FCS Upsets of FBS Teams Indicative of Gap Power Conferences Aim to Widen

Aug 31, 2013; Corvallis, OR, USA; Eastern Washington Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams (3) celebrates with fans after defeating the Oregon State Beavers 49-46 at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The single-day week record seven wins Championship Subdivision teams scored against their Bowl Subdivision counterparts in Week 1 was a record. And according to one BCS conference coach whose team was among that statistic, the gap between programs is narrowing. But the introduction of new power structures in college football promise to widen that gap considerably.

“Eastern Washington and North Dakota State…play good football. They’ve been playing at the highest level in their division forever,” Oregon State head coach Mike Riley said. Riley’s Beavers fell to Eastern Washington Saturday, 49-46.

“They have some outstanding players,” Riley continued. “That’s what’s happened in recruiting, it’s kind of evened out to give guys a chance.”

Winning on the recruiting is one of a coach’s top priorities, and precedent proves that high marks typically translate to collegiate success. Those two-star prospects who emerge as standouts are much more rare than the four-and-five stars who excel. However, building a team around the right mix of two-star prospects pays dividends.

One such player who flew under the recruiting radar and landed in the FCS ranks with a flourish is EWU quarterback Vernon Adams. The sophomore was too much for Oregon State’s restructured defense to handle, as he passed for four touchdowns and rushed for another two. His performance was reminiscent of the benchmark for FCS upsets of FBS teams, Appalachian State’s shocker against No. 5 Michigan to open the 2007 season, and the individual showing Armanti Edwards had that day.

Adams’ dual-threat ability add an extra dimension to head coach Beau Baldwin’s already prolific offensive scheme, which has consistently produced top 20 scoring teams in the FCS over the last half-decade.

Eastern Washington isn’t simply a great offensive team, either. EWU took another Pac-12 opponent to the brink in 2011, losing a 30-27 decision to Washington.

The Eagles reached the semifinals of last year’s FCS Playoffs, just two years removed from winning the national championship. In fact, the last three FCS championships were represented in last weekend’s two most noteworthy FCS-over-FBS. North Dakota State is defending the two titles won since EWU, and the Bison began their defense with…well, defense.

Aug 30, 2013; Manhattan, KS, USA; North Dakota State Bison quarterback Brock Jensen (16) calls a play during a 24-21 win against the Kansas State Wildcats at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

“They were good up front, first and foremost,” K-State head coach Bill Snyder said in his weekly press conference. “That is something you cannot overlook. They were a very fine defensive football team. They lined up to take away the run and gave up something on the pass in order to do it, and as I have said many times, anybody can take away anything they want but it is pretty difficult to take away both.”

What Snyder describes is a total performance. NDSU didn’t rely on gimmickry or capitalize on wacky bounces to upend the reigning Big 12 champion. The Bison used old school football tactics — power offensive formations and tenacious defense — to best the Wildcats. For its win NDSU was honored as the Tositos Fiesta Bowl Team of the Week.

From the official release:

“We have a remarkable program. We have a remarkable group of seniors and they have a tremendous amount of confidence,” head coach Craig Bohl said. “They are not cocky, they have a strong conviction, and we even talked about that during the course of being down by a couple possessions. It certainly does not surprise us but I think it is just another notch. We have had a lot of these type of wins, but never over a program like this.”

Bohl built a program in the Div. II ranks just a decade ago into a veritable Div. I dynasty. NDSU is regularly called the FCS Alabama, and with good reason.

Baldwin and Bohl are both outstanding coaches, with great staffs around them. The same is true of two-time FCS runner-up Sam Houston State and its head coach, Willie Fritz, as well as perennial Southern Conference powerhouse Georgia Southern with Jeff Monken. Any could be considered for FBS jobs and could do very well, as former Lehigh and Elon head coach Pete Lembo has at Ball State, or former Georgia Southern head coach Paul Johnson at Navy and now Georgia Tech. But then, why mess with a successful formula?

There are contrary examples to Lembo and Johnson who exemplify the challenges that FBS expectations pose. FCS powerhouse Montana saw Joe Glenn and Bobby Hauck leave Missoula. Both struggled mightily in the Mountain West Conference. Glenn has since returned to FCS as head coach at South Dakota, while Hauck occupies a very hot seat in UNLV.

Jerry Moore is Appalachian State, having led the Mountaineers to three straight national championships and the landmark win over Michigan. But Moore stepped down — there’s strong sentiment he was forced out — after a playoff appearance last season, and on the brink of ASU becoming an FBS program. A harsh, but appropriate welcome to the upper echelon and a subdivision where expectations are unrealistically high and coaches are forced out after half-a-recruiting cycle.

Changes in the landscape may not be as conducive to coaches building FCS dynasties capable of contending with power conference opponents. While programs like North Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Sam Houston State and Montana State mine unheralded gems on the recruiting trail now, new proposals threaten their ability to do even that much.

Talk of college football further dividing to separate the power programs — ergo, the so-called “Group of Five” with priority into the new College Football Playoff — from everyone else is somewhat misguided. The Big Ten already drew a line with its proposed banning of scheduling FCS opponents.

There is logic, and admittedly merit, to the Group of Five eliminating some FCS games. For every NDSU or EWU that can and does beat BCS conference competition, there are numerous Savannah States and Presbyterians taking on impossible odds in exchange for program-sustaining paychecks. For the FBS teams scheduling these teams, it amounts to little more than a scrimmage, but counts the same on their win-loss column as Clemson’s victory over Georgia.

However, this also further separates the haves from have-nots. The value of beating a Michigan, Oregon State or Kansas State is almost immeasurable for programs like Appalachian State, Eastern Washington and North Dakota State. Such moments gain these teams national recognition, which can then be parlayed onto the recruiting trail and turned into more success.

The further the power conferences drift, the less likely these FCS upsets of FBS teams become.

Topics: Appalachian State Mountaineers, Eastern Washington Eagles, Football, Kansas State Wildcats, North Dakota State Bison, Oregon State Beavers

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