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Ranking Every Potential FCS Upset

Everyone likes to complain about cupcake games. They’re boring, predictable, and feel like filler in an otherwise thrilling season. Except when they aren’t. Outside of the condensed 2020 season, at least three FCS teams have pulled a major upset every year since 2009. Appalachian State’s win over Michigan in 2007 is remembered as one of the greatest college football moments of all time. We know these upsets will happen, but how do we predict them? There’s no perfect way, but our best chance is by using analytics. Enter SP+, the brainchild of college football Svengali Bill Connelly, it’s assigns each team a number that represents by how many points they’d beat the average team. Comparing these ratings between FBS and FCS is obviously not perfect, the scale is relative after all, but it’s the best way to compare quality without watching every Gardner-Webb game from last season. So with that explanation out of the way, let’s dive in and rank the likelihood of every FCS upset this season, with the SP+ margin in parentheses next to each game. 

(Mostly) Contenders vs. Nobodies

  1. Oklahoma State vs. Arkansas Pine-Bluff (32.8)
  2. Georgia vs. Samford (27.3)
  3. Utah vs. Southern Utah (27.1)
  4. SMU vs. Lamar (25.0)
  5. Alabama vs. Austin Peay (24.9)
  6. Miami vs. Bethune-Cookman (23.9)

These games are all a battle of the extremes, the absolute best and absolute worst teams in Division One football facing off. If you watch any of these games and they do not involve your favorite team, you should check into a gambling addiction rehab facility immediately. There is no other reason to acknowledge that these matchups even exist.

FCS Struggle Bus

  1. Syracuse vs. Wagner (23.7)
  2. Toledo vs. Long Island (23.3)
  3. LSU vs. Southern (20.8)
  4. UTSA vs. Texas Southern (20.5)
  5. Rutgers vs. Wagner (19.2)
  6. Fresno State vs. Cal Poly (19.1)
  7. UCLA vs. Alabama State (17.2)
  8. Central Michigan vs. Bucknell (17.2)
  9. NC State vs. Charleston Southern (16.0)
  10. Appalachian State vs. Robert Morris (14.4)

This group of FBS teams is nothing to write home about, but their FCS opponents are so bad that it won’t matter. These teams would’ve been on upset alert if they were matched up with even a competent FCS team, but that’s not the case. 

Potential 1st Quarter Scares

  1. Ole Miss vs. Central Arkansas (14.1)
  2. Clemson vs. Furman (13.4)
  3. Baylor vs. Albany (12.5)
  4. Appalachian State vs. The Citadel (12.3)
  5. Kentucky vs. Youngstown State (12.0)
  6. Florida State vs. Duquesne (11.9)
  7. Minnesota vs. Western Illinois (11.8)
  8. Missouri vs. Abilene Christian (11.4)
  9. USF vs. Howard (11.0)
  10. South Carolina vs. South Carolina State (11.0)
  11. Virginia Tech vs. Wofford (10.6)
  12. Tennessee vs. UT Martin (10.2)
  13. San Diego State vs. Idaho State (10.2)
  14. UCF vs. South Carolina State (10.1)
  15. Kent State vs. Long Island (9.7)
  16. UAB vs. Alabama A&M (9.4)
  17. North Texas vs. Texas Southern (9.1)
  18. Marshall vs. Norfolk State (8.9)
  19. Auburn vs. Mercer (8.7)
  20. TCU vs. Tarleton State (8.6)
  21. Army vs. Colgate (8.4)
  22. Stanford vs. Colgate (8)
  23. Iowa State vs. Southeast Missouri State (7.1)
  24. Pitt vs. Rhode Island (7.1)

One of the biggest components of the talent gap between college football teams is depth. Plenty of smaller schools have talented players. Four of the NFL MVP’s in the past 25 years came from an FCS school. The difference between the average team and one of the big boys is that when one of those stars need a rest, the Alabamas of the world can bring in another future NFL starter off the bench. These are those kinds of FCS teams. They’re talented enough to hang around for a quarter or two, but the final result will never be in doubt.

Uncomfortable Timing

  1. Texas Tech vs. Murray State (6.4)
  2. Miami (OH) vs. Robert Morris (5.9)
  3. Marshall vs. Gardner-Webb (5.8)
  4. Purdue vs. Indiana State (5.4)
  5. Wisconsin vs. Illinois State (4.9)
  6. Coastal Carolina vs. Gardner-Webb (4.5)
  7. Northern Illinois vs. Eastern Illinois (4.4)
  8. Washington State vs. Idaho (4.1)
  9. Mississippi State vs. East Tennessee State (4.1)
  10. Wake Forest vs. VMI (3.8)
  11. Washington vs. Portland State (3.7)

College football games are notorious for being scheduled sometimes decades in advance. South Carolina already has multiple non-conference games scheduled for 2034. FCS matchups are typically only decided a few years ahead of time, but that still leaves room for uncertainty. None of the FBS squads in these matchups are world-beaters, and the FCS teams are probably a little bit better than they would like. I’d still be surprised if any of these upsets happen, but they might stay a little close for comfort for some fans.

A Few Canaries In Some Coal Mines

  1. Memphis vs. North Alabama (3.7)
  2. Liberty vs. Gardner-Webb (3.7)
  3. Arizona State vs. Northern Arizona (3.3)
  4. North Carolina vs. Florida A&M (3.2)
  5. Georgia Southern vs. Morgan State (3.0)
  6. Boise State vs. UT Martin (2.8)

Losing to an FCS team is always embarrassing, but a loss for these teams could be the sign of something more. Memphis, Georgia Southern, and Boise State are all still evaluating a relatively new coach, and a loss would kill any momentum they might be building. Liberty will spend the year finding out how much of their recent success came exclusively from Malik Willis (spoiler alert: probably a lot). Arizona State’s Herm Edwards enters the year on one of the hottest seats in the country. Mack Brown is coming off one of his most disappointing seasons ever with UNC, and chatter about the 70 year old’s potential retirement is only going to get louder. If any of these upsets happen, look for that school to kick the tires on making a change.

The Funniest Possible Upset

  1. Texas A&M vs. Sam Houston State (1.3)

Can you imagine? After signing the highest rating recruiting class of all time, spending the entire summer throwing a temper tantrum about Sliced Bread, and only a year after they agreed to pay their coach almost nine figures, if Texas A&M opens the season with a loss to an FCS team? The memes alone would be enough to crash Twitter. The best part about this upset is that it might actually happen. Sam Houston won a national championship just two seasons ago, and entered the playoffs as the #1 seed last year. A&M will probably still be figuring out their quarterback situation, which is especially worrying given how notoriously difficult it is to learn Jimbo Fisher’s offense. Come on football gods. After putting up with the last two years of everything, we deserve this.

Not Going To Happen (But It Might Though)

  1. West Virginia vs. Towson (1.0)
  2. Troy vs. Alabama A&M (0.7)
  3. James Madison vs. Norfolk State (0.4)
  4. ECU vs. Campbell (0.4)
  5. Cincinnati vs. Kennesaw State (0.2)
  6. Kansas vs. Tennessee Tech (0.0)
  7. Tulane vs. Alcorn State (-0.1)
  8. Middle Tennessee State vs. Tennessee State (-0.9)
  9. Indiana vs. Idaho (-1.3)

This is where things start to get dicey. None of these FBS teams should lose, but it wouldn’t be the most shocking thing in the world if one of them did. And yes, one of the teams in this group sticks out like a sore thumb. Cincinnati lost a ridiculous amount of talent from last year’s playoff team, and Kennesaw State comes to town with the great talent equalizer: the triple option.

Close, But No Cigar

  1. Oregon vs. Eastern Washington (-1.5)
  2. Arkansas vs. Missouri State (-1.7)
  3. Florida vs. Eastern Washington (-2.0)

Eastern Washington and Missouris State are both amazing teams, they’re just unfortunately matched up with squads with top 25 talent. But let’s be honest, you don’t care about any of that. There is only one thing that matters about these games, a thing you might not be aware of. On Saturday September 17th, Fayetteville, Arkansas will host their first ever PETRINO BOWL.

The Tipping Point

  1. Southern Miss vs. Northwestern State (-2.2)
  2. Georgia Tech vs. Western Carolina (-2.2)
  3. Western Kentucky vs. Austin Peay (-4.7)
  4. Texas State vs. Houston Baptist (-5.1)
  5. Kansas State vs. South Dakota (-5.3)
  6. Boston College vs. Maine (-6.1)
  7. Nebraska vs. North Dakota (-6.6)
  8. UNLV vs. Idaho State (-6.7)
  9. Arkansas State vs. Grambling (-7.1)

This is where the talent level relatively evens out between the two teams. I say relatively because the FBS team will have more talent 99% of the time, but these are the upsets that wouldn’t be too surprising.

The Real Candidates (Plus Air Force)

  1. Wyoming vs. Northern Colorado (-7.2)
  2. San Jose State vs. Portland State (-7.5)
  3. Western Michigan vs. New Hampshire (-8.4)
  4. Temple vs. Lafayette (-9.2)
  5. Tulsa vs. Jacksonville State (-9.5)
  6. Iowa vs. South Dakota State (-9.7)
  7. Ohio vs. Fordham (-10.3)
  8. New Mexico State vs. Lamar (-10.8)
  9. Ball State vs. Murray State (-11.3)
  10. Virginia vs. Richmond (-11.4)
  11. Air Force vs. Northern Iowa (-12.5)
  12. Eastern Michigan vs. Eastern Kentucky (-14.0)
  13. Illinois vs. Chattanooga (-14.3)
  14. California vs. UC Davis (-14.4)
  15. Vanderbilt vs. Elon (-14.5)

Now stuff gets real. Outside of Air Force, who’s crime is running the Triple, these teams are either in the early stages of a major rebuild or just plain bad. Add to that a playoff quality FCS team, and you’ve got a recipe for an upset.

Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)

  1. Louisiana vs. Southeastern Louisiana (-15.0)
  2. Oregon State vs. Montana State (-15.2)
  3. Hawaii vs. Duquesne (-15.7)
  4. Utah State vs. Weber State (-15.9)

Is that title an incredibly shoe-horned reference? Yes, yes it is. Regardless, all of these teams are working on getting off the ground, with three teams in the first few years of their new coaching staffs and Oregon State coming off their first winning season in nearly a decade. However, one loss to an FCS team can change the trajectory of an entire program. Just ask any South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Florida, or Oregon State fan. A loss in any of these games would send the train hurtling off the tracks.

Down Bad (Plus Army)

  1. UConn vs. Central Connecticut State (-15.9)
  2. Navy vs. Deleware (-16.2)
  3. Bowling Green State vs. Eastern Kentucky (-17.2)
  4. Akron vs. Saint Francis (-17.7)
  5. Duke vs. NC A&T (-18.6)
  6. Buffalo vs. Holy Cross (-18.7)
  7. Army vs. Villanova (-18.7)
  8. Colorado State vs. Sacramento State (-19.7)
  9. Florida International vs. Bryant (-20.6)
  10. Northwestern vs. Southern Illinois (-22.1)

Outside of Army (once again, SP+ hates the troops), these teams are just plain bad. Unlike their counterparts earlier on the list, they play an FCS team with a pulse. None of these upsets would be the least bit surprising, especially given that half of them are starting a massive rebuild under a new coach.

The Good Bets

  1. Charlotte vs. William & Mary (-22.3)
  2. South Alabama vs. Nicholls State (-22.9)
  3. Rice vs. McNeese State (-23.1)
  4. Louisiana Tech vs. Stephen F. Austin (-23.8)
  5. New Mexico vs. Maine (-25.1)
  6. Nevada vs. Incarnate Word (-27.8)
  7. UMass vs. Stony Brook (-28.9)
  8. Louisiana Monroe vs. Nicholls State (-32.9)
  9. Arizona vs. North Dakota State (-37.7)
  10. Florida International vs. Southeastern Louisiana (-41.9)

If you’re a degenerate gambler, these are bets so safe that the FCS team will probably be favored in a few of them. North Dakota State undoubtedly will. In fact the only reason that matchup isn’t number one is that FIU is so astonishingly bad they dragged down the combined rating. Personally, I think South Alabama is a surprise inclusion in this group, but the other nine should and probably will lose these games. They serve as a good reminder that the gap between the cream of the crop in FCS and the cellar dwellers in FBS is smaller than you think.

(Photo courtesy of SI)

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