Philadelphia, PA – In 2006, the use of Division I-AA was officially dropped and the division was renamed the Football Championship Subdivision.
And while on the surface it was a big change, in all reality it was the norm as the FCS goes through minor - and sometimes massive - changes each and every year.
Some years, the changes are big, like expanding the playoff field to 20 teams in 2010 and giving the Northeast and Big South conferences automatic bids to their champions. Other years, it could be as simple as a team completing the transition from Division II or NAIA to Division I (which seems to happen every year).
Of course, the play on the field moves in a similar pattern. Traditional powers stick around, while new programs grow and compete for national championships.
In a time when the entire college football landscape is shifting, 2012 could prove to be another year full of big changes for the FCS, both on and off the field.
Let's take a look at some of the potential changes and storylines for 2012:
FCS championship game: Sam Houston State and North Dakota State will pop the cork on the 2012 FCS calendar year when the teams meet in the FCS championship game on Jan. 7, in Frisco, Texas. Of course, for one team the meeting in Frisco will have a much happier ending, as one program will be celebrating the first FCS championship in school history. But, even for the team that loses, it should be a party atmosphere at the soon-to-be-renamed FC Dallas Stadium - the game is already sold out, and tickets are going for anywhere from $250 to $500 on-line.
Walter Payton Award turns 25: For their fantastic 2011 seasons, Indiana State running back Shakir Bell, Lehigh quarterback Chris Lum or Eastern Washington quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell will be rewarded in 2012 with the 25th Walter Payton Award. As usual, the Buck Buchanan and Eddie Robinson awards will be presented to the FCS' outstanding defensive player and coach, respectively. Adding a fourth prestigious award for the FCS, the Jerry Rice Award will be presented to the FCS' outstanding freshman, by Jerry Rice himself. The Sports Network presents and Fathead.com sponsors all four awards.
Moving on up?: With the seismic shifting of conferences at the FBS level, what better time for FCS teams to examine whether or not they plan to someday play with 85 scholarships. In 2012, Massachusetts, Texas State, UTSA and South Alabama will make FBS debuts, and more could be on the way. Some schools have already launched (Liberty) or completed (Appalachian State) feasibility studies about making the jump.
Same face, new place: There will be some recognizable faces on the sidelines in 2012, for a variety of reasons. New Weber State coach John L. Smith and new South Dakota coach Joe Glenn return to their alma maters after successful FBS coaching experiences. At Liberty, former Buffalo and Kansas coach Turner Gill will patrol the sidelines, while the man he replaced, Danny Rocco, has set his sights on returning Richmond to the playoffs. At Coastal Carolina, Joe Moglia's face might appear familiar ... to those in the financial industry. The former CEO of TD Ameritrade has just one year of head coaching experience - a 1-4 mark with the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks last season.
Fifth-year of eligibility?: As part of the activities surrounding the FCS championship game, the conference commissioners will meet and could vote on a CAA Football proposal to the NCAA that would grant FCS student-athletes a fifth year of eligibility. If the vote gets a majority decision, which it likely would from the commissioners, then it could be put into effect for 2012 - if the NCAA approves of the decision.
Year of the running back: No matter what, someone is going to be unhappy when the two preseason first-team All-America running backs are introduced in August, and for good reason. Sam Houston State's Timothy Flanders, Towson's Terrance West and Indiana State's Bell are all deserving of first-team honors, and all have at least two years of eligibility remaining. But, the list doesn't stop there. Of the six running backs named to the The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS All-America team, five will be returning next season
New CAA Football landscape to last?: This season, the CAA was turned on its head by Towson, Old Dominion and Maine. The question now is, was 2011 a mirage for the surprise CAA leaders? It appears Towson and Old Dominion are here to stay, thanks to a young corp, a growing fan base and talented coaching staff. However, traditional CAA powers James Madison, William & Mary, Villanova and Delaware will be looking to return the conference to the normal balance of power.
Bigger Big Sky: With the disbanding of the Great West as a football conference, the Big Sky will expand to 13 teams when North Dakota, Cal Poly, Southern Utah and UC Davis will join the conference. This season, the four teams went 5-3 against the Big Sky, including Southern Utah's perfect 3-0 mark. Playing in a automatic bid conference now, the Thunderbirds could have an easier path to the playoffs, as the Big Sky historically places two or three teams in the playoffs.
Sam Houston State running away ... from the Southland: No, Sam Houston State isn't leaving the Southland Conference. But, the gap is widening between the Bearkats and the rest of the conference. Not only are the Bearkats led by a trio of sophomores (Brian Bell, Flanders and Richard Sincere), but they only graduate 12 seniors from the team that has won 16 straight games - and could win the FCS championship.
NFL Draft: On the last weekend in April, several FCS players will realize the life-long dream of being drafted into the NFL. Last year, 21 FCS players were drafted. Expect around 20 names to get called this year, too. Appalachian State wide receiver Brian Quick is considered the most pro-ready prospect and could go as early as the second round. Some other FCS players with high NFL hopes are Furman cornerback Ryan Steed, Cal Poly cornerback Asa Jackson, South Dakota tackle Tom Compton and North Dakota State tight end Christian Thompson.