FCS teams upsetting FBS programs have come to be one of the leading storylines early in a college football season. Over the first few weekends, Cinderella fires up fans as if it’s March.
Three years ago, FCS teams took down FBS opponents 16 times – a single-season record. Last year, it was nine times, which is still a decent number.
In 2016, there are 113 opportunities for the FCS. All of the matchups involve the 11 FCS scholarship conferences – there are none involving the non-scholarship Ivy and Pioneer leagues – and the games, as usual, are in the lion’s den, hosted by the FBS schools.
Many of the FBS losses involve Group of Five teams, but Cinderella always lurks – in shoulder pads and cleats instead of a dress and high heels – and an upset of an FBS power program rocks college football.
Here are 15 marquee FBS vs. FCS matchups to keep an eye on:
15. South Carolina State at Clemson (Sept. 17)
Last year’s College Football Playoff runner-up is not going to lose to a MEAC program, but give credit to the visiting Bulldogs for taking on the challenge of three FBS matchups in a row, starting against UCF and Louisiana Tech. Coach Buddy Pough’s program just produced two NFL Draft choices, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and tight end Temarrick Hemingway, and may have one in 2017 with left tackle Javarius Leamon, who at one time was a Clemson recruit.
14. Lamar at Houston (Sept. 10)
Houston ranked eighth in the FBS in rushing defense last year, but here’s a challenge for the Cougars when they may not have their sea legs under them – Lamar All-America running back Kade Harrington rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season.
13. South Dakota State at TCU (Sept. 3)
The Jackrabbits got the jump on opening weekend a year ago with a victory at Big 12 member Kansas. They feature an All-America wide receiver in Jake Wieneke, who has two regular quarterbacks who get him the ball in Zach Lujan and Taryn Christion.
12. Youngstown State at West Virginia (Sept. 10)
No FCS coach likely fires up the opposing fan base quite like Youngstown State’s Bo Pelini, who was dumped after going 67-27 in eight seasons at Nebraska – yeah, right before the Cornhuskers went 6-7 last year. His Penguins, which won four FCS national titles in the 1990s under another controversial coach, Jim Tressel (now the YSU president), were competitive in a 45-37 loss at Pittsburgh on opening weekend last September.
11. Villanova at Pittsburgh (Sept. 3)
Speaking of well-known coaches, Villanova has a pretty good in Andy Talley, who begins his 32nd and final season with the Wildcats. He’s one victory shy of 250 wins as a college coach.
10. The Citadel at North Carolina (Nov. 19)
The Citadel pulled one of the bigger upsets for the FCS last year, dropping South Carolina, 23-22, behind its ball-control, triple-option offense. The Bulldogs return their top four rushers, led by quarterback Dominique Allen and fullback Tyler Renew.
9. James Madison at North Carolina (Sept. 17)
Uh... be on alert, North Carolina. Before the Tar Heels play a Citadel team that beat an FBS team last year, they face a James Madison squad that won at SMU. Oh yeah, the Dukes’ new coach, Mike Houston, arrived from The Citadel in the offseason.
8. Charleston Southern at Florida State (Sept. 10)
It seems fast-rising coach Jamey Chadwell has done everything at Charleston Southern except beat an FBS team. He’s 28-10 in three seasons with the defending Big South Conference champion Buccaneers, but that includes five losses against FBS competition.
7. Portland State at Washington (Sept. 17)
Portland State took down Washington State last season, now it will go for an Evergreen State sweep. The Vikings also beat a second FBS team, North Texas, a year ago behind 2015 FCS Coach of the Year Bruce Barnum.
6. Richmond at Virginia (Sept. 3)
The visiting Spiders shared the 2015 CAA title with James Madison and William & Mary, then went the furthest in the national playoffs by reaching the semifinals. They return a top passing combination in Kyle Lauletta-to-Brian Brown as well as eight defensive starters.
5. Northern Iowa at Iowa State (Sept. 3)
Been there, down that. This is Northern Iowa’s fifth visit to Ames this decade and it includes a one-point loss in 2011 and a 28-20 win in ‘13.
4. Chattanooga at Alabama (Nov. 19)
Former Southern Conference program Georgia Southern gained Alabama’s respect in 2011, and now the defending FBS national champion welcomes the three-time reigning SoCon champion. The visiting Mocs, though, are not exactly riding the Crimson Tide with an 0-12 all-time record against ‘Bama. But they have an NFL prospect in defensive end Keionta Davis.
3. Jacksonville State at LSU (Sept. 10)
During the regular season last year, the Ohio Valley Conference champion Gamecocks’ only loss was in overtime at Auburn. They’re not as strong after losing a top senior class, but dual-threat quarterback Eli Jenkins is coming off an All-America season in which he played through a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. He gets back JSU’s all-time leading pass catcher, Josh Barge.
2. Eastern Washington at Washington State (Sept. 3)
One-time FCS standout Jerry Rice should be asking Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp for his autograph because the All-American is rewriting all the record books. He’s already set 17 school records, eight Big Sky Conference records and seven FCS records. The total of his three career games against Pac-12 teams: 28 receptions for 510 yards and eight touchdowns.
1. North Dakota State at Iowa (Sept. 17)
Yes, the granddaddy of all the FCS vs. FBS matchups. The five-time defending national champion Bison also have won five straight games against the FBS (Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado State, Kansas State, at Iowa State). Head coach Chris Klieman’s experienced squad has 14 returning starters and a power run game and defense that would impress any FBS coach. Hawkeyes, beware.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)