The FCS doesn’t exactly have a good reputation when its three letters are brought up by Power Five conferences and teams.
The Big Ten last week forbade its members from scheduling future games against FCS opponents. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly likes to call games against FCS teams — the Irish have never played against an FCS opponent — “glorified byes.” Fans of teams vying for a playoff spot roll their eyes when Alabama plays Western Carolina in the penultimate week of the regular season.
But not all FCS games are created equal. And it’s not always a bad thing to play a team from college football’s third tier (since there’s a clear difference between the Power Five and rest of FBS at this point).
Consider this: Of the top 100 teams in Jeff Sagarin’s 2014 ratings, 14 played at the FCS level. Twenty-four FCS teams ranked higher than the worst Power Five team (Wake Forest, No. 125). Powerhouse program and four-time reigning champion North Dakota State (32) finished higher than the two teams that played in the Fiesta Bowl (Boise State, 36; Arizona, 37). The team that narrowly lost to NDSU in the FCS Championship, Illinois State (41), ranked better than nine ACC programs.
It’s hardly uncommon for an FCS team to jump up and beat a Power Five team on a given week. NDSU beat an FBS team every year from 2010-2014, including a 20-point thrashing of Iowa State in Ames last year. Oregon transfer Vernon Adams made a name for himself in 2013 when, with Eastern Washington, he engineered a shootout win over Oregon State.
All FCS games are not created equal, obviously. There are plenty of bad FCS teams that find their way on to Power Five schedules. Ole Miss didn’t deserve any credit for blowing out Presbyterian (No. 166 in Sagarin), 48-0, last November.
But there’s a difference between playing an FCS team in September and one in November. Because FCS teams are only allowed 63 scholarships — 22 fewer than FBS teams — a lot of these teams have awfully thin depth in November. Nobody’s suggesting one of these FBS teams could, in its current state, move up a level and compete in the Big Ten or ACC.
“We like the stage, we like the challenge of playing that big FBS game,” NDSU coach Chris Klieman said earlier this year, “but to do it nine or ten weeks in a row like a Big 12 or a Big Ten level, I think we’d get beat up too badly.”
In a one-off game in September, when their best 22 players are probably healthy, FCS teams provide just as tough a challenge as some group of five doormats. The upper-echelon FCS programs are often tougher wins than low-to-mid level Power Five teams, too.
Should a Power Five team, one holding loads of cash and more scholarships, ever lose to an FCS team? No. But it happens, and it’s not always an embarrassment.