During this Spring FCS season, we will not have many chances to compare the strength of leagues to one another through non-conference play. The structure of the Spring season prevents this as many conferences are playing conference-exclusive schedules.
Yet there are rare chances for key games, beyond the paycheck games we saw last week. This week two such games take center stage in the Big South, Elon @ Gardner-Webb and Robert Morris @ James Madison.
These two games can do wonders for the conference’s profile, as they play two ranked teams from the CAA, arguably the FCS’ second strongest league behind the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Big South showed signs of breakthrough last year, boasting two eleven-win playoff teams in Monmouth and Kennesaw State. Strong showings this weekend look to continue the trend and put the country on notice.
A New Era and a New Definition of the South?
Tomorrow, Robert Morris will make their much-anticipated debut in the Big South after leaving the Northeast Conference for the Horizon League in Olympic sports, sending their football program to the Big South.
The Colonials are the poster child for this new turbulent era in the Big South. The conference has become a revolving door as despite adding HBCU power NC A&T, Monmouth, and the Colonials in recent years, they have lost a few schools as well. Liberty left for the FBS, while North Alabama and Kennesaw State leave for the ASun in 2022. While the situation could be worse, like it is in the MEAC, it still is not ideal. At the moment, the conference has eight football schools.
No one would mistake the Colonials for a football power, as they only have one playoff appearance, in 2010 to their name, but they do add a degree of depth to the conference. While no one expects Robert Morris to beat James Madison, as they open as 38-point underdogs, a competitive game can make a statement for the league’s new era and look.
Many know James Madison as one of the FCS’ prominent powers and they looked the part last week in a 52-0 dismantling of the Pioneer Football League’s Morehead State. A tightly contested game will show a vast improvement for the Colonials, who lost 73-7 to the Dukes two seasons ago.
Potential Upset Boiling?
The other Big South non-conference clash is in North Carolina with Gardner-Webb hosting Elon. Despite a #24 ranking in the STATS FCS poll, Elon showed major signs of vulnerability last week against Pioneer League Squad Davidson. The Phoenix rose from the ashes of a 20-12 deficit and needed a touchdown with 32 seconds left to escape with a win.
This week, a fresh Gardner-Webb squad awaits, hoping for their first win against a ranked team since 2016. Given last week’s result against a non-scholarship team for Elon, the Runnin’ Bulldogs may be due for an upset.
A win out of conference can do wonders for Gardner-Webb’s playoff profile, especially if Elon has a solid year in the CAA. The Runnin’ Bulldogs do still face conference favorites Monmouth and Kennesaw State, but a win this weekend and splitting those two games give them a strong case at an at-large bid. A 5-1 squad with 2-non conference wins would have a strong argument for one of the five at-large spots up for grabs this Spring.
Gardner-Webb has yet to appear in the playoffs, and as we saw in the Fall with Indiana, Northwestern, and San Jose State, a shortened season may be prime conditions for a rare run for programs like GWU. However, if they want to make those dreams a reality, a win this weekend is crucial.
The past couple years have been eventful for the Big South. Between being at the center of a smaller conference realignment craze and fielding elite teams, each season has been an adventure for the conference. This weekend provides a chance to stem the tide and show the conference is on the rise and much more importantly, here to stay.