FCS Football: Conference Rankings Entering Spring 2021 Season

MVFC first, CAA second, Big Sky hurt by opt-outs

The spring season heats up across FCS college football this week, with more schools and conferences jumping into the mix of what's a most unusual campaign.

 

It's so weird that transitioning Division I member Tarleton gained its first win as an FCS program by blowing out an FBS school (New Mexico State).

 

Almost three-quarters of the 127 overall FCS programs are in for the spring season, but only 11 of the 13 conferences have schedules — the Ivy League pulled the plug due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference was forced to do the same after having too many spring defections.

 

With the madness underway even before March, here's a ranking of FCS conferences this spring:

 

1. Missouri Valley Football Conference

Spring Participants: 10 (opted-out: Indiana State)

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: 3

Having five of the top 13 teams in this week's Athlon Sports Power Poll — three-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State (1). South Dakota State (4), Northern Iowa (5), Illinois State (9), and North Dakota (13) — reflects why the MVFC continues to be the top FCS conference.

 

2. CAA Football

Spring Participants: 11 (opted-out: Towson)

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: 3

James Madison should cruise to the four-team South Division title. Villanova is favored in the seven-team North, but most of the teams are solid.

 

3. Big Sky Conference

Spring Participants: 8 (opted-out: Montana, Montana State, Northern Colorado, Portland State, and Sacramento State)

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: 2

The conference with the most national quarterfinalists over the last two seasons (six) has taken a step backward with Montana, Montana State, and 2019 co-champ Sacramento State out of the spring picture. Weber State seeks a fourth straight title and is a national title threat.

 

4. Southland Conference

Spring Participants: 7 (opted-out: Abilene Christian, Central Arkansas, Houston Baptist, and Stephen F. Austin)

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: 2

It hurts to not have Central Arkansas, but two-time defending champion Nicholls, Sam Houston, and Southeastern Louisiana were joined in this week's rankings by McNeese. That's excellent depth.

 

5. Ohio Valley Conference

Spring Participants: 8 (opted-out: Eastern Kentucky)

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: 1

Austin Peay, coming off its best-ever season, is not the same team as in 2019, but that can be said about an improved Jacksonville State as well. With Southeast Missouri, UT Martin, and more, it's a wide-open race.

 

6. Southern Conference

Spring Participants: 9

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: 1

The SoCon is the only FCS conference that didn't have a school opt out of the spring season. Furman and Wofford stand strongest after the SoCon did not post a playoff win in 2019 for the first time since 1986.

 

7. Big South Conference

Spring Participants: 5 (opted-out: Campbell, Hampton, and North Alabama)

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: 1

Defending champ Monmouth and No. 6 Kennesaw State have been the top teams for three seasons running, with both winning a playoff game in the 2019 season.

 

8. Patriot League

Spring Participants: 6 (opted-out: Georgetown)

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: 1

Defending champ Holy Cross is the team to beat, but it has to win the tougher North Division and the league's first championship game to return to the playoffs.

 

9. Southwestern Athletic Conference

Spring Participants: 9 (opted-out: Alcorn State)

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: None

Even if recent SWAC power Alcorn State had decided to play this spring, this was going to be a wide-open conference with Jackson State and the Fightin' Deions trying to beat Alabama A&M in the East Division and Southern and Grambling State fighting for the West title.

 

10. Northeast Conference

Spring Participants: 6 (opted-out: Central Connecticut State and Saint Francis)

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: 1

Not only did defending champ CCSU opt out, but Robert Morris, the second-place team in 2019, moved to the Big South. Duquesne and Sacred Heart open the NEC regular season against each other and figure to meet again in the first-ever conference championship game.

 

11. Pioneer Football League

Spring Participants: 8 (opted-out: Dayton and Marist)

Projected Playoff Qualifiers: 1

Dayton opting out and Drake losing too many fifth-year seniors who would have played in the fall could mean another sweep for a San Diego program that has won 37 straight PFL games.

 

— 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.

 

(Photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics)

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