Ranking the FCS conferences in 2020
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - In sports, bragging rights are sometimes embraced as much as the championships.
"Best conference" is one of the annual debates across FCS college football. Only three conferences generally vie for that mythical title, but the others demand lofty status as well. The difference between, say, a No. 5 or 6 ranking or 10 or 11 fires up people as well.
Many factors can go into such rankings, including Top 25 teams, nonconference results, playoff runs, even the eye test. It can be subjective at times, and sometimes that's half of the fun.
In reverse order, here's a ranking of the FCS conferences heading toward the 2020 season:
14. FCS Independents (4 teams)
Dixie State and Tarleton are set for their inaugural FCS season. Presbyterian is in transition to the Pioneer Football League next year and Merrimack hopes to be only a year away from joining the Northeast Conference standings. Projected postseason qualifiers: None.
13. Pioneer Football League (9 teams)
San Diego has won 37 straight PFL games and needs two more to match the FCS record for consecutive league victories. Will there be a killer "D"? Drake's veteran-laden squad seemingly rates the best chance for ending the Toreros' run of six straight league titles, and Dayton and Davidson have talented squads. Projected postseason qualifiers: 1.
12. Southwestern Athletic Conference (10 teams)
This should be a strong season for the SWAC. Alcorn State, which has won two straight and four of the last six conference titles, will be challenged in the East Division by Alabama A&M, Alabama State and Jackson State. Prairie View A&M is ineligible in the West Division, but the title often figures to wind through the Bayou Classic with Grambling State and Southern. Projected postseason qualifiers beyond SWAC championship game: 1.
11. Patriot League (7 teams)
Who's in the title race? It's more who's not because there is parity. Defending champ Holy Cross held off Lafayette last season, and Colgate seeks to rebound in a league of experienced teams. The league's 25-73 record against FCS nonconference opponents the last three seasons is troubling. Projected postseason qualifiers: 1.
10. Northeast Conference (8 teams)
The NEC's stature rose in the last decade, but in a season in which only three teams return their No. 1 quarterback, there's uncertainty. Central Connecticut State has won two of the last three titles and still has the favorite's role over the western Pennsylvania logjam of Duquesne, Robert Morris and Saint Francis. Projected postseason qualifiers: 1.
9. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (9 teams)
North Carolina A&T is the kingpin, winning the Celebration Bowl four times since 2015, but the conference title race should be excellent because last year's co-champ South Carolina State is not in a sharing mood and Florida A&M is eligible again. Howard is ineligible this season. Projected postseason qualifiers: 1-2.
8. Big South Conference (7 teams)
For the third time last season, two Big South teams - Monmouth, the conference champ, and Kennesaw State - reached the second round of the playoffs. Presbyterian's departure dropped the conference to seven teams, but HBCU power North Carolina A&T will join in 2021. Projected postseason qualifiers: 1-2.
7. Ivy League (8 teams)
The Ivies have been outstanding in recent seasons, but the three teams that had winning records last year - co-champs Dartmouth and Yale and Princeton, who combined to go 26-4 - suffered big losses to graduation. Projected postseason qualifiers: None (league doesn't participate).
6. Southern Conference (9 teams)
The SoCon has been slipping, and it seeks to rebound after not posting a playoff win last season for the first time since 1986. Three-time defending champ Wofford is scheduled to open against what should be the other top teams in the conference, Furman and The Citadel. Projected postseason qualifiers: 2.
5. Ohio Valley Conference (9 teams)
The OVC did well out of conference last season. Austin Peay should be the team to beat after advancing to the national quarterfinals in its first-ever playoff appearance. Still, the likes of Jacksonville State, Southeast Missouri and UT Martin won't make it easy. Projected postseason qualifiers: 2.
4. Southland Conference (11 teams)
The Southland appears strong enough to have more than three playoffs teams for the first time. Sam Houston State, whose 99 wins in the 2010s were the second-most in the FCS, seeks to join last year's qualifiers, co-champs Nicholls and Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana. McNeese and Stephen F. Austin are ineligible for the playoffs. Projected postseason qualifiers: 3-4.
3. CAA Football (12 teams)
The CAA had the best winning percentage in FCS nonconference games last season (30-9, .769). James Madison has won three of the last four conference titles and advanced to the national championship game each time. Villanova appears loaded, and the depth of playoff contenders feels endless. A record six made it from the CAA in 2018. Projected postseason qualifiers: 4.
2. Big Sky Conference (13 teams)
The largest FCS conference has stepped up its game, becoming the first with four teams to earn playoff seeds last year and posting the most national quarterfinalists over the last two seasons with six. Eastern Washington advanced the farthest to the 2018 championship game, but missed joining 2019 semifinalists Weber State and Montana State plus Montana and Sacramento State in last year's playoffs. Projected postseason qualifiers: 4-5.
1. Missouri Valley Football Conference (11 teams)
North Dakota State, the three-time defending FCS champ and a winner of eight of the last nine national titles, is on another level than the rest of the FCS, but fellow 2019 quarterfinalists Northern Iowa and Illinois State as well as South Dakota State appear to be preseason Top 10 teams. Playoff qualifier North Dakota is joining the conference this year. Also, it helps to have an FBS win in 10 straight seasons. Projected postseason qualifiers: 4-5.
Updated May 26, 2020