You probably already know the saying: “There are only two seasons in Texas: football and spring football.”
Now it’s literally true. Last weekend, I found myself in front of the ESPN app watching two teams called the Cardinals, with players on both sides of the ball clad in the same primary color (red, of course). This was not an intra-squad spring scrimmage but, rather, an important Southland Conference game between the University of the Incarnate Word, from San Antonio, and Lamar University, from Beaumont. After a close first half, the UIW Cardinals won 42–20.
A few hours later, it was Saturday Night Lights in Prairie View, with Prairie View A&M University squeaking out a home win over Texas Southern in the Houston-area HBCU (historically black conferences and universities) rivalry game known as the Labor Day Classic. In March.
As with so much else on the calendar, COVID-19 changed up everything in college football. But unlike the FBS (Football Bowl Series) division, which slogged its way through a bumpy fall season that was still normal enough to crown Alabama champion and get UT’s head coach fired, the FCS (Football Championship Series) schools mostly chose to wait for spring. This was partly in the hopes that things would be much safer—debatable!—but also because FCS’s lower-budget programs weren’t equipped to test or contract-trace at the same level of the Big 12 or the SEC, let alone provide palatial, social distance–friendly workout rooms and training tables.
For any fan who’s not connected to a school—be it as an alum, student, parent, employee, or local resident—FCS in Texas is an admittedly tough sell. Not only do you get all the college football you could possibly want from the Power Five and Group of Five teams, but your local high school might have a bigger fan base—or at least a more expensive stadium—than Sam Houston State or Prairie View. Not to mention that, in the eyes of most FBS fans, FCS programs seemingly exist only to be paid patsies, save for the occasional upset that hopefully only happens to somebody’s else’s school. Three Texas teams–Stephen F. Austin, Houston Baptist, and Abilene Christian—chose to play in the fall for just that reason, going a collective 0–10 in payday road games against such schools as UTEP, SMU, and Texas Tech, with the home teams also picking up the extra coronavirus test expenses.
Casual fans may watch only the FCS championship game, which for the past ten years has been played in Frisco. And yet no Texas team has won it all over that period, or even since the current playoff system began, in what was then known as Division I-AA, in 1978. Instead, the level has been dominated by such teams as Montana, Delaware, James Madison, and, especially, North Dakota State. The Bison are the Alabama of FCS, but better, winning eight of the last nine championships.
But solely on its own terms, FCS football is fun. Who doesn’t love the diamonds-in-the-rough, your undersized underdogs, your second-chance transfer quarterbacks? It also delivers on a lot of things we wish—or claim to wish—the upper level had, including a real playoff system, and not being just about money and TV.
The short spring season also means much higher stakes. The playoffs, which run from April 18 to May 15, will feature 16 teams instead of 32, 11 of which will come from automatic conference champion bids. That means—thanks for the old slogan, Big 12— that every game matters, so this weekend is the perfect time to get acquainted (you can start thinking about your March Madness bracket on Monday).
In particular, Sam Houston’s game against Nicholls State could ultimately determine the Southland Conference championship. There’s also the Battle of the Border—Louisiana’s, that is—between McNeese State and Lamar, the conclusion of a unique two-game series between Tarleton State and Dixie State, and the State Fair Classic between Prairie View A&M and Grambling, which in addition to being postponed from the fall, was postponed a second time because of the winter storms, and also moved out of the Cotton Bowl to Globe Life Park. Sadly, it will also lack the usual halftime battle of the bands, though Dru Hill (featuring Sisqó!) will perform instead.
Ready to watch? Here’s a bit of a bluffer’s guide to the six Texas teams.
Sam Houston State #EatEmUpKats
Root for them if: you’re a frontrunner, but also used to disappointment.
The twelfth-ranked Bearkats are the premier program here: more successful than the University of Texas and Texas A&M of late, with trips to the FCS championship game in 2011 and 2012, plus outstanding teams in 2016 (when K.C. Keeler won the Eddie Robinson Award as national coach of the year) and 2017 (when quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe won his second-straight Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy).
All that’s missing is the championship. After two down seasons, Keeler, who won it all at Delaware in 2003, will be looking to get back into the playoff bracket behind the Woodlands-bred quarterback Eric Schmid, with number seven Nicholls State the biggest obstacle.
Incarnate Word University #TheWord
Root for them if: you’re a Baylor or TCU fan who knows what it’s like for a religious institution to show up the power schools.
Also in the Bearkats’ way: number 25 Incarnate Word. The Cardinals—it’s not just a bird, y’know—have had a football team only since 2009, and they moved up from Division II in 2013. Head coach Eric Morris comes off of the Mike Leach family tree, having both played and coached at Texas Tech; he led UIW to a shared conference title and FCS playoff berth in his first season, 2018, and the team has already handled both McNeese State and Lamar this year.
An additional motive is that along with Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, and Abilene Christian, Sam Houston State is ditching UIW and the rest of the Southland Conference for a revived Western Athletic Conference in the fall. So why let them go out on a high note?
Lamar University #RedBirdRising #WeAreLU
Root for them if: you’re patient.
If you know Lamar only for Billy Tubbs and basketball, that’s fair enough—despite some NCAA “College Division” success in the sixties and seventies (including a trip to the Pecan Bowl), the Cardinals didn’t have a football program at all from 1990 to 2009. It’s been rocky since then, with just two winning seasons (and one FCS playoff berth) since the team joined the Southland in 2011.
First-year head coach Blane Morgan, an Addison native who was most recently offensive coordinator at San Diego State, will need some time to change that. Already 0–2 after losses to both Incarnate Word and Nicholls State, Lamar could still make its season with one game, i.e., an upset of McNeese. The team also gets a crack at SHSU on the 20th.
Tarleton State University #TexanNation
Root for them if: you want to get in from the ground up.
In addition to being the least messed-up team in Texas called the Texans, Tarleton has been through more ups and downs in three weeks than most teams get in several seasons. A Division II program since the early nineties, Tarleton played its first FCS game on February 13, blowing a 31–17 lead at home against McNeese before losing 40–37 in double overtime. One week later, the Texans beat the only FBS team playing football at the moment, New Mexico State—an Aggies “home” game that was actually played in El Paso, since New Mexico has stricter COVID-19 rules than Texas (but hey, who doesn’t?).
That win got the Texans ranked at number 22 … and then they promptly went out and lost at home to Dixie State, another new-to-FCS team. Because both schools aren’t yet a member of a conference—they’ll be in the WAC next year—they play again this weekend, this time in Utah (yes, Dixie State is in Utah, though it also looks as though the team won’t be called that for much longer).
Led by three-time head coach Todd Whitten—the former Stephen F. Austin quarterback had the job in 1996, from 2000 through 2004, and now since 2016—these Texans are a team to watch, both now and in the future.
Prairie View A&M University #PurpleHaze #SpottheBall
Texas Southern University #TheSauceU #FollowTheDrip
Root for them if: you love college football for what it’s supposed to be (but you’ll have to pick one or the other).
The state’s two best-known HBCUs exist outside—and arguably, above—the FCS ecosystem. Instead of participating in the FCS playoffs, the Southwestern Athletic Conference normally holds its own championship, with the winner of that game then taking on the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion in the Celebration Bowl, which is normally mixed in with the early FBS bowls.
But all of that is different this year, with the MEAC participating in the FCS playoffs, and the SWAC left on its own to play a conference championship May 1. Prairie View could be there, though it will have to get by not only historic power Grambling (where head coach Eric Dooley came from), but also Jackson State, which has sucked up most of the FCS media oxygen this season because of its head coach, a guy named Deion Sanders. Texas Southern, coached by former Houston and Texas A&M assistant Clarence McKinney, has three home games at Houston’s BBVA Stadium, including Grambling on April 3.
Last weekend’s PVAMU–Texas Southern game was as exciting as any FBS game that I watched last fall. This was true on merit—trailing 13–0 at halftime, TSU dominated the second half until it didn’t, losing 20–19—but also because, at the end of the day, college football is not about the talent levels, or how many championships you win. It’s about passion and community, and that was on shimmering display, even with a small-capacity and social-distanced crowd. The rivalry game was everything that college football used to justify its own existence during COVID-19—an experience that the schools and players deserved to have, if it was safe. In a college football season that has also been dominated by talk of racial injustice, Texas Southern played the game with “Black Lives Matter” blazoned on the back of its helmets. But what spoke even louder than those letters was simply seeing two teams of mostly Black players playing for mostly Black coaching staffs.