By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If your head is spinning from all the talk regarding expansion and realignment among FBS conferences, join the fast- growing club. There are more scenarios being bandied around than there were in six seasons of "Lost".
The anticipated moves across the FBS should filter down to the FCS, where there are programs primed for the move up one level. Schools - well, alumni and fans - are always talking about such moves, but making one has to make sense in so many ways for a school, none more important than academically and financially. Few schools could pull it off with great success.
There's nothing wrong with a national power remaining a big fish in the smaller FCS pond. There's also nothing wrong with an FCS program aspiring for a higher level. Look what Boise State has done since it left the Big Sky Conference in 1996 for the greener pastures of what then was known as Division I-A football.
But the FBS doesn't need any more struggling programs like Western Kentucky or Florida International, and an FCS program moving up faces the prospect of losing a lot. That programs like Sacramento State and Portland State, which don't contend in the Big Sky, are considered for the short list of possible additions to the Western Athletic Conference is enough for anyone to hope that none of the FBS dominoes fall.
All the pieces have to be in place for a rise in divisions. Most schools would have to spend at least several million dollars to increase their number of scholarships (from 63 to 85) and coaches, upgrade facilities, add women's scholarships or even a sport because of Title IX obligations, and meet other minimum standards for joining the FBS. Even the last two FCS champions, Richmond in 2008 and Villanova in 2009, don't have the stadiums to meet the required 15,000 in actual or paid attendance over a rolling two-year period.
Montana - A move to the FBS has been talked about for a number of years in Missoula, and on the surface, this might seem to be the program best-suited for going up a division. The Grizzlies have won or shared 12 straight Big Sky titles, appeared in the FCS playoffs for 17 straight seasons as well as in the last two championship games (losing both times), and have a rabid, state-wide fan base that helped them to lead the FCS in home attendance average (24,417) in 2009. Plus the WAC would be interested should its conference need restocking. However, Montana would still need to pour millions into a move. The university would have to improve facilities, despite its expansion project at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, and you could argue that the state doesn't have a talent base suitable for the FBS level (the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported there were only two Montana natives on FBS rosters last season). Will the fans stay interested if Montana is 4-8 and not 10-1 in the regular season?
Appalachian State - Like Montana, the Mountaineers may be best-suited to remain on the FCS level, where they are a threat to win the national title every season (they won three straight from 2005-07), and draw well (No. 2 to Montana last season with an average attendance of 24,004). Over 10 years ago, App State commissioned an official study that found it was not feasible to try to move up to the FBS. Alumni and fans have kept the talk alive, but any move would seemingly be to the Sun Belt Conference or Conference USA, and the Boone, N.C., school would lose its natural rivals from the Southern Conference and suddenly be sending its teams (that's right, baseball, tennis, etc.) to schools as far away as Texas.
CAA Football trio of Villanova, Delaware and James Madison - The reigning FCS champion won't be making any move to the FBS if it continues to play in a 12,500-seat stadium. If that problem can be solved, it would be a natural fit for the Big East should the conference need new football members. Villanova's other athletic teams already play in the conference. Delaware, which ranked fourth in the FCS in attendance average last season at 20,750, has a statewide following, a profitable athletic program and could be another Big East candidate. But the second-smallest state may not be able to afford being on the FBS level, having already drawn the ire of its fans in recent years while raising ticket and parking prices. At James Madison, the expansion of Bridgeforth Stadium to 25,000 hints at anticipated growth for the program, but, like Appalachian State, it loses natural rivals with a move to Conference USA or the Sun Belt Conference.
Others - Two former FCS powers that have decreased in stature, Georgia Southern (Sun Belt interest?) and Youngstown State (Mid-American Conference interest?), are usually a part of discussions for moves to the FBS. Old Dominion burst onto the scene last season with a 9-2 debut, averaged 19,782 fans (fifth-best in the FCS) and is surrounded by excellent high school talent in the Commonwealth of Virginia. But the Monarchs will be hard-pressed to be competitive in CAA Football next year, let alone with a future move to the FBS. In addition, North Dakota State is an interesting candidate for the WAC because it has proven it can draw well in Fargo and compete against FBS programs.