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2020 recap: FCS year in numbers

(AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

By CRAIG HALEY

Stats Perform FCS Senior Editor

(Stats Perform) - The year 2020 brought a new decade and new dreams for many, but most people needed new eyeglasses considering how few foresaw what was coming with COVID-19.

In FCS college football, the pandemic halted significant momentum built during the 2010s - gained from a dynasty program to influential players in the NFL to growing interest everywhere.

The numbers don't always add up in a good way, but we look back with more 2020 clarity, knowing brighter days are ahead.

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NDSU completes dominating decade

The 2019 season spilled over to Jan. 11, 2020, and it felt much like the 2010s when top-ranked North Dakota State defeated No. 2 James Madison, 28-20, in the FCS championship game (the ABC broadcast drew nearly 2.7 million viewers, an FCS playoff record). It was the Bison's record eighth FCS title (all in the 2010s), and their 16-0 record under first-year coach Matt Entz was the best since Yale had the same mark in 1894. They went 137-13 (.913), including 36-2 in the playoffs, over the decade.

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Fall games few and far between

Most FCS schools didn't compete in the fall due to health and safety concerns over the pandemic. Only 17 of 127 FCS programs - 13.4 percent - played at least one game, and only four went above four games. There were 55 games, including 34 against FBS opponents.

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First to dive into the deep end

The seventh annual FCS Kickoff was the first college football game of the pandemic, and Austin Peay freshman C.J. Evans scored on a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. But for the second consecutive season, Central Arkansas rallied past Austin Peay on a Breylin Smith-to-Lujuan Winningham TD pass in the fourth quarter, this time with 34 seconds left for a 24-17 win at a socially distanced Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.

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FBS transfers galore

While the NCAA transfer portal grows by the day, the FCS level lost well over 100 players to FBS programs or intended moves, according to Hero Sports. Included were 10 2019 Stats Perform FCS All-Americans with remaining eligibility and over one dozen more players who were targeted for the 2020 preseason team.

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Four quarters not enough

In the 25th anniversary season of overtime in Division I, the only FCS game that required extra time was arguably the season's best game. Stephen F. Austin edged Abilene Christian, 35-32, in the first college football game at Globe Life Park (the Texas Rangers' former home in Arlington) and the only fall matchup between two schools from the same FCS conference (Southland). Trae Self's 16-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chad Aune capped OT and a wild finish in which 30 points were scored over the final 2 minutes, 23 seconds of the fourth quarter and the one extra period. Self set career highs for total offensive yards (374) and total TDs (four).

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FCS draft picks plummet to record low

The loss of many college pro days after schools shut down in March led to most FCS players on the outside looking in to the 2020 NFL Draft. There were only six selections, less than half the previous low and down from as many as 30 (1996 and '97) since the draft switched to seven rounds in 1994.

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Zappe-ing the competition

Houston Baptist senior Bailey Zappe put up dizzying passing numbers in his squad's four games, including three against FBS opponents. His school-record 567 yards in a 35-33 loss at Texas Tech (the Huskies were 41-point underdogs) were the most ever by an FCS quarterback against an FBS school (also tying for the 18th-most in an FCS game). Overall, Zappe (pronounced ZAP-ee) completed 141-of-215 passes (65.6 percent) for 1,833 yards, 15 touchdowns and one interception and became the first FCS quarterback to have four straight 400-yard games since Idaho State's Justin Arias in 2014.

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Streak busters

Jacksonville State's 19-10 win at FIU was its first over an FBS opponent since 2013 and ended the FCS' 67-game, 13-month losing streak against the upper tier of Division I. The Gamecocks didn't just have their first 100-yard rusher in 17 games, they had two with Josh Samuel (168 yards, touchdown) and Uriah West (116). Freshman Alen Karajic kicked four field goals and the visitors from the Ohio Valley Conference possessed the ball for a whopping 42:16.

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Bison's record run

North Dakota State was one of four schools to play only one game this fall, but it drew a national spotlight with quarterback Trey Lance, who in 2019 became the first player to sweep Stats Perform FCS Walter Payton (offensive) and Jerry Rice (freshman) awards in the same season, auditioning for NFL scouts. The three-time reigning national champion Bison trailed in the fourth quarter for the first time in 28 games, but rallied to beat Central Arkansas, 37-25, and extend their FCS-record winning streak to 38.

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Short and sweet are overrated

Some teams go years without having a 99-yard scoring drive. Central Arkansas had one in each of its season-ending wins over Missouri Western and Eastern Kentucky. In fact, the Bears had five TD drives of at least 85 yards and a 96-yard kickoff return for another score in the two games.

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Prime Time hiring

A combined 49 FCS schools had head coaching changes after the 2017 and '18 seasons, but there was much less movement this year. Only seven schools introduced new coaches, and the first five resulted off 2019 season-ending changes. One hiring was as big as they come in the FCS: Jackson State landing Pro Football and College Hall of Famer Deion Sanders. Interest was so high, the SWAC school said its athletic website received 5 million pageviews during the first two days of the Coach Prime era and estimated it received what equates to $19 million in marking and promotional value in the first month. The Tigers head toward the spring season seeeking their first winning record since 2013.

Updated December 22, 2020

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