Members of the Big Sky and Missouri Valley conferences have staged a football challenge series during the regular season since 2017.
The matchups between the two conferences tend to extend into the FCS playoffs, and, although they aren’t part of the challenge series, they take on even more importance.
What wouldn’t be best for the FCS level is for the national title game to turn into a regular Big Sky vs. MVFC showdown – like No. 1 South Dakota State (14-0), the reigning national champion from the MVFC, taking on No. 2 Montana from the Big Sky on Sunday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas (2 p.m. ET, ABC).
The scenario is great for the leading conferences in the 128-school, 13-league FCS. It’s not so great for other conferences because the gap to them seems to be growing, especially since national power James Madison moved up to the FBS two years ago.
“Two great conferences are on display here,” South Dakota State first-year coach Jimmy Rogers said on Friday at Toyota Stadium.
“I think it’s important for the other conferences have to success as well.”
Sunday’s title game marks the 14th time it has been played in Frisco. It’s the third straight time the participants have come from the Big Sky or MVFC, and, more specially, the Dakotas (South Dakota State and North Dakota State) and Montana (Montana and Montana State).
Neither conference has lost a program to an FBS move while they’ve combined for 19 of the 28 finalists during the Frisco title era (15 MVFC, four Big Sky). Out of the remaining nine finalists, only one – the 2013 Towson squad from CAA Football – will not have made a move to the FBS by next year. James Madison (three appearances), Sam Houston (three) and Jacksonville State (one) are already there, and Delaware (one) is headed up as well.
“You don’t want to see it too much. I hope it settles,” said Montana athletic director Kent Haslam, the chair of the NCAA’s 2023 FCS playoff selection committee. “I think some of the (legislative) changes from the Division I Council will slow that down. But certainly, you hate to see really good neighbors move away.
“Some of the changes that are happening at the NCAA level,” he added, “require universities to invest if you want to be Division I. If you want to be Division I, you’ve got to invest in student-athletes, you got to invest to be competitive. I think that will create a natural competitiveness and keep this division, this subdivision, healthy.”
“Even if you look back 10, 12 years ago, the Missouri Valley wasn’t where it is today – it took investment from those programs,” said North Dakota State athletic director Matt Larsen, the selection committee’s vice chair. “And I think as we talk, what the Big Sky and the Missouri Valley conferences have done in terms of elevating, of wanting to be playing in this weekend, it shows. I think other leagues see that as well. The last couple years I’ve been on the committee, there’s been first-time participants in the FCS (playoffs). I think you’re seeing that level of investment in other leagues, too. Our leagues probably just have a little bit of a head start.”
The selection committee got it right this postseason due to the two top seeds advancing to the championship game for just the eighth time since seeding was introduced in 1980, when the bracket was expanded from four to eight teams.
Even with No. 1 vs. No. 2, only four of the 11 conferences that had qualifiers in this season’s 24-team playoffs were still standing heading into the round of 16. The other two were the CAA and Southern Conference.
Eventually, even predictably, the championship wound its way to the champions of the Big Sky and MVFC.
“Healthy FCS football is good for Division I football,” Haslem said. “Speaking from Montana’s perspective, we’re proud to compete in the FCS, and then as a championship, I think this championship continues to showcase great football.”