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Everything you need to know about the 2021 FCS season and championship playoffs

The Football Championship Subdivision is playing its 2020 season in the spring of 2021. We break down how to watch and who to watch in the real playoff of college football.

North Dakota State Bison tight end Noah Gindorff and North Dakota State Bison linebacker Jaxon Brown celebrate with the trophy after the game against the James Madison Dukes at Toyota Stadium. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

While global pandemics that have trapped all of us for a year, there is some good news about what has been an awful year: We’re finally getting Spring Football that counts!

While the AAF and XFL didn’t finish their season the last two years, it looks like FCS football will. And that means we’re getting quality college football every weekend between now and May.

Here’s your primer on the 2021 FCS college football season:

What is the FCS?

It’s the “Football Championship Subdivision.” It’s what used to be known as Division 1-AA, which is the level below Division 1-A or the “Football Bowl Subdivision.”

So who’s playing?

Here are the 10 conferences playing games this spring that will get an automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs for their league champion, and how they’re handling the regular season:

Big Sky: Eight teams, six conference games
Big South: Five teams, round robin, non-conference allowed
Colonial Athletic: 11 teams, six conference games, two non-conference allowed
Missouri Valley: 11 teams, eight conference games
Northeast: Six teams, four conference games
Ohio Valley: Eight teams, round robin, all on Sundays
Patriot: Six teams, four conference games
Pioneer: Seven teams, round robin, Presbyterian U added for season, non-conference allowed
Southern: Nine teams, round robin
Southland: Seven teams, round robin

The MEAC suspended their season last week, but three teams in the league and potentially more still intend to play games. The MEAC champion plays in the Celebration Bowl instead of the FCS Playoffs in normal years anyway.

The Ivy won’t play this spring either, and has a long-standing policy against participating in the FCS Playoffs because it interferes with final exams.

The SWAC won’t receive an auto bid either they’re usually a Celebration Bowl commitment as well), but teams from that league could be eligible for an at-large spot.

Here’s when each league will begin.

Feb 19-21: Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley, Southern and Southland (McNeese State opened play last weekend)

Feb 26-28: SWAC and Big Sky

March 5-7: Colonial Athletic and Northeast

March 12-14: Big South, Patriot League and Pioneer League + Presbyterian

How will the FCS Playoffs work?

The NCAA Championship tournament normally has 24 teams, but this year it will be just 16 — ten conference champions, and six at-large selections.

P.S: Hey College Football Playoff: Write this down, cut it in half with five P5 conference champions, two at-large selections, and one guaranteed G5 spot, and you’ve made your sport infinitely better and more money.

To get an at-large, all teams will need to play at least four games between the fall and spring seasons. Selection Sunday is April 18th, and the bracket will play out over four consecutive weekends, April 24-May 15. Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas will host the title game as it has since 2010.

The 17 schools that played a game in the fall will have those results considered for the tournament field in the spring. There was only one FCS over FBS upset in the fall — the OVC’s Jacksonville State beat Florida International University 19-10 on October 23rd.

So who should you watch

Perennial No. 1 North Dakota State has won eight of the last nine championships, and is 1-0 already as the Bison beat Central Arkansas 39-28 in their only fall game. But Trey Lance, NDSU’s starting quarterback for that win, declared for the 2021 NFL Draft and won’t play during the Bison spring season.

The Top 5 in the last poll taken, which was before the Fall 2020 season, were NDSU, James Madison, Northern Iowa, Weber State, and South Dakota State. And with such little conference crossover action, look for leagues like the Missouri Valley and Colonial Athletic to get the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee.

There are some teams that have individually opted out of the season as well, with the Southern Conference as the only league that is at 100 percent participation. Traditional power Big Sky Conference had three Top 15 teams in Montana, Montana State and Sacramento State opt-out of the season, so it looks pretty smooth for Weber State to get to the tournament.

How can I watch them

ESPN is going to have tons of FCS action this year. 14 of the 18 games on what is opening weekend for most teams will be on an ESPN platform, with 13 on ESPN+.

The best game of opening weekend is No. 3 South Dakota State vs. No. 5 Northern Iowa, and that’s airing on ESPN+ on Friday, February 19th at 8 p.m. ET. You should be able to find most if not all of the key games on the schedule via streaming.

What’s the difference between FBS and FCS?

By the rules, there’s only one: FBS teams get 85 scholarships per team, and FCS teams only get 63. It makes useful depth and walk-on programs a bigger part of the equation for success at the lower level.

There’s also a rule that if you win your conference, you get to play for a national championship. Try it, FBS!

But concerning on-the-field, it’s in the trenches. You’ll generally see smaller bodies on the line of scrimmage in FCS, as there’s only so many athletic humans that weigh 300 lbs. or more to go around. And yes, the SEC does indeed get all of them.

But at the skill positions the difference between what you’ll see in a good G5 game and a top-flight FCS game are pretty slim. The top of the Missouri Valley might be favored to win the MAC every year.

North Dakota State went 6-0 against FBS teams from 2010 to 2016, ending with a 23-21 win over No. 13 Iowa in Iowa City. After that athletic directors got smart and stopped scheduling them.

Though NDSU is more Alabama than Alabama is, you’ll find plenty of teams that would do just fine in the FBS over a long sample including James Madison, Eastern Washington, Villanova, and plenty others.

Now for the most important question: Can I bet on it?

Would we be writing this if you couldn’t? DraftKings Sportsbook will have lines all season long for FCS games, and when those are posted we’ll write about them.

It’s been pretty lousy to be stuck at home for the last year, but in 2021 at least we’ll have football to get us through the spring. Enjoy the season, and the crowning of a real national champion settled on the field.