|Region||Eastern United States|
Midwestern United States
Southern United States
|Commissioner||Mark Emmert (since November 1, 2010)|
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Football Bowl Subdivision independent schools are four-year institutions whose football programs are not part of an NCAA-affiliated conference. This means that FBS independents are not required to schedule each other for competition like conference schools do.
There are fewer independent schools than in years past; many independent schools join, or attempt to join, established conferences. The main reasons to join a conference are to gain a share of television revenue and access to bowl games that agree to take teams from certain conferences, and to help deal with otherwise potentially difficult challenges in scheduling opponents to play throughout the season.
The best-known independent FBS program by far is Notre Dame. However, due to the disruption to college football schedules caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Irish played a full Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) football schedule in 2020.
All Division I FBS independents are eligible for the College Football Playoff (CFP), or for the so-called "access bowls" (the New Year's Six bowls that issue at-large bids: Cotton, Peach, and Fiesta), if they are chosen by the CFP selection committee. Army and BYU have an agreement with the Independence Bowl. Notre Dame has a potential tie-in with the Orange Bowl, along with other bowls via its affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Historically, Notre Dame had similar agreements with its previous conference, the Big East, and BYU had an agreement with the Armed Forces Bowl for 2011.
The ranks of football independents increased by one starting with the 2011 season with the announcement that BYU would leave the Mountain West Conference (MW) to become a football independent starting with that season. The ranks increased by two in 2013 when the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) dropped football and New Mexico State and Idaho did not have a conference for football. The ranks of football independents decreased by two in 2014 with the return of Idaho and New Mexico State as football-only members of the Sun Belt Conference (SBC) and decreased by one more in 2015 with Navy joining the American Athletic Conference (AAC) as a football-only member. UMass became an FBS independent in 2016. Two further teams joined the ranks of FBS independents for the 2018 season: New Mexico State, whose membership in the Sun Belt Conference was not extended beyond the 2017 season, and Liberty, which transitioned from the Big South Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision in 2018. The UConn Huskies became an FBS independent team and the 2020 season was canceled.
Reasons for independence
In recent years, most independent FBS schools have joined a conference for two primary reasons: a guaranteed share of television and bowl revenues, and ease of scheduling. Two of the seven remaining independent FBS schools in particular (Army and BYU) have unique circumstances that allow for freedom from conference affiliation.
One of the remaining independent programs is the service academy Army. Whereas television and bowl appearances are important sources of revenue and advertising for most other universities and their football games, the United States federal government fully funds essential scholastic operations of the service academies (athletics are funded by non-profit associations), effectively rendering such income superfluous.[dubious ]
Army has annual games guaranteed with Navy and with Air Force. It also has a historic rivalry with Notre Dame; the rivalry game is semi-regular, though no new editions to this rivalry are currently scheduled. Television rights for the longstanding Army–Navy Game, which is traditionally the final regular season game in the NCAA, serve as a significant revenue source for the program. The academy also uses its football program to recruit future cadets, regardless of whether they ever play a varsity sport; without a conference schedule, the service academy is able to more easily schedule games around the country.
Navy was formerly an independent program, but joined the American Athletic Conference (AAC) for college football in 2015, citing that it wanted to maintain competitiveness, had concerns about scheduling and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to make more money. Navy's arrival in The American also brought the league's football membership to 12 schools, allowing it to play a conference championship game under the rules in effect at the time. Army and Navy are members of the Patriot League for the bulk of their other sports, most notably men's and women's basketball.
During the conference realignment that saw the university choose football independence in August 2010, some saw BYU as a potential future "Notre Dame of the West". Both are prominent faith-based schools; Notre Dame is arguably the best-known Catholic university in the U.S., while BYU is the flagship university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The 1984 team's national championship is the most recent by a university that is not a current member of the College Football Playoff coalition.
BYU was earning less than $2 million a year through its contract with The MTN, the now-defunct TV network of the Mountain West Conference. BYU has its own network, but had a very restrictive contract which did not allow BYU to broadcast their own football games. The new contract with ESPN will pay BYU an estimated $800,000 to $1.2 million per home game, and allow for greater freedom with its own channel. The Cougars are members of the non-football West Coast Conference for other sports.
Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell long sought to turn the University into an evangelical equivalent to Notre Dame, dating back to the school's founding in 1971. Included in that was a Division I athletic program and an FBS football team. After a long tenure in the Big South Conference of the FCS, the university sought football affiliation with either Conference USA or the Sun Belt Conference. When both conferences decided against further expansion and elected not to invite Liberty, the Lynchburg, Virginia-based school sought an NCAA waiver to move up to FBS as an independent. That waiver was approved in 2017 with the Flames eventually moving to NCAA Division I FBS as an independent in 2018. The Flames unusually played two regular-season games (a home-and-home series) against fellow independent New Mexico State in their inaugural FBS season, and did so again in 2019.
New Mexico State
The Western Athletic Conference (WAC) dropped football after the 2012 season, so New Mexico State and Idaho played as FBS independents in 2013. Both schools joined the Sun Belt Conference for football from 2014 to 2017. In the spring of 2016, the Sun Belt Conference decided to live up to its name by including only schools from the "sun belt" in its lineup beginning in 2018. Idaho opted to drop to the FCS level, joining the Big Sky Conference, and New Mexico State decided to become an FBS independent again. In their last year as a Sun Belt member, New Mexico State became bowl eligible for the first time in 57 years since their victory in the 1960 Sun Bowl, winning the 2017 Arizona Bowl in dramatic fashion with an overtime touchdown run by Larry Rose III. As noted above, New Mexico State unusually scheduled two regular-season games during a single season against fellow FBS independent Liberty University in both 2018 and 2019 and will do so again in 2021 against Hawaii.
Further developments may eventually provide New Mexico State with a football conference home should it remain in the WAC. The conference will add five new members by July 2022. Four Texas schools—Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston, and Stephen F. Austin—will arrive from the FCS Southland Conference in July 2021, with Southern Utah joining from the Big Sky a year later. The WAC's other two football-sponsoring members, Dixie State and Tarleton, play FCS football. When the new Texas members arrive, the WAC will reinstate football at the FCS level. At the time this expansion was announced, media reports speculated that the conference was seeking to return to FBS by 2030.
Notre Dame unsuccessfully attempted on three occasions to join an athletic conference in the early 20th century, including the Big Ten in 1926, but was turned down, reportedly due to anti-Catholicism. Notre Dame is now one of the most prominent programs in the country. Because of its national popularity built over several decades, Notre Dame was the only independent program to be part of the Bowl Championship Series coalition and its guaranteed payout. These factors help make Notre Dame one of the most financially valuable football programs in the country, thus negating the need for Notre Dame to secure revenue by joining a conference.
Previously, Notre Dame had filled its annual schedule without needing conference games to do so. It had longstanding rivalries with many different programs around the country, many under long-term contacts, including annual rivalry games with USC, Navy, Michigan, Stanford, Michigan State, Boston College, Purdue, and Pitt. All Notre Dame home games and most away games are on national television, so other teams have a large financial incentive to schedule the university. Nonetheless, Notre Dame joined the ACC in 2013 for all sports except football and men's ice hockey (the only other ACC member with a men's or women's ice hockey varsity team is Boston College, which played alongside Notre Dame in Hockey East until 2017, when Notre Dame switched to the Big Ten). As part of this agreement, Notre Dame plays five of its football games each season against ACC members. This arrangement required Notre Dame to eliminate or reduce the frequency of several rivalries: the Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue series were canceled, while Boston College and Pitt, ACC members themselves, now play Notre Dame every three or four years. On the other hand, the move has allowed Notre Dame to resume old rivalries with ACC members Georgia Tech and Miami, while still scheduling Big Ten opponents from time to time.
In 2020, after several non-ACC games were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Notre Dame opted to play a full ACC football schedule for just the 2020 season. The Irish were eligible for the conference championship game (which they lost to Clemson) and the conference's automatic bowl bids. Notre Dame's football program plans to go back to being an independent in 2021, and the team's entire 12-game 2021 schedule has already been set, including the usual five games against ACC schools.
The University of Connecticut was a founding member of the original Big East Conference in 1979, but that conference split along football lines in 2013. As noted previously, Notre Dame remained an FBS independent but placed its other sports in the ACC, and Pittsburgh and Syracuse followed Notre Dame into the ACC, also joining ACC football. The seven members without FBS football teams left to form a new non-football Big East Conference, while the remaining FBS schools (among them UConn) joined with several new members to reorganize the Big East corporate entity as the American Athletic Conference (which would lose Louisville to the ACC and Rutgers to the Big Ten a year later).
In the years after the split, UConn's flagship men's and women's basketball programs faced significant issues. Jim Calhoun, the coach who had largely built the UConn men into a national powerhouse, had retired after the 2011–12 season. While his successor Kevin Ollie had led the Huskies to a national title in the first season after the split, the team faded noticeably in later seasons, and Ollie was fired after the 2017–18 season amid an NCAA investigation. Ollie's final season saw UConn men's attendance reach its lowest level in 30 years. The women had a somewhat different issue, namely a severe lack of competition in The American. In their seven seasons in that league, the Huskies went unbeaten in conference play, both in the regular season and the conference tournament, with all but two of their 139 conference wins being by double-digit margins.
The Huskies received and accepted an invitation to join the reconfigured Big East in 2019, with a July 2020 entry date. Due to the Big East not sponsoring football, UConn was willing to stay in The American as a football-only member. After leaving the conference in all other sports, the American Athletic Conference was unwilling to allow UConn to remain as a football-only member, leading to UConn's independence in football beginning in 2020. Ironically, the football program's poor record in recent seasons may make it easier to find FBS opponents to fill out the schedule.
UConn opted not to field a team in 2020, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting disruption to college football schedules. The Huskies were the first FBS program to announce the total cancellation of their 2020 season. Student-athletes are keeping their scholarships.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst football program played in the Football Championship Subdivision of NCAA Division I before 2011, including a national championship season in 1998. The Minutemen began a two-year Football Bowl Subdivision transition period in 2011, with the support of the Mid-American Conference playing in their conference as a football-only member. In March 2014, the MAC and UMass announced an agreement for the Minutemen to leave the conference after the 2015 season due to declining an offer to become a full member of the conference. In the agreement between the MAC and the university, there was a contractual clause that had UMass playing in the MAC as a football-only member for two more seasons if UMass declined a full membership offer. Massachusetts announced that it would look for a "more suitable conference" for the team. In September 2014, Massachusetts announced that they will be leaving the MAC and going independent beginning with the 2016 season. They have continued as an independent for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons.
The Minutemen initially suspended their 2020 football fall season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and later resumed the season, but they have set their 12-game schedules for both the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Most of the 2023 through 2026 schedules are also set. This implies that the program plans to continue as an independent until at least 2027.
Independent school stadiums
|BYU||LaVell Edwards Stadium||63,470|
|New Mexico State||Aggie Memorial Stadium||30,343|
|Notre Dame||Notre Dame Stadium||80,795|
|UConn||Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field||42,704|
|UMass||Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium||17,000|
List of independent schools
The following is a complete list of teams which have been Division I-A (FBS) Independents since the formation of Division I-A in 1978. School names reflect those in current use by their athletic programs, which may not reflect names used when those schools were independents.
|Years||Team||Previous conference||Conference joined||Current conference|
|1978–1979||Air Force||Division I Independent||WAC (1980–1998)||Mountain West (1999–present)|
|1992||Arkansas State||Division I-AA independent||Big West (1993–1995)|
|1996–1998||Big West (1993–1995)||Big West (1999–2000)||Sun Belt (2001–present)|
|1978–1997||Army||Division I independent||C-USA (1998–2004)|
|1978–1990||Boston College||Division I independent||Big East (1991–2004)||ACC (2005–present)|
|2011–present||BYU||Mountain West (1999–2010)|
|1992||Cal State Fullerton||Big West||Dropped football|
|1978–1995||Cincinnati||Division I independent||C-USA (1996–2004)||Big East/American (2005–present)[N 2]|
|1978–1981||Colgate||Division I independent||Division I-AA independent (1982–1985)||Patriot League (1986–present)|
|1978–1996||East Carolina||Division I independent||C-USA (1997–2013)||American (2014–present)|
|1978–1991||Florida State||Division I independent||ACC (1992–present)|
|1978–1982||Georgia Tech||Division I independent||ACC (1983–present)|
|1978||Hawaii||Division I independent||WAC (1979–2011)||Mountain West (2012–present)|
|1978–1981||Holy Cross||Division I independent||Division I-AA independent (1982–1985)||Patriot League (1986–present)|
|2013||Idaho||WAC (2005–2012)||Sun Belt (2014–2017)||Big Sky (2018–present)|
|1978–1980||Illinois State||Division I independent||MVC (1981–1984)||MVFC (1985–present)[N 3]|
|1978–1981||Indiana State||Division I independent||Division I-AA independent (1982–1985)||MVFC (1986–present)[N 3]|
|1991||Long Beach State||Big West||Dropped football|
|1982–1992||Louisiana–Lafayette||Southland Conference||Big West (1993–1995)|
|1996–2000||Big West (1993–1995)||Sun Belt (2001–present)|
|1989–1992||Louisiana Tech||Division I-AA independent||Big West (1993–1995)|
|1996–2000||Big West (1993–1995)||WAC (2001–2012)||C-USA (2013–present)|
|1996–2000||Louisiana–Monroe||Southland||Sun Belt (2001–present)|
|1978–1995||Louisville||Division I independent||C-USA (1996–2004)||ACC (2014–present)|
|1978–1995||Memphis||Division I independent||C-USA (1996–2012)||American (2013–present)|
|1978–1990||Miami (FL)||Division I independent||Big East (1991–2003)||ACC (2004–present)|
|1999–2000||Middle Tennessee||OVC||Sun Belt (2001–2012)||C-USA (2013–present)|
|1978–2014||Navy||Division I independent||American (2015–present)|
|2013||New Mexico State||WAC (2005–2012)||Sun Belt (2014–2017)||Division I independent|
|2018–present||Sun Belt (2014–2017)||Division I independent|
|1978–1982||North Texas||Division I independent||Southland (1983–1994)|
|1995||Southland (1983–1994)||Big West (1996–2000)||C-USA (2013–present)|
|1987–1992||Northern Illinois||MAC||Big West (1993–1995)|
|1996||Big West (1993–1995)||MAC (1997–present)|
|1978–2019||Notre Dame||Division I independent||ACC (2020)||Division I independent|
|2021–present||ACC (2020)||Division I independent|
|1995||Pacific||Big West||Dropped football|
|1978–1992||Penn State||Division I independent||Big Ten (1993–present)|
|1978–1990||Pittsburgh||Division I independent||Big East (1991–2012)||ACC (2013–present)|
|1978–1981||Richmond||Division I independent||Division I-AA Independent (1982–1983)||CAA (1984–present)[N 4]|
|1978–1990||Rutgers||Division I independent||Big East/American (1991–2013)[N 5]||Big Ten (2014–present)|
|1971–1991||South Carolina||Division I independent||SEC (1992–present)|
|2001–2002||South Florida||Division I-AA independent||C-USA (2003–2004)||Big East/American (2005–present)[N 2]|
|1978–1995||Southern Mississippi||Division I independent||C-USA (1996–present)|
|1978–1990||Syracuse||Division I independent||Big East (1991–2012)||ACC (2013–present)|
|1978–1990||Temple||Division I independent||Big East (1991–2004)|
|2005–2006||Big East (1991–2004)||MAC (2007–2011)||Big East/American (2012–present)[N 2]|
|1978–1980||Tennessee State||Division I independent||Division I-AA independent (1981–1987)||OVC (1988–present)|
|2002–2003||Troy||Division I-AA independent||Sun Belt (2004–present)|
|1978–1995||Tulane||Division I independent||C-USA (1996–2013)||American (2014–present)|
|1986–1995||Tulsa||MVC||WAC (1996–2004)||American (2014–present)|
|1996–1998||UAB||Division I-AA independent||C-USA (1999–2014, 2017–present)[N 6]|
|1996–2001||UCF||Division I-AA independent||MAC (2002–2004)||American (2013–present)|
|2000–2003||UConn||The American (2013–2019)||Big East (2004–2012)|
|1978–1981||UNLV||Division II independent||Big West (1982–1995)||Mountain West (1999–present)|
|2001–2002||Utah State||Big West||Sun Belt (2003–2004)||Mountain West (2013–present)|
|1978–1980||Villanova||Division I independent||Dropped football||CAA (1985–present)[N 4]|
|1978–1990||Virginia Tech||Division I independent||Big East (1991–2003)||ACC (2004–present)|
|1978–1990||West Virginia||Division I independent||Big East (1991–2011)||Big 12 (2012–present)|
|2008||Western Kentucky||Gateway Football Conference||Sun Belt (2009–2013)||C-USA (2014–present)|
|1986||Wichita State||MVC||Dropped football|
- Notre Dame remains officially an independent football team. However, as part of the agreement to join the ACC in other sports, Notre Dame agreed to schedule 5 games per year against ACC opponents. In 2020, after several games against non-ACC schools were cancelled, Notre Dame opted to play a full ACC schedule for that one pandemic-disrupted season. The Irish would be eligible for the conference championship game and for the ACC's Orange Bowl bid.
- This school remained in the conference that includes the FBS members of the pre-2013 Big East Conference, which began operating as the American Athletic Conference in July 2013.
- In 1985, the Gateway Collegiate Athletic Conference, a women's sports conference parallel to the Missouri Valley Conference, added football as its only men's sport by taking in the MVC's I-AA football teams. In 1992, the women's portion of the Gateway merged with the MVC; the football conference kept the Gateway charter, changing the conference name to Gateway Football Conference. The current name was adopted in 2008.
- The CAA football conference did not exist under that name until 2007, but has a continuous history dating back to 1938. It started with the formation of the New England Conference, which folded in 1947, with its member schools joining the newly formed Yankee Conference under a separate charter. In 1997, the Yankee Conference merged with the Atlantic 10 Conference. After the 2006 season, the A10 football conference disbanded, with all of its members joining a new CAA football conference. The automatic berth of the Yankee Conference in the I-AA/FCS playoffs passed in succession to the A10 and the CAA.
- Rutgers remained in the American Athletic Conference for the 2013 season before leaving for the Big Ten Conference in 2014.
- UAB dropped football after the 2014 season, but reinstated the sport for 2017 and beyond. The school remained a C-USA member throughout.
- "Independence Bowl Ushers in New Era with 2020-2025 Bowl Agreements". radiancetechnologiesindependencebowl.com (Press release). January 30, 2020. Retrieved October 24, 2020.
- Call, Jeff (April 28, 2011). "BYU football: Cougars enter agreement with Armed Forces Bowl". Deseret News.
- Katz, Andy (August 31, 2010). "BYU leaving MWC for 2011–12 season". ESPN.com. Retrieved August 31, 2010.
- Hinnen, Jerry (September 12, 2012). "New Mexico State makes it official, will go independent in 2013". CBSsports.com. CBS Interactive. Retrieved June 17, 2014.
- "Idaho and New Mexico State to Join Sun Belt Conference As Football Members in 2014" (Press release). Sun Belt Conference. March 27, 2013. Archived from the original on July 3, 2013. Retrieved March 28, 2013.
- At the time Navy announced it would leave the independent ranks, its destination conference was known as the Big East Conference. When that conference split into football-sponsoring and non-football conferences in July 2013, the non-football schools took the Big East name with them. The football-sponsoring conference now operate as the American Athletic Conference.
- "Independent football schedule taking shape for UMass">
- "Sun Belt Football to Be 10 Teams in 2018" (Press release). Sun Belt Conference. March 1, 2016. Retrieved March 1, 2016.
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- @Brett_McMurphy (July 26, 2019). "UConn will become an FBS independent in football & reaches agreement with American, will pay $17 million exit fee to leave league & join Big East In Olympic sports on July 1, 2020" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
- "ACC sets 11-game slate, includes Notre Dame". ESPN.com. July 30, 2020.
- "Notre Dame Goes To ACC: Bowl Security, Football Scheduling Flexibility Key To Move". Sports Business Daily. Street and Smith’s Sports Group. September 13, 2012. Retrieved September 9, 2013.
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- "BYU signs long-term deals with ESPN, Notre Dame". sltrib.com/cougars. September 3, 2010. Retrieved June 25, 2012.
- "'Dear Jerry': A letter from Notre Dame to Liberty about making 'the big time'". Washington Post.
- "WAC Announces Expedited Entrance for Four Texas Institutions" (Press release). Western Athletic Conference. January 21, 2021. Retrieved January 25, 2021.
- Deaver, Colin. "Reports: WAC football to return in 2022, rise to FBS later in decade". KTSM.com. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
- Helliker, Kevin (2013-01-03). "Notre Dame's Holy Line". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
- Gage, Jack (2006-12-22). "The most valuable college football teams". Forbes. newsinfo.nd.edu. Archived from the original on August 28, 2007. Retrieved 2008-04-06.
- "Notre Dame Football Program Ranked Most Valuable In College Football". Forbes.com. und.cstv.com. 2006-11-20. Archived from the original on 2008-04-19. Retrieved 2008-04-06.
- "Chasing Ghosts: Calhoun looms large, but clouds parting at UConn". ESPN.com. July 23, 2019. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
- Borzello, Jeff; Schlabach, Mark (June 22, 2019). "Sources: UConn expected to rejoin Big East". ESPN.com. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
- Thamel, Pete (June 22, 2019). "Sources: UConn move to the Big East inevitable". Yahoo Sports. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
- "No. 5 UConn beats Cincy 87-53, finishes perfect run in AAC". ESPN.com. Associated Press. March 9, 2020. Retrieved January 30, 2021.
- "What UConn Football's Schedule Could Look Like in 2020 as Independent". 2019-06-23.
- "UConn Football Announces Cancellation of 2020 Season Due to Risks Associated With COVID-19". University of Connecticut Athletics.
- "UMass Football Will Leave Mid-American Conference at End of 2015". Archived from the original on 2016-03-04.
- "UMass football, MAC to part ways following 2015 season". 2014-03-26.
- "UMass football announces 19 games for 2016-22 seasons featuring BYU, Appalachian State, Ohio and Hawaii". 2014-09-24.
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