What may be the most unusual season in FCS college football is kicking off to more questions than answers.
Just under three-quarters of the 127 FCS programs are planning to play in the spring semester after all conferences postponed their fall schedules due to concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fact that teams are battling through the pandemic, inclement winter weather at the start of the season and ever-changing rosters contribute to the uncertainty.
Still, the lower half of Division I is ready to command a spotlight and try to navigate to the finish line — the national championship game on May 16 in Frisco, Texas.
Following are six big questions of the FCS spring season.
— 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.
Did the MVFC lose too many key players?
That three-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State (No. 1), Northern Iowa (3), South Dakota State (5), and Illinois State (9) held onto top-10 spots in Athlon Sports' revised preseason rankings suggests the Missouri Valley Football Conference will dominate the national scene. But those four teams had a combined 10 2019 first- and second-team all-conference selections who could have returned this season only to depart via grad transfer or to prepare for the upcoming NFL draft. The losses include NDSU quarterback Trey Lance, just a redshirt sophomore and a potential top-10 pick.
(Photo courtesy of Tim Sanger/North Dakota State Athletics)
How vulnerable is James Madison?
With three appearances in the last four national championship games, including the 2016 title-winning season, the Dukes have been the second-best FCS program behind North Dakota State. But they return only seven starters, with the losses including quarterback Ben DiNucci, the 2019 CAA offensive player of the year, and first-team All-America defensive ends Ron'Dell Carter and John Daka. Fifth-year senior Cole Johnson has bided his time to take over behind center and second-year head coach Curt Cignetti has a slew of strong running backs. The Dukes will play in the weaker South Division during the CAA spring season, so they could still set themselves up for favorable playoff position.
(Photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics)
Will Weber State win it all?
No, we don't mean the Big Sky title — the Wildcats are three-time defending champs — we're talking the FCS national championship. Trips to the national quarterfinals in 2017 and '18 were followed by a first-ever semifinal-round appearance in 2019. Seventh-year head coach Jay Hill boasts an experienced squad, which was ranked No. 2 in Athlon's revised spring rankings, and Big Sky powers Montana and Montana State aren't potential obstacles because they're sitting out the conference season.
(Josh Davis photo courtesy of Weber State Athletics)
Who are the dark horses?
With an eight-game maximum in the regular season, and some conferences set to play even fewer games, it won't take long for surprise teams to make themselves known. Could Idaho be one? It probably surprised many to see what's been a struggling Big Sky program in the revised Top 25. Veteran squads Elon and Richmond are in James Madison's shadow in the CAA's South Division, with two games each against the Dukes to try to reach the limelight. Big South favorite Kennesaw State is preseason No. 6, but Monmouth is the defending champ and has a strong senior class and home-field advantage for their matchup. The Southland will lose five member schools this summer, but it remains strong this spring with Nicholls, Sam Houston and Southeastern Louisiana likely playing for two playoff spots.
(Jevon Leon photo courtesy of David Barfield/Sam Houston Athletics)
Keep the championship games going?
Only the SWAC hosts an annual conference championship game, but in a unique aspect of the spring season, the Northeast Conference and Patriot League will both host one for the first time, with the winners advancing to the FCS playoffs. The MEAC also had one planned before canceling its spring schedule. Perhaps smaller conferences, which almost always receive only one bid nor win often in the playoffs, should consider a championship game in the fall on the final Saturday of their regular season. It will bring attention and excitement. At the least, the MEAC, whose champion goes to the Celebration Bowl and not the playoffs in a normal season, should hold a title game during the four-week break between the end of its regular season and the Celebration Bowl, like the rival SWAC.
(Lafayette vs. Lehigh photo courtesy of Rick Smith/Lafayette Athletics)
Will the FCS reach the finish line?
"Survive and advance" isn't just a postseason mindset, it figures to be a weekly scenario in the spring season. There will be starts and stops, like FBS programs went through this past fall, and there won't be competitive equity because COVID-19 issues will sack key players or postpone/cancel games. There's no wiggle room in a 16-team playoff staged over 23 days; imagine if a school has to forfeit in the postseason due to positive coronavirus cases? Health and safety have to take prior over wins and losses.
(Matt Entz photo courtesy of Tim Sanger/North Dakota State Athletics)