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3 reasons you should watch the FCS playoffs every year

It’s a fat heaping of quality playoff football.

NCAA Football: FCS Championship-Jacksonville State vs North Dakota State
North Dakota State celebrates winning 2015’s FCS national championship.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s winter, which means it’s time for football seasons to have their playoffs. You’re going to watch the four-team event that ends the FBS season, and you’re probably going to watch the NFL’s 12-teamer, too.

Here’s why you should watch the FCS’.

1. The playoff format is more fun than FBS’ or the NFL’s.

The four-team FBS Playoff feels like a godsend in the context of the BCS, but it’s still the smallest playoff in American football. High school playoffs can involve dozens of teams, and the playoffs in Division II, Division III, and FCS are true tournaments.

In FCS, 24 teams make the field. The top eight seeds get byes into the round of 16, where they meet the winners of the eight first-round games. Then it’s a four-game sprint to the finish, all single-elimination, and the last team standing wins it all.

None of this happens in quarter-full NFL stadiums or at dinky neutral sites. Every FCS playoff game is played at the home field of teams that won NCAA bids (in the first round) or the higher-seeded team (in later rounds), and that makes for strong atmospheres even though the games are often during winter break.

The final is in Frisco, Texas, and the stadium fills up.

2. FCS teams are good. This isn’t watching bad football as a novelty.

This section is via Jon Morse of SB Nation’s Kansas State blog, Bring On The Cats. Morse is an avid FCS watcher:

It's important to really understand what makes FCS different than FBS to get at the heart of this.

Most people have the misconception that FCS football is inherently a level below FBS competitively, just like AAA baseball is inherently a level below Major League Baseball. That's really not the case, though. Round Rock can't just decide it'd like to compete against MLB teams, increase its resource allotment, and say "OK, someone invite us." FCS teams choose to be where they are, and every offseason you can count on multiple outlets pondering which FCS schools should try and make the switch. (Liberty’s doing it next year. Coastal Carolina did it this year.)

FCS schools have, for whatever reason, chosen to meet all the same resource requirements as, say, Alabama, with one exception. Instead of offering 85 players full-ride scholarships, they offer up to 85 players the equivalent of 63 full-ride scholarships. What a lot of folks don't understand is that we're generally talking about a bunch of players receiving full rides and the remainder of the 85 who can accept scholarships receiving somewhere closer to halves.

And that means that on the best FCS teams, you're going to find star recruits. Some might have played for your FBS team in the past and transferred to find playing time or because of, um, issues. The NFL draft — indeed, the Pro Football Hall of Fame — is littered with players who played at the FCS level. The teams you can expect to make deep FCS playoff runs have histories of either beating FBS teams on a regular basis (hey there, North Dakota State) or giving them very competitive ballgames.

This is not bad football. It's not Alabama vs. Clemson, but let's all be honest with ourselves: If you're reading this site, the odds are pretty good that you inhale #MACtion and #FunBelt, wake up on Saturday morning to watch Georgia Tech play Pitt because it's the best game on, and stay up until after midnight to see Hawaii play New Mexico.

So as the calendar turns to December and there are fewer and fewer football options for your weekend, why on earth wouldn't you tune in to watch decent teams play win-or-go-home games in pursuit of a national championship? Especially when several of these games are going to air in time slots in which there is no football competition at all?

Winter is coming, folks. You need to gather some acorns to help get you through to spring practice.

3. The storylines range from delightfully silly to super serious.

You’re familiar with Miami’s Turnover Chain.

What if I told you an FCS school that started playing football in 2015 and is about to play in the postseason for the first time ever has a turnover plank?

Meet the Kennesaw State Owls and their trophy, Plank:

Jason Kirk

Jason Kirk, with help from some Owls and their coach, explains the origin story:

  • Scout team wide receiver Tanner Jones found Plank somewhere in Florida on spring break in 2015.
  • Two years later, Jones’ father was cleaning the garage and asked whether Plank was worth hanging on to.
  • Jones started taking Plank to the locker room every day in October.
  • Redshirt junior safety Taylor Henkle takes it from there:

“I’d seen Plank around. I saw him on the plane. Somebody had him, but nobody did anything with him. After I got an interception [at Montana State on Nov. 4], somebody — I don’t even know who it is, we’re still trying to figure it out — handed it to me. I had no idea what to do. There was a couple Kennesaw State fans in the front row, so I just held it up to them.”

The Owls also run the triple option, so that’s fun.

You’re familiar with Alabama and Clemson.

FCS has rough equivalents in North Dakota State and James Madison. NDSU is the program of this century, having won five national titles in a row before last year. But James Madison rose up and beat the Bison in the national semifinal before winning the title last year over Youngstown State.

So 2017’s playoffs feature the Dukes trying to maintain their status atop the sport, while the Bison — who really are the top program — are trying to get that perch back.

You’re familiar with Cinderellas in the NCAA hoops tournament.

You don’t see the same thing in the FBS Playoff, where a mid-major has never made the field. It might take years for that to happen.

But these playoffs can be wild. Last year, unseeded Youngstown State’s run to the title game included upsets of No. 3 Jacksonville State and No. 2 Eastern Washington. The latter came on one of the best, most dramatic catches ever, and yes, that’s a red field:

Since the playoffs expanded from 20 to 24 teams in 2013, an unseeded team — someone outside the top eight — has at least made the semifinals every year.

The best story in Division I football this year was Austin Peay, a program that lost 29 games in a row before snapping that streak and going 8-4. The Governors narrowly missed a playoff bid, and they were devastated beyond belief.

“It was probably the toughest thing I’ve had to go through in coaching in a single moment,” Will Healy, Peay’s head coach, told SB Nation.

If that doesn’t show what a big deal the FCS playoffs are, I don’t know what could.