What Will It Take For Teams Outside the “Big Three” FCS Conferences To Become Title Contenders?

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for FCS Fans Nation website about the dominance of a few conferences in Football Championship Subdivision.

Since Appalachian State completed their three peat, and really since the turn of the millennia, we have seen three conferences at the FCS Level that have been above all others: the CAA, Big Sky, and Missouri Valley.

Naturally, this sort of thing makes fans bristle, but when you look at the numbers, even without North Dakota State’s dominance, the situation does not look too pretty.

However, I am not going to regurgitate statistics, but rather look at how other conferences can break through and shatter the glass ceiling. 

You might say it’s not that simple, but that’s the whole point of this conversation. It’s easy for the three conferences to say, “just win” when they have systemic advantages, given every benefit of the doubt for every near miss, while none is afforded to anyone else.

It is not like we haven’t had teams outside the “Big Three” get playoff seeds, and even make deep playoff runs. It’s not that long ago that Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State were running over their conferences year after year, making it to title games.

However, lately the Ohio Valley and Southland have become more balanced, and that dominance has severely fallen off.

The SoCon has had a pretty solidly dominant Wofford for the past few years and the Big South has had Kennesaw State with pesky Monmouth popping up recently.

These teams aren’t making the final leap though into a national title game, let alone a championship.

So, how do we take that final step, and how do these conferences gain national respect? 

Have a dominant team in your conference

The reason I make this point, is because it had been brought to my attention that travel in the playoffs can be grueling, especially if a team is in a conference so geographically friendly, they are not used to travel.

While I do not think this is the be all end all when it comes to why the Big Three have dominated the last 12 years of the deep runs into playoffs, it is something to consider.

Therefore, teams in these other conferences need a team to be undefeated in the FCS or have one “good” loss.

As many conspiracy theories are floated about the playoff committee come selection time, at the end of the day they are not going to give an 8-3 MVFC team a seed over a 10-1 SoCon team. If it did, I’d be the first person up in arms.

Kennesaw State has gone undefeated in FCS competition as have Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State in the past, and they were rewarded with seeds. James Madison has managed to mostly stay out of the meat grinder that is the CAA, and as a result has been rewarded. I know there are teams in these conferences I have mentioned that can do the same.

Courtesy Chattanooga Times Free Press

Schedule Tough Out of Conference Games

Scheduling football games is a headache I am genuinely glad I don’t have to deal with.

However, tough FCS out of conference opponents and winning those games not only helps your playoff resume, it also helps make your conference look better.

Chattanooga has taken this initiative by scheduling a home and home with James Madison, and I think others should follow suit.

I’ve always felt the SoCon and CAA should have a quasi-challenge similar to the one that the Missouri Valley and Big Sky have.

But you also have to win these games.

The more wins that get racked up, the more ranked teams you’ll have in your conference. 

And I know this last part is harder to do, but eliminate any Division II games at all cost.

Courtesy Greenville Online

Tally Up the Big Wins, Eliminate Bad Losses

As I mentioned before you want to have a dominant team in your conference. However, if you want a solid second or third place team, they also have to make sure they are consistent.

You can’t get blown off the field by a middle of the road team in conference.

The reason the Big Sky got four FCS Playoff seeds last year was because those four teams lost to one another and no one else. You want to have a conference that is somewhat balanced, but not so balanced that it cannibalizes itself out of playoff spots, much less a potential seed like the CAA did last year.

If you have an undefeated Wofford and a one-loss Furman in a SoCon that also has another team or two ranked, you’ll get at least one seed and possibly two depending on how the “Big Three” cannibalize one another throughout the year. But that one loss for Furman has to be to Wofford, and they both would do well to have a quality out of conference win.

Deep playoff runs, repeatedly

Once you have your dominant teams and playoff seeds, make the best of them, and make a deep playoff run.

Knock off the unseeded but nationally ranked Missouri Valley team that has to some your way while you’re at it.

And when I say deep playoff run, I mean semifinals or bust, because that should be your mentality when you get a seed.

The last time a team outside of the Big Three was in the semifinals was in 2017.

The last time one made the FCS National Championship Game was Jacksonville State as a two seed (which goes to show a good regular season WILL be rewarded).

Making it to the quarterfinals is all well and good, but to genuinely break through the glass ceiling, you’re going to have to do better.

And then, you’re likely going to have to knock off an North Dakota State, James Madison, South Dakota State kind of program. Consistently do this and you will break the narrative. 

Now, I do not believe these are too farfetched. I think there’s the opportunity for almost any SoCon team, much like the CAA, that has the ability to run through the conference at any point and time.

I also believe that there are going to be conferences that will be improving by addition.

The fact that the Big South will be adding North Carolina A&T, which is a school that is almost always ranked and consistently knocks off FBS opponents is a boon for the conference.

The conference in it of itself is also improving on the whole.

I believe on the whole the Southland has improved, and so long as they have a top three spots with one dominant team, they are a perennial three playoff bid conference, so long as they stay away from bad losses.

I don’t expect Jacksonville State to stay dormant for long, and Austin Peay seems to be building something special.

The OVC is the fuzziest of these conferences for me but again just avoid bad losses, and they’ll be a two playoff bid league for sure.

Heck, Colgate out of the Patriot League got a seed not that long ago and Central Connecticut State was exceptionally good last year.

So, I do not think this is all doom and gloom. There’s a path forward for a more balanced and perfect FCS. And it’s still much better than what the FBS has going on.

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