Saturday, February 24, 2007

Candy is Dandy | by Jay

Michigan filled out its '07 schedule last week by adding the Washington Generals-- err, I mean, Division I-AA powerhosue Appalachian State -- as its opening home game. (You might remember Appalachian State from such college promotional videos as Hot! Hot! Hot!, sliced and diced by Orson in a classic EDSBS post).

The funny thing is, the Wolverine brass are clearly sensitive about scheduling such an obvious petit fours. They put together a fact sheet on Appalachian State that applies lipstick to a pig -- Defending 1-AA champs! Six victories versus D1 teams since 1982! Also good in basketball! -- but let's be honest: this was a win for Michigan the moment the ink dried on the contract. The fact sheet fails to mention that the Mountaineers played just one game last year against a BCS opponent, a 2-9 NC State team, and got thumped, 23-10. The opening line on the Michigan game will be north of four touchdowns.

Why is this game happening? Because the economics of college football encourage it. The expanded 12-game schedule necessitates finding additional opponents, and most teams are understandably reluctant to schedule an actual out-of-conference challenge. With the recent allowance of one Division I-AA game per year to count towards bowl eligibility, more and more big league teams are padding their schedules with cupcakes. Furthermore, unlike other competitive programs, smaller schools won't insist on a home-and-home series, thus resulting in more home games for big schools (and thus, more filthy lucre).

What's in it for the cupcakes? Cold, hard cash. Michigan, for example, is paying Appalachian State $400,000 for this game. The NYT had a good article last Fall on the phenomenon of small division schools offering themselves up to the big boys like tribal sacrifices to Kong in exchange for a ride on the gravy train.

The big money has trickled down to Division I-AA, where payouts that were between $100,000 and $150,000 five years ago are now as high as $650,000 a game. Northwestern State, a Division I-AA program in Natchitoches, La., is playing three Division I-A teams this year.

Greg Burke, Northwestern State's athletic director, said the team usually played two games against Division I-A opponents. But the combination of the high-dollar offers and the threat of less state financing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were factors in making a change. The combined payout of $815,000 will account for nearly one-fifth of the athletic department's operating budget, Mr. Burke said.
And voilĂ , Behold, the creampuff parade: 47 games in '06 between BCS teams and Division I-AA sacrificial lambs, the vast majority blowouts. Texas Tech beat SE Louisiana, 62-0. Florida beat Western Carolina 62-0 (conveniently, a tuneup game right before FSU). Arkansas took on SE Missiouri State, and waxed them 63-7. And so on. The average margin of victory was 28 points. Sure, there's an occasional upset (Montana State beating Colorado, for instance), but the exception is so rare that it proves the rule.

These 47 games signal a surging upswing for the BCS vs I-AA slaughter:
  • '03: 23 games, BCS 23-0, average MOV 31.3
  • '04: 24 games, BCS 22-2, average MOV 23.4
  • '05: 32 games, BCS 31-1, average MOV 27.9
  • '06: 47 games, BCS 43-4, average MOV 27.6
(I haven't scoured the entire '07 slate yet, but I'm sure it will be at least as saccharine as last year's.)

Many Michigan fans, to their credit, are none too pleased (and somewhat embarrassed) with having to play Appalachian State. Michigan was one of the very few programs that hadn't busted its I-AA cherry yet (along with Notre Dame and UCLA and only two or three others), but now they're lined up at the dessert cart with everyone else.

We know why these games happen. But nobody seems to be asking the question, should they happen. The big school gets a win, and the little school gets some money, and the students and alums and fans are forced to sit though some glorified tackling drills (at regular ticket prices). These games aren't even marginally competitive. They're filler. They're exploitative. They're craven. There's no drama. It's not football, exactly; it's more like prostitution.

Every team is always going to have some easy pickins' on its schedule (tune in next year for my rant on the Irish playing San Diego State and Nevada), but you have to draw the line somewhere, and there's a clear, obvious line, right there, at Division I-AA.