Pandemic has interrupted the schedule, but there's still a lot to talk about
The FCS football schedule moved past the midpoint last Saturday, an occasion that barely drew a double-take nationwide.
Quite simply, the strangest season in FCS history has been one big blur.
Only 17 of the 127 FCS programs are in action this fall due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, there's been a lot to talk about along the winding road.
Here are 10 topics to mark the schedule moving past the midpoint:
Impact of COVID-19
Health and safety protocols are being enforced at FCS games, including limited crowds, face coverings for coaches, school staff and fans, and social distancing. Abilene Christian was the first FCS school to cancel a game due to active coronavirus cases – this weekend’s matchup with West Texas A&M. Two other schools have had postponements due to positive tests with the opponent: Central Arkansas’ 50-27 loss at Arkansas State last Saturday was originally scheduled for Sept. 19 and Stephen F. Austin’s home game against Angelo State was moved back one week to this Saturday. SFA coach Colby Carthel and Jacksonville State coach John Grass are missing games this weekend due to positive tests.
The first college football game of the pandemic was the seventh annual season-opening spotlight. Breylin Smith's last-minute touchdown pass to Lujuan Winningham lifted Central Arkansas to a 24-17 win over Austin Peay. Strangely — but perfect for the season — Central Arkansas also played in college football's second game five days later at UAB.
Catch them while you can
Six of the FCS teams in action are sticking to the fall and not planning to play in the potential spring season: Campbell in the Big South, Eastern Kentucky of the Ohio Valley and Abilene Christian, Central Arkansas, Houston Baptist and Stephen F. Austin in the Southland. Also, Sacramento State, whose Big Sky Conference is sitting out the fall, will skip the spring as well. The general feeling among those schools is that playing in the spring and then again next fall would have too much of a physical toll on players.
FCS vs. FCS thrillers
FCS vs. FCS matchups have been quite entertaining. There's only been six to date, but five of them have been in doubt until the final minutes: Central Arkansas 24-17 over Austin Peay; Central Arkansas 27-20 over Missouri State; Houston Baptist 33-30 over Eastern Kentucky; North Dakota State 39-28 over Central Arkansas; and Jacksonville State 34-28 over Mercer.
Slump against FBS
The pursuit of FBS opponents has been a money grab without winning results. FCS teams are 0-24 against FBS opponents, extending an overall losing streak to 66 since last season. The highlight performances occurred on Sept. 12 when Campbell fell 27-26 to Georgia Southern and Houston Baptist (as a 41-point underdog) 35-33 to Texas Tech, both denied on a two-point conversion in the closing minutes.
Houston Baptist's 6-foot-2 gunslinger threw for a school-record 567 yards against Texas Tech as part of an incredible four-game fall season. Three of the matchups were against FBS opponents yet Zappe completed 141 of 215 passes (65.6 percent) for 1,833 yards and 15 touchdowns with just one interception.
No FCS coaching hire has likely ever drawn as much attention as Jackson State landing the 53-year-old Pro Football and College Hall of Famer, from national outlets to Prime Time's social media accounts. The Tigers are promoting an "I Believe" theme for a program that has captured 16 SWAC titles, but none since 2007.
Speaking of national attention, North Dakota State's lone fall game on Oct. 3 was an NFL showcase for potential top-10 prospect Lance, who swept the 2019 Walter Payton and Jerry Rice awards. Three days after the Bison's 39-28 win over Central Arkansas, the redshirt sophomore quarterback announced he will enter the 2021 draft as an underclassman.
Bison need a rally
In North Dakota State's back-and-forth struggle with Central Arkansas, the three-time reigning FCS champion trailed in the fourth quarter for the first time in 28 games — a nearly two-year span dating to Oct. 6, 2018 against Northern Iowa. The Bison took the lead midway through the fourth and went to extend their FCS record with a 38th straight win.
After a summer of FCS conferences postponing their fall schedules, plans for the potential spring season are being rolled out. The NCAA is allowing 20 hours of practice each week for schools not in action. New for the spring season are the CAA and MEAC going to divisional play, the MEAC announcing a championship game for the first time, and the OVC planning conference games on Sundays. The schedule may kick off as early as mid-February and would lead toward a 16-team national playoff, with the pairings announcement on April 18.
— 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.
(Michael Matthews photo courtesy of Matt Reynolds/Jacksonville State Athletics)