MADISON, Wis. — Fair or not, athletic directors in major college football conferences often are pegged by fans as puppet masters in a money-grubbing industry that cares little about the product on the field. The perception is that, while winning is nice, dollar signs and rotating turnstiles ultimately trump all else in importance.
That’s why it was so refreshing last week when Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez finally had the sense to acknowledge what everyone else has known for years when it comes to scheduling nonconference football games in the Big Ten.
“The nonconference schedule in our league is ridiculous,” Alvarez told WIBA-AM in Madison last Tuesday. “It’s not very appealing …
“So we’ve made an agreement that our future games will all be Division I schools. It will not be FCS schools.”
Allow me to offer the sentiment shared by most who watch college football each week: It’s about time. Aren’t we all just a little tired of watching Illinois whip Charleston Southern, 44-0? Don’t we want something more competitive than Nebraska’s 73-7 annihilation of Idaho State last season? Finally, those wishes are nearing completion, likely beginning in 2016.
Of course, Big Ten athletic directors aren’t plucking the idea of eliminating FCS opponents from the goodness of their hearts. What spawned the change was the addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the Big Ten, which will grow to 14 teams in 2014. As a result, the conference schedule will expand from eight to nine games each season, which would eliminate one nonconference game.
To better position the Big Ten for any future national championship games in a four-team playoff, the conference will need to play a more difficult schedule — thus the removal of an FCS opponent, even if it means paying a couple hundred thousand dollars more to play a home game against a low-level FBS team.
The scheduling of FCS teams across the FBS is an epidemic that began in 2005, when the NCAA allowed one victory against an FCS opponent to count toward a bowl berth each season. Last year, 101 of the 124 FBS teams (81.4 percent) played at least one game against an FCS opponent.
Among teams from the six power FBS conferences, 59 of 68 (86.7 percent) played an FCS team. And seven of 12 Big Ten teams played an FCS opponent.
According to Andrew McKillop of FootballGeography.com, Big Ten schools have an all-time combined record of 86-8 against FCS programs (.914 winning percentage). Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin have never lost to an FCS team.
On the field, it’s a lose-lose scenario for Big Ten teams. Win by six touchdowns, and what have you accomplished? Win by single digits or — gasp — lose the game, and the program is viewed as a national laughingstock. Just ask Michigan, which lost to Appalachian State in 2007.
Last season, Wisconsin nearly became the next victim before escaping Northern Iowa, 26-21, in the final minutes. The Panthers drove all the way to the Badgers’ 41-yard-line before being stuffed on fourth down.
Even Big Ten coaches have voiced their displeasure over the years about having to play an FCS school because the reward is limited.
“That’s not something we’re looking to do every year,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said in August. “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.”
Certainly, the decision to drop these games will come across as unfair to FCS schools, which desperately need the six-figure payout to help fund their athletic departments and pay for coaches. The rich get richer, while the rest plunge deeper into a financial crisis.
When Nebraska clobbered Idaho State, the Bengals received $700,000. The money was more than the team would have earned playing multiple home games in its 12,000-seat indoor multipurpose facility. Idaho State’s athletic budget was just over $9 million last season. Nebraska’s athletic budget was roughly $79 million.
“We’re chasing money not just for football but for all of our programs,” Idaho State coach Mike Kramer said in August. “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.”
Without that option, FCS teams will have to find other ways to generate revenue, and it won’t be easy.
Last year, Northern Iowa earned $950,000 in guaranteed money for scheduling Wisconsin and Iowa, and the Panthers nearly won both games.
“I would tell you the loss of the Big Ten schools will be devastating, to UNI and to a lot of our peers,” Northern Iowa athletics director Troy Dannen told the Cedar Rapids Gazette last week. “Not just because we wouldn’t play Iowa and have the guarantee, if you think this will stop at the Big Ten … I look at things happening in the equity leagues in fives, and so I have to believe this might lead to additional dominoes.”
Ultimately, what is best for the Big Ten and other power conferences isn’t best for the FCS. But at least it will spare us all of having to watch more blowouts of overmatched directional schools that have little chance of competing.