far.

    • Delaware State Hornets
    • Howard Bison
    • Morgan State Bears
    • Norfolk State Spartans
    • North Carolina Central Eagles
    • South Carolina State Bulldogs

    Missouri Valley

    It would be easy to look at the Missouri Valley and only focus on North Dakota State, which has won nine of the last 11 national championships. However, this league has put a team in the national championship game in all 11 years and oftentimes has two or three teams in the quarterfinals at least. The depth in this league is unmatched in FCS and road trips across the Midwest for this league are never easy. The playoff field is always littered with MVFC teams and they never go down without a fight. Even before North Dakota State dominated the FCS scene, Youngstown State had a dynasty of its own in the 1990s under Jim Tressel. Northern Iowa has also won 26 playoff games, giving the league three of the four most-successful programs in the FCS playoffs by a total number of wins.

    • Illinois State Redbirds
    • Indiana State Sycamores
    • Missouri State Bears
    • North Dakota Fighting Hawks
    • North Dakota State Bison
    • Northern Iowa Panthers
    • South Dakota Coyotes
    • South Dakota State Jackrabbits
    • Southern Illinois Salukis
    • Western Illinois Leathernecks
    • Youngstown State Penguins

    Northeast

    Unfortunately, the Northeast is probably the worst FCS football conference, and it isn’t particularly close. The league has just one win in the playoff tournament, a 2012 triumph by Wagner over Colgate, but otherwise, the champion has been defeated in the first round. The NEC champion has been close to another win on a few occasions, but just three of the 12 losses in the playoffs have come by one score. There have been several successful players to come through the league, including 2016 Jerry Rice award winner A.J. Hines, but it has otherwise been a difficult journey for the conference on the national stage.

    • Bryant Bulldogs
    • Central Connecticut State Blue Devils
    • Duquesne Dukes
    • Long Island Sharks
    • Merrimack Warriors
    • Sacred Heart Pioneers
    • Saint Francis Red Flash
    • Wagner Seahawks

    Ohio Valley

    When you look for those underdog stories in the FCS playoffs, the Ohio Valley is a great place to look. The league lost its best team in 2021 with Jacksonville State’s departure, but some of the other surprising teams of the past two decades came from the league. Austin Peay’s 2019 run to the quarterfinals stole headlines in FCS as did the Jimmy Garoppolo-led Eastern Illinois team in 2013. However in the last 20 years, the OVC’s current teams have won just five playoff games, and four of those wins came from those teams. The other was Tennessee State’s 2013 win before it lost to Eastern Illinois.

    • Austin Peay Governors
    • Eastern Illinois Panthers
    • Murray State Racers
    • Southeast Missouri State Redhawks
    • Tennessee State Tigers
    • Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles
    • UT-Martin Skyhawks

    Patriot

    The Patriot League champion has not had great success historically in the FCS playoffs with just one win in eight quarterfinal appearances since 1997. That was the year the conference first allowed its champion to earn one of the automatic bids because the league was founded on the same academic principles as the Ivy. Colgate made a run to the national championship game in 2003 and the 2018 squad was the eighth-seeded team in the playoffs and the last to win a postseason game. Only five schools have made a postseason appearance and just three have ever won a game in the FCS playoffs.

    • Bucknell Bison
    • Colgate Raiders
    • Fordham Rams
    • Georgetown Hoyas
    • Holy Cross Crusaders
    • Lafayette Leopards
    • Lehigh Mountain Hawks

    Pioneer

    The Pioneer is the catch-all conference for Division I teams that want to offer a football team without offering any athletic scholarships for the sport. The champion has received a berth to the FCS playoff since 2013, and the league has won just two playoff games against its counterparts that offer scholarships. San Diego has won five of the nine automatic bids and has both victories for the Pioneer in the postseason. The league added St. Thomas for 2021 after the Tommies made the emergency transition to Division I.

    • Butler Bulldogs
    • Davidson Wildcats
    • Dayton Flyers
    • Drake Bulldogs
    • Marist Red Foxes
    • Morehead State Eagles
    • Presbyterian Blue Hose
    • St. Thomas Tommies
    • San Diego Toreros
    • Stetson Hatters
    • Valparaiso Beacons

    Southern

    Another league that struggles to turn regular-season success into postseason victories is the Southern. No SoCon team has made the title game since 2007, and that was Appalachian State, which is now an FBS program. Furman and Western Carolina both had success decades ago for the conference, but all of SoCon’s recent football glory is by programs that are now part of FBS. The league itself has had several top-10 teams in recent years, but few have been able to turn that into successful postseason runs. East Tennessee’s win in the 2021 playoffs was the first by a Southern team since 2018, and the first time a SoCon team made the quarterfinals since 2017.

    • Chattanooga Mocs
    • The Citadel Bulldogs
    • East Tennessee State Buccaneers
    • Furman Paladins
    • Mercer Bears
    • Samford Bulldogs
    • Virginia Military Institute Keydets
    • Western Carolina Catamounts
    • Wofford Terriers

    Southland

    The Southland took a major hit when most of its top football programs left after the 2020-21 academic year. Before this year, the last team still in the Southland to win the automatic berth to the FCS postseason was McNeese State in 2015. In total, the current makeup of the Southland is 19-32 in the FCS playoffs with just three appearances in the quarterfinals since McNeese went to the title game in 2002.

    • Houston Baptist Huskies
    • Incarnate Word Cardinals
    • McNeese State Cowboys
    • Nicholls Colonels
    • Northwestern State Demons
    • Southeastern Louisiana Lions

    Southwestern Athletic Conference

    The SWAC is ineligible for the FCS postseason because its regular season extends past Thanksgiving and it has its own championship game in December. The SWAC has played a championship game since 1999 when it split into divisions, and Grambling State has won the most SWAC title games with eight. The conference schedule might not permit the champion from playing in the postseason, but Florida A&M did earn an at-large bid in 2021. The Rattlers were also the first FCS champions in history back in 1978 and made it to the semifinals in 1999.

    • Alabama A&M Bulldogs
    • Alabama State Hornets
    • Alcorn State Braves
    • Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions
    • Bethune-Cookman Wildcats
    • Florida A&M Rattlers
    • Grambling State Tigers
    • Jackson State Tigers
    • Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils
    • Prairie View A&M Panthers
    • Southern Jaguars
    • Texas Southern Tigers

    Western Athletic Conference

    For the first time since 2012, the WAC had football in 2021, though its membership was a bit jumbled. The conference has two more members on the way, but the 2021 season completed its conference with three members from the ASUN. Even in this state, the league boasts some of the best teams in FCS football, including 2021 top seed and 2020-21 champion Sam Houston State. This conference is going to take its lumps early with so many programs that are making the transition to Division I or starting new programs, but there are enough top-end teams like Sam Houston State to earn the league some respectability early.

    • Abilene Christian Wildcats
    • Dixie State Trailblazers
    • Lamar Cardinals
    • Sam Houston State Bearkats
    • Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
    • Tarleton State Texans

    D1-FCS CFB schedule

    The FCS schedule looks very similar to the FBS schedule with only a few slight alterations. The season almost always starts the first weekend of September unless Labor Day falls early in the United States. There are exceptions for teams traveling to Hawaii to play a week earlier, but few FCS teams actually make the trek to the islands. Most FCS teams fit their 11 games into a 12-week span, but in years where there are 13 weeks between the start of the season and Thanksgiving, FCS teams can play 12 games. Most opt to play an FBS team as one of their non-conference games in order to earn a paycheck and help support the budget, and most non-conference games are regional foes. The season ends in mid-November the weekend before Thanksgiving as to allow for the start of the playoffs on the weekend following Thanksgiving.

    The first four rounds of the playoffs are played on consecutive weekends and last from late November to mid-December before there is a holiday break. The national championship game is typically played on the first Saturday in January unless that Saturday is New Year’s Day like it was for the 2021-22 academic year. There is one bowl game for FCS teams, the Celebration Bowl, which pits the MEAC champion against the champion of the SWAC for a game in December.

    D1-FCS college football stadiums

    There simply aren’t a lot of iconic stadiums at the FCS level because there aren’t that many legacy programs. North Dakota State has this aura around the Fargo Dome, and it is an intimidating place to play. But 20 years ago, there wasn’t the same mystique around the home of the Bison even if it is a cool arena. Idaho’s Kibbie Dome is a unique venue because it was one of the few stadiums in Division I that hosted both a school’s football and basketball programs until the basketball teams moved out for the 2021-22 season. There is some nostalgia for venues like Harvard Stadium or the Yale Bowl, which have so much history and charm around them. Otherwise, though, there aren’t a lot of historic or monumental stadiums in FCS football.

    FCS college grants & scholarship

    College football recruiting at the FCS level looks vastly different than what many see in FBS football. There are only 63 scholarships allowed on FCS football rosters except for the Ivy League and Pioneer League which do not allow any athletic scholarships. Instead, those football players earn academic grants and other merit-based aid to play for their schools. Almost all scholarships offered by coaches are full-cost scholarships, which means it covers tuition, room, and board as well as various other necessities like books, food, and other fees. There are also more transfers from FBS programs that try to find playing time at the FCS level, which also has a large effect on recruiting at the FCS division.

    Actually getting recruited to play college football is a completely different process. Most FCS coaches don’t start offering recruits until the summer after your sophomore year once your body has started to mature and develop. It is only then that Division I coaches have a better sense of what positions you can play as well as your growth potential when evaluating their future roster needs. Still, for a majority of players, offers won’t roll in until a player’s junior year or later because the rosters are more fluid at the bigger programs with so much competition for playing time. If an FCS program is able to find a local player who might evolve into a stud recruit, the coach might extend an early verbal offer in hopes of securing a quick commitment before his profile explodes. However, student-athletes also need to be aware there are sometimes timelines on offers from programs that might be recruiting three or four players for the same position.

    The recruiting calendar is broken up into four different types of periods, each with its own set of rules for the contact between a player and coach. The easiest one to explain is the dead period because that is when all recruiting activities must cease between a recruit and college coach. There is no contact permitted either on or off-campus and student-athletes are not allowed to be on an official or unofficial visit. This does not prohibit a prospective recruit from visiting college campuses for his own tour, but there won’t be any help or meeting with the coaching staff at the school.

    A quiet period is the next step from the dead period because recruiting contact is allowed on campus. This opens up the door for on-campus visits, but it limits college coaches from holding recruiting events off-campus. These are the weeks when official and unofficial visits take place for prospective student-athletes. Then you have the evaluation periods when college coaches are on the road and watching recruits on their home territory off-campus. There cannot be any contact between the recruit and the player during these periods, but coaches will watch recruits practice and play games, and they have a chance to talk to coaches and school administrators about potential recruits.

    Finally, there is the free-for-all that most people think about when they hear the word “recruiting,” the contact period. This is when anything allowed by the NCAA manual is permissible on and off-campus, and these periods typically occur after the regular-season ends through the signing periods in December and February. It’s the last-ditch effort for many coaches to close the deal with recruits who haven’t made a verbal commitment and try to persuade them to sign their national letters of intent.

    The National Letter of Intent is the contract a recruit signs to officially accept the scholarship and athletic aid package from the school. It is only after the school receives and verifies the NLI that coaches can publicly talk about a recruit. These letters are critical for FCS programs because there are times when FBS programs might try to swoop in at the last minute to fill a hole in the class. National Signing Day is always filled with last-minute flips and surprises as schools battle to earn a piece of paper with that player’s signature on it.

    D1-FCS college football awards

    There are not nearly as many awards at the FCS level as there are at FBS, but the four major ones are still very prestigious. Many fans would likely recognize the names of the great players who are immortalized with the awards at the FCS level. The Walter Payton Award is the annual award for the best offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision and was awarded to Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere in 2021. There have been several notable winners of the award who went on to have successful pro careers, including Steve McNair (1994), Tony Romo (2002), and Cooper Kupp (2015).

    On the opposite side of the ball is the Buck Buchanan Award for being the best defender at the FCS level. Florida A&M’s Isaiah Land won the award in 2021, but not many of the previous winners made a dramatic impact professionally. The most successful former winner is Jared Allen in 2003, but others like Arthur Moats (2009) and Rashean Mathis (2002) were able to carve out nice careers for themselves in the NFL.

    It’s a very different feel for the Eddie Robinson Award for the best FCS coach every year. Deion Sanders won the award for his work at Jackson State in 2021, etching his name alongside some of the great FCS coaches in history. Only three people have ever won the award twice, and Craig Bohl was the only one to win in consecutive years in 2012 and 2013 after leading North Dakota State to national titles. Paul Johnson captured the award in 1998 at Georgia Southern, Jim Tressel won the 1994 award while at Youngstown State, Houston Nutt won in 1995 at Murray State and Jerry Moore captured his only Eddie Robinson Award in 2006 after a long successful run at Appalachian State.

    The newest FCS award is the Jerry Rice Award for the national freshman of the year, which was first awarded in 2011. Two of the first winners of the award are currently making an impact in the NFL as Cooper Kupp won the award in 2013 and Chase Edmonds followed up in 2014. Trey Lance was the 2019 recipient of the Jerry Rice Award and the 2021 winner was Jackson State’s, Shedeur Sanders.

    D1-FCS football alumni

    When it comes to famous FCS alumni, there are two distinct camps of legends. There are those who went to historically black colleges and universities that play in conferences like the MEAC and the SWAC, and those who went to the other FCS schools. Many of those who went to HBCUs grew up in a time when there were few opportunities for black men in the United States education system, which is why they ended up at HBCUs and dominating. However, that is certainly not the case for all of them.

    Perhaps the most famous HBCU graduate of the past 40 years is Jerry Rice, who came to the NFL from Mississippi Valley State and went on to set all of the major receiving records in the league. Hall of Famers Richard Dent and Claude Humphrey came to the league from Tennessee State while Harry Carson and Deacon Jones went from South Carolina State to the NFL. Shannon Sharpe attended Savannah State and Walter Payton graduated from Jackson State while Bob Hayes played at Florida A&M.

    Many of those who went to the non-HBCUs are the ones that have been recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame or were inducted as coaches or contributors. Terrell Owens played at Tennessee-Chattanooga, Howie Long came from Villanova and Charles Haley came to the NFL from James Madison. The Ivy League doesn’t have as many Hall of Famers as one would expect given its history in the sport, but those who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame are people like Fritz Pollard of Brown, Sid Luckman from Columbia, and Bert Bell from Penn.