To Play Up…or Play Down? The Answer is Typically about Money

It’s Championship Weekend in College Football for most Conferences.  There are only 16 games this weekend, and 8 of those are “official” Conference Championship Games.  In reality however there are 9 championship games as the Big 12 got lucky and the regular season finale matching Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is actually for the conference championship and that’s just pure luck.

Along with the Big-12, the Sun Belt Conference also concludes its regular season on the First Saturday of December.  Among the conferences’ more interesting stories this year is the curious case of the University of Idaho.

To set this up, understand that since 1996, 20 schools have made the jump from FCS (the old I-AA division) to FBS (the old I-A division).  Next year it becomes 21 when Coastal Carolina officially joins as a football playing member of the Sun Belt.  Idaho is one of those 21 schools joining Central Florida, Marshall, Buffalo, Middle Tennessee State, Connecticut, South Florida, Troy, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky, Massachusetts, South Alabama, Texas State, UT-San Antonio, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, Appalachian State, and Charlotte.  The FCS jumpers almost exclusively make up the Sun Belt Conference with some in the American and Buffalo in the MAC.  Massachusetts is an Independent, having left the Mid-American Conference this season and it’s not going that well.  The Minutemen struggle to find games much less win them finishing this season at 2-10.

That brings up the question, why play at the highest division?  The reason is simple.  Money.  The FBS post-season consists of Bowl Games and that’s typically lucrative even if you are playing in a game in Mobile, Alabama in front of 5,000 people.  You get paid to play in the game and participating in the FCS playoffs is fun, and can lead to a “true” championship, but it can also lead a school to lose its ass.  The NCAA may pay to travel but they aren’t paying you to play.

The conferences also have agreements among their schools to pool and split bowl money and then there’s the television money.  Let’s be honest, there are more FCS Games on Television these days particularly with the advent of ESPN3 and other on-line services, but those schools are playing for exposure.  The rights fees are minimal or non-existent.  In case of some schools (take Southern Illinois for example) the school actually has to produce the game to show on-line.  Even if you make the FCS Championship game, ESPN will televise it, but they are paying the NCAA the rights fees which the school will never see. There’s also the College Football Playoff money.  For the Power-5 schools to avoid what was likely to be a serious antitrust lawsuit, they had to throw a bone to the other 5 conferences.  They did that by guaranteeing a cut of the CFP revenue and one spot in the New Year’s Six to a Group of 5 school, which frankly is almost always going to someone from the American or Mountain West.

The FBS schools are notorious for bitching and moaning about losing money on bowl trips due to the fact that they are required to buy a certain number of tickets and the costs of travel.  I’ve never truly bought that argument because if it had any merit, they wouldn’t be playing in those games.  The players also like the benefits of bowl games.  They are allowed money for travel and the NCAA allows the bowls to provide them up to $500 in “swag” although a gift card to shop at Belk as a reward for the Belk Bowl sounds kind of lame to me.

That brings us to Idaho.  I’m not proclaiming to be an expert on a school stuck in the middle of Potato Land (although I love French Fries).  Idaho goes into its final game this weekend at home against Georgia State with a 7-4 record and a 6 1/2 point favorite to finish the season 8-4.  The Vandals are in line for their first Bowl Game since 2009.  They’ve only be in two previous bowl games.  The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise is interested.  8-4 is a hell of an accomplishment for coach Paul Petrino (yes, he’s Bobby’s brother, but doesn’t appear to possess the character flaws of his sibling) who took over a program just 2 years ago coming off a 1 win season.

In 2018 Idaho will become the first school in 20 years to ditch FBS Football and go back to FCS.  The reason is because the Vandals have no place to play and have determined that they cannot make a go of it as an Independent in the hinterlands of America.  Idaho, along with New Mexico State are football-playing only members of the Sun Belt.  It doesn’t take a PHD to figure out that Idaho and New Mexico aren’t Sun Belt states.  That’s why the Sun Belt – with 11 current members including Idaho and New Mexico State – kicked them out of the conference after the 2017 – 2018 school year.  New Mexico State is going to play as an Independent, but Idaho determined that wasn’t feasible and as the rest of its sports play in the FCS Big Sky Conference, it only made sense to drop back to move forward.

Idaho is also the victim of the inevitable and that’s the Sun Belt inviting Virginia’s Liberty University into the conference which I expect to happen within the next year, if not sooner.  Liberty has heavily invested in upgrading it’s football stadium to meet FBS standards and they just this week hired a new athletic director with FBS experience in former Baylor A-D Ian McCaw.  Yes, that’s the same McCaw who presided over the sexual assault culture at Baylor and don’t tell me he didn’t know about it.  If he didn’t, why did he quit when the crap hit the fan in Waco and why is his name on a lawsuit filed by one of the victims?  At his hiring Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Junior – whose turning out to be a bigger clown that his father ever was and I didn’t think that was possible – praised McCaw’s “moral compass” telling the Lynchburg News and Daily Advance “I think [McCaw] was a good man in a place where bad things were going on and decided to remove himself from that atmosphere.”

Say what?  This is the same guy that undisputed reports have shown failed to report the allegations of football players sexually assaulting women to someone or anyone.  This is about getting Liberty into FBS Football and an FBS Conference as his hiring occurred just one week after former Athletic Director Jeff Barbour “resigned”.  I’m digressing here, but I don’t like hypocrites who bang the Bible and then act like assholes every day but Sunday and by hiring McCaw, Jerry Falwell, Junior has proven himself to be an asshole.  Yes, I go to church on Sunday and grew up in what I would call a “Christian” home as my father is about the finest person you’d ever hope to meet, but I will also be candid with you that I like beer, and curse too much, two things generally considered “unchristian.”  I’m also not trying to convince you that I’m something other than that and be a phony.

That little rant aside, the point is that FBS offers the fruits that FCS just doesn’t.  Coastal Carolina and Liberty won’t be the last to make the leap and depending on how things shake out Idaho might not be the last school forced to go back down because regardless of the money, there will be no place to play.

Moving to the Championship games this weekend and it begins tonight.  He’s a little factoid for you.  Tennessee – generally considered the favorite from the SEC East – will in fact not be playing in the SEC Championship game this weekend.  But, they played both teams that did in Alabama and Florida.  They also played Virginia Tech who will play in the ACC Title game tomorrow night in Orlando and Ohio who plays for the Mid-American Conference Title tonight in Detroit against Western Michigan.  That’s 4 teams in Conference title games not named Tennessee. Slice it however you want Vols fans, but this year is a disappointment that’s going to end in a mid-level bowl game where a team that suffered from motivation problems at times this year, will have to find a way to be motivated.   Good luck.

Speaking of the MAC Title game, Western Michigan enters the game needing a win over Ohio to finish 13-0 and likely earn a New Years Six Day Bowl game spot in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.  That would be one heck of an accomplishment for a program that was just rudderless a few years.  The question is if they do win the MAC title will their coach be around for the bowl game?  P.J. Fleck – along with Tom Herman whose already left Houston for Texas – is the hottest name out there for a Power 5 job.  There’s an opening at Oregon but will Oregon fans and players put up with his “Row Your Boat” and other goof ball sayings?  Maybe.  Purdue is generally considered the best fit for Fleck.  But, wouldn’t staying at Western Michigan be better than the dumpster fire of Purdue?  If I was Fleck’s agent there’s only one job I would advise him to leave Western Michigan for right now and that would replacing Herman at Houston.

Herman got the job at Houston when Texas paid Charlie Strong $10.7 million to go away.  I’d go away for 1/2 that.  My personal opinion is that Strong needed one more year to truly evaluate the program which was a wreck when he inherited it from Mack Brown.  Need an example of what one additional year can do for you?  Look no further than Colorado.  Last year Mike McIntyre’s team was 1-8 in the PAC-12.  Tonight, they play Washington for the PAC-12 title.  Things have a funny way of playing out in your favor sometimes.  When Colorado needed a coach four years ago, they had their hearts and wallets set on Cincinnati’s Butch Jones.  Jones kept stringing them along so much so that his then Athletic Director Whit Babcock called him out in the media and said either you coach here or there.  Truth is that Jones got wind that Tennessee was looking for a coach and decided he’d rather coach there than Colorado.  He left Colorado standing at the altar, left Cincinnati to fend for themselves and took the job at Tennessee where next year he’ll have something that McIntyre had this year…a target on his back.  Think Colorado is Happy Jones said no now?

ACC Title game matches Clemson and Virginia Tech.  These are not the conference’s best two teams.  Clemson is clearly one of the best, but so are Louisville and Florida State.  Virginia Tech is no better than the 4th best team in the ACC, but they only needed to be the best in their division which they are.  Give Justin Fuente a ton of credit for what he’s done in year 1 and I’m not going to be shocked if they win this game and go to the Orange Bowl.  The reason, they are tougher than about everyone else they play.  That’s a credit to their strength and conditioning coach.  So, will we get the toughness they showed in beating North Carolina and Notre Dame on the road, or the complete collapse in the second half against two mediocre teams in Tennessee and Georgia Tech?  Either is possible.

Finally on the championship front, I love the match-up in the American between Navy and Temple.  Consider that at the beginning of the year, Navy lost its starting quarterback and just plugged another one in and didn’t miss a beat.  They are also unique in that they play for a conference title this week before finishing the regular season next week against Army.

FCS Playoffs move into round two with 8 games.    Our Game of the Week takes us to Huntsville, Texas where the 5th seeded Bearkats of Sam Houston State host the Mocs of Chattanooga.  Sam Houston is 11-0 and named after the former Governor of Texas. Sam Houston was instrumental in bringing Texas into the United States of America as he helped Texas obtain its independence from Mexico.  But, did you know he was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia and moved to Maryville, Tennessee at the age of 14 where there remains a school named “Sam Houston Elementary”?

You may have noticed that in addition to Western Michigan there’s some pretty good football being played in the Western part of Michigan this year and that’s where our Division II Game of the Week takes us.  We go to Allendale, Michigan for the Division II Super Region III Championship Game between the 12-0 Lakers of Grand Valley State and the 11-1 Bulldogs of Ferris State.  It’s a rematch of a game played on October 8th won by Grand Valley 35-23.  Grand Valley is number two in the nation.  Ferris State is in the Regional Finals for the first time since 1995.

For Division III, we go to St. Paul Minnesota where last year’s National Runner-up the 12-0 Tommies of St. Thomas host the 11-1 Titans of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.  St. Thomas is an offensive show having outscored their first two playoff opponents 98-6.  They scored over 70 points twice this season, once over 60, 3 times over 50 and 3 times over 40 points.

Have a great weekend everyone.

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