A Statistical Look at the FCS Playoffs: Part 3 (1993 – 2009)

Welcome back to Fear The FCS, where a descent into FCS Playoff history is well underway. Part one looked at the entirety of the FCS playoffs while the second part of a five-part series focused on the 1978 through 1992 era. In this breakdown, the 1993 through 2009 era will be examined and subsequent entries will dive into the final era and compare all three eras as defined in the series breakdown below. It is highly recommended that part one and part two be reviewed to explain some of the methodology, measures, and context leading up to 1993. A brief history of the subdivision’s changes from 1993 through 2009 will start this era’s analysis.

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

NCAA Mandate Causes Second Major Influx of Teams

The 1993 I-AA season saw the membership increase from 90 teams to 118 teams thanks to another NCAA decision. In 1991, the NCAA membership voted to ensure that all athletic teams participated in the same Division (with rare exceptions) beginning with the 1993-94 academic year. For I-AA, that meant a net increase of 28 schools joining the subdivision with a majority making a double jump from Division III to I-AA. Those changes spawned three new conferences: the American West Conference (now defunct), the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (no longer sponsors football), and the Pioneer Football League (still participates at the FCS level).

Through the 2023 season, there has not been another seismic shift to the I-AA membership although the possibility of a huge shakeup in Division I athletics continues to grow each passing month. Regarding how the changes impacted the playoffs, let’s start with the margin of victory for 1993 through 2009.

Measure #1 – Margin of Victory

When looking at the margin of victory, the trend was pretty stable for much of the 1993 through 2009 era (note that only games between 1993 and 2009 are included in the charts below). After the first three seasons, the running average stayed close to the average of all games during that time. This was different than the 1978 through 1992 era that inched slowly upward as the playoffs expanded. Interestingly, the quarterfinals, semifinals, and national championships had a similar margin of victory between 14 and 15 points (on average). Again, this was different than the 1978 through 1992 era which saw a noticeable decline as the rounds went further.

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

The 1993 through 2009 era saw a strong start for home teams in the playoffs. The running average for this era was 81% from 1993 through 1998, which is 9 percentage points higher than the historical average. The final 11 seasons in this group saw a classic regression to the mean of 72% and saw the home team win more than 50% of its games each year – the only era in which the home team had a winning record each season. The home win percentage by round is shown in the second chart. The round of 16 and quarterfinals both have a 74% win rate but there’s a steep decline for the semifinals to 59%, which is even lower than the historical average of 65%.

1993 through 2009 exhibits an expected trend for road teams. The margin of victory decreases as the playoffs go on, which makes sense because it is more difficult to win on the road and against stiffer competition. However, the home teams – on average – won by more at home in the semifinals compared to the quarterfinals. It’s also worth noting from the table below that the average margin of victory for home teams when both teams were seeded was 22.3 points. This trend was not exclusive to this time period as the trend continued through the 2023 season.

Measure #3 – Conference Composition in the Later Rounds

Compared to the previous era, 1993 through 2009 had a bit more concentration of power for conference representation in the latter three rounds of the playoffs. The quarterfinals were the largest difference at 7 percentage points but the semifinals were only lower by 1 percentage point and the national championship had “maximum” participation (i.e. no conference had two participants in the title game in this era).

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

1993 through 2009 the Southern Conference’s apex at the I-AA/FCS level. The SoCon had more appearances in the quarterfinals, semifinals, and national championships than any other conference. Of the 8 national championships won by SoCon teams, 6 came between 1993 and 2009 and SoCon programs made another 4 title game appearances during that time. The battle was for second between the Big Sky, MVFC, and Atlantic 10/Yankee.

The CAA had only been around for the 2007, 2008, and 2009 seasons but managed to rack up an impressive 20 combined appearances in the final three rounds. (As mentioned in previous parts of this series, the CAA was not the official successor to the Atlantic-10/Yankee Conferences since it established its own charter. As such, the CAA is separated from the A10/Yankee in all parts of this series and the topic is discussed further in the addendum).

Conclusion for the 1993 – 2009 Era

There is no doubt that the Southern Conference was dominant during this era. Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Marshall put them on top but it wasn’t long before a new conference would emerge as the best. Also during this era, Montana emerged as a near-singular force in the Big Sky with 7 national championship appearances. Youngstown State won 3 of its 4 titles during this era with its last one in 1997 coming as a member of the Gateway Football Conference (now the MVFC). The CAA replaced the Atlantic 10 and didn’t miss many beats but as will be shown in the next era and conclusion, things were about to change.

Join us next time for part 4 as we dive into the Frisco era of the 20+ team playoffs from 2010 through the 2023 season.

Photo Credit to National Football Foundation

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