The optimistic side of Mike Kramer wants to believe in something special. It wants to believe that Idaho State’s football team will strut into Nebraska next month, outwork the Cornhuskers for four quarters and rock the college football world with an historic upset.
The realistic side of Kramer, Idaho State’s second-year coach, understands it probably won’t happen. There is a reason, after all, why one betting website lists Nebraska as an early 49-point favorite for the teams’ Sept. 22 matchup.
Idaho State has lost 33 consecutive road games, a streak that dates back nearly six years. The Bengals haven’t produced a winning season since 2003, and last year they surrendered 36.7 points per game. Only nine of 119 other Football Championship Subdivision teams were worse in scoring defense.
It won’t help Idaho State’s cause that it must play at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, a college football cathedral that seats 81,067 people. Every available ticket there has been sold for 318 straight games, an NCAA record for consecutive sellouts.
“The key thing for us is that we’re man enough to get into the stadium and put on enough show that their fans and their football team feels like they’re playing a worthy opponent,” Kramer says. “The only onus on us is that we go and compete. We don’t back down. That we don’t go little kid on us, get nervous and start reaching for mama’s skirt.”
Given the disparate statistics, some might wonder what business Idaho State has playing such a game to begin with, when every conceivable indicator shows the Bengals will board a charter flight from Lincoln to Pocatello afterward having endured a lopsided loss.
But then, that’s not really the point.
Idaho State, like dozens of other FCS teams around the country, will trade off an almost sure-fire walloping against a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) team for a hefty guaranteed payday that helps fund the rest of its athletic department and boosts program exposure.
In exchange for helping 17th-ranked Nebraska fill its seats once again, Kramer says Idaho State will receive $700,000. That money is more than the team would make playing multiple home games in its 12,000-seat indoor multipurpose facility. And for Idaho State, which has an athletic budget of just over $9 million, it is a significant chunk of change. For comparison’s sake, Nebraska’s athletic budget is roughly $79 million.
“We’re chasing money not just for football but for all of our programs,” Kramer says. “If football has an opportunity to go on the road, to make more money, to make life possible in other areas, not just football, then that’s what we do.”
Kramer’s team will be just one in a long line of FCS schools to tolerate the sacrifice of playing up a level in 2012, as the college football season is set to begin this weekend. In the FCS, 79 of the 122 teams (64.7 percent) this season will play an FBS opponent, with several playing more than one.
At the FBS level, 101 of the 124 teams (81.4 percent) will play at least one game against an FCS opponent. Among teams from the six power FBS conferences, 59 of 68 (86.7 percent) will play an FCS team.
The guaranteed money and exposure from playing high-profile games has created a battle among FCS schools to earn top dollar for scheduling FBS teams, as budgets remain tight and economic concerns persist. Coaches, meanwhile, insist the overall benefits seem to far outweigh the possible drawbacks.
“Right now, I tell my athletic director I’ll go to the highest bidder,” says Murray State football coach Chris Hatcher, whose FCS team will earn $450,000 for playing at Florida State this season. “If we’ve got to play one of these games, let’s go make the most money we possibly can.”
On the surface, the incentive for FCS schools to play FBS programs appears to be entirely about money – because the deck is overwhelmingly stacked against the little guy on the field.
For starters, FBS teams can hand out 85 scholarships, while FCS teams have just 63 under NCAA rules. As much as FCS schools hope to keep pace, Kramer says the difference in depth is difficult to overcome, particularly on special teams.
“That’s where the game gets away from you,” he says. “They’re playing juniors and seniors that are quality backups on kick teams, whereas most of our kick team guys are freshmen and sophomores.”
FBS programs also have the benefit of a larger athletic department budget, which creates better facilities, a wider national recruiting base and more skilled players. Not surprisingly, history shows a vast mismatch in games pitting the two levels against each other.
According to Andrew McKillop, a researcher at FootballGeography.com, FBS schools have an all-time record of 1,838-396-18 (.820 winning percentage) against FCS schools.
FBS programs also have outscored their FCS counterparts all-time by an average margin of 18.5 points per game. And since 2000, that margin has ballooned to 25.9 points.
Murray State has played a team from a power-six conference in eight of the last nine seasons and will continue that trend with its game at Florida State in the season opener Sept. 1. In the previous eight games against power-six teams, the Racers have lost them all, by an average score of 47-8.
Hatcher knows exactly what his team is up against.
“A lot of times when you see an FCS team get beat by an FBS team handily, it’s just the initial shock of being in that environment is what gets you,” Hatcher says. “It’s like fighting Mike Tyson. If you could make it through the first round with Mike Tyson, you had a chance back in the day. And that’s what you’re trying to do.”
Unfortunately, most FCS teams don’t offer much of a fight.
Florida A&M is among the FCS programs to have found itself on the wrong end of blowouts against FBS schools. Last year, South Florida pummeled Florida A&M, 70-17, prompting school trustee Spurgeon McWilliams to call such games “guaranteed losses” that demoralize the team and shed a negative light on the university.
But the guaranteed money is vital to the Rattlers’ athletic program as a whole.
Florida A&M’s athletic department began the 2011-12 school year almost $5 million in debt thanks, in part, to the rising cost of scholarships and travel. To help offset the debt, Florida A&M will once again play a major-conference FBS opponent this season, when it travels to face Oklahoma on Sept. 8 for $650,000.
Florida A&M coach Joe Taylor says the money also benefits student-athletes to help them attend summer school, as well as provides bonuses for assistant coaches.
And despite the lopsided losses in years past, Taylor insists playing FBS teams creates more positive visibility for the university on the recruiting scene, both with high school athletes and college players. His recruiting pitch includes talking to players who have competed at the FBS level and may be disgruntled with their previous situation and looking to transfer.
Taylor says his roster contains players who transferred from Miami, Illinois, Purdue, Maryland and Stanford, among others, because of his willingness to play FBS teams every season.
“If your program is on the radar, that’s going to help when guys are moving around,” he says. “They’re going to give you a call. If you look at the teams that are doing well, look at their roster to see how many BCS transfers dot those rosters. If you’re on the radar, you give yourself a chance to land some of those guys.”
Of course, there is another way to land on the national college football radar as an FCS program – by becoming one of the few teams to beat a high-level FBS school.
Appalachian State football coach Jerry Moore saw the window for a game at Michigan slowly closing. Negotiations had stalled, so Moore went to school officials with a plea.
“It’s not a money game,” Moore recalls saying. “It’s an opportunity game. It’ll be a one-shot, once-in-a-lifetime deal to go up there and play. It’s an unbelievable environment. Whatever they ask, do it.”
Appalachian State settled on $400,000 to go play that game in 2007 at “The Big House” in front of 109,218 fans. But the Mountaineers earned so much more for their performance.
Appalachian State pulled off one of the great upsets in college football history, beating fifth-ranked Michigan, 34-32, despite entering the game as more than three-touchdown underdogs.
The Mountaineers didn’t have the depth – they won using just 27 players – but they proved a point.
Winning a guaranteed money game against a ranked opponent as an FCS school is tough. Just not impossible.
“People sometimes don’t always have a good understanding of our division,” Moore says. “We’ve got a lot of good teams and excellent coaches in our division.”
Appalachian State became the first FCS team to beat a ranked FBS opponent since the two divisions were split in 1978. In 2010, James Madison joined that short list by beating No. 13 Virginia Tech.
Moore admits the Mountaineers’ victory changed the program in ways that even winning three straight FCS national championships from 2005-07 couldn’t.
According to the school’s enrollment figures, the number of applicants to Appalachian State increased by more than 18 percent between 2007 and 2008 – from 14,301 applicants to 16,897. Attendance reportedly increased 24 percent and licensing royalties went up 73 percent. The national media exposure for the program drastically increased, too.
Five years later, Appalachian State continues to reap the benefits from one game.
“Everybody here still talks about it,” Moore says.
In fact, coaches at FCS schools across the country still point to that game as a rallying cry for their own teams.
“You do bring it up,” Taylor says. “Some people think it’s a slaughter and you shouldn’t play these games. It makes it real and lets people know that it is realistic and that you haven’t lost your mind when you’re doing those kinds of things.”
Hatcher also discusses the day David defeated the proverbial Goliath, though he is quick to temper it with his Murray State players by making sure they understand one non-conference victory or defeat doesn’t define a season.
“Are we going to prepare to beat Florida State? Sure we are.” Hatcher says. “We’re going down there with that mindset. But in reality, the Appalachian States beating Michigans doesn’t happen very often.
“Those things don’t happen. But when they do, boy, all of a sudden you get a lot of attention for your program.”
What does the future hold for the FCS-FBS relationship?
Given the importance of home gate receipts and securing a victory to enhance postseason bowl possibilities, it’s reasonable to expect the matchups – and lopsided scores – to continue. From 1998 to 2004, FBS teams could only count a victory against an FCS school toward a bowl bid once every four years. But beginning in 2005, the NCAA allowed one FCS victory to count each season.
When the NCAA implemented a permanent 12-game schedule for FBS teams in 2006, it further changed the non-conference scheduling landscape. Teams went scrambling to find guaranteed games against FCS opponents to fill the schedule because any FBS program with a non-losing record is eligible for a bowl game. Kramer says FBS teams can pay less money to schedule a home game against an FCS program, whereas playing another FBS school can cost roughly $1 million.
Wisconsin is one of 42 FBS teams never to have lost a game against an FCS opponent, according to FootballGeography.com. Wisconsin defeated Northern Iowa 26-21 on Sept. 1, the seventh FCS team on the schedule in Badgers coach Bret Bielema’s seven seasons.
Although some might complain about the easy opposition, it has done little to deter FBS teams from scheduling down a level. Wisconsin is 9-0 all-time against FCS schools and 6-0 during Bielema’s tenure. During those six games, the Badgers have outscored their opponents, 288-103.
“I love to play conference games and all of that,” Bielema says. “But any time you can go outside your schedule and bring, whether it’s an FBS or an FCS, someone new to the table, it’s a new way to prepare. It’s a new team that you’re looking at. I think in general it’s a good thing.”
Not every FBS program is as eager to play FCS teams. Nebraska reluctantly scheduled its game against Idaho State because it needed to fill a home game late in the scheduling process.
“That’s not something we’re looking to do every year,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says. “We’d rather not play those games against FCS teams. Sometimes scheduling is what it is and you can’t really control all that. You’ve got to make sure you have a game scheduled. … At the end of the day, you want to give your fans the best opponents possible coming into the games.”
One possible scheduling deterrent may come when the FBS adopts a four-team playoff in 2014 that will more prominently emphasize strength of schedule. But how that actually affects scheduling remains to be seen. Eight of 12 Big Ten teams, for example, already have an FCS opponent on their 2014 schedule – including a Michigan rematch at home against Appalachian State that features an $850,000 payout to the Mountaineers.
FCS teams will gladly cash in on the opportunity for as long as they can.
Idaho State, in fact, has scheduled two FBS opponents this season. The Bengals lost to Air Force 49-21 in the season opener, followed by Division II Black Hills State and then Nebraska.
Maybe Idaho State’s players can’t control the score against Nebraska. But at the very least, Kramer hopes they’ll enjoy the experience. That is one aspect Idaho State and every FCS team can control when it comes to playing the college football powers.
“We want to sense it all at Nebraska,” Kramer says. “If I could, I’d let them walk around the stadium outside. We want to enjoy the tailgate. We want to see the whole thing.
“We’re not going back to Lincoln in our career. We’re not doing that. So once in a lifetime, it’s like going to Mount Rushmore or going to Yellowstone Park – it’s something you’ve got to do.”