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Comparing FBS, FCS, and the Lower Divisions On-Field in 2014

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Jon digs into his old bag of tricks for a look at how the divisions are stacking up against one another where it matters: between the stripes.

Something must be done.
Something must be done.
David Purdy

Every year, I used to do this little exercise toward the end of the year when the computer ranking systems got well-connected enough to matter, but I've let it slide since joining Bring on the Cats full-time. Since we've been discussing such things of late, I figured it would be a good time to dust it off and see where we stand.

What this exercise always used to prove was that the top end of each division of football usually fits somewhere in the top 40 of the division above, while the middle of each division is still usually around the same level as the bottom end of the division above. Let's see how things stack up in 2014. We use the Massey Rating for this comparison, because (a) I trust it more than most and (b) Massey ranks every team in every division, period.

Note: "out of" includes the team under discussion, i.e. there are 128 teams in FBS, so North Dakota State would be 29th out of 129 teams. This is really relevant when we get to the worst team in the NAIA below.

FCS

Top team: North Dakota State
Ranking if they were in FBS: 29 (out of 129)

FCS teams in top half of D-I: 19
Median team: Portland State
Ranking if they were in FBS: dead last, barely
Ranking if they were in D-II: 32 (out of 172)

Worst FBS Power 5 team: Wake Forest
FCS teams ranked higher: 20

Worst team in FBS: Eastern Michigan
FCS teams ranked higher: 58

Bottom team: Davidson
Ranking if they were in D-II:157 (out of 172)

Those of you familiar with FCS conference alignments may notice something about the top six teams in FCS, and draw a comparison to the SEC West. The nineteen teams which are in the top half of Division I as a whole, in order: NDSU, Illinois State, Indiana State, Northern Iowa, Youngstown State, South Dakota State, New Hampshire, Coastal Carolina, Villanova, Jacksonville State, Eastern Washington, Richmond, Chattanooga, Southern Illinois, McNeese State, Harvard, Fordham, and Liberty. All but Liberty rank higher than Wake Forest.

Yeah. Wake Forest would finish in ninth place in the Missouri Valley. Kansas (the second-worst Power 5 team) would finish seventh. Chew on that.

Unlike some previous years, though, North Dakota State is a massive, massive outlier here. Illinois State, the second-ranked team in FCS by Massey, is only the 68th-best team in Division I.

As for Davidson... woof. That's just awful. In fairness, Davidson is a non-scholarship program, as are all its peers in the Pioneer League as well as the Ivies. The worst scholarship program in FCS is Savannah State; they'd be ranked 149 in D-II.

D-II

Top team: Minnesota State-Mankato
Ranking if they were in FBS: 92 (out of 129)
Ranking if they were in FCS: 10 (out of 125)


D-II teams in top half of FCS: 31
Median team: Notre Dame (OH)
Ranking if they were in FCS: 104 (out of 125)
NAIA teams ranked higher: 9
D-III teams ranked higher: 16

Bottom team: Cheyney
Ranking if they were in D-III:179 (out of 246)
Ranking if they were in NAIA: 65 (out of 89)

If you combined FCS and D-II, four D-II teams would be in the top 25: MSU-Mankato, Northwest Missouri State, Ferris State, and Delta State. Pittsburg State would be tied with Western Illinois for 26th. The gap between D-II and FCS is narrowing.

Mankato might win any FCS conference other than the Valley, Colonial, or Big South. However... it's really hard to tell how powerful many of D-II's highest-ranked teams really are, as the MIAA and NSIC both play only conference games. The NSIC has 16 teams and their "non-conference" games are all against the other division, while the MIAA has 12 teams and plays a round-robin. That said, these are two conferences which always dominated in OOC and always perform well in the post-season, so it's not outlandish. But the effective power ratings of the top D-II teams may be a bit high.

NAIA

Top team: Carroll (MT)
Ranking if they were in FBS: 128 (out of 129)
Ranking if they were in FCS: 58 (out of 125)
Ranking if they were in D-II: 26 (out of 172)

NAIA teams in top half of FCS: 2
NAIA teams in top half of D-II: 9
Median team: Bluefield
Ranking if they were in D-II: 165 (out of 172)
Ranking if they were in D-III: 115 (out of 246)
Bottom team: Haskell
Ranking if they were in D-III::245 (out of 246)

Actually, Carroll might be 129th out of 129 in FBS; they're tied with Eastern Michigan.

The nine NAIA teams that would fit in the top half of D-II are no surprise; literally every one of them have in fact explored that move at some point. The top end, however, is nowhere near to the level they were a few years ago -- largely because some of the teams that were in that top end a few years ago are now already in D-II (including Sioux Falls, currently the 6th-ranked team in D-II, and 12th-rated Ohio Dominican).

Poor Haskell. If they were in D-III, they'd be the worst team in the division if not for the existence of Maranatha Bapist. The bottom end isn't as bad as Haskell's decrepitude would indicate. 12 D-III teams are worse than the NAIA's next-worst team -- and that's Missouri Baptist, a first-year program. The 10th-worst of the NAIA's 89 teams, Briar Cliff, outranks 39 D-III schools. As always, this tells us what we've always known: the NAIA, competitively, fits between D-II and D-III, as befits its status as an organization which allows scholarships but not quite to the extent D-II does..

D-III

Top team: Wisconsin-Whitewater
Ranking if they were in FCS: 70 (out of 125)
Ranking if they were in D-II: 37 (out of 172)
Ranking if they were in NAIA: 3 (out of 89)

D-III teams in top half of D-II: 16
D-III teams in top half of NAIA: 116
Median team: Bridgewater State
Ranking if they were in D-II: 166 (out of 172)
Ranking if they were in NAIA: 47 (out of 89)

Bottom team: Maranatha Baptist
Ranking if they were in NAIA::dead last, because they're the worst team in the NCAA or NAIA

Now this is interesting. In previous permutations of this exam, the top team in D-III -- be it Whitewater or Mount Union -- actually threatened the D-II top 20. Not so this year, as the big guns in D-III aren't quite as stout as they've been in the past. They're still drilling their fellow non-scholarship competition, and these numbers may improve in the season's final two weeks as some of the bigger guns meet in conference play. (For example, #3 Mount Union has yet to play #12 John Carroll, and that's going to boost UMU's profile in a serious fashion if they win.)

Overall, though there's been some separation between FBS and FCS and between D-II and D-III, and an odd narrowing of the gap between FCS and D-II, everything looks pretty normal this year. Part of that can be explained by a shift in scheduling: there were fewer games between FBS and FCS teams this year, and a marked increase in games between FCS and D-II. There were very few upsets in the former group; there weren't many in the latter, either, but the mere existence of so many more games actually boosts profiles in D-II.