The college football season annually kicks off in Week 0 with a small handful of Division I games, but the FCS level once eyed the early spotlight just in the subdivision.
At the least, the plan was for a nationally televised season-opening matchup, such as the first FCS Kickoff in 2014 when Eastern Washington hosted Sam Houston, but the powers that be also thought a standalone game could develop into a doubleheader with top teams.
It didn’t happen: The pairings for the FCS Kickoff declined after five years and the FBS quickly moved back into the Week 0 schedule with games as well.
While the subdivision shares the Week 0 spotlight, it’s surely featured more of the best games over the last decade, perhaps again on Saturday with South Carolina State and Jackson State squaring off in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge. It is the FedEx Ground FCS Game of the Week.
Here’s a ranking of the best FCS games in Week 0 since 2014:
1. No. 13 Montana 38, No. 1 North Dakota State 35 (Aug. 29, 2015)
This thriller is a definitive No. 1, with Montana knocking off the four-time defending FCS champion Bison in the second FCS Kickoff. Joey Counts scored from one yard out on fourth-and-goal with two seconds remaining before a record crowd of 26,472 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.
Daniel Sullivan’s 28-yard field goal with 2:48 left pulled the Grizzlies within 35-31. After their defense forced a three-and-out, the Grizzlies drove 80 yards on 16 plays to win coach Bob Stitt’s first game.
Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson passed for 434 yards and three touchdowns in his first career start to outduel NDSU counterpart Carson Wentz (268 total yards, four total touchdowns).
The two teams staged a rematch in Fargo in the second round of the playoffs. NDSU won 37-6 and went on to capture a fifth straight national title.
2. No. 1 North Dakota State 24, No. 7 Charleston Southern 17, OT (Aug. 27, 2016)
To open defense of its five straight FCS titles, NDSU appeared in the FCS Kickoff again. King Frazier scored on a 25-yard run to open overtime before Charleston Southern was held to one yard on its possession.
The two teams were scoreless after the first quarter, tied 3-3 at halftime, deadlocked 10-10 through three and still tied 17-17 after CSU’s Jacob Smoak missed a 51-yard field goal attempt to end the fourth.
3. No. 1 Eastern Washington 56, No. 17 Sam Houston 35 (Aug. 23, 2014)
They literally rolled out the red carpet for the inaugural FCS Kickoff, which was better than the final score suggested because the game was tied 21-21 at halftime and EWU held just a 42-35 lead before scoring two touchdowns in the final 3 minutes, 13 seconds. The two power programs combined for 1,166 yards of total offense, including Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. with 363 yards plus four touchdown passes. Sam Houston committed 16 penalties, the Eagles just one.
4. Rice 31, Prairie View A&M 28 (Aug. 25, 2018)
Not an FCS Kickoff matchup, but thrilling nonetheless, as Prairie View sought to end the SWAC’s long losing streak to FBS competition. Jalen Morton passed for three touchdowns in the second quarter and the Panthers held a 28-19 lead through three quarters. Rice’s Jack Fox kicked a 23-yard, walk-off field goal.
5. North Carolina Central 23, Alcorn State 14 (Aug. 28, 2021)
With both teams returning from over a 600-day pandemic layoff, North Carolina Central won the MEAC-SWAC Challenge, which previously was held over Labor Day weekend. The Eagles reversed a 14-13 deficit with a field goal and Brandon Covington scored on a 77-yard punt return in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. Quarterback Davius Richard rushed for two touchdowns and defensive back Manny Smith had 10 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery for the MEAC squad.
6. No. 11 Central Arkansas 24, No. 13 Austin Peay 17 (Aug. 29, 2020)
A sparse, socially distanced crowd watched the seventh FCS Kickoff inside the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama – the first game of the pandemic-impacted 2020 season. In an excellent fourth quarter, Austin Peay went ahead 17-16 on quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall’s one-yard touchdown run with 1:40 left, but UCA rallied on Breylin Smith’s 10-yard TD pass to Lujan Winningham with 34 seconds to go.