With a new season upon us and two new teams in the FBS, we look at how teams coming from the FCS perform. We’ve researched this topic once before back in 2018 but we wanted to provide an updated article for a few reasons. First, there are more data points that can be included thanks to the previous 5 years. Secondly, we updated the seasons when the FBS to FCS transition started for some teams making this article more consistent. Finally, we will see three teams make the jump from FCS to FBS in the next two years. Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State will join Conference USA this year while Kennesaw State will join C-USA in 2024. Let’s start with some basic guidelines and facts for the data presented below.

1978 Division 1 Split

We’re not going to provide a long history lesson for this but wanted to give some background. The data presented below goes back to the 1978 split of Division 1 into 1-A (now called the FBS) and 1-AA (now called the FCS). You can read more about it at Fear The FCS, which is where we obtained a solid portion of historical information that serves as the basis for this article.

Between 1978 and 1986, East Tennessee State was the only school to move from the FCS to the FBS. ETSU left the Ohio Valley Conference in 1979 to join the Southern Conference. That lasted until 1982 when several conferences dropped from what was then the 1-A (FBS) to the 1-AA (FCS). We have chosen not to include them as they only had 1 season as a member of the FCS and the pre-transition years were already against similar D1 foes. Our data starts in 1987 with Akron leaving the OVC to become a 1-A independent.

We have several different categories that we measure or track for this analysis. The first one is the first year of the transition, which is defined by the first season in 1-A/FBS. For example, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State are joining in 2023 meaning this is year one. Any season prior to this is considered T-n to help measure how teams perform. We also track FCS postseason appearances in the prior five years to a transition, wins and losses at both the FBS and FCS levels, and how long it took for the school to make a bowl game.

Schools in the Data and Caveats

Below is a list of all the schools that have moved from FCS to FBS since 1987. We have included the first year in the FBS as well as the conference or status when they made the transition.

Team1st Year in 1-A/FBS
(Transition Year)
First Conference JoinedGrouping
Akron1987FBS IndependentLacking Playoff Experience
Louisiana Tech1989FBS IndependentLacking Playoff Experience
Arkansas State1992FBS IndependentLacking Playoff Experience
Nevada1992Big WestMultiple Playoff Appearances
Louisiana-Monroe1994FBS IndependentLacking Playoff Experience
North Texas1995FBS IndependentLacking Playoff Experience
Boise State1996Big WestLacking Playoff Experience
Central Florida1996FBS IndependentLacking Playoff Experience
Idaho1996Big WestMultiple Playoff Appearances
UAB1996FBS IndependentLacking Playoff Experience
Marshall1997MACMultiple Playoff Appearances
Buffalo1999MACLacking Playoff Experience
Middle Tennessee1999FBS IndependentLacking Playoff Experience
Connecticut2000FBS IndependentLacking Playoff Experience
South Florida2001FBS IndependentNew Program
Troy2002FBS IndependentMultiple Playoff Appearances
Florida Atlantic2005Sun BeltNew Program
Florida International2005Sun BeltNew Program
Western Kentucky2008Sun BeltMultiple Playoff Appearances
Massachusetts2012MACMultiple Playoff Appearances
South Alabama2012Sun BeltNew Program
Texas State2012WACMultiple Playoff Appearances
Texas-San Antonio2012WACNew Program
Georgia State2013Sun BeltNew Program
Old Dominion2013C-USANew Program
Appalachian State2014Sun BeltMultiple Playoff Appearances
Georgia Southern2014Sun BeltMultiple Playoff Appearances
Charlotte2015C-USANew Program
Coastal Carolina2017Sun BeltMultiple Playoff Appearances
Liberty2018FBS IndependentLacking Playoff Experience
James Madison2022Sun BeltMultiple Playoff Appearances
Jacksonville State2023C-USAMultiple Playoff Appearances
Sam Houston State2023C-USAMultiple Playoff Appearances
Kennesaw State2024C-USAMultiple Playoff Appearances

Of course, every analysis we perform has some caveats. In this case, we start by acknowledging the change in the NCAA’s transition by-laws. The most significant difference is that new FBS teams no longer can make a bowl game in the first season (and possibly the first two seasons in some cases) thanks to the NCAA’s draconian rules. That alone will skew the averages because teams like James Madison should have made a bowl game in its first FBS season. The same thing happened to Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in 2014. In fact, JMU may not even make a bowl game in 2023 unless there are not enough 6-6 teams to fill all the bowl games.

Another caveat is the lack of consistency for each grouping we present below. Within the data, not every team played 5 seasons at the FCS level before moving to the FBS such as newly started programs that made a quick jump. The same is true for those now in the FBS where not every team has played 5 seasons at the level (JMU, JSU, and SHSU fall into this category).

Team Categories and How Teams Perform Before and After Transition

As we did in 2018, we will group the teams into four categories and there is some overlap. The first group will be all the teams that moved from the FCS to the FBS. The second group will be teams that had two or more FCS playoff appearances during the final five seasons at the FCS level. The third group will be teams that had one or fewer FCS playoff appearances during the final five seasons at the FCS level. The last grouping will be new teams, which moved to the FBS within the first five seasons of its existence.

Our first chart will show how each of those groups performed in the final five seasons at the FCS level. In the case of the new programs, most schools don’t have more than two or three years of games making the averages a bit skewed. The second chart will show how each of these groups performed in the first five seasons at the FBS level. As a reminder, all the numbers below are averages for each of the groups.

Unsurprisingly, the teams with multiple FCS playoff appearances perform the best when transitioning to the FBS. This makes sense because they were already near the top of the FCS and were competing at a high level and these teams already have the foundation built to become competitive in the FBS from the start. Of the teams in this group that have moved to the FBS, only two teams have not made a bowl game in the first five seasons: James Madison (due to the NCAA rules and it's only been 1 season) and Massachusetts. The trio of Jacksonville State, Kennesaw State, and Sam Houston State would fall into this category.

The other two groups have a lot of overlap. New programs tend to be pointed to the FBS jump rather quickly meaning they are either ineligible to be in the FCS playoffs or they simply didn't play all five years at the FCS before moving meaning they don't have as many chances to make the FCS playoffs. They perform similarly but we can see if there are any differences by breaking them down further. Below we have separated them into strictly new programs (8 teams) and little playoff experience (12 teams).

New Programs Versus Teams Lacking FCS Playoff Experience

The table below shows three categories in the last five FCS seasons and the first five FBS seasons: all 20 teams, teams with one or fewer FCS playoff appearances in the final five FCS seasons that are not new programs (12 teams), and only new programs (8) teams. Let's see how each category performed.

It's a bit of a mixed bag. New programs have a strong first season but teams lacking playoff experience bounce back to be even in the second season and overtake new programs in the third and fourth seasons. By the fifth season in the FBS, both groups perform similarly. The one area of difference is when it comes to making a bowl game. New programs make a bowl game a full season faster (4.1 seasons on average) than those with little FCS playoff experience (5.1 seasons).

Reaching Bowl Games

The final metric we will discuss and compare across the groups is bowl games. We looked up when each team made a bowl game (if they did) and counted how many seasons it took to reach one. The two teams that have not reached a bowl game in our sample are Massachusetts and Texas State. Both teams jumped to the FBS in 2012 and as of 2022 neither have reached a bowl game. We have included the 11 seasons the teams have played at the FBS in the averages. We excluded James Madison from this calculation as they have yet to make a bowl game and including them would skew the average down artificially.

Another note: this is a simple and crude method to apply to each group. There are several examples of teams being bowl eligible long before making a bowl game, which will skew the numbers higher. However, we wanted to apply the same consistency across the entire timeframe as rules have changed since 1987 and bowl game opportunities have expanded.

Final Thoughts

Based on the analysis we performed above, we have similar thoughts to our post in 2018. Teams that have multiple FCS playoff appearances before moving to the FBS have done remarkably well and it's no surprise given the higher competitive level they displayed before moving up. New programs will perform better in terms of making a playoff appearance compared to FCS teams that had one or fewer FCS playoff appearances. However, the two groups end up being similar by the 5th season in the FBS in terms of record.

As of this writing, there are three new teams arriving at the FBS level over the next two seasons. Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State have joined for 2023 while Kennesaw State will move to C-USA in 2024. All three teams have multiple FCS playoff appearances, which means they are poised for success. Obviously, a lot more goes into how well a program does at the FBS than a simple metric like the number of FCS playoff appearances. This wasn't a comprehensive analysis as there are many factors that can go into a school's performance during a transition to the FBS including numerous qualitative data points. We hope you enjoyed the update to this article from 2018 and the inclusion of numerous graphics to help illustrate the data.

Photo courtesy of Sam Houston State Athletics

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