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Why a growing number of FCS programs are opting out of a spring season to go it alone this fall

The FCS playoffs will not take place this fall and, as such, none of the 13 conferences will stage regular seasons until the spring. But that doesn't mean football will be completely dark at the FCS level this fall.

As of this writing, 14 FCS programs are planning to play at least one game this fall, with one more in search of a game. In fact, the first planned college football game of 2020 will be an FCS game--Austin Peay vs. Central Arkansas in the FCS Kickoff in Montgomery, Ala., next Saturday, Aug. 29.

But while the bulk of those programs are planning to play an extremely abbreviated schedule this fall, then shut it down before trying to play two seasons in 2021, a growing number have indicated they will only play this fall and sit out the spring season--whatever that winds up becoming.

Stephen F. Austin became the first when it revealed earlier this week it will play what amounts to an independent schedule this fall.

“We don’t have any desire right now to play in the spring,” SFA AD Ryan Ivey told Texas Football. “It doesn’t do anything for us as we go into the 2021 season…our goal right now would be to opt out of the spring altogether.”

The Lumberjacks had one game at the time--at SMU on Sept. 26--but have since added a Sept. 19 visit to UTSA and a Nov. 7 game at Eastern Kentucky.

One of their Southland Conference rivals is much further along in their attempt to play a quasi-independent fall season--Central Arkansas.

The Bears watched their schedule drip from 11 games down to just one--the aforementioned FCS Kickoff next Saturday--but are now up to eight scheduled contests.

"Our scheduling has certainly been simplified by the fact that Coach (Nathan) Brown is willing to play anybody," UCA Dr. Brad Teague said. "He has said yes to every opponent that I brought to him as a potential game. That has made this process so much easier than it could have been."

UCA's tentative schedule includes in-season home-and-homes with non-conference foes Missouri State and Eastern Kentucky (but no games against SFA).

"I have told our players that this is going to be a season to remember and won't look like seasons of the past," Brown said. "We knew that with the Southland Conference choosing to move to the spring we would have to be creative in getting a full schedule together for the 2020 season."

Central Arkansas 2020 schedule
vs. Austin Peay (at Montgomery, Ala) -- Aug. 29
at UAB -- Sept. 3
TBD -- Sept. 12
at Arkansas State -- Sept. 19
Missouri State -- Sept. 26
TBD -- Oct. 3
at Eastern Kentucky -- Oct. 10
at Missouri State -- Oct. 17
Off -- Oct. 24
Eastern Kentucky -- Oct. 31
Off -- Nov. 7
TBD -- Nov. 14
at Louisiana-Lafayette -- Nov. 21

Missouri State will play just three games this fall--the home-and-home with UCA and a Sept. 12 paycheck game at Oklahoma. But Eastern Kentucky is joining UCA and SFA in building a rogue fall schedule.

"(EKU athletic director) Turkey Hughes came up the idea for the OVC in 1941. It come into fruition a few years later. We love this league. We founded this league," EKU AD Matt Roan said Friday. "We've been loyal for a long time, but no one has ever gone through a global pandemic. For us, we have to make the right decision for the institution, the student-athletes, the alumni and our campus community."

Eastern Kentucky 2020 schedule
at Marshall -- Sept. 5
at West Virginia -- Sept. 12
at The Citadel -- Sept. 26
Central Arkansas -- Oct. 10
at Troy -- Oct. 17
at Central Arkansas -- Oct. 31
Stephen F. Austin -- Nov. 7
Western Carolina -- Nov. 21

Though each school came to their decisions independently, they all cited the same reasons for getting there--skepticism that national conditions surrounding the coronavirus would actually improve by spring, the need to give players a full offseason to recover and develop, and the overarching belief that football belongs in the fall.

Skipping out on a hypothetical spring season means sacrificing the opportunity to hoist a conference championship trophy, to compete in the FCS playoffs, to potentially win a national title. (Though, let's be honest, considering the same team has won eight of the last nine and returns a 1st round quarterback in Trey Lance... North Dakota State was winning the 2020 FCS title no matter when it was played.)

And, to be sure, these build-the-bridge-as-we-cross-it schedules are less than ideal. Eastern Kentucky has just three home games scheduled (though Roan says they want one more). Central Arkansas has one. Stephen F. Austin doesn't have any.

Still, SFA, UCA and EKU feel like they gain more than they give up by keeping their football schedule where God designed it to be, even if most of their neighbors have left town for a while.

"It is, in our opinion, all about the well-being of our student-athletes," Teague said. "It's about having recovery time, and having mental and emotional time off from their sport. And if you play fall '20, spring '21, fall '21, we don't think that is possible and it's not good for their health and well being. And also, we don't know what the spring is going to look like, as far as COVID-19 or scheduling or any of that. So if we can safely provide our fall programs a somewhat normal fall season, we think that is best for everyone involved."