Conference realignment might not be done yet. At the very least, the Sun Belt Conference is shopping for a 12th member. The MAC could also use a member to balance out their western division if they desire a 14th team, although they'd have to replace UMASS in the east as well, who is on their way out. At most, the Big 12 might be ready to either add a couple of schools or implode. What the Big 12 does could have major implications for the Mountain West, AAC, which could have major implications for Conference USA and the Sun Belt, which could have major implications for the FCS, and so on.
So if C-USA or the Sun Belt have to dip into the FCS ranks again, or the MAC feels like expanding west, who is left in the FCS that would be ready? I took a look at the top 20 of the FCS Top 25 poll released for 2015, since the most competitive programs are the most likely to be ready for an FBS jump. Much like the FBS preseason poll, there's a lot of royalty that is in the national title conversation year in and year out.
I did put up a few hurdles to clear out some of the less realistic candidates. First and foremost, they have to generate at least $15 million in revenue as an athletic department. UL-Monroe was the only FBS school that didn't in 2014. That rules out Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State, Youngstown State, and Eastern Washington.
There are also FCS mainstays that won't move up to FBS anytime for various reasons such as conference stability or small enrollment, such as New Hampshire, South Dakota State, Richmond, and Southeastern Louisiana. I also filtered out Villanova because they've made their Big East bed and have to lie in it.
Here are the factors I used to evaluate each school's FBS readiness:
- Five year win-loss record.
- Revenues generated in 2014
- Stadium size
- Five year attendance average & Percent of capacity
- Recruiting Pipelines (based on 5 or more players from a certain state on a roster)
- Nearby media markets
- Proximity to FBS conferences
1. North Dakota State Bison
Five year Win/Loss: 67-7. Oh, and four straight national titles. To add to the 8 they already had.
Revenue Generated: $20,712,638 (38.6% subsidized)
Stadium Size: Fargodome (19,000).
Five year attendance average: 17,959 (94.5% of capacity).
Recruiting pipelines: North Dakota (18), Minnesota (34), Wisconsin (19), Florida (6), Nebraska (6), Illinois (5), South Dakota (5)
Media Market: Fargo (115,863) and the state of North Dakota (739,482). Even with their far, far less successful UND cousins out in Grand Forks, they're basically the only game in the state.
Proximity to FBS conferences: The MAC could balance out the West division with NDSU if they really wanted to. Mountain West would be a bit of a stretch.
FBS readiness grade: A
Everything besides a reliable recruiting base is there for NDSU to be an FBS program. Just ask the Big 12. They already recruit nationally and make the most of the in-state talent they do recruit. And hey, if Wyoming can have an FBS team and Idaho can have two, well...
2. Illinois State Redbirds
Five year Win/Loss: 40-21 with a close national championship game loss to NDSU in 2014
Revenue Generated: $21,587,420 (70% subsidized)
Stadium Size: Hancock Stadium (13,391), but is easily expandable.
Attendance average: 8187 (61%).
Recruiting pipelines: Illinois (52), Wisconsin (12), Indiana (9), Texas (5), Missouri (5)
Media Markets: Bloomington-Normal, IL (130,000), Peoria, IL (118,943), Chicago...?
Proximity to FBS conferences: MAC (NIU)
FBS readiness grade: B+
Give Illinois State a few more years to prove 2014 wasn't a flash in the pan and expand an already renovated Hancock Stadium, and they could be a decent add for the MAC.
But shaky fan support is a concern considering the conference's well-documented attendance issues. And although Illinois has plenty of football talent to go around (see: NIU), it's not Texas, California, Florida, or the south. Could the Land of Lincoln provide enough FBS-worthy players for two P5 and two G5 schools?
5. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Five year Win/Loss: 45-20, with steady improvement from 6-6 to 12-2. One FCS Playoffs semifinal appearance.
Revenue Generated: $23,374,712 (82% subsidized)
Stadium Size: Brooks Stadium (9,214)
Attendance average: 8084 (88% of capacity)
Recruiting pipelines: South Carolina (37), Georgia (14), Florida (14), North Carolina (9), New Jersey (6), Maryland (6), Virginia (6)
Media Markets: Myrtle Beach, SC metro area (465,391)
Proximity to FBS conferences: Right in the Sun Belt's footprint, with insta-rivalries begging to be set up between CCU and both Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. Also near C-USA and AAC, but neither's interested.
FBS readiness grade: A-
Coastal's a strong program with tons of potential. The recruiting base is strong enough in the southeast to where they could fill a G5 niche by snagging overlooked FBS-caliber players in South Carolina and surrounding states. They're also a potential travel partner for App State, which is a Sun Belt priority.
However, although their revenue numbers are in line with those of other Sun Belt schools, their athletic department is highly dependent on student fees and school funds (82%), which raises questions about whether CCU would have the financial resources necessary to upgrade Brooks Stadium and financially support itself in the FBS. Still, that hasn't stopped Karl Benson from publicly flirting with the Chanticleers.
8. Chattanooga Mocs
Five year Win/Loss: 35-24 (1 conference title & playoff appearance)
Revenue Generated: $16,046,057 (73% subsidized)
Stadium Size: Finley Stadium (20,668)
Attendance average: 10,545 (51% of capacity)
Recruiting pipelines: Tennessee (45), Georgia (29), Alabama (14)
Media Markets: Chattanooga MSA (529,222)
Proximity to FBS conferences: Sun Belt (App State), C-USA (UAB), AAC (Memphis). Only the 'Belt was interested, which makes sense with the Mocs' previous conference rivalries with Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
FBS readiness grade: B
The Sun Belt already contacted them and were turned down, but that door may not be permanently closed. Per the WRCB article:
"I told (the Sun Belt) we're not considering that at this time, but those are always options to look at in the future," said (then-Interim Athletic Director) Herron, who noted UTC's newly-hired chancellor and soon-to-be hired athletic director may feel differently. "We're happy in the Southern Conference, and we look forward to dominating it in football and other sports."
Low revenues and a half-full stadium are valid concerns, although attendance might spike with the reinstatement of games against historical rivals GSU and ASU. If nothing else, the Mocs would probably be a better addition than recent Sun Belt target Eastern Kentucky.
We'll look at the bottom end of the FCS Top 25 and their FBS readiness in Part 2 of this mini-series.