The spring of 2019 gave us the AAF. 2020 gave us the XFL 2.0. Beginning later this month, we'll have the FCS.
Okay, okay, maybe that's not the best company for the FCS to keep. Both upstarts began with bold talk of sticking around for years to come, neither finished their inaugural season. This, too, will be a one-and-done; the FCS does not and should not view itself as an FBS minor-league, and so Championship Subdivision football will return to its rightful place this fall.
Still, the AAF and XFL proved there's an audience for spring football. Even amid the crowded spring sports schedule, there are enough football degenerates fanatics that just want to watch 'ball, in whatever form and at whatever time the game delivers it to them.
And in that way, the ongoing pandemic has provided the FCS with an opportunity. The NFL Combine won't really exist this year, and it remains to be seen what the pro day circuit looks like.
All this to say: the eyes of the football world will be on the FCS this spring. Players can literally play their way onto NFL rosters this fall and, once the draft passes, teams will be able to watch their new selections play the very next week. On that note, this is a showcase opportunity for the subdivision's coaching talent as well.
In that vein, the FCS playoffs, a slimmed-down 16-team event, falls at the sweet spot in the schedule -- after the NCAA tournament and the Masters, but in the dog days of the NBA, NHL and MLB regular seasons. The FCS title game will also miss the NFL draft, the PGA Championship, the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby. It's quite possible FCS Championship is the biggest event in sports on the weekend of May 15-16.
This is a real opportunity for the FCS, one that hasn't presented itself before and one that (oh dear God please make it so) never will again.
Of course, there's a reason for all this.
FCS schools punted their seasons from the fall to spring in the reasonable assumption the virus would be under control by then, thereby reducing the financial burden to procure thousands upon thousands of tests while also eliminating the hurdle of contract tracing and delayed or canceled games. And on that front they were, uh, kinda right. Vaccines are here and case loads are falling, but the 7-day average case load of late January (158,000 new U.S. cases per day) seemed unfathomable back in September (40,000). There's also the on-the-ground reality that every other sport will also be in-season over the course of the spring football season, and so simply keeping track of everything that needs to be kept track of will be a Herculean task for the people in charge of making these games happen. In their heart of hearts, FCS ADs and presidents have to be second-guessing if they should've just pressed forward in the fall.
The omnipresent ice cream headache of test-contact trace-isolate-postpone cycle that we all endured in the FBS season, where more than 20 percent of games were postponed or canceled, seems inevitable for this FCS season.
Still, the FBS season finished on time. The NFL season finished on time. Numerous high school seasons started and finished on time. If we can side-step the debate of whether divisional college football should even happen in a global pandemic -- personally, I'd rather see how many live spiders I can fit up my nose -- there's all the reason in the world to believe the juice can be worth the squeeze for the FCS as well.
This has the makings of a special season for the FCS -- with reduced schedules and no FBS buy games, players should be fresher and the football should be good. And with only four at-large bids to go around, the entire season will feel like a mad dash to the finish line, like how the FBS used to feel. Sure, North Dakota State will probably win the whole thing yet again, but journey should be fun.
Here's a run down of where things stand in each FCS conference.
Who's playing? Eight of 13 teams.
Who's not? Montana, Montana State, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State
What's the schedule format? This wasn't set for the final time until Jan. 25. Six conference games over eight weeks, beginning Feb. 27 and ending April 10 with league-wide off weeks March 20 and April 17
Overview: The Big Sky produced four top-10 teams, three quarterfinalists and two semifinalists in 2019. Weber State is the only one of those four playing this spring. This looks like a Weber State/Eastern Washington battle on the surface.
Who's playing? Five of eight teams.
Who's not? Campbell, Hampton, North Alabama
What's the schedule format? The league announced a 4-game conference schedule beginning March 13 back in November, but this has been adjusted since then. Some teams will play non-conference games in February, some will not. This abbreviated schedule will produce just two Big South games per week. Robert Morris was set to join in the fall, but that was bumped up to the spring.
Overview: Monmouth won the league in 2019, Kennesaw State finished second and also made the playoffs. Both will play this spring, with the league possibly decided when Kennesaw State visits Monmouth on April 10. The spring will serve as an intriguing soft launch for Robert Morris, who joins after a second-place finish in the Northeast Conference in 2019.
Who's playing? 11 of 12 teams.
Who's not? Towson
What's the schedule format? This is a fun one. The CAA will split into two unequal divisions: Albany, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Stony Brook and Villanova will make up the North and play each other once each; Elon, James Madison, Richmond and William & Mary will be in the South and play a home-and-home against the other three. The season begins March 6 and ends April 17 -- seven weeks to play six games. (Teams can begin non-conference games as early as Feb. 20; most are not.) There will be no conference title game, so the league's auto bid could come down to a coin flip.
Overview: With just about the whole gang here, this CAA season will feel as close to normal as possible. James Madison won the conference in 2019 and reached the FCS title game. Albany and Villanova both reached the 2019 playoffs and Maine won the league in 2018, so the North is wide open. With that in mind, JMU feels like the safe bet to gobble up the auto bid for the fourth time in five seasons.
Who's playing? No one
Who's not? Everyone
What's the schedule format? There is none.
Overview: The Ivy announced Nov. 12 it has canceled all fall and winter sports, and a decision on spring sports was pushed to February. Ivy League football will take the entire 2020-21 academic year off.
Who's playing? Six of seven teams.
Who's not? North Carolina Central
What's the schedule format? Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. With just six teams competing, the MEAC split into two, three-team divisions with a first-ever conference title game. The regular season begins Feb. 20 and concludes April 3 with the title game on April 17. Delaware State, Howard and Morgan State will be in the North, and Norfolk State, North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State in the South.
Overview: Bethune-Cookman, Hampton and Florida A&M left for greener (meaning $$$) pastures elsewhere, and North Carolina A&T follow them out the door for the Big South this summer. The MEAC will return to the FCS playoffs, and the bet here is the winner of the NC A&T-South Carolina State game, Feb. 27 in Greensboro, will ultimately vie for the conference's first FCS playoff win since 1999.
Who's playing? Ten of 11 teams.
Who's not? Indiana State.
What's the schedule format? Eight conference-only games over eight weeks, beginning Feb. 19 and running straight through April 10, with a league-wide off week April 17.
Overview: The MVFC produced four top-10 teams and three quarterfinalists in 2019. And, of course, national champion North Dakota State. The Bison are the favorite until they're not, although they'll be without first-round pick QB Trey Lance, who opted out after a one-game showcase in the fall.
Who's playing? ????
Who's not? Central Connecticut, Saint Francis
What's the schedule format? The NEC announced on Dec. 3 it will play a 4-game season beginning the week of March 5, with games to take place on Sundays or during the week and a championship game on April 16-17. But that's all we've got so far.
Overview: All we know at this point is defending champ CCSU is out. With no schedule release, it's hard to say if CCSU is the only of the NEC's eight remaining teams to opt out or merely the first.
Who's playing? Eight of nine teams.
Who's not? Eastern Kentucky, who played a 9-game rogue schedule in the fall.
What's the schedule format? Eight league games, beginning Feb. 21 and ending April 11, with a league-wide off week March 7.
Overview: A lot's changed since 2019. Defending champion Austin Peay has since changed head coaches; Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State are leaving for the Atlantic Sun. The top storyline here will be how fast (pun absolutely intended) Scotty Walden gets Peay going. The former doormat reached the 2019 quarterfinals and now looks like the league's top program.
Who's playing? Six of seven teams.
Who's not? Georgetown
What's the schedule format? A mini, mini-season, beginning March 13. Like the CAA, the Patriot will split into divisions -- Colgate, Fordham and Holy Cross in the North; Bucknell, Lafayette and Lehigh in the South -- for a 4-game season. The division winners will meet in the title game April 17.
Overview: The entire operation is worth it just to keep the Lafayette-Lehigh rivalry going. College football's longest running annual rivalry will see its 156th edition this spring. 2020 will technically go down as the first year these two haven't played since 1896, but all in all The Rivalry's place in the game's pantheon is secure. Holy Cross won the Patriot League in 2019.
Who's playing? Seven of 10 teams.
Who's out? Dayton, Jacksonville, Marist
What's the schedule format? The PFL announced a 6-game schedule back on Dec. 17, but Dayton and Marist have since backed out. With the season not slated to begin until March 13, there's still time for others to have second thoughts.
Overview: This season won't be easy for any conference, but a non-scholarship league where every game requires an airplane ride? This PFL season will be a heavy, heavy lift.
Who's playing? All nine teams.
Who's out? No one.
What's the schedule format? The SoCon's perfect attendance makes for an easy format -- eight games apiece, running weekly from Feb. 20 through April 17, forming a perfect round-robin. Each team gets one week off but without a league-wide off week, the SoCon leaves itself exposed to cancellation dominoes.
Overview: Everything points toward April 17, when defending champion Wofford hosts defending runner-up Furman. Wofford has won the SoCon three years running.
Who's playing? Seven of 11 teams.
Who's not? Abilene Christian, Central Arkansas, Houston Baptist, Stephen F. Austin -- all of whom played rogue schedules in the fall.
What's the schedule format? A round-robin format beginning Feb. 20 through April 10. Each team will have an off week and the entire league will take April 17 off.
Overview: Hoo boy. Central Arkansas is on its way to the Atlantic Sun, and ACU, SFA, Sam Houston State and Lamar are leaving for the WAC. The new Southland will be a mix of mostly rural Louisiana state schools with a couple Texas metro private schools awkwardly tacked on. Nicholls, the 2019 SLC champion, is narrowly favored to repeat over Sam Houston State, who won the Southland four times from 2011-16 but hasn't been a serious threat in the two seasons since.
Who's playing? All 10 teams
Who's not? No one.
What's the schedule format? The SWAC set their slate way back on Aug. 17. League play begins Feb. 27 with the option for non-conference games Feb. 20, running through Feb. 24 with a conference-wide off week March 13. Unlike the MEAC, the SWAC will not compete in the FCS playoffs; the SWAC season ends with the conference title game on May 1.
Overview: Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M come aboard in the fall, but in the meantime all the focus centers on another new addition. Coach Prime will be the story whether Jackson State goes 6-0 or 0-6. Deion has changed the paradigm of what's possible for a modern-day HBCU on the recruiting trail, but none of the sizzle matters without a well-cooked steak on the plate. This spring will be but an appetizer in this tortured metaphor, but a lot of people will be watching, tasting and judging.