While the dust on the latest realignment changes hasn’t quite settled, it won’t stop us from looking at the next round of moves. After all, some conferences may still want to expand further to shore up their membership or to maintain NCAA postseason automatic qualifier status at the lower end of Division 1.
We take a look at the case for the Kennesaw State Owls football program to move between subdivisions by evaluating both the pros and cons. We will start with a little background but before we get there we will put up an important disclaimer: This is pure speculation and not based on inside information. We are simply writing this article as an exercise for a recent FCS newcomer who has shown success on the field. Now let’s get to the history of Kennesaw State football.
Kennesaw State Football History
Kennesaw State football is a relatively recent addition to the college football landscape after being officially approved in February 2013 with a target of playing its first football season in 2015 as an FCS team. The Owls ended up joining the Big South Conference in September 2013 as its home for others sports – the ASUN – did not sponsor football at the time. The ASUN will begin sponsoring football in 2022 with Kennesaw State moving its football program to the ASUN.
The beginning of the football program went well in 2015 considering some of the teams in the Big South. They went 6-5 overall against the likes of Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, and Liberty in their first season although they won only three games against Division I competition. Charleston Southern and Coastal Carlina both made the FCS Playoffs in 2015 with CSU reaching the quarterfinals.
2016 saw KSU improve to 8-3 overall with Charleston Southern winning the Big South again and making the FCS Playoffs. The improvement by Kennesaw State was a precursor to what they were about to accomplish.
In 2017, KSU lost the season opener 28-23 to Samford and then ripped off 12 wins in a row before falling in the FCS Quarterfinals with a 34-27 loss at Sam Houston State. The Owls won the Big South while finishing 8th in the STATS FCS Top 25 and 9th in the Coaches Poll with head coach Brian Bohannon being named AFCA Coach of the Year.
2018 was just about a carbon copy of 2017 for the Owls. They lost the season opener 24-20 at Georgia State and then ripped off 12 wins in a row to win the Big South again. The streak ended in the FCS Quarterfinals, although this time it was at home against South Dakota State 27-17. KSU finished 5th in the STATS Top 25 and 4th in the Coaches Poll following the 2018 season.
2019 saw a relative step back for Kennesaw State. They lost two regular-season games including one to Monmouth in the Big South. That loss cost them the Big South title but the Owls were still selected for the FCS Playoffs as an at-large team. They lost in the second round on the road against Weber State 26-20 to finish 11-3.
The 2020 season was impacted by COVID, which led to a spring FCS season. The Owls started 4-0 and faced Monmouth in the regular-season finale with the winner getting the Big South’s automatic qualifier to the FCS Playoffs. Monmouth dusted the Owls 42-17 and Kennesaw State did not receive an at-large bid. It was the first time the Owls failed to make the FCS Playoffs since 2016.
Kennesaw State returned to form in 2021 with a stellar regular season and a playoff appearance. They lost the second game to Georgia Tech 45-17 but ripped off 9 wins in a row to finish 10-1 and claim the Big South crown. The Owls had to play in the opening round and ran over Davidson for a 48-21 win. The second-round game at East Tennessee State saw them hold a 31-17 lead with 90 seconds left but they surrendered two touchdowns and a two-point conversion to fall 32-31 in a stunning collapse.
As mentioned previously, Kennesaw State will move its football team to the ASUN starting with the 2022 season. That will put them in a conference alongside Austin Peay, Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State, and North Alabama. Jacksonville State will play only 1 season of ASUN football before moving up to the FBS and into Conference USA.
The Owls have been a mainstay in the FCS Playoffs with four appearances in the last five seasons with two quarterfinal appearances. They have also been a top team in the Big South with no finish worse than 2nd in the last five years. The table below shows how Kennesaw State has fared in the Big South and FCS Playoffs since its first season in 2015.
|FCS Playoff Finish|
|2015||2-4||6-5||T-5th Big South||Did not participate|
|2016||3-2||8-3||T-3rd Big South||Did not participate|
|2017||5-0||12-2||1st Big South||Quarterfinals|
|2018||5-0||11-2||1st Big South||Quarterfinals|
|2019||5-1||11-3||2nd Big South||Second Round|
|2020||2-1||4-1||2nd Big South||Did not participate|
|2021||7-0||11-2||1st Big South||Second Round|
|2022||Football will join ASUN starting in 2022|
The ASUN in 2022 and 2023
It’s worth taking a moment to discuss how the ASUN football membership will look in the next few years. As mentioned previously, the ASUN will have 6 members in 2022, which is the minimum needed to obtain an FCS Playoff automatic qualifying bid. Jacksonville State will depart for C-USA in 2023. Below is a map showing the ASUN football programs with Jacksonville State in yellow.
When the 2023 season rolls around, the ASUN will need a replacement for Jacksonville State to maintain a minimum of 6 eligible football members to keep the AQ status. It may seem like a foregone conclusion that the ASUN will find another football-playing member but the conference took a big hit with Liberty’s departure as Liberty athletics were an attractive feature of the conference. The competition at the FCS level between the ASUN, MEAC, OVC, and Southland to find additional football members will intensify and this point is worth bringing up if current ASUN members start to worry about the stability of the football membership.
Let’s move on to some pros and cons of Kennesaw State hypothetically moving to the FBS.
Reasons to Jump Up
The first reason to think a move to the FBS might eventually be in the cards is that the university has a demonstrated history of moving up. The Owls first established an athletics department at the NAIA level in 1984 and then moved up to Division II starting with the 1995 season. After a decade as a D2 member, the Owls once again moved up this time to Division I in 2005. It’s logical to think that KSU may seek to continue its ascent up the ladder with a move to the FBS at some point in the future. However, past decisions do not guarantee the same will happen in the future.
The second reason for Kennesaw State to make the jump to the FBS is its location. Back in 2018, we had an article that looked at teams making the move from FCS to FBS. One takeaway from that article? The location of the newest FBS teams has largely been in the southeast, which is one of the most popular areas in the United States for college football.
Finally, there’s a sizeable student enrollment that would help support a move up to the FBS. Kennesaw State has about 43,000 students, which represents a tripling of the student body since 1990. Combine that with the population movements to the southern US in addition to the popularity of football in the region, and there are plenty of reasons on paper to move up to the FBS.
Now that we’ve covered some of the reasons to move up, there are some negative aspects to a hypothetical FBS move that needs to be discussed.
Moving from the FCS to FBS is not always the utopia that athletic administrators dream it will be. One of the highest costs when moving to FBS is upgrading the facilities. For Kennesaw State, they are new enough to the point that will not be much of an issue except for one large component: the stadium.
The Owls play at Fifth Third Bank Stadium, which has a maximum capacity of 8,300. FBS teams are required to have at least 15,000 in attendance at least one time in a two-year span (page 424). A doubling of the stadium capacity would be quite the expenditure outlay in anticipation of making the jump for any school and that’s only to barely meet the requirements. KSU could opt to go even larger on the expansion to accommodate potentially higher attendance figures.
Let’s use some recent FCS to FBS examples to provide a rough estimate of this cost. Coastal Carolina spent $32 million to expand from a 9,200-seat stadium to a capacity of 18,000 back in 2016. Liberty expanded from 12,000 seats to 19,000 seats in 2010 at a cost of $22 million. Accounting for inflation, it’s not hard to see Kennesaw State facing a bill of $30-$35 million to double capacity to reach FBS requirements.
One workaround, albeit highly unlikely, is moving some or all home games to Atlanta to get the 15,000 student attendance. The problem with this scenario is downtown Atlanta is roughly 25 miles from campus and begs the question of how many students want to constantly travel downtown for a home game? The aforementioned student enrollment of 43,000 is a huge plus but a campus stadium would be electric and more suitable for home games. This arrangement might see increased attendance from visiting fans given the 12-mile drive from Atlanta International to the Mercedes-Benz stadium but how much that increases attendance (if at all) is difficult to quantify.
A move to downtown Atlanta would likely mean sharing a home field with the Atlanta Falcons. Would the Falcons want to lease a field to Kennesaw State for five to seven Saturdays a year? Planning for that contingency – as well as other entertainment events – makes the “home away from home” avenue extremely unlikely.
The stadium aspect is a huge sticking point as the school is already going to have increased costs to meet other requirements to have an FBS program. Granted, there would also be additional revenue from TV deals that are more lucrative at the FBS level than the FCS level but costs will also increase as revenues increase.
For Kennesaw State, the majority (52%) of their $28.5 million in revenue comes from student fees. Considering students contributed $14.7 million, there might be pushback to allow the fees to grow any further to accommodate an FBS move. Between ticket sales and TV money, the Owls brought in roughly $1.6 million from those two sources in 2019, which would grow in any move to the FBS.
Aside from the stadium costs, additional scholarships, upgrades to the weight/locker rooms, and increased administration and coaching salaries, the biggest obstacle is getting an invite from an FBS conference. Given the recent realignment changes, there may not be open doors in some cases while others may be more willing to invite an FCS team. Let’s take a look at the possible FBS conferences that Kennesaw State might call home in this hypothetical case.
There are 3 FBS conferences we will consider as possible destinations for Kennesaw State in this hypothetical scenario: the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, and the Sun Belt. We’ll discuss all three in-depth and how the Owls would stack up in various categories. We’ll go in alphabetical order starting with the AAC and all conferences will be based on membership starting with the 2023 season.
American Athletic Conference
If Kennesaw State were invited to the AAC, they would be in a good geographic location with a major airport nearby for easy travel access. As shown in the map below, they would be in the middle of the entire conference membership, which would ease travel costs for them as a new FBS member. In addition, they’d bring some symmetry to the East-West divide in the conference although there would likely be a 16th member added to the East. (Whether the AAC keeps Navy in the West Division or moves them to the East might play a factor in this hypothetical 16th team).
Now to the finances of Kennesaw State and the AAC members. For KSU, they’d have to make a significantly higher investment in athletics and football to be competitive in the AAC. Football spending alone would have to nearly triple from $5.4 million to $15 million to reach the average of the AAC schools (KSU is shown in yellow on the chart below while the AAC average is in orange). This isn’t impossible as the AAC would pay roughly $7 million a year per school under the current TV deal. Other sources of funding such as sponsorships, donations, and corporate giving would likely increase as well given the higher profile of the school as an AAC member.
(Kennesaw State is not included in the AAC averages and all data is based on 2019 information. No athletic revenue or football spending could be found for the US Naval Academy. Public school finance data can be obtained from the Knight Commission CAFI database while private school data was retrieved from EADA).
So why wouldn’t Kennesaw State to the AAC happen in this scenario? First, the AAC doesn’t invite teams straight from the FCS. That’s not to say it would never happen but there’s a curve when moving from the FCS to the FBS that needs to be handled properly for it to work most effectively. The AAC’s position as the premier Group of 5 conference would make this an unlikely destination for almost any FCS team’s first FBS conference.
Secondly, the Owls need additional investments before reaching this level. KSU needs to build a bigger stadium as discussed earlier but they’d also have to upgrade the weight room and football offices as well as hire additional compliance, administrative, and football staff. This doesn’t even factor in the other sports that might need to see similar changes in scholarships, staff, or general administrative duties to be competitive in the AAC.
Overall, this is the most unlikely of the 3 FBS conferences as the benefits are heavily tilted towards Kennesaw State. The location outside Atlanta is convenient for Kennesaw State in terms of travel and it’s a major city for the AAC to build up its brand. However, there’s too much that Kennesaw State needs to accomplish in a short time frame for this to be a reality in the next few years. The long-term may be a different story if they jump to the FBS and establish themselves as a top G5 program, which the AAC might view more positively in the next realignment shuffle.
C-USA presents an interesting scenario for Kennesaw State. If the Owls joined C-USA, they would be the 10th football member, which would allow for a conference championship and travel wouldn’t be outrageous. The worst trips would be UTEP/NMSU and FIU while they would have several regional trips to Jacksonville State, Middle Tennessee, and Western Kentucky. Even Liberty, Louisiana Tech, and Sam Houston State wouldn’t be too far as shown in the map below. Plus, C-USA is friendly to FCS call-ups as noted by Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State recently being added to the conference (not to mention Charlotte, Old Dominion, and UTSA in the 2010 – 2014 realignment shift).
In terms of athletic spending, Kennesaw State matches up very well with fellow C-USA members. The Owls had roughly $28.5 million in revenue in 2019 with the C-USA average at $34 million. Football spending is roughly half of the C-USA average (KSU had $5.4 million in 2019 compared to the C-USA average of $11.1 million in 2019), which will have to increase but would happen naturally for any move from the FCS to the FBS.
One caveat when looking at the chart below: the trio of Jacksonville State, Kennesaw State, and Sam Houston State are not included in the averages given they reflect finances for the FCS level as of 2019. (All data is based on 2019 information. Public school finance data can be obtained from the Knight Commission CAFI database while private school data was retrieved from EADA).
Overall, the C-USA is a decent fit for Kennesaw State. Geographically, they have a mix of close opponents and some further away. Having two FCS schools recently make the transition to FBS will also help Kennesaw State as they can get a roadmap of what works and doesn’t work specifically for C-USA (KSU can also look back at other teams that have moved up).
One of the possible downsides to this move would be whether Kennesaw State has full confidence in C-USA. It was just months ago that C-USA had only 4 committed programs so the conference isn’t perfectly stable yet. However, that may be a different story by 2023 or even later down the road.
C-USA also has a very low TV rights deal that only pays $500,000 per year per school. While that may be higher than what KSU gets now, that low payout isn’t the most enticing when you consider all the upfront investments they have to make when joining the FBS. Nevertheless, C-USA is a viable option if Kennesaw State is deadset on a future move to the FBS.
The final conference we will look at Kennesaw State joining in this scenario is Sun Belt. There are numerous reasons the Sun Belt is a logical destination starting with geography. The Owls would be in the middle of the conference – just like in the AAC – but the travel isn’t nearly as far. There would likely be a 16th team added to the west to help balance out the divisions at 8 teams each.
If Kennesaw State joined the Sun Belt, it would fit in terms of finances. The athletic revenue of $28.5 million in 2019 wasn’t far off the Sun Belt average of $33.3 million (Aside – James Madison’s finances are currently above average in the Sun Belt without even playing a down. There’s no reason the Dukes can’t be a top program in the Sun Belt in most sports).
Kennesaw State’s 2019 football spending at the FCS level was $5.4 million but that isn’t far behind Louisiana-Monroe’s $5.8 million. While the results for ULM have been poor (no winning seasons since 2012), it’s not hard to envision KSU easily spending additional money to be more competitive right out of the gate at the FBS level.
(James Madison and Kennesaw State are not included in the Sun Belt averages to keep consistency with the FCS teams not being included as done with the AAC and C-USA averages. All data is based on 2019 information. Public school finance data can be obtained from the Knight Commission CAFI database while private school data was retrieved from EADA).
The Sun Belt will pay out roughly $2 million per year per school under the current TV rights deal once the newest members join in 2022 or 2023. That alone is more than the $1.6 million per year they received in 2019 from ticket sales and TV revenue. Joining the FBS and Sun Belt would see that $2 million figure rise even higher with an expected increase in attendance for football and basketball games.
Let’s also not forget the other teams in Sun Belt East Division where KSU would reside in this scenario. This would be a division full of teams who also moved from the FCS to FBS. The model started by Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, and Georgia Southern can be used as a blueprint to be replicated by the Owls.
One small worry about moving up to the Sun Belt would be having to play mid-week games that might hurt ticket sales if the Owls struggle after the move up. Assuming they don’t struggle forever, there would most likely be a net benefit to revenues with increased attendance vaulting upward for the entire season as compared to the FCS level.
Overall, the Sun Belt would be an excellent landing spot for Kennesaw State if they moved up to the FBS. The biggest hurdle would be getting an invite from the conference, which might be unlikely unless they plan to go to 16 or a current member decides to move to another conference.
Kennesaw State has been a good FCS team since its first football season in 2015. Although they have yet to advance beyond the Quarterfinal stage in the FCS Playoffs, they are still a program that is capable of reaching the pinnacle at the FCS level in the near future.
The location near Atlanta, the large student population, and being in the geographic epicenter of college football all bode well for Kennesaw State’s future FBS prospects. The huge outlays needed for upgrading the stadium and the general increase in expenses associated with moving up to the FBS must be considered when making this decision. With that in mind, they certainly have several successful blueprints of recent FCS to FBS moves that will give them the best chance of their own success.
If Kennesaw State does move up in the future, they’d likely end up in C-USA or the Sun Belt barring a drastic change in NCAA policy that allows entire conferences to move divisions or subdivisions. Both have alluring reasons for joining but the Sun Belt seems like the preferred destination though this is realignment and anything is possible. The Owls would need an invite from a conference as well as any institutional and legislative sign-offs for this to happen.
While we certainly like Kennesaw State as a future FBS prospect, we acknowledge that sentiment might not be true for the current administration or the student body. They may feel right at home playing in the FCS but in the realignment world, things can change in a hurry.
Photo courtesy of Kennesaw State University