Emerson: Defending Power 5 teams schedule games against FCS opponents

ATHENS, Ga. — When it comes to argumentative questions, it’s the easiest in college football: Why is Georgia playing Samford this week? Why are the defending national champion Bulldogs, who suck at five-star prospects and future pros and just made Oregon look like an FCS team, about to play a real FCS team?

Which leads to the next argumentative question: If and when the SEC goes to nine conference games, how could these woeful mismatches not go away?

Maybe they will. Maybe they should. But there are compelling arguments why they shouldn’t.

There are 54 matchups this season between Power 5 teams and FCS teams. Sometimes you get monumental upsets like the Appalachian state (before it rose) beating Michigan. Sometimes the state of South Dakota scares Iowa. More often, Miami beats Bethune-Cookman by 57 points, Baylor beats Albany by 59 points or whatever Georgia is about to do to Samford.

Let’s start with that example. And let’s try to get rid of some misconceptions, on both sides.

Georgia isn’t scheduling Samford or other FCS teams just to get an automatic win. Neither did the other Power 5 conference teams that did it this season. There are other reasons:

Chris Hatcher’s Samford team takes on Georgia on Saturday. (Kim Klement/USA Today)

• Guarantees a home game, which means more tickets and concessions sold, as well as revenue for the campus and hometown. Scheduling home and home series with other Power 5 teams means giving up a home game one of those years. The same goes for game scheduling on neutral sites.

• FCS opponents cost about a quarter of the cost of paying Group 5 teams, who routinely take in about $2 million per game.

• Coaches, whether they admit it or not, like the opportunity to rest their key players (at least after halftime) and give playing time to younger, less experienced players.

• And for some fans who don’t want to pay for season tickets or some of the bigger games, an FCS (or Group of 5) game is an opportunity to attend a game at a much lower cost.

Kirby Smart, whose coaching career began at Division II Valdosta State (under current Samford head coach Chris Hatcher), also offered an altruistic reason: the money paid to small programs, usually around $500,000 per game, help them survive.

“Look, high schools are our feeder programs, just like we are for the NFL. And if you’re going to have good high school programs, you have to have kids that have the opportunity to play at all levels,” Smart said. “Because there are a lot more kids playing at a non-Power 5 level than at the Power 5 level.

“So if you’re a provider of talent and the growth of the game is coming from your youth sports and your high school sports, it’s going to decrease that as these programs go away. And some of these shows can’t, can’t survive without these games.”

That might be true for some programs, but two FCS athletic directors, including for the program Smart is about to play, shrugged it off as a factor at their schools.

Samford AD Martin Newton said the $500,000 guarantee he’ll get from Georgia and other SEC schools his team faces annually are “game-changers” that help offset operating expenses. If they lost that part of their annual budget, they would try to make up for it by playing more Group 5 teams or consider cutting soccer scholarships; FCS schools must have 63 scholarships to play on FBS teams.

But Newton didn’t seem too concerned in general.

“I think we will adjust. I think we’ll figure it out,” she said. “I try not to work too hard on what ifs. But I have thought about it in the past. But we would adjust and make changes. …Oh, we would absolutely be able to survive. Soccer, especially in the South, means a lot to the campus.”

Mercer athletic director Jim Cole, whose team played at Auburn last weekend, went further. He noted that he has an annual budget of “over $20 million” (Mercer is a private school) and therefore a payment of $500,000 is not a large amount. He doesn’t know if his school is about to lose that, but he doesn’t care.

“Just speaking for myself, if we had to lose a game, I would go raise more money. I would have to spend more time on the phone,” Cole said.

The motivations go beyond financial reasons for FCS schools. For gamers, it’s a chance to play on the big stage. They can say they played at Bryant-Denny Stadium or The Swamp. Or, in the case of Samford wide receiver Montrell Washington last year, he could have used his performance to get the attention of NFL scouts. (Washington was a fifth-round pick by the Denver Broncos and just made the 53-man roster.)

There is a perception that it comes at the expense of health and self-esteem. But the players know what they are getting into in the competitive part. And Cole said the only person at Mercer who was hurt at Auburn last week was the team manager — a Mercer player ran into him after being pushed out of bounds. (“Our offensive tackle is 6-3, 290 … It’s not like my son’s high school team is going to play there,” Cole said.)

For fans, it’s a chance to immerse yourself in the atmosphere. Eight busloads of Mercer students made the trip to Auburn. Cole said travel expenses eat up enough of the $500,000 guarantee that it should reinforce how little it is a factor.

But having the name of a small school for a few hours on a Saturday, and in the lead up to a game, is invaluable to your brand.

“It’s great for our players, it’s great for our fans, it’s great for our brand and it’s great for our finances,” Newton said. “I am not going to lie that it is not important for our budgets. But if they disappear, we will solve it.”

Are FCS games on the Power 5’s chopping block? Uncertainty about the SEC’s plans and concerns about what a selection committee will want as it rounds out a 12-team field have some Power 5 programs hesitant to commit.

“I know the ability to put someone on paper four or five years from now has gotten a little bit more difficult. They’re kind of waiting and watching,” Cole said. “But nobody has told me: ‘This is not going to happen.’ They’re just holding their cards right now.”

Concerns about declining attendance are real for Power 5 programs and that could drive them away from FCS programs. But there’s some pushback to that: The more conferences get rid of divisions, what they’re doing, the more attractive they make their annual schedules at home.

Many Georgia fans might look at this year’s home roster (Samford, Kent State, Tennessee, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech) and be disappointed. But that’s because the divisions forced teams to almost always face the same opponents each year. When the SEC drops the divisions, certainly by 2025 or perhaps 2024, there will be a more diverse set of teams on everyone’s annual schedule. Whether it’s an eight- or nine-game schedule, the SEC’s new format will see every team host every other team at least once every four years.

You’re looking for a local calendar that might include Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, Texas, or Oklahoma, and among that group, why not include a Mercer, a Samford, or a Bethune-Cookman?

There are a dozen regular season games. This would be just one of them. No damage, no big deal.

“I hope there will always be a place for FCS,” Cole said. “We enjoy playing the Power 5, especially the SEC. I hope there is a place. But I am realistic. I’ll keep going.

(Top photo of Mercer Bears quarterback Fred Payton vs. Auburn: John Reed/USA Today)

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