The Football Championship Subdivision–once known as the I-AA level of college football–has had 21 different national champions since beginning in 1978. The past decade has been dominated by North Dakota State, just like earlier eras were dominated by other schools. NDSU likely will be favored again in 2021 when it comes to college football championship odds.
Before the “big” conferences of college football like the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 began their micro-version of a college football “playoff,” the FCS has had a playoff system in place since the beginning.
These days, 24 teams make it, with the top eight seeds receiving first-round byes and 10 conference champions earning automatic bids. The other 14 bids go to at-large qualifiers, which are all selected the Sunday before the playoffs open–typically during the week of Thanksgiving.
There’s no question that the championships have come in waves, with certain “eras” being pretty well defined. One can clearly see that below with the repeat winners.
Here’s a look at the FCS programs with the most national championships:
NORTH DAKOTA STATE
HOW MANY?: 8
WHEN?: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019
THE YARDSTICK: It is hard to believe what has taken place in Fargo, N.D. since NDSU made the move from Division II football to the FCS ranks in 2008. NDSU had tons of success at the D-II level but nearly instantly became a major player in FCS/I-AA football, and the momentum within the program has bred even more success.
With national exposure winning championships, beating FBS programs routinely, sending players to the NFL, and hosting ESPN College Gameday in Fargo, the program has gone from being a relative unknown to being able to go south to recruit talent–which has only made the Bison even more powerful.
Their championships have been won with a hard-charging, direct, blue-collar brand of ball that relies on outstanding line play (on both sides of the ball) and rare depth at the FCS level, which is fed by a second-to-none walk-on program. Young men are willing to be patient for a few years before seeing the field.
It has become a massive recipe for success in Fargo and a model that much of the rest of the FCS has tried to copy.
HOW MANY?: 6
WHEN?: 1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1999, 2000
THE YARDSTICK: Georgia Southern is one of seven programs that won FCS/I-AA national titles that no longer competes at this level. The Eagles moved up to the FBS ranks eight years ago. They’ve been in eight national title games, winning six.
After not playing football for 41 years (between 1940-1981), the school decided to crank the program back up, and within five seasons, it won its first title over Furman in 1985. Coach Erk Russell was the catalyst in the 1980s, Tim Stowers led the Eagles to the 1990 title, and future Navy and Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson was in charge of the 1999 and 2000 title teams.
Georgia Southern has been known for years for its lethal execution of the triple-option offense, one of the key reasons the program was so dominant.
HOW MANY?: 4
WHEN?: 1991, 1993, 1994, 1997
THE YARDSTICK: Before Jim Tressel was leading Ohio State to a FBS championship, he was winning multiple I-AA national titles down the road at Youngstown State. He opened it up winning three out of four seasons from 1991-94 and then added another in 1997.
He also led the program to two national runner-up years in 1992 and 1999. In 2016, the program returned to the national title under Bo Pelini with Tressel now in YSU’s administration, falling to James Madison.
In all, the Penguins have won 425 games in their time, dating back to 1938. They’ve been to the FCS playoffs 13 times and gone 29-9 in those postseasons–truly one of the top performances of any FCS program all-time.
HOW MANY?: 3
WHEN?: 2005, 2006, 2007
THE YARDSTICK: With talents like QB Armanti Edwards and LB Dexter Coakley leading the way, the Mountaineers won three national titles in a row under former coach Jerry Moore. Also during that span, one of the greatest upsets in college football history took place in 2007 when App. State knocked off Michigan, ranked No. 5 in the FBS at that time.
Like fellow Southern Conference rival Georgia Southern, Appalachian State chose to move on to the FBS ranks after the 2013 season, joining the Sun Belt Conference. Since that move, the Mountaineers have won five straight bowl games and are slated to play in the Myrtle Beach Bowl on Dec. 21–with college football odds making the game with North Texas interesting.
EASTERN KENTUCKY: Eastern Kentucky was one of the early powerhouses of I-AA/FCS football, being coached by the legendary Roy Kidd (who its stadium is now named after). The program went to the national title game four straight seasons from 1979-82, winning it all in 1979 and 1982.
JAMES MADISON: It may seem like James Madison has won a ton of these, but the Dukes have only won two–in 2004 and 2016. The Dukes have been dominant in recent years, though, making the championship game three out of the last four seasons.
MARSHALL: Before moving on to the FBS ranks, the Thundering Herd were a tough out in the I-AA world. In 1996, the Randy Moss-led team won a title, and in 1992 it also captured one.
MONTANA: The Griz are truly one of the FCS’ blue bloods, reaching the championship game seven times in their history and winning two, in 1995 and 2001.
ONE TITLE EACH
THE LIST: Boise State, Delaware, Eastern Washington, Florida A&M, Furman, Idaho State, Louisiana-Monroe, UMass, Montana State, Richmond, Southern Illinois, Villanova, Western Kentucky.
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Brian McLaughlin is a writer for BetMGM and co-host of BMac and Herd’s FCS Podcast. He has written for The Sporting News, headed up the PARADE Magazine High School All American teams, covered the FCS for HERO Sports, and wrote for so many newspapers he lost count. Follow BMac on Twitter @BrianMacWriter.