Transitioning From FCS To FBS Part 2: Potential Teams

North Dakota State has been the absolute best team at the FCS level since 2010. The Bison are natural candidates for the FBS but does it truly make sense? (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

Transitioning From FCS To FBS Part 2: Potential Teams

Welcome to second portion of our two-part series examining the transition from the FCS to FBS. In part one we looked at how teams have fared in the past. In this second part, we look at the teams best suited for the transition and also look at a few other teams.

To recap part one briefly, we looked at the schools that transitioned from FCS to FBS since 1987. The teams that performed the best were teams that had multiple playoff appearances in the final five FCS seasons. The second best group was the new programs followed by teams that had one or no playoff appearances in the final five FCS seasons.

We will make some assumptions about each team below that may or may not hold true if these scenarios in reality. For one, we look at each team separately and do not take into account all the dominoes from a potential realignment with our other teams. That would be far too time consuming to consider.

Secondly, geography and travel are big components of the analysis. We look first at which geographical area would be best and then look at the additional travel required if they were to move conferences.

Finally, keep in mind that while these teams would see increased revenues after they moved, they would also see increased costs in the form of stadium upgrades and travel for other sports would increase among other factors.

Now we can look at potential jumpers and new programs with the criteria we laid out in the first part.

North Dakota State (Jump Up)

North Dakota State is the first team discussed any time FCS to FBS transitions are explored. The Bison have only won six of the last seven FCS National Championship and have clearly been the best team of the decade at the FCS level. There is one issue that really hurts the Bison and that is location.

NDSU is currently the most northern member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference until 2020 when North Dakota joins. NDSU is geographically awkward if they were to move up to the FBS. The best fit would be the Big 10 especially in terms of their location and style of play. However, the Bison would probably have to prove themselves at the FBS level first which would put them in the Mountain West. Again, this is not exactly ideal.

Also consider the Fargodome, which has a capacity of 19,000 for football. They would have to upgrade the stadium to accommodate the increased number of fans. That would take money, which the Bison would recoup over time, but what about the additional travel costs not just for football, but also the other sports?

Verdict: We would love to see North Dakota State make the transition, but it does not seem likely given the logistical constraints.

Sam Houston State (Jump Up)

Here is another FCS powerhouse each year. The Bearkats have made seven straight playoff appearances with two National Championship losses to North Dakota State (those pesky Bison). Sam Houston State has one of the best offenses each season in the FCS and play in the Southland Conference.

The Southland Conference is a wonderful geographical set up for the teams. All members are from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, which is more than convenient. So where would they land if they went to the FBS? There are three conferences: The American Athletic Conference,  Conference USA, and Sun Belt.

The American Athletic Conference would place the Bearkats in the West along with Houston, Memphis, SMU, Tulane, Tulsa, and Navy. Navy is a horrendous fit for the West Division, which means that the AAC could balance the divisions by getting a second West team and moving Navy to the far more natural East. In this case, they would face six west opponents and two east opponents each season.

Conference USA currently has 14 teams with seven from the West Division located in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. If C-USA expanded to 16 teams that would leave only one game per season they would face an East Division opponent (based on an 8 game conference schedule). They would also face that East opponent on the road once every other year. Not a bad move based on assumptions above.

The Sun Belt is the final option and teams leaving the Southland Conference frequently find the Sun Belt as their FBS destination. The conference has been split into East and West Divisions among its 10 members. The West Division has teams from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Based on an 8 game schedule, they would have to face two East opponents each year with one at home and one on the road.

Finally, Sam Houston State would have to increase the size of the stadium from the current size of roughly 12,500.

Verdict: The Southland Conference is a wonderful spot for Sam Houston State right now. If they were dead set on the FBS, then Conference USA would be the best option.

James Madison (Jump Up)

James Madison is a recent addition to the top level of the FCS. The Dukes have made the playoffs four straight seasons, but the last two put them up with the best. In 2016, they upset the Bison for the National Championship and then followed that up in 2017 with a loss to Bison in the title game. To be fair, this is not the same sustained success as the previous two entrants, but strong enough for consideration.

The Dukes currently play in the Colonial Athletic Association, which stretches from Maine to South Carolina. JMU sits at the southern edge of the conference, which might make travel costly depending on the scheduling rotation.

JMU, like Sam Houston State, has several options. They could go to the American Athletic, Conference USA, or Sun Belt. James Madison would face the opposite of SHSU’s possibilities for all three.

The Dukes would be in the East for the AAC though that would make it unbalanced in terms of natural East and West programs. For C-USA, they would be a natural fit for the East Division while the same would be true for the Sun Belt.

James Madison has a solid stadium size already at 25,000, which will make the costs relatively less expensive for expansion.

Verdict: James Madison sits in an awkward geographical position for the three conferences above. Conference USA would be the best fit for costs and travel as they would only face a West opponent on the road once every other year.

Jacksonville State (Jump Up)

The Jacksonville State Gamecocks have dominated the Ohio Valley Conference with four straight titles. They have made the FCS playoffs five straight seasons with a title game appearance in 2015 (yes, they lost to NDSU).

As part of the OVC, Jacksonville State is the southern most member, but it is a comfortable distance to northern most team, Eastern Illinois. The team furthest to the west is Southeast Missouri State on the Missouri-Illinois border, which again, is not too bad.

If the Gamecocks were to go to the FBS they too have the options of the AAC, C-USA, and Sun Belt. However, one fits better than the other two and that is the Sun Belt.

JSU’s location in northeast Alabama puts them right in the middle of the conference in terms of location. That would make them ideal to be put in either division as needed. Or the Sun Belt could flip the division from east and west to the north and south while also adding another team to have an even number of teams.

The JSU stadium can hold 24,000, which will help limit the amount they need to spend on expanding the stadium.

Verdict: The Ohio Valley is a decent fit for them, but if they are looking for the FBS, the Sun Belt makes sense. While the AAC and Conference USA are both plausible, the Sun Belt felt most natural.

Eastern Washington (Jump Up)

Eastern Washington has also been a mainstay in the FCS Playoffs. Since their National Championship in 2010, they have made the playoffs five times and progressed to at least the quarterfinals on each occasion. Four of the five appearances resulted in a semifinal appearance.

The Eagles play in the Big Sky Conference which stretches from Washington all the way to the middle of Arizona and out to the eastern border of North Dakota. As mentioned above, the University of North Dakota will be moving to the Missouri Valley Football Conference and it is not hard to see why when their closest in conference opponent is Northern Colorado.

There are two natural destinations for EWU with the Pac-12 and Mountain West. The Pac-12 is a long shot considering they would probably want to see how they perform in the FBS before having them join. So that leaves the Mountain West.

The Eagles would probably be put in the Mountain Division, which would require travel to Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The travel is not horrendous outside of the trip to New Mexico every other year. The west division would be very similar to New Mexico and would also have to be done every other year.

The stadium capacity of Roos Field is a paltry 8,600, which means a huge outlay to expand the size. At least their red turf would go along nicely with Boise State’s blue turf.

Verdict: The current travel arrangements do not differ much as if they were to play in the Mountain West. The stadium expenditure would probably be another point of concern. The reality is go for Pac-12 money (though unlikely) or stay put in the Big Sky.

Virginia Commonwealth (New Program)

VCU, currently in the Atlantic 10 for all other sports, would make a wonderful addition to Conference USA. They are located in Richmond, which is the capital of Virginia. That provides a great fan base for any potential team. VCU has not fielded more than a club team for football. In addition, a stadium would be required for the football team making the likelihood of this happening slim.

What VCU does have in terms of location also applies to the student body. The Rams have the second highest enrollment in the state (not counting Liberty’s online degree numbers). That provides a solid footing if they choose to pursue adding a football program.

There have been some worries expressed by current Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin. He feels that the costs would exceed the revenue generated as noted here. It appears that as long as McLaughlin is at VCU, the Rams will not have a football team without someone donating what is needed.

Verdict: Highly unlikely given the current AD and all the startup costs for the program.

University of Texas Arlington (New Program)

UT Arlington previously had a football program until 1985 when the constant financial losses caused the school to stop sponsoring the sport. It may be time for the Mavericks to make a comeback to the field. UTA is the fourth largest school in Texas with an enrollment of 42,000 in the football crazed state.

Back in 2004, students voted to increase tuition by $2 per semester hour if football was brought back. All good then, right? Well, not quite. The costs would be enormous especially if the ultimate goal is the FBS. The stadium, which currently holds 12,500, would need a massive upgrade to host FBS football games. To pay for the new sport, the cost would most likely go to students in the form of higher tuition as noted above.

One area that UTA would not have to worry about is finding a FBS conference. They are part of the Sun Belt in the other sports offered by the school. That is one piece of the puzzle they will not have to worry about if they bring back football. UTA would have good knowledge about the travel costs if they were to play in the Sun Belt.

Verdict: Viable but UTA needs to be prudent about the costs and expected revenue so they do not make the same mistake from 1985.

That concludes the second part of our series on the FCS to FBS transition. We hope you enjoyed the analysis!

Transitioning From FCS To FBS Part 1: Past History

Liberty upset Baylor to open the 2017 and Now the Flames will be in the FBS. Is there anything from the FCS jumpers that may indicate how Liberty will perform in 2018? (Cooper Neill/Getty Images North America)

Transitioning From FCS To FBS Part 1: Past History

Welcome to a two part series where we take a look at how teams perform when they move from the FCS to FBS. We went all the way back to 1987 when Akron made the jump from the the then named Division 1AA (now FCS) to Division 1A (now FBS).

Part one will look at the past with how previous teams performed when they transitioned. Part two will focus on which teams could make the jump from FCS to FBS or start a football program.

We logged each team’s five seasons prior to the transition as well as the first five seasons in the FBS. We looked at how many seasons it took for each program to reach the postseason in the FBS. 28 teams have made the jump from FCS to FBS since 1987 and Liberty will become number 29 in 2018.

After combing through the data, we found some obvious trends and perhaps a surprising trend. Let’s take a closer look at the three groups of teams.

Perennial FCS Playoff Teams

We will start with an obvious trend: teams that had multiple playoff appearances in their final five FCS seasons were more successful than those that did not make multiple appearances. This makes sense because good teams in the FCS will naturally be more prepared to compete in the FBS.

Multiple Playoff Appearances
Team 1st FBS Year Years
Nevada 1992 1
Louisiana-Monroe 1994 19
Marshall 1994 1
Troy 2001 4
Western Kentucky 2008 5
Massachusetts 2012 Haven’t reached bowl
Georgia Southern 2014 2
Appalachian State 2014 2
Coastal Carolina 2017 Haven’t reached bowl
9 4.9
Teams Avg. Years

The table above shows that teams to make multiple playoff appearances in their final five FCS seasons have, on average, made a bowl game by their fifth season of FBS football. Three notes on this:

  1. Both Massachusetts and Coastal Carolina have yet to reach the FBS postseason since making the jump. Coastal Carolina will only be in their second year of FBS in 2018.
  2. Some observers may note that UNLV became part of the FBS in 1978, however, they went from Division 2 straight to FBS and are not included in the calculations above.
  3. Both Georgia Southern and Appalachian State had more than six wins their first season in 2014  but thanks to draconian NCAA rules both teams were ineligible for a bowl game.

Now let’s look at how these teams perform in their five final seasons of FCS football followed by their first five FBS season.

Pre Transition Single Year Average
Season Wins Losses
Year -5 8.8 4.1
Year -4 9.0 4.0
Year -3 8.7 3.6
Year -2 9.3 3.6
Year -1 8.9 3.3
All 5 Years Avg 8.9 3.7
Post Transition Single Year Average
Season Wins Losses
Year 1 5.4 6.4
Year 2 5.8 6.4
Year 3 6.6 5.4
Year 4 6.3 6.0
Year 5 6.3 5.7
All 5 Years Avg 6.1 6.0

Two notes on the post FBS transition:

  1. Both Georgia Southern and Appalachian State have not yet completed their 5th season in the FBS. The numbers above may change after 2018, but probably not too drastically.
  2. Coastal Carolina is only included in Year 1 of the post transition averages. Like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, the inclusion of CCU’s results may slightly alter the numbers.

As expected, teams that are good before leaving the FCS would be the most likely to make the jump. Once in the FBS, they struggle a bit compared to their time in the FCS, but going roughly 5-6 in year one is pretty impressive. As will be shown later, these teams show the least amount of fall off when completing the transition.

Next up, we turn our attention to the teams that have little playoff experience before making the transition.

FCS Teams Lacking Playoff Experience 

It stands to reason that good FCS teams would perform better moving up to the FBS, but how about FCS teams that are not as good? We have some evidence of this category and we use the criteria of a team that had one or no FCS playoff appearances in their final five seasons.

1 or No Playoff Appearances
Team 1st FBS Year Years
Akron 1987 19
Louisiana Tech 1989 2
Arkansas State 1992 14
North Texas 1995 7
Central Florida 1996 10
Boise State 1996 4
UAB 1996 9
Middle Tennessee 1999 8
Buffalo 1999 10
Connecticut 2000 5
Texas State 2012 Haven’t reached bowl
11 8.8
Teams Avg. Years

One note on North Texas:

  1. North Texas was in the FBS from 1975 to 1982 as an Independent. However, financial issues forced them to drop back to the FCS level for a decade (1983-1994). Due to that length of time at the FCS level, we include them in this group.

On average, it took until roughly the ninth season at the FBS level for the teams above to reach the postseason. Why would these teams make the jump if they have not been overly successful against FCS competition?

Some of these decisions were made several years in advance and their crystal ball probably did not foresee a relative downturn for the football program. If these administrators thought their football teams would not be as good perhaps they would reconsider their move.

Another reason is geographical fit to cut down on travel costs. Speaking of money, that is always a consideration in the form of more TV revenue as well as the exposure to a wider audience due to the TV contracts. More exposure on TV leads to more people being aware of the college’s presence and potentially more students.

Moreover, the facilities are already mostly there. There may be some stadium upgrades needed, but the structures are already in place so the cost is not nearly has high as if they were starting from scratch.

Whatever the reasoning behind the move, we cannot deny these teams struggle. Let’s look at the final five years in the FCS compared to the first five years in the FBS.

Pre Transition Single Year Average
Season Wins Losses
Year -5 6.6 4.8
Year -4 6.4 4.8
Year -3 5.6 5.3
Year -2 5.7 5.6
Year -1 5.6 5.5
All 5 Years Avg 6.0 5.2
Post Transition Single Year Average
Season Wins Losses
Year 1 3.2 7.8
Year 2 4.5 6.5
Year 3 5.5 5.5
Year 4 4.8 6.6
Year 5 4.7 6.7
All 5 Years Avg 4.6 6.6

The teams lacking FCS playoff experience average two wins less than teams with multiple FCS playoff appearances. In fact, the worst season for perennial playoff teams (5.4 wins in the first season) is nearly identical to the BEST average of the low playoff experience teams (5.5 in the third year).

As previously stated, this is logical. Better FCS teams are better prepared for the FBS, will be more likely to succeed, and have less catching up to do.

One final group to look at is new programs. All these schools played at least one season at the FCS level before embarking on their journey to the FBS.

New Schools

This concluding group of teams started from scratch before joining the FBS.

New Programs
Teams 1st FBS Year Years
South Florida 2001 5
Florida Atlantic 2004 4
Florida International 2004 7
UT-San Antonio 2012 5
South Alabama 2012 3
Georgia State 2013 3
Old Dominion 2014 3
Charlotte 2015 Haven’t reached bowl
8 4.3
Teams Avg. Years

Four notes on this group of teams:

  1. Like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, Old Dominion had more than six wins in 2014 but those pesky NCAA rules kept them out of a bowl game.
  2. Old Dominion previously had a football program in the early and mid 20th century. 2009 was the first season since 1940 and given the length of time, they were reasonably considered a new program.
  3. Old Dominion made the FCS Playoffs in both 2011 and 2012 and thus qualify as a playoff perennial as well. We chose to make them a new program given how recently they restarted the program.
  4. South Florida, Florida Atlantic, and UT-San Antonio all had winning records in their first season, but once more the NCAA rules prevented these teams from being selected for a bowl.

Note the average seasons it has taken new programs (4.3) compared to playoff perennials (4.9) and the playoff lacking teams (8.8). That is impressive considering they are going from no football competition whatsoever to FBS. Outside of Charlotte, every team listed above went from zero to a bowl appearance within a decade of their first season.

Post Transition Single Year Average
Season Wins Losses
Year 1 4.8 7.0
Year 2 4.9 6.8
Year 3 4.9 7.4
Year 4 4.1 7.9
Year 5 6.2 6.3
All 5 Years Avg 4.9 7.1

The new shooters also have a respectable average win total for all five years given the infancy of the programs. The question then becomes how are these teams able to compete relatively early in their school’s history? Take another look at the list of teams:

Teams
South Florida
Florida Atlantic
Florida International
UT-San Antonio
South Alabama
Georgia State
Old Dominion
Charlotte

Where are the majority of teams located? In the southeast, the most popular area for college football. Here is a link to the New York Times‘ article that provides a graphical representation of how popular college football is around the nation. Even UT-San Antonio, while not in the southeast, is in another football crazed part of the US: Texas. While not nearly the same caliber as their SEC counterparts, the fact these teams are in top recruiting states certainly helps.

The location does not explain everything as there are major costs and considerations of starting a new program. Will there be funding from outside sources? Will fans continue to show up if the team is not doing well on the field? Will the additional exposure make up for the initial outlay of costs? What are the burdens to the additional students and surrounding areas? These are just some of questions to consider when starting a football program with the intent of making it to the FBS.

Clearly these programs thought it was worth the effort and expenses to make it to the FBS. So far, these programs have seen success in the form of reaching the postseason early in their history.

Wrapping Up

After looking at the three sets of teams it is clear that you want to be a team with multiple FCS playoff appearances before heading to the FBS. To be fair, this involves some luck in the way of scheduling, injuries, and coaching changes to name a few.

For teams that have little FCS playoff experience, the best idea would be to wait until the program has shown consistent success against the best teams. This is not always practical as they window to join the FBS may be small or their football program may just have been sub-par for several seasons before the transition.

If an administration is intent on going to the FBS, then they will have to be patient and hope for some luck along the way. Consider Louisiana Tech, a team that made the Independence Bowl in their second FBS season. In addition, Connecticut was a team that went from Independent status to the Big East (albeit watered down) within 5 years of joining the FBS. Finally, there is Boise State. The Broncos went to a bowl game in their fourth FBS season, but are now one of the best Group of 5 schools every season.

That leads us to the 2018 debut of Liberty as a FBS team. The Flames have posted a winning record each season since 2007. However, they only went to one FCS playoff in their final five seasons at that division. Facing a majority of FBS teams (Idaho State and Norfolk State are the two FCS opponents), they will probably struggle this season.

Finally, we have the new programs. They do surprisingly well at the FBS level reaching the postseason in their fourth of fifth year, on average. Location is important along with some luck to help them become successful.

One closing note to make is that the above analysis looks solely at the on field performance. The decision to make the move from FCS to FBS is far more involved and nuanced. We will touch on some of those factors in our second part.

Join us for part two where we take a look at which schools would best fit to make the jump from FCS to FBS or start a new program.

FBS And FCS Changes For The 2018 Season

The Idaho Vandals will drop down from the FBS level to the FCS starting with 2018. ( Ed Zurga/Getty Images North America)

FBS And FCS Changes For The 2018 Season

August is here, which means college football is right around the corner. Below we detail the conference changes in Division 1 football (FBS and FCS) from last season.

FBS Changes

Idaho will move from the Sun Belt Conference to the much more suitable geographical conference of the Big Sky. This also means going from the FBS to the FCS, which makes them the first team to make that move. The Vandals are familiar with the Big Sky as they were part of that conference from 1965 to 1995.

New Mexico State is another team that is leaving the Sun Belt Conference, but they will remain in the FBS as an independent team. They have a scheduling quirk this year as they face Liberty twice in 2018. The first game will be October 6 at home and the matchup will be November 24 at Liberty.

Speaking of Liberty, they made the jump from the FCS’ Big South Conference to be an independent in FBS. The Flames will be a full FBS member in 2019, which will allow them to become bowl eligible. Liberty is an interesting team because they had to petition the NCAA to have the move approved.

One final note about the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference is they split the remaining 10 teams into two divisions. The East Division has Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, and Troy. The West Division has Arkansas State, Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, and Texas State. 

The Sun Belt will also hold a championship game for the first time in 2018 with the winners of the East and West Divisions meeting at the home of the higher-ranked team to decide the Sun Belt Champion.

FCS Changes

Liberty was already mentioned above going from the Big South to being a FBS Independent.

Idaho was discussed earlier under the FBS changes going to the Big Sky Conference. There is another change involving the Big Sky, which is North Dakota becoming an FCS Independent for 2018 and 2019. North Dakota will ultimately become a member of the Missouri Valley Conference in 2020. North Dakota’s games will still count in the Big Sky standings for UND’s opponents.

Campbell has moved from the Pioneer Football League to the Big South Conference. Campbell was part of the Pioneer Football League from 2008 through 2017 after they had no team from 1951 to 2007.

Hampton is moving from the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference to become a FCS Independent. They will end up in the Big South Conference starting in 2019. North Alabama is moving up from Division 2  and they will also end up as a member of the Big South Conference in 2019 . They will compete as a FCS Independent member this season.