A Statistical Look at the FCS Playoffs: Part 1 (1978 – 2023)

Welcome back to Fear The FCS, where a descent into FCS Playoff history will begin in this first entry of a five-part series. This series will use numerous basic statistical categories to measure changes in the FCS playoffs over time. In subsequent parts, these same categories will be used to measure separate eras followed by a conclusion that compares the three selected eras. Part 1 focuses on all FCS playoff games while the latter entries will dive into specific eras as defined in the breakdown below.

Part 1 – 1978 Through 2023

Part 2 – 1978 Through 1992

Part 3 – 1993 Through 2009

Part 4 – 2010 Through 2023

Part 5 – Conclusion and Addendum

It may seem superfluous to have an overall analysis followed by three different eras but the FCS has undergone a lot of change in its 46-year history. Combining all 46 years into one analysis can provide a solid overall picture but it can often obfuscate changes happening underneath the surface that are more accurately reflected in shorter eras. Before any analysis can be provided, some mundane yet important background information needs to be discussed starting with the formats used throughout the FCS playoffs.

FCS Playoff Format History

The FCS has seen many changes during its history, which impact how the FCS playoffs are conducted. The playoffs started small with only 4 teams but subsequent expansion within the subdivision led to an 8-team playoff in 1981 and a 12-team playoff in 1982. The playoffs expanded further in 1986 to a 16-team format, which remained with some tweaks to the seeding until 2010 when the playoffs became a 20-team competition. The 20-team playoff lasted all of three seasons and the most recent expansion occurred in 2013 to 24 teams. The table below shows the various I-AA/FCS playoff formats used by the NCAA since 1978.

Year(s)Number of TeamsNumber of Seeded TeamsNumber of Byes
1978 – 1980400
1982 – 19851244
1986 – 19941640
1995 – 200016160
2001 – 20091640
2010 – 201220512
2013 – 20192488
2021 – 20232488

The Measures and Methodology

Four measures are used throughout the series: margin of victory using the final score, each team’s seed (if they were seeded), whether the road or home team won, and how often each conference made the quarterfinals, semifinals, and national championship.

If you are familiar with the FCS Playoffs, you are probably wondering why both the home team and seeded teams are included in separate categories. Don’t better-seeded teams play at home making one of the categories redundant? While that is true today, in the early days of the FCS Playoffs, there are numerous instances of the better-seeded team playing on the road. In addition, the bracket is set up based on geography and avoiding conference rematches in the first two rounds where possible. The different playoff formats are also a factor and using the different eras may highlight noticeable patterns over time.

Another aspect to note is that the National Championship is held at a neutral venue each year and is not always included in every metric. For example, when looking at the road versus home metrics, the title game is excluded. (Some schools have played in their venue for the national championship game but those games are also excluded from road-home metrics because there were instances of the host school being designated the “road” team). There will also be numerous references to “better” and “worse” seeds. Simply put, a “better” seed is a team with a number closer to 1 compared to the other team. A “worse” seed is a team with a number further from 1 compared to their opponent. Unseeded teams are those that were not given a seed when the playoff bracket was announced.

Some standardization was required to complete this analysis. Conference names have changed since 1978 and the ones used in this analysis have been standardized to the current conference’s name where applicable (provided the current conference is keeping the history of an older conference). For example, the Missouri Valley Football Conference was previously named the Gateway Conference so any teams that made an appearance as a member of the Gateway Conference will be credited to the MVFC. The similarly named but separate entity Missouri Valley Conference doesn’t share a history with the MVFC so those appearances remain separate. Further information on the history of FCS conferences can be found here.

Additionally, the numerous changes to the FCS playoffs can make it difficult to compare across eras, which necessitated the standardization of rounds using the number of teams. For example, the 12-team playoff used from 1982 through 1985 had a first round comprised of 8 teams, with the four winners advancing to the quarterfinals. In this case, the first round is considered equivalent to the Round of 16 present in brackets with 16 or more teams. For the 20 and 24-team playoffs, the second round is comprised of 16 teams, which were standardized to the Round of 16. Meanwhile, the first round of the 20 and 24-team playoffs were standardized to the preliminary round. The table below shows the standardizations that were made.

Year(s)TeamsFirst Round in Bracket?
Standardization Required?
Second Round in Bracket?
Standardization Required?
Quarterfinals, Semifinals,
and National Championship?
1978 – 19804NoNoNo Quarterfinals
No Standardization Required
No Standardization Required
1982 – 198512Yes – First Round
Standardized to Round of 16
No Standardization Required
1986 – 200916Yes – First Round
Standardized to Round of 16
No Standardization Required
2010 – 201220Yes – First Round
Standardized to Preliminary
Yes – Second Round
Standardized to Round of 16
No Standardization Required
2013 – 201924Yes – First Round
Standardized to Preliminary
Yes – Second Round
Standardized to Round of 16
No Standardization Required
202016Yes – First Round
Standardized to Round of 16
No Standardization Required
2021 – 202324Yes – First Round
Standardized to Preliminary
Yes – Second Round
Standardized to Round of 16
No Standardization Required

Measure #1 – Margin of Victory

The first measure to be presented is the margin of victory. This is a baseline stat letting us know how much each team won by (on average) without accounting for whether it was a home or road victory. In the chart below, the margin of victory for a corresponding year is shown in green while the running average margin of victory (all FCS playoff games played up to and including that year) is shown in burnt orange. All graphs with multiple lines are interactive, which allows for the isolation of a specific category. Additional details are provided if you hover over a point or click on a point.

There’s a lot of noise from year to year but the running average shows a slight upward slope over time. Since the 16-team playoff began, the margin of victory has been slowly creeping up from 14.1 points in 1986 to 16.2 points in 2023. The chart above shows every single game but what happens when we break it down by each round? Will that paint a different picture?

Now that tells a somewhat different story. While the overall margin of victory of an FCS playoff game has increased over time, the margin of victory has decreased the longer the playoffs continue as the level of competition between teams converges (relatively speaking). Generally, the competitiveness between teams increases in the playoffs compared to previous rounds, which is probably little surprise to most people. We’ll note that the chart above does not start at zero as most charts do and this was done to zoom in on the relevant values.

Measure #2 – Road versus Home and Worse Seeds versus Better Seeds

No one should be surprised when we say that home teams win more often than road Teams. It’s been proven time, after time, after time, after time… and the FCS is no exception. Through the 2023 FCS playoffs, home teams have won 72% of the time with a record of 488-188 so let’s look at a few charts to see how the win percentage changed over time and for each round of the playoffs.

The running average of the win percentage for home teams eclipsed the 70% mark in 1993 and hasn’t fallen below that line since. As for the home win percentage by round, that chart shows a decline in home victory in the semifinals, almost as if the better teams reached the last four more frequently in the playoffs. Given the higher frequency of home wins, it is probably not a surprise they have larger margins of victory than the road teams as shown in the graph below. The home values are depicted in orange and blue while road values are shown in green and purple (the chart is interactive so specific categories can be selected).

Based on the graph and table, it’s clear that home teams have an advantage. Even when controlling for certain matchups based on whether one team is seeded, neither team is seeded, or both teams are seeded, there’s a clear pattern: you want to be at home. It’s also probably not a surprise that when two unseeded teams meet in the FCS Playoffs, the road team has a slightly better chance compared to the all-time average of 72%. Given that unseeded teams tend to be “weaker” compared to their seeded counterparts, it makes sense they’d see relatively fewer home wins (relatively is doing a lot of work here). That concludes the Captain Obvious portion of the article so let’s move on to the conference composition of each round in the playoffs.

Measure #3 – Conference Composition in the Later Rounds

The margin of victory can tell us how much a team won by and whether it was the road or home team but it doesn’t tell us how many conferences advance further in the FCS playoffs. Most casual fans can probably think of the usual suspects especially the national championship winners for the last decade or so. Other fans might say if one conference or a few conferences consistently dominate the FCS playoffs, that makes the FCS less competitive. Here’s a chart that shows the number of different conferences that participated in the round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals, and national championships.

This chart can tell us a little bit about whether there are a few conferences dominating each year keeping in mind that each round has an upper limit on the number of different possible conferences (i.e. a semifinal can have a maximum of 4 different FCS conferences). The chart is a bit noisy to draw any meaningful conclusion so let’s present the same data in another way. What is the percentage of each round based on the maximum number of different conferences possible? For example, a maximum of two different conferences can reach the national championship and there have been 46 games played, which equates to a maximum number of different conferences 92 times. Through the 2023 playoffs, it has happened 90 out of 92 times for a 98% rate. Let’s replicate that for each round.

We included the preliminary rounds and Round of 16 for reference but those two can be set aside for practicality reasons. The Round of 16 will always include multiple bid conferences because there aren’t 16 different FCS conferences that can each have a bid to the playoffs, which automatically means the maximum will never be reached. Furthermore, multiple bid conferences make it less likely for other conferences to advance further in the playoffs. As a result, the percentage will always be lower compared to the quarterfinals, semifinals, and national championships. When looking at the final three rounds it exhibits an upward trend indicating that conferences have a decent chance of reaching the final three rounds.

Are the increasing percentages caused by there being fewer spots in the later rounds making it less likely for a single conference to dominate? Or is it something else? The chart above doesn’t tell us which conferences account for all those appearances and that’s important to know because every conference is not equally likely to reach the latter stages of the FCS Playoffs.

Measure #4 – Which Conferences Make it Further in the FCS Playoffs?

Going back to 1978, how many appearances each conference had in the quarterfinals, semifinals, and national championship rounds were totaled. The below graph takes each conference’s appearances and stacks them on top of each other leading to higher peaks for conferences with more appearances. The chart is interactive and the different rounds can be selected or unselected for individual round comparisons.

Historically speaking, three conferences frequent the latter rounds more than others: the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Big Sky, and the Southern Conference. Not far behind are the Southland Conference, the CAA, and FCS Independents. One of the issues with looking at the complete history since 1978 is that FCS independents have the 5th highest total while the Yankee/Atlantic 10 Conference has the 6th highest total. FCS independents were more common in the early part of the subdivision’s history while the Yankee/A10 hasn’t been around since 2006. (The CAA replaced the Yankee/A10 in spirit and established its own charter, which is why the CAA is separate in this analysis). The overall analysis can become distorted when once-common practices such as a team opting to be independent are eschewed for conference affiliation and compounded by the perceived strength of a conference leading to more bids for said conference.


Outside of the issues discussed above, there are additional flaws in this analysis. For example, the margin of victory does not account for how a game unfolded. A game that finished 38-31 could have been a blowout for 3 1/2 quarters before a late rally. Meanwhile, a 31-10 game may have been within a touchdown until late in the game. In both scenarios, the final score isn’t indicative of what most would consider a competitive game, which makes using a metric like margin of victory somewhat flawed. There are also outside factors that can impact a game such as game time, weather, injuries, and certain qualitative measures among many additional variables, none of which were accounted for in this analysis.

As for the seeded versus unseeded teams, there are missing factors there too. Consider how the seeds are determined: by a selection committee comprised of humans… humans that are full of implicit biases that can result in teams being seeded improperly. Compounding that factor are the limitations imposed in attempting to avoid conference rematches in the first two rounds and the focus on travel considerations. On top of those, schools must be accepted by the NCAA as a host for a first-round game and must provide a guaranteed amount to the NCAA as part of the bid.

Remember that 72% of all FCS playoff games result in the home team winning. However, simply wanting to host and submitting the highest bid amount isn’t a guarantee of getting a home playoff game. Uncompetitive games will happen whether there are restrictions or not but introducing additional criteria can lead to a higher frequency of unbalanced matchups. Conference strength and resource differences can also result in uncompetitive matchups, particularly in the early rounds. All of these factors can lead to games being less competitive as evidenced by the first two rounds having the largest margin of victory.

Looking at the different conferences can be a bit misleading as well and play into the points made above. While a conference as a whole can be better than another, that isn’t always the case in individual matchups. The strength of each conference isn’t included in each game nor is the strength of each team. Attempting to replicate those after the fact is not a great solution because the nuance of what occurred in a season is lost. Add in human bias to overlooked context and it’s easy to backfit to reach a desired conclusion.

Part 1 Conclusion

Looking at the entire history of the FCS Playoffs, can the charts, graphs, and tables above provide a meaningful conclusion? That depends on which point you are trying to make. Some may say that the information provided is enough to say yes, the FCS playoffs have gotten less competitive over time. Others may take the opposite stance and say it’s that the FCS playoffs are fine and they’re competitive enough given the current constraints in the 24-team bracket. There’s one final chart to provide – one that some might say is the only thing that matters. Let’s see which conferences that have competed in the national championship since 1978.

Of the 23 conferences that have had at least one appearance in the FCS Playoffs, only 11 have reached the National Championship with 10 of those having won a national title. Whittling that down further, the Missouri Valley (not to be confused with the separate MVFC) and the Yankee/A10 no longer exist while the SIAC is a Division II conference that captured the 1978 title because Florida A&M participated in I-AA that year. Then there’s the FCS independents, which is more of a transitional space in modern times although independents can make the playoffs when they’re eligible like North Dakota in 2019.

That leaves the Big Sky, CAA, MVFC, Ohio Valley, Patriot League, Southern Conference, and Southland Conference as remaining conferences that have a national title appearance. As of 2023, 13 different conferences in the FCS had a chance to make the FCS Playoffs (excluding the FCS independent Kennesaw State and the Ivy League). Would the 7 conferences listed above out of 13 possible conferences be considered a good thing or a bad thing? Are those 7 conferences the ones that have the most realistic shot at winning the national championship each year? Or is it a matter of a small sample with only 46 national champions determined thus far?

Join us next time for part 2 as we look at the beginning of the FCS playoffs (then called I-AA) from 1978 through 1992.

Photo Credit to South Dakota State University Athletics / Dave Eggen

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