OPINION: Shutting Out FCS Schools from P5 Schedules? Here We Go Again

Once again, the COVID-19 pandemic has big time sports pundits telling on themselves in terms of not really loving the entire collegiate game of football, but just the parts of it that they consider “real college football”.

This time, our esteemed national presence is Stewart Mandel, editor-in-chief of the college football branch of The Athletic. He and a conclave of other college football contributors, Andy Staples, and Bruce Feldman, got together and opined about why the ACC and SEC should stick to 10 game conference schedules, with one home and home with a Power 5 school along with one Group of 5 of FCS gane to complete a 12 game schedule.

To their credit, they at least admitted that the bigger school pays the smaller school a guarantee to play these games. When saying that, however, they also referred to these schools as directional schools or small town state colleges, and that the stadiums are always half full (clearly they aren’t watching the top tier FCS programs or the SWAC teams that constantly outdraw their G5 counterparts and have fans that travel VERY well).

This is something that FCS or some G5 programs are used to, but hearing the quiet part said, and printed, out loud is both refreshing and disappointing at the same time. They really don’t seem to have any idea about the talent, passion, and tradition that goes on at these other schools.

Furthermore, it says another quiet part out loud – big time college football is about money first, winning second, and then whatever you want to throw into the pot after that. 

Saving Money?

Let’s look at the argument that they make about saving money.

While yes, Power 5 schools will shell out a couple million for Group of 5 programs and six figure sums for FCS programs for these games, for the top tier programs, and most Power 5 athletic budgets, these are pennies on the dollar.

Money like that can be program changing, however, for a smaller football program. What’s Alabama going to do, add a couple more Jacuzzis for the football program and another USB jack to each locker? Because let’s also be clear – that money wouldn’t go to the entire athletic department, it would get funneled right back into the money maker.

In an article I wrote last week I talked about how this pocket change for Power 5 programs helps make or break the athletic budgets of some smaller schools. The relationship is beneficial for both parties in that these stadiums aren’t exactly sparse for the games – they are very well attended. Also, if the Power 5 school is in a blowout, they’re able to get younger players and back ups good reps against live competition. 

Furthermore, there are reasons why programs like Texas, Ohio State, Texas A&M, etc., clear 200 million dollars annually in terms of revenue. The biggest thing is rights and licensing. It’s TV rights, licencing and merchandise, corporate sponsorship, and the brand of your university.

North Dakota State is a rousing success story at the FCS level – a Top 40 program in all of Division I, not just FCS. But it would take the Bison more than 10 years to get the money Texas makes from rights and licensing in one year. All of these revenue streams aren’t affected when you play these “cupcake” games as Paul Finebaum loves to describe them.

I’m not even going to get into how many of these games are actually close contests, and even won by said “cupcakes” like the Bison, but my bigger point is this money doesn’t make a difference for their programs. Could you possibly renegotiate a better TV deal knowing you’d have one or two games against non-conference Power 5 programs? Maybe. But who is to say that Wake Forest vs. Virginia Tech wouldn’t be a better game than James Madison vs. Virginia Tech? (In 2013, a Wake Forest and Virginia Tech game ended 6-3 in double-overtime that is widely derided as one of the worst games ever played in the last decade. Compare that to 2010, when James Madison upset the nationally-ranked Hokies 21-16 in a program-defining game for both schools.)

Courtesy PGA Sports Photography

How Should Schedules Look?

But let’s take a look at what this proposal actually looks like football wise, because no one wants to hear the case for out of conference scheduling from an accountant. Back before 1950, determining a national champion was anything but crystal clear. Sportswriters and polls voted on their opinions on who the top teams in the nation were, and to put it mildly, there was not always consensus.

As unfathomable amounts of money have entered the college football system, though, polls didn’t seem to be good enough anymore. It was also at this time that schools mostly in the northeast like the Ivy League, Lehigh, Holy Cross, took a different path than the big schools. It was money issues that helped drive the decision in the 1970s to separate into different divisions. It was no longer enough to call them “small colleges”, “middle colleges”, and “big colleges”. Division I would host the biggest programs overall – and for those without big-money football, there would be a subdivision called I-AA. separate from the programs that wanted to compete in the larger bowls.

What does this have to do with a ten game conference schedule for Power 5 schools? Well, not all conferences are created equal in the Power 5. The Big Ten and SEC are probably the best balanced top to bottom in terms of quality of opponent week in and week out, but at the bottom are teams that would be spanked by the best teams in FCS like North Dakota State or James Madison. Power 5 schools scheduling, and beating, schools like North Dakota State would be better wins for their possible playoff resumes than wins over the cellar-dwellers of Power Five conferences.

Out of conference games not only have national ranking/bowl implications, they can completely wreck a national title run, and New Year’s Six bowl season. We know what Appalachian State did to Michigan in 2007, North Dakota State is always beating up on ranked FBS opponents, and Boise State and James Madison tag teamed in 2010 to take Virginia Tech from national title aspirations to completely out of it in two weeks. And these are just the high profile instances. We all know upsets happen in these out of conference games all the time, and this is how they jockey for conference supremacy when it comes to the rankings. Not only are these cross-divisional games intriguing, but they are also pivotal to all teams involved for a myriad of reasons. Why do people always assume that Vanderbilt vs. Ole Miss will automatically be a more intriguing and better TV product than Appalachian State vs. Ole Miss? 

Plus, outside of the playoffs, what happens to in state rivalries and rivalries in general that aren’t in conference? We have already seen Texas/Texas A&M thrown out due to conference realignment. Do you really think Florida, Florida State, Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia, Georgia Tech want to do away with their rivalries all in the name of a 10 conference schedule? Would those teams always have their out of conference game locked up because their rivalry game happens to be one? Come on now (he said in his best Charles Barkley impression). And furthermore, people look forward to these games at the Power 5 level just as much as FCS fans do. While I didn’t think Chattanooga had a chance against JMU last year I was happy to see a different and interesting opponent. And the Big Sky/MVFC Challenge are always a highlight for FCS fans. 

Look, we all get it. There are some programs that are legitimately better than than others regardless of division, but these are the lines the money draws, not competition. Having  Power 5 programs, in this case the ACC and SEC, go to a 10 game conference schedule and limit the number of OOC games would drastically change the landscape of college football. The proposal is one step closer to the Power 5 would going off into its own autonomous place where they could do whatever they want and leave the G5 and FCS left to split themselves into two NCAA sanctioned likely Division 1 levels.

But if the Power 5 really wants to be that corporate, why not just call yourselves the developmental league for the NFL?

Interesting out of conference games are healthy and good for college football. It’s one of the only things that makes the sport seem somewhat collegiate anymore and not just looking for the highest dollar. I’m sorry if James Madison vs. Virginia Tech isn’t corporate enough for you, or you don’t see it generating much fan interest. But as a collegiate product? Doesn’t get much better in my opinion and trust me, if that school is good enough, regardless of division not only will the home fans come, the visiting team will bring their fans too.