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.