For the moment college football has forgotten about college football in a mad dash forward to appease a small group of the viewing public and more importantly to make television advertisers happy. Due to some unnecessary upcoming changes in scheduling, for years to come we will have the Big Ten to thank in part for a new evolution of the game.
Since the BCS era has transitioned into the College Football Playoff era a ground swell from the media has pushed forward putting a greater emphasis on a given team’s strength of schedule, as it should, when disseminating which of the top teams deserve to be in the postseason tournament. The trouble going forward with college football is an element of the game is now quickly being pushed aside, that element is the role the underdog plays in sports.
The underdog role has come to label the soul of the American working class giving hope to the Midwest farmers, the Kentucky coal miners, and the blue-collar workers from sea to shining sea that each will have their day in the spotlight or moment of triumph and success. Be it "Rocky," "The Bad News Bears," or Crash Davis in "Bull Durham," we all cheer for the underdog to take down Goliath or overcome some obstacle to achieve greatness. Honestly, even after 22 years who doesn’t get a little misty-eyed when Rudy gets the sack against Georgia Tech? We all want it, we all know it’s coming, and each one of us is thrilled when it happens.
As of Friday, a big step towards cutting out the underdog role in college football was taken when the Big Ten announced conference members would no longer play FCS opponents.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany bared his chest a little more when announcing all conference teams are now required to play one Power 5 non-conference game each year, becoming the first conference to adopt the new scheduling policy coupled with nine conference games; the SEC has already mandated one Power 5 game scheduled each season.
The slap in the face to programs like Boise State, Northern Illinois, Cincinnati, Marshall, Air Force, UCF, South Florida, Arkansas State, East Carolina, Houston, San Diego State, UConn, Troy, Fresno State, and Louisiana Tech among others was loud and unnecessary. Somehow through all of this BYU and Notre Dame come out unscathed even though neither is in a conference, neither will play a conference championship game anytime soon, and both can schedule games at will, tough or easy.
Delany explained the new mandate during the Big Ten’s Media Days stating, “If you really look at - I'm not sure people have paid as much attention to the guidelines for the selection of teams. There are about eight paragraphs that deal with the issue of when resumes look similar. Similar record, similar resumes. Conference champions are going to get the first tiebreaker consideration and strength of schedule is going to get the second.”
Based off of Delany’s explanation, if a Big Ten team is ranked No. 5 in the nation and a Big 12 team is ranked No. 4, the Playoff selection committee will automatically give the Big Ten squad the nod over the Big 12 because the latter does not have a championship game, case in point Ohio State over TCU and/or Baylor last season.
Going the extra mile to exclude playing Mountain West, Sun Belt, American Athletic, Conference USA, or Mid-American teams are not needed. Furthermore, chances are only one team in a given year will emerge from the Big Ten as a legitimate Playoff contender, meaning the other 13 teams that purposely left off a non-Power 5 team on the schedule went a step too far.
Forgotten in the new mandate is the role of the mighty underdog in college football, even those teams below the non-Power 5 conferences. Some of the more exciting college football games ever played included a FCS program knocking off a FBS titan. Who could forget James Madison beating No. 13 Virginia Tech in 2010? How about Georgia Southern embarrassing Florida 26-20 in Gainesville? Perhaps the granddaddy of them all took place when Appalachian State upset Michigan 34-32 in the Big House in 2007.
When the 2013 football season kicked off, the opening weekend saw seven FCS programs upset FBS teams:
Eastern Washington 49, No. 25 Oregon State 45
North Dakota State 24, Kansas State 21
McNeese State 53, South Florida 21
Eastern Illinois 40, San Diego State 19
Northern Iowa 28, Iowa State 20
Towson 33, UConn 18
Southern Utah 22, South Alabama 21
Maybe FCS programs have a little something more to offer the fans and FBS teams when they step on the field?
True the thought of Ohio State playing McNeese State is not a game circled as a “can’t miss game” but that might be beside the point. Playing undermanned squads does a lot for FBS teams, more times than not, by allowing underclassmen game experience preparing for conference games without greater jeopardy of losing a big game. With the expanded college football schedule, that one less game against a top program, in theory, is also one less punishing game on the bodies of the players as well.
The trickle-down effect plays a significant role in college football as a whole. When FCS programs line up to play their bigger FBS brothers this is a big payday for the smaller schools. This financial model also works for the non-Power 5 programs. In some instances the games against the big boys provide the bulk of revenue that will be generated over the entire season for a given program. When the seven FCS programs upended the seven FBS teams in 2013, those teams combined to make $2.375 million dollars with payouts as low as $225,000 and up to $450,000.
What will be the long-term effect of FCS programs no longer receiving monies from FBS games? Will non-FBS programs start dropping football because they can no longer afford the cost?
The other opportunity that cannot be bypassed is allowing FCS players the chance to play at the Swamp, in Death Valley, in the Big House, in Neyland Stadium, at the Rose Bowl, or at any FBS stadium in front of thousands of fans. Easy to assume all the players lining FCS rosters had FBS ambitions at one time or another. Maybe some were not as talented as others or were late bloomers missing out on that dream, but why take away a chance for those young men to get the honor of a lifetime by playing in a historic venue against a big-time program?
An idea to circumnavigate the non-FCS/Power 5 scheduling problem and to still give life to these programs would be to allow each FBS program one game every two years to be stricken off that season’s record, or not count against their strength of schedule. This would apply to wins only, not a loss. A similar plan has been in place for years, allowing FBS programs to use a win against a FCS school to count towards the needed six games to become bowl eligible.
Why not allow scheduling to stay somewhat status quo and just change how the Playoff selection committee interprets who gets in and who gets out?
The same thought about only one Big Ten team getting into the final four for the Playoff each year applies for all conferences. If all Power 5 conferences adapt the Big Ten’s scheduling philosophy, 13 ACC, 9 Big 12, 13 Big Ten, 11 Pac-12, and 13 SEC teams have eliminated playing a FCS or non-Power 5 team for no reason assuming the top programs from each conference are in the running for the Playoff. Put in another way, 59 Power 5 conference teams have cut off financial aid to non-Power 5 or FCS programs in a given year for no reason.
A “forgiven game” every two years, or even if expanded to every three or four years, could keep college football as is without cutting the non-Power 5 schools from the game.
While Delany’s heart and thoughts are for the betterment of the conference he serves, the mandate is not for the betterment of the game top to bottom. Hopefully other conferences will realize the overall peril the new mandate seemingly places on college football as whole and will in turn look for a better way to be all inclusive while maintaining an importance on scheduling tough games.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.