The other day, Barry Alvarez told a sports radio station what college football pundits’ ears were itching to hear: the Big 10 would quit scheduling FCS teams. Amid the rejoicing over this news, journalist have forgotten to ask a couple critical questions: one, how is the Big 10 going to enforce this, and two, if the Big 10 isn’t going to schedule FCS teams, who exactly are they going to schedule?
I’m not saying that the Big 10 and all conferences shouldn’t try to get FCS teams off their schedules, but just judging by last year, it isn’t likely that all major conference teams will be able to go without games against FBS teams. The real culprits aren’t the major conference teams, but the lesser FBS teams who insist on playing major conference teams at their home stadiums, even though they hardly deserve it.
To understand this problem, let’s answer the question of where a school’s non-conference schedule comes from. The Big 5 Conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC; sorry Big East) played 218 non-conference games, and 54 of those were against FCS teams, roughly one in four. Here’s the conference breakdown:
SEC: 15 FCS opponents (Texas A&M had two)
Big 12: 9 (everyone but Texas)
Big 10: 8 (everyone but Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State)
ACC: 13 (Florida State had two)
Pac 12: 9 (everyone but Stanford, USC, and UCLA)
Ironically, the Big 10 did better than any other conference in keeping FCS teams off the schedule, considering they played four non-conference games and all their schools but Michigan and Indiana played seven home games. Nine conference games (what the Big 10 say it will go to) didn’t even keep FCS out of Big 12 or Pac 12 schedules.
Fifty-two of sixty Big 5** programs played an FCS opponent, so not even a full conference could have gotten rid of such match-ups. In their defense, some of these match-ups resulted because of conference realignment. Texas A&M had to scramble to ad an extra game when they moved from the Big 12 to SEC, and Florida State had West Virginia cancel on their meeting with only seven month’s notice when the Mountaineers had to trim a game to move to the Big 12. With Savanna State, they got the worst possible match-up When I saw on Twitter that the third quarter of the FSU-Savanna State game was going to played with a running clock, I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.
It’s games like that (and Nebraska’s 73-7 scrimmage against Idaho State) that have the Big 10 proclaiming, “No more FCS teams!” With the conference realignment dust settling, AD’s won’t be scrambling, and will have more time to setting their schedules for the long-term (Nebraska has its schedule set through 2016.)
But non-conference games have to come from someplace. Take the Big 10 last year. 22 of its 48 non-conference games were single home games, with no return to the opposing team. Again, eight of these were against FCS schools. However, it should be noted that, of the other 26 non-conference games, only 14 were against major conference schools, including the regular series games by Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue against Notre Dame, and Iowa’s regular game with Iowa State. Twelve other games were part of some home-and-home series with programs from mid-level conferences, which I would argue are the real reason we’ve seen AD’s of major programs resulting to schedule FCS.
There were sixty-five programs outside of the Big 5 Conferences last year, including the Big East. The majority of these programs are now making one single game, road trip a year, as many big boys are playing at the likes of ULM and Tulane. All of the lower conference commissioners want to reduce the number of single-game road trips their members take. The mom-and-pops of the FBS hold out on major conference programs for return games, even when they’d make more money making the trip. The prime example being Southern Miss selling a home game of a 2-for-1 series to Nebraska to buyout their coach, receiving $2.1 million. Golden Eagles got $300,000 for this year’s game in Lincoln, and if they receive at least the same amount for their 2015 visit, they’ll pocket $900,000 for three visits to Lincoln, only $100,000 below the $1 million less-heralded Arkansas State made on a single game visit to Lincoln this fall. (It was only three years ago that Idaho received $800,000 for a single game at Nebraska.)
It is because major conference AD’s are bowing to these MAC, Conference USA, and Sun Belt teams that fans are winding up having to pay full ticket prices for games against FCS teams. Michigan State, who didn’t have any single-game visitors this year, has received three home games from Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Central Michigan for making a road trip to each school. (In-state relationships undoubtedly are the cause of this, as they are in many of these non-competitive match-ups, like Northern Iowa and the two FBS Iowa programs.)** But when teams who are easily among the worst in the FBS are receiving road games, including Wyoming (Nebraska), UNLV (from Wisconsin two years ago, Minnesota this year) and UMass (Indiana), something has to change. In addition, Purdue has had home-and-homes with Rice and Marshall. In future years, Illinois will be completing a two game series at Western Michigan, and worst of all, Minnesota will be playing a home-and-home series with New Mexico State, who can’t even get into a major conference. Don’t be shocked if Jerry Kill soon schedules a welding school.
While 2-for-1′s insure overall quality and ease long-term scheduling headaches, they keep fans from seeing multiple non-conference games against BCS competition. 2007 was the last year that Nebraska played two BCS conference foes in the same year, and since 2004, the Huskers have only twice played two BCS conference foes in the same season, in 2005 and 2007. In the Big 10, only Michigan and Northwestern played more than one BCS team in their non-conference schedule.
With all these obstacles, eliminating FCS teams from Big 10 schedules can only be done with incremental change. Nine conference games is a good start, but it would take financial penalties to get AD’s to stop scheduling the FCS teams, because FCS teams cost 50%-60% of what FBS teams cost. An official agreement with some of the lesser conferences could help the Big 10 accomplish that. And really, who cares if Indiana, Minnesota, and eventually Maryland, keep FCS schools on their schedules?
And even if such an agreement comes to fruition, there are still going to be situations where a coach and/or athletic directors get fired, and new ones come in and redo schedules, like Bill Synder did when he returned to Kansas State in 2009 and canceled tough series Ron Prince set-up. (Ironically, he swept the one series he couldn’t get rid of against Miami.) And some schools will renege on their verbal commitments to games, which is how Nebraska ended up playing Idaho State. What is a school suppose to do when it needs a game in a pinch? It goes back to the main problem of Barry Alvarez’s brash statement: a conference doesn’t have power over its members non-conference schedule. The schools do.
The only way for this to change is if heavy fines ($400,000-$500,000) are leveled against schools who do schedule an FCS program. Don’t be surprised if a scheduling agreement between the MAC and the Big 10 eventually comes into play. With how heavily involved ESPN and other TV networks are involved with college football (the Big 10 owns its own network), it’s no surprise people are talking about eliminating FCS cupcakes. If they can.
Derek Johnson is a Seward Nebraska native who works for his family's organic farm seed company, Blue River Hybrids, and is a freelance writer and commission photographer. He has been a contributor to Husker Max since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog, derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on twitter @derekjohnson05 for regular updates.