There was a relative calm before the second shift before the 1982 season, only a few changes were seen at the I-AA level.
1981 FCS Over FBS Victories (21)
- Youngstown State @ Cincinnati, 19-13
- Akron @ Eastern Michigan, 14-7
- SE Louisiana @ Louisiana, 7-0
- Temple @ Delaware, 13-7
- Holy Cross @ Massachusetts, 13-10
- Fresno State @ Montana State, 30-26
- Tennessee State @ Southern Illinois, 17-14
- Delaware @ Princeton, 61-8
- Lafayette @ Columbia, 28-13
- Penn @ Lehigh, 58-0
- Dartmouth @ Massachusetts, 10-8
- Middle Tennessee @ Western Carolina, 23-10
- Holy Cross @ Connecticut, 44-24
- Tennessee State @ Louisville, 42-30
- Louisiana-Monroe @ SE Louisiana, 50-47
- Delaware @ Penn, 40-6
- Maine @ Princeton, 55-44
- Utah State @ Idaho State, 50-24
- East Tennessee State @ James Madison, 17-14
- Nevada @ Cal State Fullerton, 36-34
- Louisiana-Monroe @ Northwestern State, 41-9
There were no ties between I-A and I-AA teams in the 1981 season.
The Idaho State Bengals (12-1 Overall, 6-1 Big Sky Conference) upset the Eastern Kentucky Colonels (12-2 Overall, 8-0 Ohio Valley Conference) with a 34-23 win in the National Championship game.
The Mid-Continent Conference moved from Division II to Division I-AA status, however, it caused some complications in future seasons. Some teams were classified as Division I-A while other were I-AA. Those considered I-AA are listed in the team changes below.
Eastern Illinois, Missouri State (then referred to as Southwest Missouri State) Northern Iowa, and Western Illinois all made the move from Division II to Division I as part of the Mid-Continent Conference.
Youngstown State also made the move from Division II to Division I-AA, but they moved from the Mid-Continent Conference to the Ohio Valley Conference.
Portland State decided to move from I-AA Independent status to the same status at the Division II level. The Vikings returned to the FCS level in 1995. Tennessee State dropped from I-A to I-AA Independent status.
Once again, the NCAA Handbook does not have Akron listed despite the Zips being a member of the Ohio Valley Conference. This will continue to be the case through 1986 before Akron decided to leave for Division I-A status.
The NCAA expanded the playoff field from 4 to 8 with the 1981 season. The five conference champions of the Big Sky, MEAC, Ohio Valley, SWAC, Yankee, and top-ranked I-AA independent team were given automatic bids along with two at-large bids.
Campus sites were used until the National Championship, which was played at Memorial Stadium in Wichita Falls, Texas on December 19 for the second time after the inaugural title game in 1979.