Did you enjoy college football in the offseason? Did you do a lot? Planting flowers? Gathering family and friends (not playing football)? A little decompression?
Good, because the season is over. More or less. The Football League subdivision, most of whose games were canceled or postponed last fall, begins its unique spring season this weekend. Technically, it all started with McNeese’s overtime win over Tarleton last Saturday, but we’re calling it Week Zero. It officially begins with a visit from Northern Iowa to South Dakota State on ESPN+ Friday night. Eleven of the thirteen conferences – all except the Ivy League and MEAC – will play part of the schedule over the next nine weeks, with the playoffs for 16 teams (instead of the usual 24) beginning in late April.
It’s weird, it’s shortened, it’s a March Madness game… but it’s football. And good football.
Games and stories for every week of the season
Each conference has a different start date and number of games, but over the next two months you will have the chance to see many interesting teams and players.
For a change, here are five games to watch each week, plus a scenario to follow closely. The rankings next to each team are the rankings from last August’s preseason. Not all 25 teams from the preseason are playing this spring, but most are.
(This probably goes without saying for those who watched college football in the fall, but game schedules can change a lot, a lot.)
19-21 February: Missouri Valley Week
State of South Dakota, 5 p.m., 3 p.m., North Iowa (Friday), 24 p.m., Southern Illinois, North Dakota, Samford, ETSU, Youngstown, 1 p.m., North Dakota (Sunday), Tarleton, N.M. (Sunday).
The Missouri Valley Conference is the closest thing to the SEC in Missouri, and last fall’s preseason rankings showed it: The MVC prides itself on No. 1 (NDSU), No. 3 (UNI), No. 5 (SDSU) and No. 9 (Illinois State) teams, not to mention No. 24 (SIU) and a rebuilding major that gets votes (Youngstown State, which I assume is part of the Tennessee Conference in this scenario).
Like the SEC, the VMC tries for more conferences than most – eight games per team. While NDSU remains the team to beat as always, the MVC season begins with an explosion in Cedar Falls, with John Stiegelmeier setting up the SDSU offense at Northern Iowa, and an absolutely vicious defense in 2019.
The SDSU-UNI duel is always important, but this spring it will be even more so – with a smaller playing field than usual, the conference champions will take the lion’s share of the 16 spots. There is room for big bets, but the loser in this game will have a fairly small margin of error when taking them.
26-28 February: Eric Barrier Week
18 Eastern Washington, Idaho, 3 Northern Iowa in Youngstown, South Dakota, Illinois, 16 Wofford in Chattanooga, Prairie View A&M in Grambling State.
About three decades ago, in 2019, North Dakota’s Trey Lance received the CSF Walter Payton Award, the best offensive player in the country. The other finalists were Case Cucus of Northern Arizona, Pete Guerriero of Monmouth and Kevin Thomson of Sacramento State.
The four finalists are gone. Lance played an exhibition game last fall and signed up for the NFL Draft, Thomson got a graduate transfer to Washington in 2020, and Cucus and Guerriero are trying to secure a spot in the NFL. That leaves Eric Barrier, fifth, in charge of the Peyton Premium Club. The senior from Inglewood, California threw for 3,712 yards in 2019, and despite a fairly aggressive offense (he averaged 14.4 yards per shot), he managed a book-to-book-to-TD ratio of 31 to 4 TD per IT. This year, WEU has averaged over 40 points per game and continues to have an offense worth watching. Then keep an eye on them.
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
5. to 7. March: First of training
Jackson State in Grambling, Illinois at age 9, Home 3, North Iowa at age 17, Albany at age 20, New Hampshire at age 2, James Madison in Elon at age 4, Weber State in Cal Poly.
The hiring of Deion Sanders as Jackson’s head coach caused a stir for several reasons. First of all: It’s Deion Sanders. On the other hand, Coach Prime signed an army of FBS transfers – 14 or more, including former premier receivers like Florida state receiver Isaiah Bolden, Auburn defender Coneys Miller and USC defender Abdul-Malik McClain.
Of course, most of the rookies won’t be playing this spring, but star linebacker Keonte Hampton will, and we’ll still get a chance to get to know Sanders’ style of play and the intriguing coaching staff – which includes former Houston offensive coordinator Jason Phillips and former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman – who knows the SWAC well. After preseason games against Edward Waters and Mississippi Valley State, the first big test will likely be against the G-Men on the 6th. Mars. We’ll find out pretty quickly if JSU is the actual favorite for SWAC East, or if those awards should go to Alabama A&M or Alabama State instead.
12.-14. March: Jeff Underground Week
17 Albany, Maine, 9 Illinois, 1 North Dakota, William and Mary, 2 James Madison, UC Davis, 4 Weber, Holy Cross at Lehigh.
If Barriere is not the most confirmed quarterback in the FCS, he could be replaced by the exceptional Jeff Undercraffler. At between 6 and 5.2 pounds, the Holy Cross Academy product would be by far the most notable recruit of 2019 if he didn’t emerge the same year as Trey Lance. Still, he threw for 3,543 yards and 41 touchdowns and the Great Danes improved from 3-8 to 9-5 and advanced to the second round of the CSF playoffs.
Albany and other Colonial teams could face the same problem as Missouri Valley competitors who are not members of NDSU: lots of quality, few offers. Although James Madison is the best team in the conference, any of Villanova, Albany, New Hampshire, Richmond and/or Maine could be in the playoffs and not remain nominated. The aggressor, on the other hand, must give the Danes a chance against whomever.
Tim Heitman/USA Today’s Sports
19-21 March: Zeb Noland Week
North Dakota: No. 1 North Dakota, no. 5 South Dakota at : No. 24 Southern Illinois, Delaware on: No. 20 New Hampshire, no. 25 Southeast Missouri in Jacksonville, Maine near Stony Brook.
If the name Zeb Noland sounds familiar, well, it should: The Watkinsville, Georgia product played in several games for Iowa State in 2017-18, including a 360-yard performance and two touchdowns against Kyler Murray and Oklahoma in early 2018. He transferred to NDSU in the late fall and will go to Lance in 2019. While he will have to compete with Quincy Patterson, over from Virginia Tech, in the fall, he will take the helm in Fargo in the spring.
It’s easy to assume that NDSU will remain NDSU – you get the benefit of the doubt when you win eight of nine national titles. But at this point in the spring, we will know if the buffalo are more or less endangered than usual. And in this game, they will meet North Dakota for the first time since 2003, not only as a Nickel Trophy opponent, but also as a conference opponent. After a few years in the Big Sky, UND is transitioning to the MVC, which is more geographically accessible.
26-28 March: Dukes Week
James Madison at William & Mary, New Hampshire, Villanova, Cal Poly, Eastern Washington, Austin Peay, Jacksonville State, No. 2 (Sunday), Prairie View, Jackson State, No. 20 (Sunday).
JMU was the FCS’ last No. 2 team, won the 2016 national title and four of the Colonials’ last five crowns. Kurt Cignetti, former assistant and head coach of Elon, Alabama, replaced Mike Houston in 2019 and led the Dukes to a 28-20 loss against NDSU in his first year.
The Dukes are expected to replace quarterback Ben DiNucci – senior Cole Johnson starts the season at the top of the deep – but Percy Agye-Obese and former UFC back John Hamilton will lead one of the best RB groups in the FCS, and the transfer of Dukes Scott Bracey could add a few more tries to the receiving corps. JMU is still the team to beat in the CAA, but the Villanovas and Albanians wouldn’t have to go backwards that much to catch up.
(Not that they play Albany or Villanova: their CAA schedule includes three games against Elon, W&M and Richmond. 2020-21 will be pretty funky).
2-4 April: Dakota marker week
No. 5 in South Dakota, No. 1 in North Dakota, No. 8 in Maine, Lehigh in Lafayette, Cal Poly in Northern Arizona, Davidson in San Diego.
Say it for the state of South Dakota: The Jackrabbits will have more than enough opportunities to prove themselves. After two tough weeks in the MVC, SDSU heads to Fargo for the Dakota Marker. It’s one of the FCS’ biggest annual games – big enough to bring College GameDay to town in 2019 – even though NDSU has won 12 of its last 14 battles.
While the other big games – Lehigh-Lafayette, of course, plus the biggest battle of the season in the Pioneer Conference, Davidson-USD – SDSU-NDSU will have the most oxygen at 3. April absorbs, and college football is better for him.
9. to 11. April: Owls and falcons Week
Kennesaw State, 10, House 23, Monmouth, House 1, North Dakota, House 3, North Iowa, House 21, Southeast Louisiana, House 14, Nicholls, House 2, Elon, House 2, James Madison, University of California, Davis, Cal Poly.
When it comes to aesthetics, it’s very easy to buy what Brian Bohannon and Kennesaw State are selling. The quality is also manageable: The Young Owls have scored 34-7 in the last three seasons. They combine a relentless optional offense – averaging 342 yards per game in 2019 – with an equally relentless defense. In his first year succeeding current Navy coordinator Brian Newberry, Danny Verpaell led a defense that counted 104 lost tackles, intercepted 13 passes and allowed just 4.8 yards per game. This team really likes to invade your personal space.
The Owls are especially favored in the Deep South with a Monmouth program that also has Top 25 potential. That’s why the Owls-Hawks game is the most important game of the BSC season.
16. to 18. April: Bayou Classic Week
Grambling v. Southern, no. 16 Wofford v #15 Furman, Delaware v #8 Villanova, #20 New Hampshire, Maine, Alabama State v Alabama A&M.
Looks like the SWAC is pulling out of the CSF playoffs and playing a conference title game at 1st. May. Although the spring edition of the Bayou Classic will be held in Shreveport and not New Orleans, it is expected to remain the biggest race in the SWAC West title race.
Alcorn State’s cancellation in the spring ensures that we will see a new champion in the Eastern Division for the first time since 2013, but it is likely that SU or GSU will represent the West for the eighth consecutive season. Prairie View A&M may put a stop to that, but chances are it will be another great game.
24. April – 15. May: Playoff time
As for the FBS season, we probably know how this campaign will end. North Dakota State is the big favorite, and the likely No. 2 is the only other team to win a ring since 2010, JMU. As for the FBS, we hope the journey goes beyond the destination.
Unlike the FBS, however, the FCS actually provides an inclusive dam. In theory, at the beginning of the season, every team in the Conference could be dreaming of a miraculous season and a race for the national title. After several exciting months, this unique season will hopefully end with a four-week playoff series and a championship title in mid-May. Then another super-short interim season begins for what will hopefully be a much more normal fall.
New FBS Spring Soccer Model ?
New Mexico State was one of three FBS teams to postpone or cancel their fall 2020 season, along with UConn and Old Dominion. The Aggies have decided to schedule home games on three consecutive winter/spring Saturdays: Newly hired PSC officers at Tarleton and Dixie States on Feb. 20. and 6. respectively. Mars and New Mexico Highlands Division II in between.
There have been some changes. The state of New Mexico still hasn’t allowed state sports, which means home games in El Paso are an hour away. The Tarleton game is on Sunday. In addition, NMSU Athletic Director Mario Moccia told The Athletic that New Mexico Highlands has not trained, so the first game between the Aggies and Cowboys since 1999 will likely not be played. So maybe it’s just a two-player plan. But it’s still Aggie football.
Coach Doug Martin told local media that he probably won’t give the star players big minutes and that he’s essentially integrating these two games into the Aggies’ overall spring training structure, albeit with more training than usual. That makes it a very interesting experience.
Unless television audiences are absolutely exceptional, a new CSF spring is unlikely to be in the offing. (Given the circumstances that brought us here, let’s hope not). But as the landscape of college football is changing and the FBS promotes conferences with the idea of a larger conference calendar and fewer off-conference games, it is at least possible that many of the FBS vs. FCS games we’ll see in the fall – the buyout games that (usually) give FBS teams an easy win and FCS teams a big payday – could disappear at least to some extent.
From a competitive standpoint, it’s good; fans don’t really like these games. But as Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said a few years ago, if you don’t play FCS…. how do they build their budget? I play in high school. How does Division II prepare its budget? FCC plays. If you start cutting these budgets, where are all the college football players going to go? Why would they play football when all those teams are giving up football? You’re ruining the sport for your ego.
The elimination of games from the fall calendar may impact small school budgets. This could result in fewer opportunities for university athletes to play football. But what if we play with them in the spring? Why don’t the FBS teams name some opponents instead of the usual spring scrimmages? Are you saying that fans can’t enjoy a good game between LSU and Southern in mid-April? Florida State v. Florida A&M? Rutgers versus Princeton? Montana versus Washington? Virginia versus James Madison? Cal versus Cal Poly?
The money may not be exactly the same, but if teams have to schedule a few of these games and the revenue from ticket sales is split somehow, it could still be a nice amount. And remember, if this idea ever becomes a reality, you should know that it started in New Mexico, in Tarleton.
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