Editor’s Note: The NCAA denied James Madison’s latest waiver request to be eligible for a bowl on Wednesday, November 15. In the same ruling, the waivers requested by Jacksonville State and Tarleton State to participate in the postseason were also denied.
James Madison currently sits at 9-0 entering their November 11 matchup against Connecticut. Most teams would be excited at the potential of an undefeated regular season and possibly receiving the Group of 5 New Year’s Day 6 bowl berth. However, the 2023 James Madison football team doesn’t represent a typical year.
James Madison was previously a member of the FCS and the CAA through the 2021 season. Beginning in 2022, they moved to the FBS and joined the Sun Belt Conference, with the FCS to FBS change triggering a two-year process under NCAA rules. One specific rule is that new FBS teams are ineligible for the postseason during the two seasons in which they are reclassifying (2022 and 2023 seasons in James Madison’s case).
As many can imagine, James Madison is not particularly fond of this rule because they’re ineligible for a bowl game as it stands, and with an undefeated season, they would be a possible pick for one of the lucrative New Year’s 6 bowl games. The school is displeased with the ineligibility as they’ve sent the NCAA numerous letters asking for a reversal. The state of Virginia doesn’t like the possibility either to the point of threatening legal action against the NCAA. With all the media surrounding this topic, let’s look at the rules for new FBS programs and then craft a solution that can prevent another JMU-type scenario.
The FCS-to-FBS Transition Rules
We already know about the postseason ineligibility portion of the FBS transition rules but there are additional requirements for any programs reclassifying to the FBS (starting on page 392). Specific to FBS programs, a school must sponsor a minimum of 16 varsity sports with at least 6 of those being male or co-ed teams and 8 being female teams. There is also the minimum that 60% of the games scheduled must be against FBS opponents and 50% of all scheduled games must be at home.
On top of that, each school must offer a minimum of 200 scholarships that total at least $4 million each year. The latter requirements are increasing to 210 scholarships and $6 million annually starting in 2027-28. This doesn’t even mention the application fee going from a paltry $5,000 to $5 million with immediate effect. In short, moving from FCS to FBS is not cheap and is going to get more expensive for any school willing to commit to the transition. The question that is often asked about these requirements is why does the rule exist?
Why the Transition Rules Exist
As easy as it is to call these rules terrible, let’s look at the NCAA’s point of view for having the requirements. We scoured the internet to find a specific reason for why this rule came to be and we ended up in the NCAA’s old news archives. The first mention of any possible change came in March 2000 when the Division 1 Football Issues Committee convened for a meeting. In that meeting, the topic of Division 1-AA to Division 1-A “migrations” was brought up as an issue to investigate.
It was at a May 2001 meeting of the NCAA Football Study Oversight Committee that the requirements originated. It included a minimum attendance requirement (now removed), a minimum number of scholarships (200 at the time), and a minimum number of sports (16 overall, 6 for men, and 8 for women). After initial approval in November 2001 (proposal 01-123), the requirements were formally approved in April 2002 with an effective date of August 1, 2004 and a subsequent proposal to push the effective date to 2005 was defeated.
Why bring all the history lessons? Well, it’s not clear if any specific scenario led to increased discussions within the NCAA. Some theories believe it was due to Marshall’s transition from 1-AA to 1-A. The Thundering Herd won the 1996 1-AA National Championship then went 10-3 in 1997 with a bowl appearance followed by a 12-1 record in the 1998 season. The theory goes that the Marshall (or any FCS team at the time) could have recruited a bunch of FBS players to join the team via transfers and stack the roster. At the time, transfers from FBS to FCS did not require the player to sit out the season while FBS to FBS transfers would have mandated the player miss one season.
As far as theories go… this one is plausible. It would have been somewhat easy to skirt the transfer rules right before leaving the FCS and the players wouldn’t have missed any valuable playing time. Marshall did have a rather famous example of that with Randy Moss. Moss joined Marshall in 1996 when they were still in I-AA and didn’t have to sit out a year. However, Marshall was the benefactor of Moss’ dismissal from Florida State and it was not an intentional ploy to skirt the rules. There’s also nothing to suggest Marshall or any other school employed this tactic to any noticeable extent. Ultimately, it appears that the NCAA was already heading down the path of more stringent requirements when factoring in previous changes they made (the 1978 Division 1 split, the 1993 rule change that required all sports to be maintained at the same level, etc.).
With the history lessons out of the way, let’s provide more legitimate reasons why the NCAA enacted these rules. First, they don’t want every school with a football program to move up to the FBS simply because they can. They want to ensure that any school applying for the transition is entirely committed to the move, which is why the financial requirements are part of the equation. This part of the rule is well-intentioned to discourage schools that do not possess the resources needed to compete at the FBS from moving up on a whim.
Secondly, the NCAA wants to discourage switching between the FBS and FCS. If a team expects to be really good for a year, the NCAA wants to make sure they don’t switch divisions simply to make a bowl game and then drop back down to the FCS. On the flip side, the NCAA does not want a school that has a really good squad to fall to the FCS and clean up in the FCS Playoffs. That kind of movement would be unfair given the difference in scholarship allowances (85 for FBS and 63 for FCS). There’s always the possibility that a school could reach the FCS Playoffs with FBS talent from the previous year and still be within the FCS scholarship limit although it wouldn’t be easily accomplished.
Finally, the two-year part of the requirements is done to protect both the NCAA and the school. The NCAA wants to give schools a chance to ramp up their resources to meet the requirements but doesn’t want that process to take too long. The two-year timeline makes sense for a school that is already a Division 1 member, which means they shouldn’t need as much time to meet the requirements compared to teams outside of Division 1. However, not every school will meet all the requirements before making the transition, which is why a transition period is provided.
Fixing the Rule
We explored the NCAA’s thinking on this topic and we think it’s time to fix the rules. How? Just pass an updated rule. Boom, the problem is fixed.
Beyond that amazing insight, the main problem is that the rule is designed to be a “one size fits all” solution but not every transition is the same. Some schools are better equipped to handle the change and others need more time to adjust to the requirements. With how the rules are written now, there’s no incentive to be fully compliant before the two-year reclassification period is complete because there’s no postseason eligibility. After all, if the latest requirement changes were implemented to discourage teams from jumping to the FBS, then there should be a path for schools that have satisfied the requirements early to participate in the postseason.
Another issue with this rule is that it doesn’t make practical sense in the current landscape. If the idea is to ensure a school is ready to compete at the FBS level and not drop back to the FCS soon after, then make the transition worth it. Very few schools are going to commit a $5 million upfront fee followed by an additional $4 million dollars over 2 years (the $4 million is based on the $2 million annual increase in scholarship funding multiplied by two) only to make a bowl game and then decide to drop back down. There’s a reason Idaho has been the only school to leave the FBS for the FCS and it took the Vandals over 20 years to make the FCS-FBS-FCS roundtrip. The increased visibility for FBS programs outweighs the costs for almost every team that has made the transition from FCS.
As for the transfer issue, it’s more of a non-issue now. The transfer theory was plausible a decade ago but it no longer applies since the NCAA allows a one-time transfer exception that will not force a player to miss a year.
To fix the rules, we would make a relatively easy change: any team that meets the requirements early will be eligible for the postseason no later than the second year of reclassification. The first year of the transition is more difficult to judge because a school could commit to having 16 varsity programs to meet requirements and be eligible for the postseason but then drop below 16 after the fact. This can be remedied in three ways. The first is that any school that already meets the requirements in the year before the transition is eligible for the postseason in year one. In the example with James Madison, they fulfilled the requirements in their final FCS year (the 2021-22 academic year) and would have been eligible for a bowl game in 2022. The second way is to keep the postseason ineligibility intact for any transitioning schools that did not meet the requirements in the final year before the start of the transition. There is a third way if a school meets the requirements and then falls below them and that is to penalize them with a two or three-year postseason ban, regardless if they stay in the FBS or rejoin the FCS. This will also act as a future deterrent.
In the case of James Madison, the school has been clear about its commitment to the higher level Division 1 athletics and the FBS. JMU has met the FBS requirements in both transition years and isn’t dropping back down to the FCS. JMU would have been eligible immediately for football postseason appearances in both years under our proposed rule change. Even if the NCAA wanted to maintain the postseason ineligibility for all first-year schools making the FCS to FBS transition, JMU would still be eligible for the 2023 season in this hypothetical scenario.
As for the 2023 James Madison football team, all hope is not lost. Should the NCAA not approve their waiver request there’s another avenue for them to play in a bowl game. There are 41 bowl games for the 2023-24 season meaning there are 82 spots available. If there are not enough 6-6 teams available to fill the 82 slots, then James Madison (and Jacksonville State) would be next up to receive a bowl bid. It may be a small consolation for the Dukes but it could ultimately be the catalyst to changing the reclassification rules sooner rather than later.
To recap, the intention of the rule is not bad. The proverbial floodgates should not be open for any team to join the FBS because this will only exacerbate the resource disparity in the FBS. The rule itself and its implementation are the main problems with the current FCS-to-FBS reclassification process. It’s fitting that Division 1 – the only NCAA division that created a subdivision due to the resource disparities caused by football – wouldn’t apply the same logic to FBS reclassifications as if some schools aren’t better prepared to handle it than others.
Photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics