In college football, the schedule means everything. If you are who you beat, you can only be who you play.
Recognizing that, athletic directors schedule up to a decade in advance, hunting for the perfect balance of respectable and beatable. Then fans dive in, chalking up wins and losses, setting their sights on this bowl or that bowl based on who goes where when.
And a schedule looks different to each pair of eyes. Some see a 12-course feast. Others, a gauntlet.
But recently, nearly everyone is seeing changes.
Conferences adding extra league games modify the way teams schedule. Television networks offering millions of dollars for showcase games alter plans too. And NCAA officials stressing the importance of strength of schedule contort the relationship between big and small schools even more.
Combined, those factors are reshaping the college football food chain.
With fewer open dates on their schedules and the CFP system discouraging cupcake games, major football powers are shying away from scheduling undermanned Football Championship Subdivision schools.
FCS coaches have long been wary of sacrificing potential wins and player safety in the mismatches, but the payouts associated with so-called “guarantee games” have been crucial to balancing entire athletic departments’ budgets.
Now coaches at FCS-level programs this year worry about how their teams will handle the competition, but they also worry they might not have an FCS team in a few years.
While the FCS teeters on a financial cliff, smaller FBS schools in conferences such as Conference USA and the Sun Belt Conference totter, watching their power rise.
For agreeing to travel to Indiana in 2015, FIU got the Hoosiers to come to Miami in 2016 and give the Panthers $800,000. FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said he had never heard of a school getting that kind of deal before.
Other small FBS schools are agreeing to “guarantee games” with the top teams that no longer want to line up FCS schools, and they are getting paid more than ever before, with payouts reaching $1.5 million.
The big boys causing change are coping with it too. If trends continue, cliques could emerge within major conferences as schools with larger budgets are able to pay to have more home games than relatively cash-strapped peers.
Florida will play all four of its 2015 nonconference games at home by paying New Mexico State, East Carolina, and Florida Atlantic $3.75 million combined.
However, Miami has to travel to Florida Atlantic and Cincinnati.
Florida — the birthplace of the “body bag game” term in 1987 when Emmitt Smith’s Gators hosted Cal State Fullerton, and won 65-0 — is now home to schools of all sizes contorting toward a new paradigm.
The balance of power in college football will follow the money. It might take competitive balance with it.
FCS FEELS THE HEAT
The FCS is going extinct.
That’s what Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood says at least, taking a break from preparing for his upcoming season that ends Nov. 22 at Florida (for $550,000) to talk about the future.
Forecasting is not something one-day-at-a-time, one-game-at-a-time disciples do often, but this issue is that important.
“If teams aren’t paying … to play FCS teams, that’s a lot of money that you are losing out on,” he said. “For some FCS schools, that will put their feet to the fire.
“ ‘What are we going to do without that half-a-million dollars that we are counting on? How are we going to make up that money?’ ”
Hood said later: “It’s starting to show that [the FCS] going to be a dinosaur.”
Looking at the numbers, that is hard to believe.
Last season, a record 110 games pitted FCS competition against FBS teams. There could be even more this year. But coaches seemed to agree with Hood.
FCS teams saw their value rise in 2006 when big-time schools added extra games after the NCAA went to a 12-game schedule for FBS teams.
So-called “guarantee games” began costing roughly $500,000, but the price was worth it for top teams looking to schedule seven home games, especially given that they can make more than $2 million in a game’s worth of tickets and concessions.
For the FCS schools, the money contributes up to 5 percent of the total athletic budget for the entire department while providing exposure and a chance to pull off a special win (see: Appalachian State’s 34-32 triumph at No. 5 Michigan in 2007, which is considered one of the greatest upsets in history).
There are downsides too. EKU lost a 31-year streak of posting a winning record in 2009 after a key player was injured playing a Southeastern Conference school, for instance.
But financially, the games have been a must. Coaches understand.
“FCS teams play those FBS games because they have to,” Citadel coach Mike Houston said.
This year, Citadel will get $425,000 to ensure Florida State begins its title defense with a “guarantee.”
But those opportunities are drying up. The Big Ten banned FCS competition. The SEC discussed doing the same.
University of Miami athletic director Blake James said he would like to continue playing local FCS teams Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman, but outside of that, “You want to have more FBS games on your schedule,” he said. “In most cases that helps strengthen the schedule.”
Florida associate athletic director Chip Howard said he would prefer to schedule FBS teams, too.
Howard added that he has seen growth in the market for early season marquee matchups like the one he scheduled with Michigan for 2017 (for which Florida will receive $6 million). He said those games are great for his team’s exposure, but it takes away a schedule date where UF had previously hosted FCS teams.
As teams pursue stronger schedules, the relative weaklings might get left behind.
PAY OR PLAY AWAY
If their financial situations continue to deteriorate, many FCS teams might try to jump up to the FBS level, Hood said. That’s where the money is going.
Smaller FBS schools such as FIU and FAU have become popular scheduling partners for big schools because of their FBS designation and willingness to travel, and they are reaping the benefits.
FAU will earn a combined $2.2 million by playing at Nebraska and Alabama during the first two weeks of the season. That equates to nearly a third of the Owls football program’s total revenue during the 2012 football season.
In 2015, FAU will get $1 million to play Florida, just four years after traveling to Gainesville for only $500,000.
FAU will benefit even more going forward, coach Charlie Partridge said.
“The biggest thing we’re seeing is teams from other conferences are willing to have conversations of home-and-home, where before those teams were looking more for one-game contracts,” Partridge said. “That’s where I’m seeing the biggest benefits.”
Partridge said he wants to begin scheduling six home games rather than five, and that is finally becoming a possibility. He already has two nonconference home games lined up for 2015, with Miami and Buffalo.
Arkansas State has scheduled a similar deal with Miami, coming to South Florida this year and then hosting the Hurricanes in 2015.
Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir said a payout game would bring in more money than the school makes from game-day revenue, but bringing a brand-name school to Jonesboro, Arkansas, is worth the loss in potential earnings.
Garcia emphasized the importance of an extra home game.
“Playing more games at home in any sport is a competitive advantage,” he said, adding that the value is the highest in football, where a loud crowd can take an opposing offense out of its rhythm.
Playing an extra home game also improves a team’s reputation, bringing it one step closer to looking like college football blue bloods.
FIU had previously played guarantee games at Alabama, Kansas and Penn State, but Garcia stopped scheduling those agreements after he became athletic director in 2006.
Instead, FIU has parlayed increased leverage into more home games. In the coming years, the Panthers will play home-and-home sets with Indiana, the University of Massachusetts, Maryland and UCF.
Garcia added that some schools might follow FIU’s lead and drop guarantee games altogether, which would only drive prices higher for the remaining suitors.
QUALITY VS. QUANTITY
That’s bad news for some teams with national championship aspirations.
With its four-team field, the College Football Playoff promises to give more schools the opportunity to win a national championship. But the new system might have the opposite effect.
In the Bowl Championship Series Era, the formula for reaching the title game was straightforward: go undefeated, have just one loss despite a strong schedule, or be LSU in 2007.
With a 13-person panel choosing the championship contenders now, the process has become clear, making every announcement crucial. Last December, former NCAA executive Tom Jernstedt stressed the importance of strength of schedule in the new system.
“Strength of schedule will become such an important factor that if you want to be under consideration, you need to have a more meaningful schedule than perhaps you’ve had in previous years,” he said.
For the wealthiest football programs, that’s not an issue. They will continue scheduling seven or more home games to appease their coaches and fans by paying more to bring in FBS teams that will not damage their strength of schedule.
But it could present an impossible choice for other schools. Teams can choose to travel more than they have in the past and more than their rivals do, surrendering home-field advantage in home-and-home agreements that wear players down. Or, they can bring in cheaper, FCS teams that now hurt their résumé in the eyes of committee members.
For instance, UF paid Toledo $800,000 to come to Gainesville and lose 24-6. UM opted instead for a home-and-home with the Rockets and will travel to Toledo in 2018 rather than giving them a payout.
Howard said he usually would not schedule home-and-home sets for the Gators, whereas James said his budget can force his hand.
“In theory, you would like to have seven home games a year … so you try to not have too many home-and-homes,” James said. “Finances do play in the decision, and sometimes that’s how you end up with those types of games.”
Those extra home games Florida Atlantic and other schools its size are scheduling are coming out of the schedules of smaller teams from the Big 5 conferences (the Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and ACC).
If the trend continues, it could reshape college football’s tiers, as records will reflect how many quality home games a school can buy. It will not be so much who you play that will separate privileged teams in the future, but rather where you play, Mohajir said.
“In the whole new grand scheme of the college football playoff, you’ve got to have quality wins and in high-resource conferences you either buy them or you go play them home-and-home,” Mohajir said. “That’s going to be a huge factor in the rankings.”