Most people who’ve already found this blog probably don’t need the information I’m about to impart, mostly because the only people to whom this blog has been “advertised” so far possess above-average sports knowledge. But some people do, so I’ll throw it out there.
What information is that? The difference between Division I, II, III, NAIA, and between FBS and FCS.
A lot of people — and I mean a lot — are under the mistaken presumption that the difference between the various divisions is related to quality. You have no idea (well, you might, but roll with it) how often I have heard (or seen) some dipstick make a comment along the lines of “Well, if Mount Union were really any good, they’d be in the Big Ten” or some other such nonsense. They’re under the impression that the divisions represent levels of competition… well, okay, they do, but their mistaken impression is that the divisions are arranged based on level of competition, in the same manner as Major League Baseball, AAA, AA, A, etc.
I’m sure you know that’s not the case, of course. It is true that the result of the things which make the divisions different leads to the level of competition scaling downward; it’s cause and effect. Interestingly, though, even people who understand the differences and recognize this fail to see how the same sort of thing applies within FCS; there’s a reason why Alabama kicks the crap out of every Sun Belt team they play, and it’s not because Alabama is just inherently better at football. It’s because Alabama actually has more football revenue than every Sun Belt team combined, which carries with it all the attendant benefits one might imagine.
The key thing to remember is that in general terms, every university in the nation is completely in control of “where” they play as far as what level of competition they want to pursue. Sure, there are regulations which need to be followed. Once in a while, the NCAA will impose a temporary moratorium on moves into a given division, usually because they’ve had a massive influx of teams choosing to reclassify, and the organization needs some time to deal with the impact. But for the most part, if a school wants to move up (or down), they can implement the necessary requirements and do so at will.
Also, the NCAA and NAIA are constantly trying to steal schools from one another. Neither organization would ever put it that way, naturally, but it’s the truth. The NCAA has been winning that battle for 25 years now, although the NAIA does occasionally swipe someone back.
So what are the differences? They revolve around a few key things.
1] Budgets. Division I schools operate their athletic programs from a dedicated athletic budget; Division II and III teams operate from general academic revenue, as do NAIA teams.
2] Opportunities, or more directly, number of sports offered. Division I schools offer at least 14 (7-7, or 6 men-8 women), Division II schools offer at least 10 (5-5 or 4m-6w), and Division III schools also offer at least 10, but must offer 5-5. In all three divisions, schools are required to offer at least two team sports for each gender. The NAIA has no minimum requirements at all.
3] Scheduling requirements. These vary by sport, but in general terms each school must schedule 100% of their minimum game requirement against other schools in the same (or higher) classification, and at least 50% of all games scheduled above the minimum up to the maximum must also be against the same or higher classification. For this purpose, FBS/FCS is irrelevant, although FBS has its own restrictions with which I’m sure you’re all familiar. NAIA schools adhere to no firm restrictions of this nature.
4] Scholarships. For football, FBS can have 85 players under scholarship, while FCS offers up to 65 scholarships (some conferences offer fewer or none). There’s an important distinction there: FCS teams can give two players half-scholarships, and it counts as one. FBS can’t do that. Division II can offer 36 scholarship equivalencies. Division III cannot offer any; however, the average D-III athlete actually receives more financial aid than a D-I scholarship athlete thanks to grants-in-aid and other need-based or academic-based financial aid programs. NAIA football teams may offer 24 scholarships.
For basketball, D-I is allowed up to 11.7 scholarship equivalencies (15 for women), D-II gets 10 (regardless of gender), and again D-III gets none. NAIA is divided into two divisions for basketball; NAIA-I schools can offer 11 scholarships, NAIA-II schools may offer 6. Also, it’s important to note that D-I teams have minimum financial aid requirements, which does not necessarily mean athletic scholarships. (For example, the service academies meet this requirement, since every athlete there is on a full ride anyway.)
5] Determining post-season play. You’re well aware of the situation in FBS and in D-I basketball. The FCS football playoffs, as well as the NAIA post-season tournaments, are essentially similar; conferences get automatic bids, and a committee determines the at-large participants based on a national pool. (Some NAIA conferences, however, get two automatic bids due to their size.)
Division III is almost the same, although after the automatic bids are granted, a certain number of teams (depending on sport) are selected on a national level from a special pool (Pool B) consisting of all conference champions without automatic bids plus all independent schools; after that, everyone still not selected is thrown into a final pool (Pool C) along with teams from auto-bid conferences who did not win their conference championship, and the remaining at-large selections are made from that pool, again on a national level. (That said, a team’s performance in “regional play” is taken into account as part of their body of work, which tends to de-emphasize intersectional play in the regular season.)
Division II is totally different. In football, there are no automatic bids. Each of four regions selects six teams for the post-season, based on regional rankings. If the highest-ranked team in a conference is #7-10 in the regional rankings, then they’ll be bumped up and receive a bid. In basketball, there are automatic bids; each of eight regions selects eight teams — the autobids for that region plus how ever many at-large teams are required to get to eight. Again, regular-season intersectional play is de-emphasized in Division II for this reason; beating a team from across the country actually does little to help you get to the post-season.
6] Attendance. This only applies to D-I FBS, whose football teams must have an average home attendance of at least 15,000 per game. They can fall short of this, as long as they get back over it again the next year. FCS, D-II, D-III, and NAIA have no football attendance requirements, and there are no attendance requirements in any other sport for any division.
7] Participation. Players at Division I and NAIA schools are allowed to spend more time working with their teams than are players at D-II or D-III schools.
8] Eligibility. Division I eligibility rules are basically designed to make sure players are getting their four years in by the time they’re 23, although there are exceptions. D-II, D-III, and NAIA don’t have these restrictions; there was a relatively notable situation once where a 56-year-old guy walked on to a D-III team.
9] Recruiting. This is the biggest difference between the NCAA and NAIA. All NCAA Divisions must adhere to stringent requirements regarding recruiting contacts; NAIA schools don’t have these requirements.
One other difference between the NCAA and NAIA, which doesn’t have much of an impact on the players or the performance but is still worth mentioning, is the administrative financial difference between the two organizations. The NCAA about 10 times more for a membership application fee, but the NAIA’s annual membership dues are about five times higher than the NCAA’s. The NCAA reimburses teams for their post-season tournament expenses (bowls excepted), whereas the NAIA does not.