2 reasons why the North dominates FCS football
With Missouri Valley Conference rivals North Dakota State and Illinois State meeting for the FCS title on January 10, the North’s streak of national titles is guaranteed to hit seven years.
The Southeast is king of big-time college football. The SEC has been the dominant conference in the sport for the past decade. Florida State ended the conference’s seven-year title run last season, but continued the regional dynasty. This year, Southeastern teams Alabama and FSU make up two of the College Football Playoff’s four.
But in the lower division of Division I football, the FCS, the roles are reversed. This year, the FCS title game will feature two teams from a Northern conference, as the Missouri Valley’s Illinois State and North Dakota State — the latter going for its fourth straight championship — square off.
Three of the final four teams in the tournament were from the North, as were four of the top five, plus 10 of the regular season’s top 15. Since 2008′s Richmond championship, every FCS champion has been from the North, and the title game has had a Northern participant every year since 2002.
There are two major reasons for the North’s success. The first is recruiting. While the South produces far better athletes, the South is also more heavily recruited. It makes sense for an FBS coach to spend more time recruiting Alabama than, say, North Dakota. But that means coaches are going to miss good players more often in the North.
That’s to the advantage of the Northern FCS schools, who are going to see kids in their backyard get overlooked more often than the Southern FCS schools.
“It’s almost like the South gets strip-mined,” Maine coach Jack Cosgrove told me last year in an article for the Wall Street Journal. “There are not a lot of players available, and I guess it forces the FCS schools to really recruit where they are.”
Northern cities Minneapolis and Seattle, along with Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa, have helped teams like NDSU, Eastern Washington, Montana, and Northern Iowa become national powerhouses. Former NDSU coach Craig Bowl, now at Wyoming, and Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said that the tendency of Northern FBS coaches to ignore their home turf has helped.
“I’d rather not get that out, but it’s true,” Baldwin said.
The other big advantage Northern FCS schools have is that their Southern competition is leaving FCS, as low-level FBS conferences in their region look to expand. Just this year, two Southern FCS powers, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State made the move to FBS.
Those two had combined to win nine FCS championships. Western Kentucky, the 2002 FCS champion, has also since moved up to FBS. This means that only two FCS titles since 1988 were won by current Southern FCS schools (Richmond 2008, James Madison 2004). NDSU already has three titles in that time, and Pennsylvania’s Youngstown State has four.
Of all the schools to join the FBS since 2009, only one is from the North.
There are certainly Northern FCS schools that could make the jump. NDSU ranks 33rd in all of Division I in the Sagarin ratings, and the Bison have beaten up on Iowa State, Kansas State, and Minnesota in recent years. Northern Iowa and Eastern Washington took Iowa and Washington, respectively, to the wire this year.
All of these teams have already built big fan bases, and they get to run cheaper programs and don’t need to deal with the headaches of finding conferences in FBS (what low-level FBS conference would make sense, geographically, for NDSU or Eastern Washington?).
FCS football suits them just fine for now. And they’ll just get to keep dominating their neighbors to the South.