Conference Realignment: Which FCS Programs Could Be Next to Upgrade to the FBS?

Appalachian State Is Headed to the Sun Belt With Georgia Southern; Which FCS Schools Could Be Next to Upgrade?

Appalachian State Is Headed to the Sun Belt Conference Along With Georgia Southern; Which FCS Schools Could Be Next to Upgrade?

Schools are upgrading their football programs at a rapid pace. By 2015, 129 full members will be participating in FBS-level competition, up from 120 in 2012. That’s a 7.5-percent increase in just three years. And yet, there’s still plenty of talk about adding more schools to college football’s top tier too. While the ACC’s not jumping to add any of these schools, it’s not out of the question that this shuffling could eventually affect the sport’s top conferences – as top teams from football’s “mid-majors” look to upgrade their competition and move into the “Power Five.”

First, a recap of the recent moves from FCS to FBS:

2009: Western Kentucky (Sun Belt)

2013: South Alabama (Sun Belt), Texas State (Sun Belt), UT-San Antonio (Conference USA), UMass (MAC)

2014: Georgia State (Sun Belt)

2015: Appalachian State (Sun Belt), Charlotte (Conference USA), Georgia Southern (Sun Belt), Old Dominion (Conference USA) (*Appalachian State and Georgia Southern moves just reported today, via SB Nation)

And there’s still more schools that could potentially make the call. But who are they? Well, first a look at the basic eligibility requirements to move up to FBS from FCS (from the NCAA):

  1. Sponsor a minimum of 16 varsity intercollegiate sports, including football, based on the minimum sports sponsorship and scheduling requirements set forth in Bylaw 20. Sponsorship shall include a minimum six sports involving all male teams or mixed teams (males and females), and a minimum of eight varsity intercollegiate teams involving all female teams. Institutions may use up to two emerging sports to satisfy the required eight varsity intercollegiate sports involving all female teams. [Bylaw]

  2. Schedule and play at least 60 percent of its football contests against members of Football Bowl Subdivision. Institutions shall schedule and play at least five regular season home contests against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. [Bylaw]

  3. Average at least 15,000 in actual or paid attendance for all home football contests over a rolling two-year period. [Bylaw]

  4. Provide an average of at least 90 percent of the permissible maximum number of overall football grants-in-aid per year over a rolling two-year period. [Bylaw]

  5. Annually offer a minimum of 200 athletics grants-in-aid or expend at least four million dollars on grants-in-aid to student-athletes in athletics programs. [Bylaw]

Obviously, the second bullet is taken care of with the commitment to upgrade the program and the final two can easily be attained by just reaching those scholarship numbers. As far as item no. 1 and no. 3 though, the following schools would qualify for an FCS-to-FBS upgrade:

Delaware, Jackson State, Jacksonville State, James Madison, Liberty

… And that’s it. For many schools, they were done in by either attendance, total sponsored sports or (in many cases) both. As would surprise no one, all of these schools exist in the Southern part of the country and/or lie in an underserved football market (Delaware, in particular). Since we already know they qualify by the rule book, how likely is it that these schools make a jump in the coming years?

Delaware: The Fightin’ Blue Hens are one of the power players of FCS, owning their (aforementioned) under-served market while competing at an elite level year-in and year-out. Historically, they’ve laid claim to six national titles (though just one at the Division I level), and regularly appear in the FCS playoffs. Though they’d never feel force to move up, there’s a chance they’d be interested in an invite to the MAC or Sun Belt, especially since the latter has two open spots, hypothetically. Odds: Moderate

Jackson State: JSU is a fan favorite down in Jackson, Miss., though as a member of the SWAC, they have not participated in the FCS playoffs since 1997. Their proud history and loyal fan base are what put them in contention here, but like most of the schools in the SWAC, it’s likely Jackson State would prefer to remain where they are. A Sun Belt invite would be the only option for them, but that’s unlikely to come with other, better-situated schools also in contention for that spot. Odds: Doubtful

Jacksonville State: Jacksonville State plays in talent- and football-rich Alabama, and while they’ve never been world-beaters over the course of their history, recent success in the Ohio Valley Conference has certainly provided something to build a program on. The big draw here, beyond an entry into Alabama, is that the Gamecocks also bring a natural rivalry with current Sun Belt member Troy. The two teams faced off for the Ol’ School Bell from 1924-2001, a matchup that ended when Troy transitioned to the FBS. Odds: Low-to-Moderate

James Madison: Over the course of their 40-year history, the Dukes have become one of the elite programs at the FCS level. With one national title (2004) and a signature win over Virginia Tech back in 2010, JMU has plenty of regional and national notoriety, and a fervent fan base to go with it. The school has not had a losing record since 2002, and with its advantageous position in the growing state of Virginia, there appears to be plenty of good times ahead for them as well. Sure, the Sun Belt could be a short-term goal, but JMU could also find themselves in Conference USA over time, should the Big East make further expansion moves at its expense. Odds: Moderate

Liberty: While certainly starting slow during their time at the FCS level, the Flames have come on strong in recent seasons, winning the Big South in five of the last six years. Another Virginia school, they’ve carved out a niche as the elite football-playing private school in the state; which is both a positive and negative for an upgrade. Liberty is in no rush to move up, but at the same time, another strong five-year stretch under current head coach Turner Gil (formerly of Buffalo and Kansas), may make the move to the Sun Belt much more appealing. Odds: Low

Obviously, I could end up being completely off-base with these evaluations, especially if a current D-I school decides to just start up a football program from scratch (similar to what South Alabama and Charlotte did). But if the winds of realignment start blowing again, I think anything and everything could be on the table again, as the trickle-down effect impacts every conference from top, on down.

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6 thoughts on “Conference Realignment: Which FCS Programs Could Be Next to Upgrade to the FBS?

  1. JMU and Delaware are the two that immediately come to mind when thinking of FCS to FBS transition (other than Appalachian State, who apparently has finally received an invitation).

    In theory, Delaware has Temple right up the road as a potential rival. Their problem is that UD would probably fit best in a northeastern conference, and most of the northeastern FBS teams are locked into the ACC or B1G. JMU doesn’t have any real close neighbors (other than UVA & VT) but is closer to other non-top tier southeastern schools.

    In a theoretical new “geographically sensible” northeast conference, there could be a lineup of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Army, Navy, Temple, Delaware, JMU, ODU, Appalachian State, East Carolina (each school with a close rival). However, I’d think that logically, those teams that are able to (the VA / NC schools) would be better aligned with the football-crazed southeast vs. the more-pro-sports northeast.

    • Right. No real draw for Appalachian State, ECU JMU and ODU to join a league like the Big East or MAC if they have options in C-USA and the Sun Belt. I’ll admit right off the bat that this list certainly operates under stricter guidelines than even the NCAA would. No Sam Houston State, Montana or Montana State (scholarships and/or attendance issues), but where the FBS will likely see more growth in the coming years is the southeast, Texas and West Coast. Maybe this creates a new conference (or Big Sky move-up). Maybe it just grows the existing ones. But the landscape is certainly continuing to shift.

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  3. I believe that James Madison, Delaware, and Jacksonville State will all make the transition in the near future. And I think that Massachusetts may decide that they cannot sustain an FBS football program. They will probably drop down or end it altogether. Thanks.

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