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Money games balance budgets but could hurt FCS playoff chances
Northwestern State has cashed checks totaling $755,000 the last two weeks for playing football games at LSU and Southern Methodist, but those two big paydays could make it more difficult for the Demons to reach the Football Championship Division playoffs.
NSU was paid $405,000 for its 49-3 loss to LSU at Tiger Stadium on Sept. 11 and $350,000 for playing Southern Methodist Saturday night in Dallas. While the infusion of cash was welcome to NSU athletics, scheduling those two games against FBS schools– along with the home opener against Division II Delta State – makes it a challenge for NSU to finish with seven wins over Division I opponents – the traditional number required to receive an at-large berth into the FCS playoffs.
“I don’t think a school ever has received an at-large berth without having seven Division I wins,” Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett said.
“Of course, if we win the conference championship we won’t need an at-large berth,” NSU coach Bradley Dale Peveto said. “But playing those two guarantee games makes it harder to get an at-large bid.”
NSU originally was scheduled to play just one money game this season – against LSU – but the NSU officials jumped at the chance to add the SMU game when the Mustangs had an unexpected opening on their schedule.
“Based on a number of factors – the tough economy, our market size, and our budget, to name a few – playing at least one and at times two FBS games per season has become a necessity,” NSU athletics director Greg Burke said. “In fact, ‘playing up’ has become much more prevalent across the entire FCS subdivision in recent years as compared to when I first started as AD at NSU in 1996.”
It has become so common for top Football Bowl Subdivision teams to play at least one FCS school, only 10 schools from the BCS conferences do not have such a game scheduled this season.
For the BCS teams, it comes down to wins and economics. A BCS team gets what is supposed to be an easy win – although that sometimes can go horribly wrong – and pays a lot less guarantee money for an FCS team than it would a mid-level FBS team. Ohio State, for example, paid Akron of the Mid-American Conference $850,000 for a game earlier this season, which is more than double what LSU paid Northwestern State.
For FCS schools, playing the guarantee games helps balance the budget but it also has some other benefits, Burke said.
“I think you could say that the alumni are excited about these type of games and likewise, I think, our players are enthusiastic about having the opportunity to measure themselves against FBS caliber teams and players,” Burke said. “Also relevant is the publicity generated from playing some, if not all, of these games with ‘Exhibit A’ being the exposure gained by playing second-ranked LSU last weekend. I would also think that recruits would be excited by these type of opportunities.”
The downside is that those games normally – but not always – are losses for the FCS schools.
“Since 2000, schools in our league have 16 wins against FBS schools,” Burnett said. “To put that in perspective, we have 10 playoff wins in that period.”
But Southland coaches often feel like they are caught between competing demands from their administrations. Schools want their coaches to play one or two money games a year, but they also want their football teams to contend for an FCS playoff berth.
Barring an upset over Southern Methodist on Saturday night, NSU will have to go no worse than 7-1 in Southland Conference play to realistically have a shot at an at-large berth into the playoffs.
“That’s hard to do in our league,” Peveto said. “I am not complaining about it, but that’s a fact. Our league is very good and very competitive. It’s very hard to go 7-1 in our league.
“What’s a real shame is that it makes our league a one-bid league, and I don’t think we should be a one-bid league. I think our league is better than that.”
In the 10-year period from 1996 though 2005, the Southland Conference received multiple playoff bids seven times, placing two teams in the tournament five in five season and three teams in the postseason twice. In the last five years, however, the Southland has received just one bid three times.
“There is such a thing as a good loss,” McNeese State coach Matt Viator said. “I think who you play should be taken into consideration, but I don’t think it is.”
McNeese had losses to LSU and Missouri last season. The Cowboys went into the last week of the season playing Central Arkansas for a share of the Southland title. McNeese lost that game but learned afterwards, Viator said, that a victory would not have gotten them into the FCS playoffs.
“That was pretty disappointing to me,” he said.
Montana athletics director Jim O’Day is chairman of the FSC Football Selection Committee this year. He said seven wins over Division I opponents is a guideline and not a hard and fast rule.
“The committee’s goal is to get the best teams into the playoffs,” O’Day said. “We’re going to look at everything.”
That would be welcome news to Southland Conference coaches who feel they are at a disadvantage compared to teams from the East Coast, who have a wider selection of beatable opponents within reasonable busing distance.
“So many Southland schools have to play two of those games,” said Southeastern coach Mike Lucas, whose team will play Tulane and Southern Miss from Conference USA this season. “We understand the financial needs, but it does put the Southland at a disadvantage when it comes to the playoffs.”