The early weeks of the FCS college football season will be energized by the upsets of FBS teams. After all, Cinderella straps on the dancin’ shoes in September too.
But what the FCS needs just as much, though, are strong matchups between teams stepping out of conference. With smaller athletic budgets, it’s not always possible if the matchups aren’t somewhat regional.
But during the first month of the 2016 season, there are plenty of attractive non-conference matchups.
Here are a dozen of the best:
Charleston Southern at North Dakota State (Aug. 27)
The five-time reigning national champion Bison open the FCS season for the second consecutive season. They lost at Montana a year ago, but this one is at home, sweet dome. The visiting Buccaneers, coming off a Big South title, will try to silence the Fargodome crowd with a controlled run game.
Duquesne at Youngstown State (Sept. 1)
Don’t sleep on this matchup. The visiting Dukes are coming off a Northeast Conference title and have a quarterback, senior Dillon Buechel, who will test YSU’s pass defense, which led the FCS last season. The playoff-starved Penguins can’t afford to lose their opener under head coach Bo Pelini.
Alcorn State at Bethune-Cookman (Sept. 4)
The MEAC-SWAC Challenge has moved to a campus site and it’s a dandy. Alcorn State is coming off two straight SWAC titles and Bethune-Cookman has won at least a share of five of the last six MEAC championships. Maybe a preview of the Celebration Bowl in December?
Montana at Northern Iowa (Sept. 10)
Montana has won all five previous meetings, including the three most recent in the FCS playoffs in 1994, 2001 and '11. Now if the Panthers could only have the same luck against the Griz as they do against Eastern Washington (you’ll see below).
Eastern Washington at North Dakota State (Sept. 10)
NDSU has come to dominate the FCS, but this is a matchup of the two most recent national champions as Eastern Washington preceded the Bison in 2010. In fact, the last Bison loss in the playoffs occurred in the 2010 quarterfinals when the Eagles won in overtime on their way to the title.
Northern Arizona at Western Illinois (Sept. 10)
So you’ve noticed Big Sky vs. Missouri Valley is a theme. This one has NAU super soph quarterback Case Cookus, who set the FCS freshman record for touchdown passes in a season, facing a veteran Western Illinois squad.
Coastal Carolina at Jacksonville State (Sept. 17)
All 12 Coastal Carolina games are non-conference this season as the program makes its transition toward the FBS as an FCS independent. The Chanticleers’ trip to last year’s national runner-up is their toughest game. Their matchups against Charleston Southern (Oct. 1) and Liberty (Nov. 17) will be at home.
Northern Iowa at Eastern Washington (Sept. 17)
Whew! By the time these power programs square off for a second straight year, UNI will have traveled to Iowa State and hosted Montana, and EWU will have visited Washington State and North Dakota State. UNI won 38-35 in Cedar Falls last season to extend its series lead to 6-0.
Eastern Illinois at Illinois State (Sept. 17)
Since the oldest rivalry in the state of Illinois was dubbed the Mid-America Classic in 2012, Illinois State has won three of the four games, including 34-31 in overtime last season. That has upped the Redbirds’ series lead to 54-40-9.
Colgate at Richmond (Sept. 24)
After winning the Patriot League title, Colgate beat CAA Football programs New Hampshire and James Madison on the road in the playoffs last season. The Raiders will have their hands full with Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta-to-Brian Brown passing combo.
Penn at Fordham (Sept. 24)
There’s no shortage of offensive standouts in this matchup with Penn quarterback Alex Torgersen and wide receiver Justin Watson and Fordham quarterback Kevin Anderson and running back Chase Edmonds.
Jacksonville State at Liberty (Sept. 24)
The host Flames were humbled by a 6-5 finish last season, but they went 5-0 at Williams Stadium, including wins over Montana and Coastal Carolina. A capacity crowd figures to turn out for quarterback Eli Jenkins and the Gamecocks.
— 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 by University of Northern Iowa Athletics)