Power Ranking the 11 FCS AQ Conferences
There are 14 conferences in the championship subdivision, and eleven of them award an automatic playoff spot to their champion. We all know the Valley is (spoiler alert) the best, but where do the other conferences rank amongst each other? I will attempt to answer that question below. Before I begin, I have a few housekeeping things to address.
· This is obviously subjective. I am basing this off my analysis and opinion. It is impossible to get a true answer to this question, but this is my best shot at it.
· After much deliberation, I have decided not to try and rank the three FCS leagues that do not play for an automatic playoff bid. Those leagues are the Ivy League, the MEAC and the SWAC. I really went back-and-forth on this but ultimately decided to leave them out because I just do not know enough about them to give them a fair ranking. In the case of the Ivy League, they don’t really feel like a true part of the FCS landscape. They have never participated in the playoffs and usually only play nonconference games against the likes of the Patriot League or other northeastern schools. How do you judge a league that consists of some of the best, most well-funded universities in the world, but never really play outside their bubble against teams from other leagues save a few? I decided not to try. I feel better about my MEAC and SWAC knowledge. The MEAC used to be an AQ league before the Celebration Bowl, and the SWAC has been tough to miss lately. At the end of the day, neither league has had a playoff rep in years and they are just a bit outside my knowledge base. I don’t want to disrespect these schools with an unfair ranking, and I feel like I would be full-on guessing. I will say the SWAC seems to be on the rise, and I expect it to continue to be an extremely competitive and marketable league. I also expect to see some playoff teams from the SWAC sooner-than-later, despite the league championship game and the Celebration Bowl making its best teams ineligible.
· I am ranking the leagues as they stand right now this year. That means no A-Sun and no WAC. I’ll be rating the AQ7 instead.
· Hello Dixie State and Tarleton State who aren’t in a conference this year! That will change next year when both join the WAC.
With all that out of the way, lets start the list at the bottom with #11 and work our way up.
11.) Pioneer League (Butler, Davidson, Dayton, Drake, Marist, Morehead State, Presbyterian, St. Thomas, San Diego, Stetson, Valpo): The Pioneer League is the only FCS football league that does not offer athletic scholarships. This disadvantage was always going to leave the league a step behind its fully funded counterparts. In the 80s and early 90s, several DI schools competed at the D3 level in football. In 1991, the NCAA passed a rule change that required DI schools to conduct all sports at the DI level. The PFL was born out of those DI schools who were playing D3 football, and it started play in 1993. Today, San Diego has become the dominant force in this league. The Torreros had a huge winning streak snapped in the spring season by Davidson but have owned the PFL for the last half decade. They have quite often been able to compete at the level of a good, fully-funded program and have even won a couple playoff games. No one else in the league has reached that level, although programs like Dayton and recently Davidson have had their moments. Most Pioneer League teams operate at a level below your average FCS team.
10.) Northeast Conference (Bryant, Central Connecticut, Duquesne, LIU, Merrimack, Sacred Heart, St. Francis, Wagner): If the Pioneer League operates at a D3 level scholarship-wise, the NEC operates at a roughly D2 level. At least that is my understanding. I struggled to find a definitive answer in my research, but I believe the NEC offers 45 scholarships for football (or equivalencies) which is a step below the fully funded FCS number of 63. However, it is still a bit higher than the D2 allotment of 36. If anyone has the definitive answer on this, Tweet me @BeatMVC because I have always been curious about what the NEC situation really is. Regardless, the conference is made up of small private schools in the Northeast that struggle to find a lot of athletic success nationally. For a time, the NEC champion played the Pioneer League Champion in the “Gridiron Classic”, with the NEC winning just once in four tries. Since gaining FCS playoffs autobid status, the league has won two playoff games with its most impressive performance coming when Duquesne beat Towson out of the CAA in the first round in 2018. While they’ve only won twice, the league champ has given several CAA teams a run in the playoffs over the last decade. This league is not a total pushover. Sacred Heart and Duquesne seem to be the teams at the top of the list most often, while Central Connecticut has been in the mix lately. Overall, though, this league is one of the least competitive in the land.
9.) Patriot League (Bucknell, Colgate, Fordham, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Lehigh): This is where the rankings start to get a little trickier. With several FCS leagues recently hit hard by expansion, I had a few leagues pegged for this spot at one point or another. But in the end, the Patriot League with its scholarship equivalencies and “other priorities besides football” was chosen for number nine. The Patriot League only began offering scholarships for football in 2013, and still offers fewer scholarships than the rest of the FCS. They also didn’t participate in the playoffs until the late 90s. That isn’t to say this league isn’t competitive or has nothing going for it. If you had to rate these leagues academically or by endowment size, the Patriot League would probably be #1. There is a ton of history here, too. Lehigh and Lafayette have the most played and longest uninterrupted college football rivalry game in the nation. The league has also won several playoff games, with Colgate in particular going on several long runs. They went to the national title game in 2003 and made the quarterfinals in 2015 and 2018. In addition, Holy Cross went ahead and beat FBS Connecticut already this year. The Patriot League has history and tradition and has relatively strong teams at the top. But the league’s limited athletic scholarships have kept it from competing on the level of most fully funded conferences. Still, it is right in the mix with some of the leagues right above it on the list.
8.) Ohio Valley Conference (Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois, Murray State, Southeast Missouri State, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, Tennesee Martin): The OVC, already a mediocre FCS football league, has been picked on lately. Jacksonville State, its premier football program and Eastern Kentucky, the program with arguably the most history have both left the league for the new A-Sun. Last week, Austin Peay confirmed a move to the A-Sun as well, starting as soon as next year. That leaves the OVC with just six football playing schools and on the cusp of losing its autobid status. It also means that the league will very likely be a one-bid league moving forward. The remaining schools do not have much recent success, nor do they have a ton of history. And it isn’t like the OVC has a strong recent playoff history anyway, even including old membership. From 2001 to 2012, the OVC failed to win a playoff game. If you discount wins over Pioneer League teams (of which there is one) and OVC-on-OVC matchups (of which there is one), the league’s lineup (after the loss of Austin Peay next year) has a total of one playoff win since 1996. With programs like Murray State being looked at by conferences like the MVC for their basketball prowess, the future of OVC football is in doubt. If it continues as is, though, there is an opportunity for a new school to emerge as the leader of the OVC pack and become playoff regulars. I look for Southeast Missouri to possibly fill that void. This league would be rated behind the Patriot League if Austin Peay was not a factor, which it wont be moving forward into next season.
7.) Southland Conference (Houston Baptist, Incarnate Word, McNeese State, Nicholls State, Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana): This is another league that has been picked apart recently by realignment. The A-Sun and the newly (re)formed WAC poached several members after last season. It is too bad, too, because the Southland was starting to establish itself as one of the better leagues in the country. The league had three playoff teams in 2019 and the spring National Champions, Sam Houston State, played out of the Southland. But after the spring season ended the Bearkats left for the WAC. So did Stephen F. Austin, Lamar, and Abilene Christian. Another recent league stalwart, Central Arkansas, also took off for the A-Sun. The result was that the Southland found itself with just six remaining football playing members. The league isn’t in as dire straits as the OVC, but it took a massive hit and is one more loss away from losing its AQ status. There is still some tradition in what is left, though. McNeese State is probably the most decorated program remaining, although rumors of departure abound about the Cowboys. They’ve won 14 league titles, although they haven’t come out on top since 2015. Their 17 playoff appearances also lead among both active and former members. They have an opportunity to clean up in the Southland moving forward if they remain in the league as currently constructed. The rest of what is left of the league has a limited playoff history, although Southeastern Louisiana and Nicholls have both had some success lately. Houston Baptist and UIW are both fresh from D2 and have a limited history. The SLC might implode, or it might be able to rebuild by adding schools from the D2 ranks. Time will tell, but for now it is in about as weak a position as we have ever seen it.
6.) Big South Conference (Campbell, Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb, Hampton, Kennesaw State, Monmouth, North Alabama, North Carolina A&T, Robert Morris): The Big South is an interesting one because it has not been an historically strong conference, and it has been hit hard by defections (and will continue be hit hard by defections moving forward), but it is still hanging in there. The league is likely at its apex of strength this season and could be a multi-bid league in 2021. The reason why is that this will be the lone season where its new schools (Hampton, NC A&T, Robert Morris) and nearly departed schools (Kennesaw State, North Alabama) overlap in membership. Kennesaw and North Alabama football will join the rest of their sports in competing in the Atlantic Sun starting next season. Even with the loss of those programs, the Big South will still have seven teams and will continue to churn and burn. The league has lost the likes of Stony Brook to the CAA, Coastal Carolina to the Sun Belt, VMI to the SoCon and Liberty to FBS independence in the last decade and will now lose its current most successful program in Kennesaw State starting next year. Each of those programs has found success either in the FCS postseason or the FBS bowl system recently. After the changes take place next year, the league will likely take a dip in these standings but will still have programs like Monmouth and North Carolina A&T leading the way while several others wait in the wings. This has always been a weird league, and that will continue.
I am going to take a moment here and say I believe there is a fine line here. The conferences rated 6-11 are either not fully funded or in some kind of turmoil. The rated 1-5 are all stronger, and I expect at-large bids to come primarily from these leagues in 2021. Anyway, here are your top 5 FCS conferences in 2021.
5.) Southern Conference (Chattanooga, The Citadel, East Tennessee State, Furman, Mercer, Samford, VMI, Western Carolina, Wofford): The SoCon used to be one of the tentpole conference of FCS football, often considered the best in the nation. Unlike the conferences above, the Southern Conference took its realignment hits slowly, and longer ago. This becomes more-and-more true the further back into the 100-year-old league’s history that you go. If you go back far enough, you’ll find the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Duke, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, LSU, Maryland, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Sewanee (The School of the South), South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and West Virginia in the conference’s standings. This league is essentially the parent of both the SEC and the ACC. Even after that era had passed, the league was flying high in the 90s and 2000s with the likes of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern killing it in the FCS. Then in 2014, the Mountaineers and Eagles went FBS (while Elon went to the CAA) and it left the league lacking. The additions of ETSU, Mercer and VMI have had their moments, but haven’t been able to bring the same level of competition that the exiting squads had. Since then, though, the SoCon membership has remained steady. And the league still has the likes of Furman and Wofford to carry the traditional flag, while schools like ETSU and VMI have come on recently. It isn’t as strong as it once was, but you can expect the SoCon to be a multiple bid league on any given year.
4.) AQ7 (Abilene Christian, Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State, Lamar, Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin): Officially dubbed the “ASun-WAC Challenge” but informally referred to as the AQ7, this is a one-year scheduling alliance between teams who left their previous leagues (the Southland and OVC) but can’t join their new leagues (WAC, A-Sun) until next year. The squads banded together for one season as a “league” to play for an automatic bid. It is one of the more unique consequences of college athletics realignment. The group ranges from innocuous recent D2s (Abilene Christian, Lamar) to perennial playoff teams (Central Arkansas, Jacksonville State) to “literally the defending national champions” (Sam Houston State) and everything in between. Obviously, the inclusion of the likes of Sam Houston gives this grouping instant credibility. But UCA was seeded in the most recent normal playoffs of 2019 and Jacksonville State is a perennial top 10 team who was the 4-seed in the spring playoffs. EKU has a strong FCS history as well. This is a league that is strong on top and weak on the bottom, but you can expect at least two or three teams to make the playoffs out of its ranks. Then they touch and go their separate ways.
3. Colonial Athletic Association (Albany, Delaware, Elon, James Madison, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Richmond, Stony Brook, Towson, Villanova, William and Mary): The first of the FCS “big three” leagues on this list, the CAA used to fancy itself as the best league in the nation. Nowadays it sits squarely in third, but it hasn’t been hit hard by realignment and the strength of the league is still there. It could easily be #1 on any given year. James Madison is the league’s strongest program. The Dukes are a national title contender year-in and year-out. They are also the most likely to leave, having been rumored to be going to the FBS for several years. There seems to be some smoke to the most recent rumor that they could end up in the Sun Belt soon. This is a strong league even without JMU, though. Delaware, New Hampshire, Richmond and Villanova are amongst the strongest FCS programs in the country. The depth of the league is a strong suit as well. There are really no also-rans in the CAA. Just about every program has had their moment in the last decade. Any one of these teams can be a playoff contender and be in position to make a run any year. In a time when FCS football has had great peaks and deep valleys (in more ways than one) the CAA has remained consistently strong and will continue to be. You can expect multiple bids every year from this conference.
2.) Big Sky Conference (Cal-Davis, Cal-Poly, Eastern Washington, Idaho, Idaho State, Montana, Montana State, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah, Weber State): The Big Sky is as strong as it has ever been. Despite losing a strong program in North Dakota, and despite the imminent loss of Southern Utah, the Big Sky will continue to keep chugging along. One of the strengths of the league, which is 58 years old and has dealt with remarkably little turnover in that time, is that several of its programs are the top dogs in their areas. There are no FBS programs to contend with in Idaho and Montana. They also inhabit a beautiful part of the country and can sell recruits on a certain lifestyle. Montana is probably the league’s flagship. Few programs can claim as much long-term success at the FCS level as the Griz, and they have one of the most beautiful facilities (and awesome fans to fill it) in the FCS. Eastern Washington and Montana State are both FCS powerhouses as well. Weber State has been elite of late, and several other programs pop up on a year-to-year basis to show their mettle (Portland State, Southern Utah and Sacramento State have all done so recently). The knock on the Big Sky is that there is usually a bit of riff-raff at the bottom, and the league is big enough where the elite teams don’t always play each other (thereby inflating their records). This is true, but there may not be anywhere to hide in 2021. Montana, Eastern Washington, Weber State and Montana State are all bringing it like normal. Cal Davis and NAU picked up FBS wins. Sacramento State are the defending champs from the last full season as well. That is seven strong before anyone else even has a chance to emerge. We’ll see where the chips fall, but as it stands the Big Sky looks like the runner up in the “Big 3”.
1.) Missouri Valley Football Conference (Indiana State, Illinois State, Missouri State, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Northern Iowa, South Dakota, South Dakota State, Southern Illinois, Western Illinois, Youngstown State): The MVFC is the best conference in the FCS and has been for quite some time. Formally known as the Gateway Conference, the league has always been one of the better leagues in the FCS but has definitively climbed to the top of the heap since the Dakota schools arrived. It obviously helps to have the school that has won eight of the last ten national titles. Any league that starts with NDSU is going to have a leg up when it comes to relative conference strength. But I think if the Bison left for the FBS tomorrow, the MVFC would still be the strongest league in the nation. South Dakota State is a perennial top ten team and was in the national title game last season. Northern Iowa has won 16 league titles and is a perennial top FCS team as well. Youngstown State won four titles in the 90s. Southern Illinois has been down recently but has a strong FCS history including a national title. Youngstown, Illinois State, SDSU, and Northern Iowa (along with NDSU obviously) have all appeared in the title game in the last 17 years (you have to go back to 2010 for a title game that didn’t include at least one MVFC team). The league currently has six teams ranked in the top 18. I haven’t even mentioned the likes of Western Illinois, Missouri State, North Dakota and South Dakota who are all a threat to be strong on any given season. These are well supported, mostly well-funded, strong programs. The Valley is simply the class of the FCS.
And there you have it. Every FCS AQ conference in 2021 ranked. Agree or disagree? Well, if you’d like to let me know about it I can be found at @BeatMVC on Twitter. My next article will be an MVFC preview of Week 4. Until then, sayonara.