Eight FCS teams beat FBS teams in Week 1 of the 2013 season, a new record for a single week. Three more followed in the next two weeks, plus the usual range of close calls. Louisville has already seen four of its FBS opponents lose to FCS teams, and Louisville plays in an AQ conference.
While win-loss records between all FCS teams and all FBS teams are similar to previous seasons, all three all-time wins by I-AA/FCS teams over ranked I-A/FBS teams have occurred in the last seven years. (I-AA Cincinnati beat No. 20 Penn State in 1983, but Cincinnati had been a I-A team since 1978, was forced to I-AA by the NCAA, and played a I-A schedule anyway. Cincy was I-A in all but classification.) One could argue the best FCS teams are getting better.
Part of the surge in high-profile upsets can be explained by chance. Another part by programs like UMass and Georgia State advancing to FBS before they're ready to compete. Also, there are more FCS-FBS games these days than there were before, with more money-for-wins deals meaning more chances for upsets.
But the rising level of talent in FCS football can be explained by recruiting.
The numbers game
FCS teams start at a disadvantage in the recruiting process. Asking players to join a lower-tier program comes with obvious facilities and prestige issues. FCS players are less likely to continue their football careers at the professional level. But it starts even earlier than that, at the numbers -- FCS schools have just 63 available football scholarships, compared to 85 for FBS programs. While all 85 FBS scholarships are full rides, FCS schools often split many of theirs into quarter- and half-scholarships, to try and spread them out among more players and fill out a roster.
Prior to his team's matchup against recent FBS call-up Old Dominion, Maryland head coach Randy Edsall talked about the diminishing gap of talent between the two divisions. He said the large number of former FBS players who transfer to the FCS (often talented players who get booted by FBS teams) has done wonders for the smaller schools on the field, but also pointed to early recruiting.
Signing Day for college football is February 5. By that point, teams are expected to have put together a class of 25 players, give or take a few. In mid-September, nearly five months before the recruiting period is ostensibly over (recruits can still sign after Signing Day), 13 of the top 25 teams in 247sports' Composite team rankings had at least 20 recruits in their classes. Three schools (Miami, Louisville, and Western Michigan) have at least 25 commitments already. And the trend of locking in early FBS commitments has grown over the last few years.
According to Edsall, players who bloom during their senior years of high school are already off the radar of FBS programs, which have already filled up their classes. Instead, they turn to FCS schools like James Madison, Appalachian State, and Eastern Washington, who've respond by beating ranked FBS programs Virginia Tech, Michigan, and Oregon State, respectively.
Control your backyard
Travis Trickett, the Samford Bulldogs' offensive coordinator, echoed Edsall's statements about early recruiting when he talked with SB Nation's recruiting editor, Bud Elliott. Samford, of the FCS' Southern Conference, had a chance to go 2-0 against the FBS this year, having beaten Georgia State before leading Arkansas in the fourth quarter.
Trickett says the top FCS programs routinely recruit against FBS schools, with Samford's best recruits in their latest class all holding offers from top-division programs (usually from the Sun Belt or Conference USA). While many FBS programs use recruiting services to find players, FCS head coaches do the bulk of recruiting and scouting themselves, allowing them to uncover hidden gems in the local area, who may later be offered by the bigger programs.
From there, the smaller schools have to rely on the relationships they have built with players, location advantages, or academic superiority (for FCS schools like Harvard, William & Mary, or Samford that are able to offer that). In addition, a player's comfort in knowing he was a school's first option (as opposed to a last-ditch backup plan on Signing Day) can go a long way towards selling that school as a landing spot for them.
Players routinely fall through the cracks of FBS recruiting in a variety of ways, often out of the athlete's control. Prospects may not have enough highlight footage to send to big programs, or may not know how to send it (or whom to send it to). Coaches, either at the high school or college level, can leave for other jobs, leaving the prospects in limbo, hoping they're not forgotten. That's where FCS schools come in -- they are able to limit themselves geographically while also looking at a wider range of talent sets (late bloomers, players new to the game, etc.).
Most FCS schools prefer to be experts in their own regions, as opposed to national powers. They find local sleepers and know each high school inside and out. Trickett says Samford tries to visit 10 to 12 high schools a day during the spring -- even the ones not known for producing talent, just in case they uncover an unknown gem of a prospect. This allows the staff to know their recruiting area better than the FBS schools attempting to swoop in (like Troy or UAB for Samford), and gives them a better relationship with the high school staffs, who will then let Trickett know when there is a player worth watching.
Welcoming talented misfits
Players who were unable to fit in at big programs can be stars at the smaller schools. Players transferring down a division do not have to sit out a year per NCAA rules, and bigger FCS programs can offer a high level of play (it is, after all, Division I) and an avenue to the NFL without having to miss a season of football.
Former Maryland running back D.J. Adams, who found himself out of the running back rotation under Edsall, wound up at Portland State, where he ran for nearly 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012. This season, he's produced 131 yards from scrimmage per game and helped PSU come within a touchdown of pulling off an upset against Cal. There are seemingly one or two such players on every FCS team.
There are four FBS transfers on Samford's defense, which has forced seven turnovers through three games -- defensive end Brandon Wilkinson (South Florida), defensive back James Bradberry (Arkansas State), defensive lineman Michael Pierce (Tulane) and linebacker Justin Cooper (Texas Tech). Trickett says the transfers are among his best defenders, and FCS schools attempt to give out half- and quarter-scholarships to other players in order to save full scholarships for potential FBS transfers.
A veteran advantage
FCS talents are more likely to keep their talent for longer stretches of time -- from 2007 to 2013, only five FCS players left school early for the NFL Draft, and three were former transfers from huge football programs. Compare that to the 73 from FBS in 2013 alone. This allows for a more experienced roster, which can catch FBS opponents off-guard. Just like in March Madness.
That's not to say players from the FCS don't make it to the NFL -- 19 were drafted from the division in 2013 alone, and high-profile stars like Joe Flacco (Delaware), Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois) and Victor Cruz (UMass) played in the lower division before making it to the NFL (not to mention all-time greats like Walter Payton and Harry Carson).
Will the power conference teams take notice of what appears to be a lose-lose situation? FBS programs often pay FCS programs to play, and while a win does not do much for the program's national reputation and poll position, a loss could provide irreparable damage for the remainder of the year. The Big Ten has requested that teams avoid FCS programs, but that move is about preserving the conference's strength of schedule.
Edsall says he likes the FCS vs. FBS arrangement, as it gives Maryland a chance to play local schools (Navy is the only other FBS program in the state) and bring in large visiting non-conference crowds. Trickett says games against FBS programs are big recruiting and financial draws for FCS schools, noting their importance not just for the budget of football programs, but for other sports as well. If other conferences follow the Big Ten's lead, it could spell dark times for lower-division athletics.