High-profile Division I college football teams usually find teams to beat up on early in the season. Players from the losing team lick their physical and emotional wounds, while athletic officials from the losing team quietly walk away with a big payday that helps their fiscal bottom line.
Granted, occasionally a lower-profile team doesn’t cooperate and pulls off an upset or plays a close game, but not all that often.
Early this season, there were a number of cringe-inducing scores, such as Ohio State over Florida A&M 76-0 and Washington over Idaho State 56-0.
Meanwhile, Florida International and Savannah State lost by 72 and 70 points to Louisville and the University of Miami, respectively.
So how much is it worth to play a school out of your league, so to speak? Florida A&M received $900,000 for its trouble. And that’s not insignificant for an athletic department facing a $6 million deficit, according to an article in “Inside Higher Ed.” In exchange, Ohio State got an easy win and a warm up for real football games down the road.
“In most Division I sports, teams need to play (and ideally beat) a strong list of opponents to qualify for national championship tournaments, so coaches have an incentive to find quality teams for their out-of-conference schedules. In football, that isn’t the case,” said Welch Suggs, an associate journalism professor at the University of Georgia.
“So which is the better value proposition: an easy home win (and the revenue that goes along with it) or a tough nonconference matchup that could spoil your chances in the polls?”
But don’t be too quick to put the entire onus on the Ohio States of the college football world. Critics say the FAMUs of the world deserve a share of the blame.
“(Ohio State coach) Urban Meyer isn’t the athletic director or president of Florida A&M, the people responsible for signing the Rattlers up for a game that they had no chance to win, were at an increased risk for injury and were almost assuredly going to suffer a monumental embarrassment,” wrote columnist Dan Wetzel.
“Offering the deal is bad enough. Accepting it is worse though. It’s not Ohio State’s full-time job to look out for the physical and emotional health of the FAMU players. It’s the school’s administration.”
Contrary to popular opinion, not all colleges play lesser competition. Notre Dame is one of at least two Bowl Championship Series teams that have never played a team in Division I’s less-competitive Football Championship Subdivision.
The Big Ten Conference also discourages its members from playing FCS teams, although as Ohio State demonstrated, the advice isn’t always heeded.
“Interest in those games is less,” said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. “They’re from another division. They have 20 less scholarships. It’s like a junior college team playing against a high school team or a high school team playing against a JV team.”
With major changes coming in the postseason format, there will be incentive for teams to play better competition. Cupcake opponents will count against teams positioning themselves for a national championship in the eyes of the tournament’s selection committee.
In fairness, it should be noted that not all FCS teams are pushovers. Just ask Kansas and Kansas State, both who have lost to North Dakota State in recent memory.
It is almost impossible for a BCS school to schedule an out-of-conference BCS opponent without making it a home-and-home proposition. Schools need the revenue from home games to pay their admittedly super-inflated bills, so the alternative is to schedule the cupcakes.
Some have suggested making it mandatory for BCS teams to only play other BCS teams, but the coaches would probably rebel.
“It makes the season tougher,” said James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan, in an email, “and they are only one losing season away from the unemployment line.”
As bad as a 76-0 score sounds, let’s keep things in perspective. In 1916, Georgia Tech beat Cumberland University 222-0.