Published November 20, 2014
With just two weekends left in the regular season, graduation day is approaching for the current class of FCS independent programs.
And just like a student graduating, the future is murky on whether or not that individual, or team, will find immediate success in the next endeavor.
It's a reality Texas State, Georgia State, South Alabama and the University of Texas-San Antonio all must face next season, as their future locations are already set, but wins and losses are far from determined.
Last year's graduating class of independents has found limited success, as Lamar and Savannah State have struggled to climb out of the basements of the Southland Conference and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, respectively.
However, if there is a gold-standard for the independent-to-conference transition, it's Old Dominion.
In their first season as a full-time CAA Football member, the Monarchs have stormed out to a 8-2 start and are a lock to reach the postseason. Of course, transitions like this don't happen overnight. The Monarchs posted an impressive 17-5 record during their two-year tenure as an independent program.
On top of its impressive record, the Monarchs also received ample support from the surrounding community and campus - both financially and in spirit - giving coach Bobby Wilder a strong foundation to build on.
"When you have that type of support, then you can put in a proper system as a coach and implement what you're looking to accomplish on special teams, defense and offense," Wilder said.
Unfortunately, Old Dominion's example is a tough one to follow, as the four current independents are facing a difficult challenge after the transition.
At UTSA and Georgia State, the support may be there, but the results on the field have yet to reflect the enthusiasm in the crowd.
Set to join the FBS and the Western Athletic Conference next season, UTSA has struggled this season, falling to 3-5 and suffering losses that former BCS Championship winning coach Larry Coker never expected.
"I think we've made some improvements, but there certainly have been some disappointments," he said. "We've lost some games we should've won, blown some leads, and just missed some on some opportunities."
But, even with the struggles his team has faced, Coker is confident his team is on the right track - even if they take a beating or two in the WAC next season.
"I've seen our team getting better," Coker said. "We are a very young team, mostly true or redshirt freshmen. But they're learning how to practice, how to go to class; all things that are part of becoming a complete college football player. The hope is that we do thing right and that next year we learn from taking these lumps."
The shiny silver lining on the Roadrunners' season is their youth. With such a young roster, Coker believes he may have the most experienced sophomore class in the nation next year - at any level.
Two weeks ago, the Roadrunners took another step in the right direction, defeating Georgia State, 17-14, in overtime. It was a win that Coker called a big stepping-stone for his program.
While Coker was taking positives out of the Oct. 29 victory, Georgia State coach Bill Curry saw his team continue to fall off the pace it seemed to have set in its inaugural season.
"This year has been a very disappointing season," Curry said. "The things I thought would happen in the first year didn't happen then, but they did this year. Lapses in concentration, taking leads into the fourth quarter and not holding them."
At 2-7, the Panthers have been outscored 278-184, and suffered a 30-27 overtime loss to Division III St. Francis (Ill.) last week. Needless to say, a quick turnaround is needed if Georgia State plans to even compete in the CAA - widely regarded as the FCS' toughest conference - next season.
"I think the head coach has done a poor job," Curry said, pointing the finger at himself. "When you see a team consistently making the same mistakes, then they're not being coached the right way. It's my job to get it corrected, and I've not done a good job."
Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you slice it, Curry has past experience helping teams get over the hump.
In the 1980s, Curry helped Georgia Tech bounce back from back-to-back one-win seasons and guided the Yellow Jackets to a 29-24-3 record over the next six seasons. To complete a similar turnaround, and not get smoked in the CAA next season, Curry understands the task at hand.
"We've got to fix the problems physically and in attitude," Curry said. "The off-season program and the summer are going to be crucial for us, especially if we want to have any chance at all to compete in the CAA."
While UTSA and Georgia State have struggled this season, South Alabama and Texas State seem to have a more promising not-so-distant future.
In addition to posting winning records, both programs have taken additional steps toward being competitive at the next level.
For Texas State, coach Dennis Franchione that additional step is building a new atmosphere, one he described as "under construction."
"I've kind of jokingly said we're under construction, but it's actually pretty accurate," Franchione said. "The name of our program is 'Under Construction'. Our team in under construction building up to 85 scholarships, and our stadium is under construction, adding two new decks of seats to double the capacity."
The Bobcats' hard work has had positive returns. At 6-4, finishing above .500 is still a possibility (the team will play 12 games, the only FCS team to do so) and the team took positives out of strong first halves in early season losses to Wyoming and Texas Tech.
Like all FCS independents, there is the struggle of setting goals, as all four teams are ineligible for a the playoffs or any type of championship. Something that Texas State is combating by setting its own pyramid of goals, going from simple team-building achievements to a winning season.
"These are the most challenging seasons, when there is no postseason or championship opportunities available," Franchione said. "Basically all you have are the games on your schedule. And I've felt like this team is like no other in Bobcat history will go through. By bridging this transition, I think it's kind of a special group of players."
South Alabama coach Joey Jones had similar things to say about his program, even though the Jaguars are going through a longer transition.
South Alabama started building a winning tradition by slightly ramping up its schedule each season and posted a 17-0 record in its first two season. This season, the Jaguars are 6-3 and will be an FBS independent next season and then join the Sun Belt in 2013.
"I think everybody has a different philosophy; there is no book written on starting a football program or transitioning one," Jones said. "Not many people have done this ... the most important thing is not learning what to do, but what not to do."
And for all four programs, that's what this season has been all about.