A staple of almost every team’s schedule is the FCS ‘cupcake’. Your AD writes a hefty check to some regional school with 250 pound tackles and a 5’10” quarterback, and they bus themselves into your team’s stadium for a one-off shellacking. It’s a tune-up for your guys before the real games start and a much needed cash infusion for a shoestring-budget Division 1-AA team. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
The idea is that these games don’t matter and that fans can brush aside a bad result as a fluke. The numbers say something different.
With the advent of modern offensive schemes and the general increase in depth of football talent across the country, FCS teams have started to show up ready to play with increasing frequency. ADs, coaches, and fans seem to forget that not all FCS teams are created equal. Even a solid Power Conference team schedules a perennial FCS power like Eastern Washington or South Dakota State at their peril. Although almost always undersized, these teams are fast, passionate, and well coached.
Inevitably, a loss or near miss to these teams brings on ‘fansplaining’ about how the FBS team ‘didn’t want to be there’ or ‘never really turned it on’. The idea is that these games don’t matter and that we can brush aside a bad result as a fluke. The numbers say something different.
FCS Margin of Victory Analysis
I took every game between an FBS and FCS opponent from 2015, and measured the FBS teams with advanced metrics*. Since no one tracks that kind of data for FCS teams, I used the average margin of victory in their FCS games. It’s not nearly as good a measurement as a proper advanced metric, but it will do in a pinch.
FBS teams won a lot of these games- 91% of them. The average margin of victory was a comfortable 30 points. With that sort of result, there is not much intrigue, but these games can still teach us a lot about the teams we root for and help to set reasonable expectations.
There were two reasonably strong correlations. The first is that better teams do tend to have wider margins of victory over FCS opponents, if you take into account how good the FCS opponent is. There’s no evidence that FBS teams are phoning it in or taking it easy on FCS teams, in general. What you see is what you get.
You can see that the FCS victories didn’t come against good teams, and that wide victory margins tended to come from the best FBS teams playing lousy FCS opponents. Meanwhile, close wins almost never happened to great FBS teams- it was usually mediocre FBS squads playing excellent FCS opponents.
So if your team squeaks out a close win, don’t brush it off. It’s likely a sign of concrete problems that are going to keep cropping up, even as the level of competition increases. That’s especially true if your team’s problem is that they can’t seem to score.
The correlation here isn’t as strong as in the chart above, but it’s much stronger than on defense. We see some bad offensive teams scoring quite a few points, and some good offensive teams struggling, but a great deal of these results appear to be independent of the competition. That makes sense- a lot of what makes an offense work is teamwork, polish, and execution. Athletes matter, no doubt, but especially against FCS competition, offensive production seems to be driven by scheme.
Every Game Matters
Given the relative weakness of the correlations, it’s not sensible to get too excited about a 70-0 beat down, or too worried about a nailbiter against a ranked FCS team. What is worth getting worried about is when your team welcomes a bad FCS team to their stadium and simply can’t put them away. This is especially true if the problem is that your squad can’t score- a shootout with a high flying FCS spread offense isn’t a big deal, but an in-the-trenches slugfest suggests that your team likely has some real problems.
*FEI, Offensive FEI, and Defensive FEI scores for every FBS team. FEI is a game efficiency metric that is broadly similar to others like FPI and S&P+. I selected FEI because it does not count games against FCS teams in its data set, so there was no overlap.