As college football returns, all eyes are on early season FBS vs. FCS crossover games to see who can land the next big upset. There have been 30 FCS-over-FBS upsets in the last five years, including FCS No. 1 North Dakota State beating FBS No. 13 Iowa in 2016. With the win, the Bison landed the fifth FCS/I-AA upset over a ranked opponent. 

A deeper look into North Dakota State’s ranked upset shows that their win follows consistent trends found within the other four ranked FCS upsets. While these trends do not guarantee a victory, they are key to the success of any FCS team taking on an FBS foe.

Here is a seven-step blueprint to an FCS-over-ranked-FBS upset.

The 7-step FCS blueprint to beating a ranked FBS team

1. Be a top-tier FCS team

Any FCS school hoping to land an upset of a ranked FBS school will likely have to be a top-tier team. Two of these teams, North Dakota State and Appalachian State, entered the season defending consecutive national championships. The lowest-ranked school entering one of the ranked upset games was No. 12 James Madison (topping No. 13 Virginia Tech in 2010). The lone exception, Cincinnati, was classified as I-AA for the 1983 season. Cincinnati upset No. 20 Penn State.

The elite teams in the FCS bridge the talent gap between themselves and their FBS opponents, giving them a fighting chance. Being a top-tier FCS team is a vital step to the blueprint for any FCS school hoping to land an upset.

RANKINGS: See all the latest FCS polls

2. Have an efficient day passing the ball from the FCS Quarterback

Efficient quarterback play from the FCS team can be the difference in a win or loss. In the five FCS upsets over ranked teams, the starting quarterback’s average completion percentage was 70%.

A look at Eastern Washington QB Vernon Adams’ 2013 performance against No. 25 Oregon State shows the impact a quarterback can have. Adams completed 77% of his passes for 411 yards and four touchdowns. Adams’ efficiency through the air turned into an all-time performance leading to the improbable upset. Adams would later start at Oregon.

Even a moderate outing like the play of James Madison QB Drew Dudzik in a 2010 upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech can be a difference-maker. While Dudzik threw the ball only eight times, he completed 62.5% of his passes for 121 yards and a touchdown. He wasn’t spectacular but was efficient enough to get the job done.

Efficient quarterback play from the FCS team can balance the FBS-FCS scale. A steady hand controlling the offense provides stability in situations where an FCS team may be overmatched. 

3. Have a dual-threat FCS Quarterback

In the five FCS-over-ranked-FBS upsets, the quarterbacks combined for 56 rushing attempts, 239 rushing yards, and five touchdowns. That’s an average of 47.8 rushing yards per game, 4.26 yards per carry and one touchdown per game. In almost every upset game, the FCS quarterback made plays with his legs when needed.

This added element to an FCS offense creates challenges for their FBS opponents adding more to their game plan. A dual-threat quarterback can take advantage of lapses in the defense’s keys to keep drives alive. For example, North Dakota State QB Easton Stick’s 29 yard run on a quarterback draw in the fourth quarter was the pivotal play in his team’s comeback drive.

Plays like that show that while a dual-threat quarterback isn’t always necessary for a win, it can place the upset within reach. A dual-threat FCS quarterback increases the potential chance of an upset.

WHO’S NEXT: 6 potential FCS-over-FBS upsets early in the 2021 college football season

4. Start Fast

A fast start from an FCS school can be the difference between a competitive game and a blowout loss. In three of the ranked FCS-over-ranked-FBS upsets, the FCS school led at halftime — Appalachian State even led No. 5 Michigan by 11 points. In a fourth, the FCS school led after the first quarter.

When an FCS school jumps out to an early lead, it shifts the pressure to the heavily favored FBS team. It also allows FCS programs to play a risk-averse style of play to keep the game in hand. Most importantly, a fast start can boost the confidence of the FCS team as they know they can compete against a larger FBS program.

5. Capitalize off turnovers

Winning the turnover battle is critical at any level of football and to secure an FCS-over-FBS upset, what a team does once it gets turnovers matters even more. When FCS teams force turnovers against their FBS opponents, they must capitalize off turnovers to level the playing field.

When Cincinnati defeated No. 20 Penn State in 1983, the Bearcats forced two second-quarter Nittany Lion fumbles. After each fumble, Cincinnati started at the Penn State 38-yard line. It took the Bearcats five plays to score a touchdown each time as they jumped out to a 14-0 lead. The ability to capitalize off turnovers was the difference in this game. Cincinnati would hold on to win 14-3.

Turnovers often give good field position to FCS teams, as shown in the Cincinnati game. Turnovers create easier scoring opportunities and it’s why it’s an important step to the blueprint for an FCS win.

HISTORY: A complete history of every FCS win vs. FBS teams

6. Create red zone inefficiency for FBS teams

The sixth step in the blueprint to the FCS-over-ranked-FBS upset is creating red zone inefficiency. This bend but don’t break style of play means when FBS teams get in scoring range, they leave with a field goal at best.

In No. 5 Michigan’s stunning 2007 loss, the Wolverines settled for two field goals from the Appalachian State 5- and 25-yard lines and threw an interception from the 25-yard line. Twice more, the Wolverines turned the ball over on downs from inside the Appalachian State 35-yard line.

In Virginia Tech’s loss, the Hokies settled for three field goals from the James Madison 13-, 24- and 11-yard lines, respectively. The Hokies also had three turnovers in the Dukes’ territory, the final of which was a fourth-quarter fumble at the 12-yard line.

As you know by now, Michigan lost by two points and Virginia Tech lost by five. A touchdown in any of the aforementioned games would have been the difference-maker for these ranked FBS teams. However, their FCS opponents were able to create inefficient drives to help keep the game within reach. When FCS teams can create red zone inefficiency, it boosts their chances of a history-making upset. 

7. Force inconsistent FBS quarterback play

Just as the play of the FCS quarterback in an FCS vs. FBS game is important, so is the play of the FBS quarterback. If the FBS quarterback can play inconsistently, then their FCS opponent will have a fighting chance.

Poor performances at quarterback were pivotal in four out of the five ranked FCS-over-FBS upsets. Penn State used three starters in its loss who combined for a measly 30% completion percentage. Amongst Michigan, Virginia Tech and Iowa, no quarterback finished with a QBR higher than 23.2 and all accounted for at least one turnover. 

When the quarterback, who has the ball in his hands essentially every play, is inconsistent, it creates windows of opportunity that the underdog can take advantage of. Inconsistent play from FBS quarterbacks increases the likelihood of an FCS upset. If an FCS team can accomplish this final step of the blueprint, they could go down in history with other historic upsets.


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