How The FCS Playoffs Format Works And Bracket Seeding

How The FCS Playoffs Format Works And Bracket Seeding

The 24-team FCS Playoffs bracket brings together conference champions and at-large invitees in pursuit of the NCAA Division I national championship.

Aug 16, 2023 by Kyle Kensing

From the tournament's inception in 1978, the FCS Playoffs has marked the crowning of a champion. 

The 2024 edition at the conclusion of the 2023 Football Championship Subdivision season is the 46th, and in nearly a half-century of competition, the format has undergone plenty of changes. 

A constant, however, is that the winner of the FCS Playoffs — or Division I-AA Playoffs, as it was known prior to a 2006 rebrand — is recognized as the official NCAA Division I national champion. 

Reigning winner South Dakota State aims at the culmination of the 2023 season to join rival North Dakota State as a repeat winner. The only other programs to do so are Appalachian State (2005-2007), Georgia Southern (1985 and 1986; 1989 and 1990; 1999 and 2000) and Youngstown State (1993 and 1994). 

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The road to the FCS Playoffs and the NCAA championship runs throughout each season. 

Here's the map guiding the way to the title:

How Many Teams Qualify for the FCS Playoffs? 

Just four teams competed in the original Division I-AA Playoffs, capped when Florida A&M beat UMass in 1978. The field expanded to eight teams in 1981, then to 16 in 1986. 

The 16-team format lasted the longest, enduring through 2009, when Villanova legend Andy Talley added an especially meaningful bullet-point to his hall-of-fame resume, leading the Wildcats to the national championship. 

The field grew to 20 teams the next year and extended into January for the first time in its history, having previously wrapped before Christmas. 

A 20-team bracket didn't last long. 

The 2023 season marks the 10-year anniversary since the introduction of the 24-team format, which remains today. 

What Teams Qualify For The FCS Playoffs?

Expansion of the Playoffs opened more berths both for automatic-qualifying conference champions and at-large participants. 

In 2023, 10 conferences send an automatic qualifier to the FCS Playoffs: 

  • Big Sky 
  • Big South/Ohio Valley 
  • Coastal Athletic Association 
  • Missouri Valley Football Conference
  • Northeast
  • Patriot League
  • Pioneer Football League
  • Southern
  • Southland
  • United Athletic Conference

The Ivy League opts out of the postseason altogether, while the Mid-Eastern Athletic and Southwestern Athletic Conferences send their respective champions to face off in the Celebration. However, MEAC and SWAC teams are eligible for at-large consideration. 

Most recently, the winner of the first Division I-AA tournament, Florida A&M, represented the SWAC in the 2021 Playoffs. 

That leaves 14 at-large invitations to the FCS Playoffs. 

Who Chooses The FCS Playoffs At-Large Qualifiers? 

The FCS Playoff Committee made up of representatives from each participating conference, determines at-large qualifiers and maps out the bracket. 

Bucknell athletic director Jermaine Truax chaired the committee in 2022, though his term expires in August 2023. 

How Are The FCS Playoffs Seeded?

The top eight teams in the FCS Playoffs receive opening-round byes, while the remaining 16 meet in eight games played over the first weekend. The Playoffs have kicked off on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend consistently, predating expansion. 

The eight that receive byes also are seeded. The other 16 are not, which has been a point of contention. 

In summer 2023, the NCAA council voted against seeding the top 16 teams, a proposal that would have dictated opening-round matchups on seed, rather than regionality. 

As it stands, teams must be within 400 miles of each other (when possible) and did not play in the conference regular season that year for first-round matchups. Programs from the same league can meet in the first round, provided they didn't play in the regular season — as was the case for CAA members James Madison and Delaware in 2018. 

Determining the top eight teams, meanwhile, begins with the nomination of contenders into a pool, as long as they received 30% of the committee's vote. The pool then is ranked from No. 1-8.

Landing one of those top eight seeds is a decided benefit to a team's national championship hopes. Aside from it meaning a bye week and needing to navigate past one less opponent, the home-field advantage guaranteed in at least one contest is meaningful. 

And while home field hardly guarantees a victory — the FCS Playoffs never go chalk — being at home for the semifinals is a proven asset. 

No road team has advanced to Frisco with a semifinal road win since James Madison and Youngstown State both did so in 2016.