If FBS schools no longer play FCS schools in football, what are the ramifications?

If you follow college football at all, you probably are familiar with last week’s story out of Wisconsin, where Barry Alvarez was quoted as saying that Big 10 schools would not schedule FCS opponents going forward:

“The nonconference schedule in our league is ridiculous,” Alvarez said on WIBA-AM. “It’s not very appealing…

“So we’ve made an agreement that our future games will all be Division I schools. It will not be FCS schools.”

A couple of quick points:

– Obviously, FCS schools are members of Division I. You would think the director of athletics at a D-1 institution would know that.

– Alvarez claimed that the Big 10’s non-conference schedule “is ridiculous”, yet he is the same AD who in recent years scheduled multiple FCS schools from all over the country, including The Citadel, Wofford, Northern Iowa, South Dakota, Austin Peay, and Cal Poly. The Badgers will play Tennessee Tech in 2013.

Alvarez’s comment drew a lot of attention, understandably so, although it is not a lock that the Big 10 will enforce such an edict. Northern Iowa’s AD was blunt:

I would tell you the loss of the Big Ten schools will be devastating, to UNI and to a lot of our peers. Not just because we wouldn’t play Iowa and have the guarantee, if you think this will stop at the Big Ten…I look at things happening in the equity leagues in fives, and so I have to believe this might lead to additional dominoes…It impacts our ability to generate money in football. It closes the ranks, it closes us out a little bit more.

Samford’s AD had a similar reaction:

If the SEC and ACC make the same decision, we’ve all got to sit back and reevaluate how we’re going to replace our money. If you eliminate those guarantee teams, it puts us in a tough situation at a private school where we don’t get any state funding.

Of course, not everyone is upset. Some in the media welcome the move, eager for what they perceive as “better” scheduling (though suggesting New Mexico State would be a significant improvement over a decent FCS squad strikes me as a bit puzzling). Most members of the college football press/blogosphere, however, understand the potential issues associated with such a decision and the nuances at play. Not all of them do, though — or if they do, they simply don’t care.

The best (worst?) example of this attitude is probably Yahoo! Sports columnist Frank Schwab, who couldn’t be more thrilled with the no-FCS proposal. After writing (in a headline) that “hopefully everyone follows [the Big 10’s] suit”, he added:

…hopefully other conferences (and by “other conferences” we mostly mean you, SEC) stop the practice of wasting a precious Saturday afternoon in the fall on FCS opponents. The FCS teams benefit with a large payday, and that’s great for the bean counters at those schools. It’s not good for anyone else.

It stinks for the season-ticket holders that have to pay for a sham of a game. It’s nothing worth watching on television. The FBS team has nothing to gain, because a win is expected but a loss goes down in infamy. And while the FCS team will get enough money to build a new weight room, the most common result is getting pounded by 40 or 50 points, which can’t be that enjoyable for those players.

Some Big Ten-Sun Belt game in September might not be a ratings bonanza either, but at least it’s better than a parade of FCS opponents.

I thought Schwab’s overall tone was a bit much, to be honest. I sent him a tweet, trying to be as polite as possible:

You seem to have a very flippant attitude about the FCS.

His reply:

Oh, make no mistake, no “seem” about it

Okay, then…

My first thought when I read Schwab’s piece was that it was clearly the work of someone who does not understand FCS football, or who has no connection to it at all (Schwab is a Wisconsin alum). Saying that FCS players can’t enjoy the experience suggests he has never spoken to any of them about it. Most small-school players relish the challenge of “playing up”. In fact, such games are often a recruiting tool for FCS coaches. It’s not all about the money.

Earlier in this post I listed six FCS schools Wisconsin has played in recent years. Of those matchups, the Badgers had to hang on to beat Northern Iowa by five points, were tied at halftime with The Citadel, and frankly should have lost to Cal Poly (winning in OT after the Mustangs missed three extra points). I’m not really getting the “sham of a game” vibe with those contests. Now if you want to talk about the 2012 Big 10 championship game against Nebraska in those terms, go right ahead.

Schwab singles out the SEC as the worst “offender” when it comes to playing FCS schools. I think it is only fair to point out that Big 10 schools currently have a total of 37 FCS teams on their future schedules, while SEC schools have 32. (I’m sure the SEC will eventually add a few more.)

Oh, and to quickly dispose of one canard (which in fairness to Schwab, he does not suggest): some people occasionally claim that allegedly easy FCS matchups have given the SEC a leg up on winning BCS titles, because they play fewer quality non-conference opponents. You only have to look at the Big 10 to see that isn’t the case.

The SEC has played more FCS schools in the past than has the Big 10. However, despite that, Big 10 schools have actually lost more games to FCS opposition since 2005 than has the SEC. In fact, no BCS league has lost as many such games (six) or had as many different schools lose them (four) in that time period.

Not playing FCS schools won’t hide the Big 10’s real problem, which is illustrated to a degree by this article, written in August of 2012:

Iowa has four nonconference football dates. It has chosen to fill two of them this year with games against teams from the Mid-American Conference

The reason for this: The Hawkeyes wanted two games they would have very good chances to win.

That’s not exactly a revelation. But perhaps you aren’t aware of just how pronounced Iowa’s (and the Big Ten’s) dominance over MAC teams has been.

The columnist wrote that the MAC was “the Big 10’s football piñata”, which in years past it may have been. Unfortunately for the Big 10 (and to the undoubted surprise of the writer), it would lose three games to MAC schools in 2012, and that was just part of a trend — MAC teams have beaten Big 10 squads twelve times since 2008. (MACtion, indeed.)

As for the Hawkeyes and the “two games they would have very good chances to win”…Iowa lost one of them by one point, and won the other by one point.

The truth is the Big 10 just hasn’t been that good in football in recent years, which doesn’t have anything to do with playing FCS opposition. Dropping FCS schools from Big 10 schedules won’t change things, either. SEC schools aren’t winning all those BCS titles because they play FCS teams; they’re winning them because SEC schools have the best players and (in some cases) the best coaches.

So what happens if the Big 10 follows through and has its members drop all FCS opponents? What happens if other leagues do the same thing?

You’ve seen the quotes from ADs at schools that would be affected. Then there is this take from agent/event promoter Jason Belzer:

If other conferences follow the Big Ten’s lead and stop scheduling games against FCS opponents, the institutions that compete at that level will have two options: 1) look to make up the funds elsewhere, or 2) essentially be forced to stop competing at the same level as the larger institutions. Because it is  unrealistic to believe that any institution can begin to make up the difference in loss of football guarantee revenue by playing any number of additional such games in basketball, it is more likely that the second option will occur. With the loss of revenue, the gap between schools in BCS conferences and those who are not will continue to grow ever wider, leading to what may be the eventual breakup of the approximately 340 schools that compete at the NCAA Division I level.

How soon this may occur remains to be seen, but the the additional millions in revenue the new college football playoff will provide BCS conferences, coupled with their decision to eliminate the one source in which smaller schools could obtain a piece of those funds, will almost certainly accelerate the timetable for any such  fracturing.

I think that is a distinct possibility. I also think it may be the ultimate aim of the Big 10.

Not everyone agrees that the outlook is so dire, and at least one observer believes there are other ways for smaller schools to generate revenue:

FCS schools can take steps to enhance revenue streams outside of the on-field competitions with big schools. For example, very few schools FCS schools have media rights deals. Yet there are an increasing number of regional sports networks (RSNs) and national networks that are looking for programming. In fact, NBC Sports Network signed a media rights deal with the FCS Ivy League to “broadcast football, men’s basketball. and lacrosse.” FCS schools can and should continue to pursue these deals to be less dependent on paycheck changes…
…many institutions do not lobby at the federal or state level for their athletic programs or rely the schools’ lobbyists for their athletic programs. As schools like UNI receive more state funding, it is unclear how much of that funding will go to its athletic department. Therefore, FCS can and should make larger commitments to lobby on their athletic programs’ behalf, especially if paycheck games are eliminated.

That comes from a blog by a group (or maybe just one individual) called Block Six Analytics. I’ll be honest. I don’t buy either of those options.

I think many smaller institutions already lobby on varsity sports interests, and at any rate in most cases there would be a ceiling for actual results. To use The Citadel as an example, the school has in recent years begun to play Clemson and South Carolina in football on a more regular basis, as do several other FCS schools in the Palmetto State.

This outcome was basically due to a request by the state legislature to the two larger schools, neither of which had any real problem with it. However, The Citadel can’t play Clemson and/or South Carolina every year, since there are numerous other FCS programs in the state (Furman, Wofford, South Carolina State, Coastal Carolina, Presbyterian, and Charleston Southern).

The first point, that FCS schools should have media rights deals…um, it’s not like they haven’t tried. I’m sure the Southern Conference would like to have a profitable contract with CBS or ESPN or Al-Jazeera, but that’s not likely to happen. Even the mid-major conferences that do have deals (like the CAA has with NBC Sports) usually only get the benefit of exposure. That’s great, but it’s not a big cash situation.

I’m trying to imagine what reaction SoCon commissioner John Iamarino would have if he was told that he should go right out and find a big-money media rights deal for his league. Eye-rolling? Uncontrollable laughter?

Speaking of Iamarino, he had some comments on the FCS vs. FBS situation that were fairly ominous:

The only reason to have 63 scholarships is to be eligible to play FBS teams and count toward their bowl eligibility. If those games go away, the entire subdivision would have to look at if 63 is the right number. Could we save expenses by reducing the number of scholarships? It would seem to me that’s one thing that would have to be looked at.

I disagree with Iamarino that “the only reason” to have 63 scholarships is to play FBS schools (but I digress).

I’m guessing it hasn’t occurred to some of the more FBS-focused among the media that there could be a potential loss of football scholarships if the Big 10’s big idea comes to pass. No one thinks that would be good for the health of the sport. It would also be an sizable number of lost opportunities for potential students.

Iamarino doesn’t give a number, but I could see the FCS maximum dropping to around 50, based on scholarship costs and the lost income from not playing those games. That’s not much more than the D-2 maximum of 36.

This wouldn’t be the first time a Big 10 proposal had the potential to eliminate athletic scholarships at other schools, of course. As far back as 1948 the NCAA, then largely controlled by the Big 10, enacted the Sanity Code, an attempt to get rid of all athletic scholarships. It was a rule seen by many as benefiting the Big 10 at the expense of mostly southern schools.

Famously, the Sanity Code would not last long, and it is a pleasure to note that The Citadel was one of the “Seven Sinners” at the heart of its eventual destruction. I would hate to see the school have to reduce opportunities for prospective students after all these years.

Block Six Analytics did make one good point, which is that the FCS schools do have one other string in their collective bow, namely the NCAA basketball tournament:

One may argue that it is madness to have such a seemingly large organization completely dependent on one deal. However, this deal also means the NCAA will do everything in its power to ensure that there are enough Division I basketball programs to continue “March Madness” (also known as the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship). This requires that schools outside of the BCS have basketball programs that compete at the Division I level. In addition, this dynamic may allow smaller schools to actually ask for an increased amount of subsidies from the NCAA – especially given the elimination of paycheck games.

This may be the biggest obstacle to the Big 10 (and other power leagues) breaking away from the NCAA sooner rather than later. There is a lot of money in that tournament, and the event works in part because the country is enchanted with the “David vs. Goliath” component that is traditionally the major drawing card of the first two rounds. A basketball tournament only open to 65-75 larger schools wouldn’t be nearly as valuable (whether administrators at the BCS schools all understand this point is another issue).

Having said that, I have my doubts the smaller schools could extract a larger pound of flesh for their participation in the event.

A couple of other thoughts:

– If the Big 10 eliminates games against FCS schools, it will be harder for its member institutions to become bowl-eligible. This could be even more of a problem if the league moves to a 10-game conference schedule, which is reportedly under consideration.

If dropping FCS schools from FBS schedules was done across the board, there wouldn’t be enough eligible teams for all the existing bowl spots. Either the rules would have to be changed to allow 5-7 teams to play in bowls, or a bunch of bowl games would have to be cut.

– Frank Schwab wrote that a “Big Ten-Sun Belt game in September might not be a ratings bonanza either, but at least it’s better than a parade of FCS opponents”. I believe all but one of the current Sun Belt schools were once FCS (I-AA) programs. It’s not that big a difference from playing these schools versus competing against a quality FCS squad.

In addition, if FBS-FCS matchups go by the wayside, then a bunch of FCS schools will likely move up to FBS — more than are already planning to do so.

It’s possible that Alvarez’s comments to a local radio station are just the rantings of one man. I hope so, but I’m not confident that is the case. I think this is probably going to happen (though perhaps not next year). It will have a limited impact unless leagues like the SEC and ACC do the same thing. Then it will become a problem.

When it comes to maintaining financially stable sports programs, smaller schools already have too many problems.

Why exactly is The Citadel playing Arizona in the first place?

I didn’t touch on this in my preview of the game between The Citadel and Arizona, but I figured I could make a quick post out of the question:  why exactly is The Citadel playing Arizona in football in the first place?  I’m sure fans of both schools are a little curious about that.

Well, for money, of course.  The Citadel has to play at least one football “guarantee” game every season to balance (or attempt to balance) its budget for athletics.  On the other hand, surely The Citadel could find an FBS opponent a little closer to home, an ACC or SEC team, or even a Big East squad.  After all, the Bulldogs have played teams from all those leagues in the last few seasons, along with a Big XII team (Texas A&M), a Big 10 outfit (Wisconsin)…oh, wait a second.  I see a pattern — a pattern created by none other than Les Robinson.

That’s right, The Citadel’s national tour of BCS conferences is a result of one of former AD Les Robinson’s grand ideas.  You can read about it here:  Link

The game against the Pac-10’s Arizona is the last of the “BCS series” for The Citadel, which in the past five years has traveled to play against the aforementioned Texas A&M and Wisconsin, along with Pittsburgh of the Big East, Florida of the SEC, and North Carolina and Clemson of the ACC.

Just prior to that five-year run the Bulldogs traveled to Oxford to play Mississippi and Tallahassee to tangle with Florida State.  The coach for all these games has been Kevin Higgins, so keep that in mind when evaluating his 25-32 record at The Citadel. I think there is a good chance Higgins is the only head coach in the country to have played teams from all six BCS conferences in the last five seasons.

After this game the Bulldogs will have completed the Robinson Quest, having played teams from all six BCS leagues.  Robinson even set up a “bonus” two-game series with Princeton of the Ivy League.  I am not sure current AD Larry Leckonby is crazy about scheduling the likes of Arizona or (to a lesser extent) Wisconsin, as the travel for those games eats into the guarantee.  It was also a significant issue for the game at Princeton.

I can certainly understand that, and in the future I expect most, if not all, of The Citadel’s football guarantee games to come against SEC/ACC schools.  However, I don’t think it hurts the school to travel out of its home region on occasion.  I agree with the comment Robinson made in the linked article about such games providing needed national exposure.  Another thing they provide is an opportunity for alums living outside the southeast to attend a game.

The Citadel brought a very good crowd to the Princeton game last year.  I can attest to the number of PA/NJ/NY alums in attendance, most of whom showed up with their families, and some with friends too.  We need to play games like that once in a while, if only for those fans.

The game against Arizona will give some of our alums on the west coast a chance to see their team in action.  Admittedly, a game against UCLA or Stanford might have been a better bet in terms of Bulldog supporters showing up — I’m not sure how many alums live in Arizona — but still, it’s in the general area.

Anyway, I hope the following gives a little insight into how this game came to be.  I don’t think we’ll be seeing any other matchups on the gridiron between The Citadel and Pac-10 teams in the near future, but you never know.

NCAA basketball bracket projection, 3/14/10 — noon

Everyone else posts their bracket projections, so I decided to post this here.  It’s probably not mistake-proof, and there are likely multiple rematch scenarios (including a potential Wake Forest-Purdue game in the 2nd round, although assuming either of those teams has another win left in them could be dangerous).

Thanks to the bubble being so soft, the last few in/out squads are really up in the air this year.  My last five for each category…

— Last five in:  California, Utah State, UTEP, Florida, Illinois (the Illini being the last in)
— Last five out:  Virginia Tech, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Seton Hall, William & Mary (the Hokies being the first out)

I think both Minnesota and Mississippi State have to win today to get a bid.  That’s particularly true for the Bulldogs, in my view; Minnesota may just have to “look good” against Ohio State to pass Illinois.  Of course, the Illini lost in double overtime to the Buckeyes yesterday, so the proverbial “eye test” didn’t hurt them, either.

If Illinois was ahead of Minnesota prior to the Big 10 tournament, I’m not sure what exactly has led to Minnesota moving ahead of the Illini on the S-curve.  Illinois beat Wisconsin and lost that 2OT thriller to OSU.  Minnesota beat a hapless Penn State, Michigan State in OT, and then a decimated Purdue squad.  I’m not sure there is much to differentiate between those performances.

Speaking of Purdue, I have no idea how the committee will seed the Boilermakers. (Right now the committee may not know either.)  I seeded them as a 4, but would not be surprised at anything from a 2 to a 7.

One reason I kept Purdue on the 4 line is that several other teams with a shot at a protected seed failed to produce in their respective conference tournaments. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Texas A&M, and Maryland all lost in league quarterfinals. BYU went down in the Mountain West semis.  I couldn’t quite pull the trigger on Butler for a 4 seed, although I thought about it, and I suspect the committee will too.

I think Temple could be playing for a 3 seed today in the Atlantic 10 final, and may also be playing for a spot in the Providence sub-regional.  The Owls are competing with Pittsburgh and Villanova for one of two protected seed spots in that pod (Georgetown will get the other).  I have Pitt getting it right now.

After some debate, I kept Duke as the 1 seed in the West and West Virginia as the 2 in that region.  A loss by Duke today in the ACC final would result in those two teams flipping seeds.  Ohio State isn’t going to get enough of a bump by beating Minnesota to get to the 1 line, especially with the late start today for the Big 10 final.

Anyway, my current bracket projection (Midwest vs. West and South vs. East in the national semifinals):

Midwest

Oklahoma City

1-Kansas 16-Robert Morris

8-Marquette 9-Florida State

Spokane

5-Butler 12-Wake Forest

4-Purdue 13-Oakland

Jacksonville

3-Tennessee 14-Houston

6-Xavier 11-Missouri

Providence

7-UNLV 10-Cornell

2-Georgetown 15-Morgan State

West

Jacksonville

1-Duke 16-East Tennessee State

8-Notre Dame 9-Oklahoma State

Spokane

5-Michigan State 12-UTEP

4-Vanderbilt 13-Murray State

New Orleans

3-Baylor 14-Montana

6-Richmond 11-California

Buffalo

7-Old Dominion 10-San Diego State

2-West Virginia 15-Ohio

South

Buffalo

1-Syracuse 16-Lehigh

8-Texas 9-Siena

San Jose

5-Maryland 12-Illinois

4-New Mexico 13-Wofford

New Orleans

3-Temple 14-Vermont

6-Texas A&M 11-Utah State

Milwaukee

7-St. Mary’s 10-Louisville

2-Ohio State 15-UCSB

East

Milwaukee

1-Kentucky 16-PIG (Winthrop/Arkansas-Pine Bluff)

8-Northern Iowa 9-Clemson

San Jose

5-Wisconsin 12-Washington

4-Villanova 13-New Mexico State

Providence

3-Pittsburgh 14-Sam Houston State

6-Brigham Young 11-Florida

Oklahoma City

7-Gonzaga 10-Georgia Tech

2-Kansas State 15-North Texas

Random bubble thoughts and theories, 3/8

I’m going to wait a few days before writing a post-mortem on The Citadel’s hoops season.  It was a little bit of an odd year.  Part of me is disappointed in the overall record (16-16, 9-9), but another part of me remembers that in the last two years the Bulldogs have won 24 SoCon games.  In the six previous years, The Citadel had won 15.  Total.

The past brings perspective.

Sometimes the past also helps when trying to evaluate bubble teams and seeding scenarios.  The membership of the selection committee has changed over time, of course, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look back and see what the committee did when presented with certain situations.

— Let’s face it, the Pac-10 is wretched this season.  California won the outright Pac-10 title.  Is that good enough to guarantee the Bears an at-large bid if they don’t win the Pac-10 tourney?

History says yes.  Exhibit A:  Air Force, 2004.  That season the Falcons were 22-5 during the regular season and won the Mountain West, but did almost nothing outside the league, managing to beat no one of consequence and losing games to UT-Pan American and Belmont.  However, Air Force was 12-2 in league play and won the MWC outright by two games.

Air Force lost in the quarterfinals of the MWC tournament to Colorado State (by 12 points).  Despite that, the Falcons still made the NCAAs.  When asked about it, selection committee chairman Bob Bowlsby noted AFA’s less-than-stellar profile, but pointed out that the Falcons had been the regular-season champion of a top-10 league — and that achievement, in the opinion of the committee, merited Air Force’s inclusion.

I can’t say I disagree with that argument.  (It’s certainly a better line of reasoning than the one Bowlsby’s successor as committee chair, Craig Littlepage, gave for the committee’s absurd decision to put Air Force in the field two years later.  I still have no idea how that was justified.)

If winning a top-10 league is good enough, then Cal is safe.  Admittedly, it’s not quite the same situation; Air Force won the MWC in 2004 by two games, while Cal edged Arizona State by just one game in the standings.  Also, 12-2 is better than 13-5.  Still, it’s a factor, as is the fact we’re talking about the Pac-10, and not one of the “mid-major” leagues (even if it isn’t as good as some of those leagues this season).  Cal better not lose in the Pac-10 quarterfinals, though.

Incidentally, the same argument would presumably work in the favor of Utah State.

— Could last-second seeding adjustments actually happen?

This season there will be four conference title games played on Selection Sunday.  The SEC, ACC, and Atlantic 10 title games will all tip at 1 pm ET, while the Big 10 final will start at 3:30 pm ET.

Let’s say that Duke and Ohio State are both in their respective conference finals. Would the committee wait until the end of the Big 10 game to finalize the seeding?

Someone asked Joe Lunardi about this in an ESPN “chat session” :

A lot of experts think that Ohio State has the best shot this side of Durham to collect the final 1-seed if they win the Big Ten tournament. Isn’t there a good chance though that they could get screwed by the schedule. The Big Ten final doesn’t start until 3:30 on Sunday and the ACC championship is at at 1:00 on Sunday. I know that the brackets take a long time to put together and the top seeds are placed first. If Duke lost in the Final and Ohio State won, is it possible that their fates would already be set before those games finish?

Joe Lunardi:  It has happened this way in the past…More recently, however, the Committee has built multiple brackets accounting for the various Sunday scenarios. I would be disappointed in this group if they bailed on the process and didn’t finish the job (and I do not expect they will).

Lunardi may be right, but I think most of those “various Sunday scenarios” have revolved around teams playing on Sunday who were “auto bid or bust” types — like Mississippi State last season, or Georgia the year before that.  I’m less than sure the committee is going to wait until the last moment (or prepare alternative brackets) for a question of one seeding line.  Besides, should one game really be the difference between a team getting a 1 or a 2?  What about the previous 30+ games?

This reminds me that in the past, there were occasionally conference tournaments still going on when the selections were announced.  The Big West did this several times (this was back when UNLV was in the league).  It invariably led to scenarios where the committee would have either/or bracket lines where a team would be in the field, unless the Big West had a surprise champ (in other words, if  Vegas didn’t win).

This finally ended after the committee basically decided to hose any at-large hopeful out of the Big West until it quit playing its tourney so late.  I recall Long Beach State being a bubble team that found out at halftime of the conference final that it had to win, or else.

Another league that at one time played its final after the pairings was the SWAC.  Now, with the SWAC there wasn’t any at-large issues; it was just a question of what team would advance.  However, it did pose a problem for the committee when trying to seed.  These days the SWAC is an easy 16 (if not play-in game) pick, but back then it wasn’t always the case.

One year the committee puzzled just about everyone by deciding the winner of the SWAC title game would get a 13 seed.  Nobody could believe the SWAC got so high a seed, especially because no one knew yet which team would be the league representative.

As it happened, Southern won the tournament final (televised immediately after the selection show), and the lucky 4 seed it drew as an opponent was ACC tournament champ Georgia Tech.  Well, maybe not so lucky.  Ben Jobe’s Jaguars shocked Bobby Cremins’ Yellow Jackets in the first round, 93-78.

— This season, there seem to be several “as long as they don’t lose to a really bad team, they should be okay” situations.  It’s all right if Virginia Tech loses to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament, but if Miami upsets the Demon Deacons and then beats the Hokies, VT is in trouble.  Washington might get an at-large bid if it loses to Cal in the Pac-10 final, but can’t afford to lose to another school — and it also would hurt the Huskies if their semifinal opponent wasn’t Arizona State.

As mentioned earlier, Cal can’t afford to lose in the Pac-10 quarters.  Utah State needs to avoid losing until it plays Nevada in the WAC final, because Nevada is hosting the event, and a loss then would be more acceptable.  However, Utah State couldn’t afford to lose to another school in the final, because then it would be a neutral-site loss.  Also in the same position, perhaps, is UTEP, which could face host Tulsa in the C-USA semifinals.

Conversely, Mississippi needs to beat Tennessee in the SEC quarterfinals — but it does the Rebels no good at all if the Vols are upset by LSU in the first round.  If that happened, then Mississippi would have to beat LSU and (presumably) Kentucky to get the needed big-win bounce.  Mississippi State is expected to play Florida in a “play-out” game in the SEC quarters, but if Auburn upends the Gators, then Mississippi State would have to beat the Tigers and Vanderbilt (if form holds) to reach the final — and it still would not have a strong enough at-large case.

Then there is Illinois, which is a good example of a team that would probably be better off not playing a game at all.  As it is, the Illini play Wisconsin for the second time in a week in the Big 10 quarterfinals — and for Illinois, it’s probably a win-you’re-in, lose-you’re-out situation.

— Memphis is starting to show up on some bubble watches.  I’m trying to figure out how a team that has not won a game this season against a prospective tournament team (unless Oakland wins the Summit League tourney) is a viable at-large candidate.

— If the tournament would have been expanded to 96 teams for this season, we would be discussing the bubble candidacies of North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, and St. John’s.  There is a good chance all four would have made the field of 96.

Expansion is such a dumb idea, it’s inevitable that it will happen…

Football, Game 9: The Citadel vs. Wofford

I wrote about the series between Wofford and The Citadel during the preview for last season’s matchup between the two schools.  I’m not going to re-hash the history in this post; if anyone is interested, the link will serve to give some background.

This will be the third consecutive meeting between the Terriers and Bulldogs to be featured on SportSouth, which may be the first time The Citadel has played on TV against the same opponent three years in a row.  Tom Werme and Sam Wyche will again call the action from the booth.

When sporting events began to be regularly broadcast (first over radio, then television), some of the individuals running sports clubs feared that broadcasting games would lead to attendance declines, because people could just stay at home and listen to the radio, or watch on TV.  This notion was largely debunked by Hall of Fame baseball executive Larry MacPhail (in the 1930s and early 1940s).

Tangent:  this type of thinking had gone on for decades, beginning with clubs trying to deny telegraph operators the right to give scoring updates for baseball games.  In 1876, the first year of the National League’s existence, Hartford owner Morgan Bulkeley (one of the three most undeserving members of the Hall of Fame) attempted to bar representatives of the local telegraph company from buying tickets.

However, the question has to be asked:  if a game is on TV, why would someone choose to see it in person, rather than watch it on the tube?  Going to a game can be very inconvenient and expensive.  Instead, you could choose to not leave your house and watch the game (preferably in HD) while lying on your couch, with all the comforts of home, including a refrigerator, bathroom, and an HVAC system.

A lot of people go to the games anyway, as evidenced by the large crowds that see many different kinds of sporting events.  Even when it is noted that there are empty seats at an arena or stadium (like Doak Campbell Stadium for the North Carolina State-Florida State game last Saturday, the bottom line is that there were still a lot of people who went to the game (in that case, over 50,000).

Why do they go?  Well, tradition, I suppose, along with camaraderie — tailgating, seeing old friends in the same seats every year, that type of thing.  They go for the atmosphere.  Sometimes, that atmosphere isn’t so great.  However, occasionally there is a day to remember, a day when the electricity in the stadium isn’t just being provided by the power company.

It’s the kind of thing that gets people off their couches and in their cars and headed to the game, just for the chance to be a part of a high-voltage event, to be swept along in a moment of nirvana.  Maybe it won’t happen too often, but when it does, it makes up for all the times it didn’t.

Such an occurrence happened at Johnson Hagood Stadium in 1988.  Since this Saturday is Homecoming, I’m going to write briefly about the most memorable Homecoming game in the history of the stadium, which had the most electric atmosphere of any game I’ve ever seen at JHS.

***November 5, 1988 — Marshall (#1) vs. The Citadel (#19)***

It was a bright, sunny day when the Thundering Herd and the Bulldogs met on the gridiron.  Marshall had played in the I-AA title game the year before, losing 43-42 to Northeast Louisiana.  After that setback, the Thundering Herd hit the ground running in 1988.  By the time Marshall ventured to Charleston, it was 8-0 and ranked #1 in I-AA football.

The Thundering Herd featured a high-octane offense averaging 32.6 points per game.  Starting quarterback John Gregory threw for 3,127 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1988.  Many of Gregory’s throws went to Mike Barber, Marshall’s All-American wide receiver, who would be named I-AA player of the year in 1988 by the American Football Coaches Association.  Barber had caught 106 passes in 1987 and followed that up with “only” 79 catches in 1988.

When Gregory wasn’t throwing passes to Barber, he was tossing them to Sean Doctor, the Herd tight end, who in just two years in Huntington would accumulate 2,100 receiving yards.  Marshall could run the ball, too, as halfback Ron Darby gained 1,282 yards in 1988 and scored 16 touchdowns.

That was the juggernaut facing The Citadel, although the Bulldogs did not lack for confidence.  The Citadel came into the game 6-2, having won five straight games, including a 42-35 victory over Navy.  That triumph had been led by quarterback Gene Brown.  However, Brown was injured two weeks later against UT-Chattanooga.

Tommy Burriss had ably filled in at quarterback (no surprise, as he was the former starter) to lead the Bulldogs to victories over Boston University (yes, BU still played football back then) and East Tennessee State.  Brown’s return to the field was highly anticipated, though, as he was a truly gifted director of Charlie Taaffe’s wishbone attack.

A crowd of 20,011 showed up to see the matchup, the second time that season more than 20,000 people had attended a football game at Johnson Hagood Stadium.

After a scoreless first quarter, The Citadel would strike first, with Adrian Johnson scoring on a one-yard touchdown run.  Marshall would respond with a short field goal, but the score was only 6-3 at halftime (the Bulldogs having missed the PAT).

However, The Citadel’s offense began to control the game, dominating the time of possession.  Brown entered the game in the second quarter and the rushing yardage started to pile up.  Johnson rushed for 106 yards and Raymond Mazyck added 79 (on just 10 carries).  The Bulldogs as a team rushed for 359 yards, and perhaps more importantly ran 83 plays and kept Marshall’s high-powered offense off the field.

Even when Marshall had the ball, the Herd struggled.  In one sequence, the Herd would run eight consecutive plays inside the Bulldog 5-yard line without scoring a TD.  For the game, Marshall only managed 247 yards of total offense.

The crowd went into a frenzy when Phillip Florence took an end-around 33 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, and when Johnson scored his second touchdown of the day in the fourth period, it was all over.  20-3, The Citadel.

Well, almost over.  As the game ended, the field was invaded by the corps of cadets, a number of whom headed straight for the goalpost in the south endzone.  The uprights were then torn down…okay, maybe not quite torn down.  The cadets were unable to rip the uprights away from the crossbar, and the crossbar remained attached to the stanchion.  It was the Cardinal Richelieu of goalposts.

It didn’t matter, though, as it was the thought that counted.  The administration didn’t seem to mind having to shell out some cash for a new goalpost, either, which may be the best indication of how amazing the atmosphere at the game really was.

Tangent:  the next week, Marshall’s Darby rushed for 262 yards against Western Carolina, which would have been a Southern Conference record — but on the same day, Brown rushed for 286 yards against VMI (on only 13 carries!) to shatter the mark.  Talk about bad timing for Darby.

Now that was a game worth attending.  What about Saturday’s game?  Will it be worth attending for Bulldog fans?

Wofford had enjoyed seven consecutive winning seasons before this year’s campaign.  The Terriers are 2-6, although it should be noted that Wofford played not one but two FBS schools this year, losing to both South Florida and Wisconsin.

However, eyebrows were raised around the conference when the Terriers (picked in the preseason to finish in the league’s top 3) lost 38-9 at UT-Chattanooga.  The Mocs have proven to be the most improved team in the league, but that loss clearly showed that Wofford had some unexpected issues.  The two main themes for the Terriers this year have been injuries and turnovers. 

Wofford entered the season with a fairly inexperienced squad (only nine returning starters), and that inexperience has been compounded by a rash of serious injuries, many of them season-ending.  Only ten players have started every game for the Terriers; in all, 34 different players have made at least one start. 

Many of the losses have been on defense (including pre-season All-SoCon pick Mitch Clark, who has only played one game this year).  The Terriers also suffered the loss of starting fullback Eric Breitenstein (who rushed for 121 yards against South Florida).  Wofford was already missing halfback Jeremy Marshall, who tore an ACL last season against Appalachian State; in this season’s matchup with the Mountaineers, another Terrier halfback, Derek Boyce, tore his ACL.

The Terriers run an option attack known as the “wingbone”, with the emphasis on run.  Wofford, with all its problems, still leads FCS in rushing, averaging 258 yards per game.  However, the Terriers are last in the division in passing, averaging only 70.5 yards per contest.

Quarterback Mitch Allen is completing just 45.2% of his passes.  That’s not a huge problem – after all, he doesn’t attempt that many – but while Allen has thrown five touchdown passes, he’s also thrown five interceptions (in just 62 attempts). 

Wofford as a team has thrown six picks, and has also fumbled 19 times, losing 13.  Losing two-thirds of their fumbles is a bit of bad luck, to be sure, but the Terriers are at heart a possession-oriented team.  Committing nineteen turnovers over eight games is not typical of a Wofford outfit.  The Terriers have committed 3+ turnovers in four games this season, losing all four.

The Terriers are still a dangerous offensive team, even with the turnover bugaboo, but have been inconsistent.  Wofford rolled up 537 yards of total offense against Appalachian State and another 426 against Western Carolina.  Unlike The Citadel’s last opponent, Samford, the Terriers are more than capable of creating big plays (Wofford has had five plays from the line of scrimmage of over 60 yards).

On the other hand, Wofford only had 170 yards of total offense against Elon (The Citadel can relate) and just 151 against UT-Chattanooga.  Part of the inconsistency can be traced to the Terriers’ third down conversion rate, which is just 38.3%. 

For the style of offense Wofford employs, that isn’t good enough.  The problems converting third down have led to Wofford averaging less than 29 minutes per game in time of possession, definitely not what an all-out running team like the Terriers wants.

When Wofford scores first, it is 2-0; when it doesn’t, 0-6.  Wofford is 0-5 when trailing after three quarters and 0-4 when scoring less than 20 points. 

Terrier opponents are averaging 387 yards per game in total offense.  Wofford has forced twelve turnovers in eight games, including five interceptions.  Much like its offense, the Terrier D has not had a lot of luck in the fumble department, forcing twenty but recovering only seven.  That’s the kind of statistic that will eventually turn in Wofford’s favor; let’s hope it doesn’t happen this week.

Wofford’s opponents have been in the “red zone” 36 times this season, and have scored touchdowns on 26 of those occasions.

The Terriers have a solid kick return game, led by running back Mike Rucker.   Wofford has a net punting average of 35.9, which is quite good.  The Terriers have only attempted four field goals all season, making two (both against Elon).

In last year’s game, The Citadel did a good job offensively but couldn’t stop the Terriers, as Wofford had 409 yards of total offense, including 279 yards rushing.  Andre Roberts had a huge game (14 receptions, 190 yards, 3 TDs) but it wasn’t enough, as Wofford stayed one step ahead of the Bulldogs the whole way, committing no turnovers and converting all three of its fourth-down attempts.

You can bet that Roberts will be priority #1 for the Wofford defense, but you can say that about any defense that faces The Citadel.  Who winds up throwing the ball in Roberts’ direction is anybody’s guess. 

What I hope happens is that if both Bart Blanchard and Miguel Starks are healthy, the coaches rotate them by series instead of by play.  If one of them is moving the team down the field, then that’s the guy that needs to stay in the game.  I’m not forgetting about Tommy Edwards, either.  He got the job done against Samford, and he’ll get the call if need be against the Terriers. 

I would like to see more of the type of playcalling used in the game against Furman, which seemed to suit the offensive line.  Speaking of the o-line, that unit will need to contain Wofford defensive end Ameet Pall, a Montreal native who is having a fine season for the Terriers.  Kevin Higgins was quick to note Pall’s abilities during his press conference on Monday.

It’s been too long since The Citadel won in this series.  Hopes are high that the Bulldogs will end that streak on Saturday, in front of an appreciative Homecoming crowd.  I am not so sure, to be honest, but I’ll be there cheering them on regardless.

Thinking big can be small-minded

Georgia Southern University recently published a commissioned report entitled “Football Reclassification Analysis” (although dated June 12, 2009, it wasn’t released to the public until July 30).  You can download the full report and appendices here.  Even if you aren’t particularly interested in the specific issue of reclassification from FCS to FBS, there is still a lot of interesting information in the report.  (The report, incidentally, is 113 pages long.)

I’m going to make a few observations and comments based on some of the issues raised in this report and in other places, but first I’m going to give a brief history of Georgia Southern football, trying to show at least in part why reclassification is such a burning issue for that school.   I’m also going to do some comparing and contrasting with other schools, including The Citadel, but also larger FBS institutions from the ACC and SEC.

Georgia Southern was a sleepy little teacher’s college for most of its history (the school was founded in 1907).  Its football program had been established as a varsity sport in 1924, but was suspended during World War II.  By the early 1980s, the school had increased in size and there was a groundswell of local and institutional support for reinstating football.  To re-start the program, the school hired longtime Georgia assistant coach Erk Russell.  He was, to say the least, a great hire.

Russell took the football program from club status to I-AA, fashioning an eight-year record of 83-22-1, with three national titles, the last of which came during his final season as coach, when the Eagles were 15-0.  Those numbers, while very impressive, don’t begin to describe his impact on the school.  Stories abound about him (how ‘Beautiful Eagle Creek’ became so beautiful is my personal favorite).  He was already something of a legend before he even took the job, as this 1981 article from Sports Illustrated suggests.  Tony Barnhart put it best when he wrote that “with the possible exception of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant in Tuscaloosa, no college campus in America still feels a stronger presence of one man than that of Erk Russell in Statesboro.”

Tangent:  amazingly and unjustifiably, Russell is not in the College Football Hall of Fame, because he was only a head coach for eight seasons, and that organization requires a minimum of ten years for eligibility.  What makes his absence worse is that just this year, former Marshall coach Jim Donnan was inducted into the Hall.

Donnan only coached six seasons at Marshall (winning one title), but was also the head coach of Georgia for five years, and was thus deemed eligible to be enshrined as a member of the Hall’s “divisional” class, for non I-A schools.  I’m not going to rip Donnan; he also was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in the late 1980s, and deserves credit for that, but he isn’t close to being in Russell’s league as a coach, either on or off the field.  The Hall really needs to make an exception in Russell’s case, not as much for the benefit of his memory, but for its own relevance.

The program that Russell built had staying power, too, despite a revolving door of coaches since his retirement.  GSU has won three additional titles post-Erk, including two under the leadership of the estimable Paul Johnson, the only one of the succeeding coaches to measure up to Russell in the eyes of the Eagle faithful.

Now, 20 years after Russell retired and almost 30 years after he christened a drainage ditch “Beautiful Eagle Creek”, which would become the symbol of the program’s rise, there is a significant group of fans/boosters at the school who want to leave FCS and go “bigtime”, with all the risks involved in that jump.  It’s not like the pot of gold at the end of the FBS rainbow is full, either.  Appendix 1 of the study is a report on reclassification published by the NCAA in 2007.  Included in the report is the following paragraph summing up the benefit of “moving up the ladder” in college football:

Though [there is] evidence of some increase in enrollment diversity, it is far from overwhelming. We conclude that the primary benefit of reclassifying is an unquantifiable perceived increase in prestige.

There you have it.   Prestige.  Moving up is unlikely to provide a monetary benefit (it’s much, much more likely to result in just the opposite).  Increased enrollment, or a change in the type of student enrolling, could result from the move, but there are many different (and better) ways to skin that cat, if you want to skin it.  No, moving up to the FBS ranks is about something else, something almost primal.

I should add that while the push to move to FBS has come with more urgency from some quarters in recent years, the possibility was always in the back of the minds of at least a few individuals from the beginning of the program’s resurrection. Part 6 of the report, a study of facilities, references that the current football stadium (in use since the 1984 season) could eventually be enlarged to seat 75,000 spectators.  That didn’t surprise me, because in 1993 a GSU administrator told me that Paulson Stadium had been designed with that potential level of expansion in mind.

However, the desire of a certain number of supporters to move the program to FBS status has grown in recent years, and it’s not too hard to figure out why.  There are three schools in particular that Eagle fans would probably like the program to emulate — South Florida, Boise State, and Marshall.

The University of South Florida has only existed since 1956, and its football program didn’t start until 1997.  In its first game, USF defeated Kentucky Wesleyan 80-3 before a home crowd of 49,212.  I guess the folks in Tampa were really ready to watch some local college football.  The following week USF played its first road game and suffered its first loss, falling 10-7 to none other than The Citadel.  (The Bulldogs would lose to the Bulls in Tampa the next season, 45-6.)  USF would spend four years at the I-AA level before moving up to I-A, joining Conference USA in 2003 and then the Big East in 2005.  In eight years the program went from non-existent to membership in a BCS conference.

Boise State University was a junior college until 1968, with a very successful football program at that level.  It joined the Big Sky Conference in 1970 and competed in that league until 1996, winning the I-AA national title in 1980.  In 1996 the Broncos moved up to I-A and joined the Big West Conference.  Since 2001, Boise State has been a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).  Of course, the Broncos are best known for their undefeated (13-0) 2006 season, which included a famous overtime win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

In contrast to South Florida and Boise State, Marshall University has actually fielded football teams since the 19th century.  In 1953, the school joined the Mid-American Conference (MAC), only to be later be suspended from that league in 1969 following allegations of 144 recruiting violations in football and basketball.  Then, in 1970, tragedy struck in the form of an airplane crash that killed 75 people, including 45 football players and coaches.

The program began anew, struggling (understandably) even after joining the Southern Conference in 1976.  However, Marshall football began a long stretch of on-field success in the mid-1980s, culminating in two I-AA national titles in the 1990s before moving back to I-A in 1997, where it continued to win consistently for some time (initially as a member of the MAC; it later joined Conference USA), participating in eight bowl games.

You can see why each of these schools might make Georgia Southern fans envious.  South Florida didn’t even have a team until 1997, and it’s in a BCS league!  Boise State moved to I-A in 1996, and it’s on TV all the time, playing home games on that crazy smurf turf, and played (and beat) Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl!  Marshall was in the Southern Conference, just like Georgia Southern, and went big time and won!  Given all that (plus the fact GSU is located in an area rich with football talent, unlike Boise State and Marshall), why can’t Georgia Southern be like those schools?

The short answer is that it can’t be like those schools because, well, it just isn’t quite enough like them — at least in some critical facets needed for success in moving up to I-A.  Let’s look at some of the things discussed in the report:

— Student enrollment at Georgia Southern (undergraduate and graduate) is listed at 17,764.  This would be on the lower end in the FBS ranks, although not overly so.  In the Sun Belt Conference (the league the report uses most often for program comparisons), Georgia Southern’s enrollment would rank 7th out of 10 schools.

Around the region, the schools in the state of Florida lead the way in student enrollment.  The University of Florida has 51,913 students.  Central Florida has 50,254, while South Florida, Florida State, and Florida International all have 38,000+.  No other school in the southeast has as many students.

— Georgia Southern’s alumni base would be a potential problem.  While second in the Southern Conference, with an estimated 75,000 living alumni, GSU would rank at or near the bottom of almost every FBS conference in this aspect.  This is important because alums are where most of your donors come from, and it is exacerbated in GSU’s case because of the school’s history of being primarily a teacher’s college until the last 25 years or so.  Basically, a lot of those 75,000 alums don’t have that much money.  Another thing Georgia Southern doesn’t have going for it in this regard is a law school or medical school that would presumably put out some well-heeled grads.

Maryland has an estimated 480,000 living alumni, easily the most among the schools in the conferences evaluated in the report.  Florida, with 330,000, is second, ahead of Florida State (285,551).  Three other schools (North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina) are in the 250,000-265,000 range, almost 50,000 ahead of the school with the next largest alumni base.

Tangent:  in part to check the accuracy of the report, I asked The Citadel’s External Affairs Office for its best estimate of the military college’s number of living alumni.  As of July 30, the number was 32,961.  GSU’s report had The Citadel listed as having 32,000 living alums, good enough.  The representative from External Affairs pointed out to me that “wiggle room” was needed with these types of estimates, since it is hard to keep track of all alumni, living and dead.

She was quite correct about that, as the latest edition of The Citadel’s Alumni News magazine demonstrated.  Each edition lists the oldest living alums of the school, but the spring publication noted that the two oldest living alumni, as listed in the previous issue, were actually both deceased — one of them having died in 1988.  The actual oldest living alumnus of The Citadel is a doctor in Augusta who reportedly still practices medicine at the age of 99, having delivered over 15,000 babies during his career.  Yowza.  Okay, back to football.

— Georgia Southern’s budget for athletics in FY2008 was just over $9 million, and was actually one of the smallest budgets in the Southern Conference.  Furman had the largest budget in the league, at $15 million (just ahead of Appalachian State).  The Citadel actually had a larger budget than GSU.  Obviously a move to FBS would require a significant increase.  According to the report, to achieve a budget that would be average in the Sun Belt, Georgia Southern would have to increase its budget by $5.1 million per year (56%).  Those figures rise to an additional $15.2 million (167%) for an average C-USA budget.

There were seven schools in the SEC with FY2008 budgets in excess of $70 million, led by Florida ($106 million).  No ACC school had an athletic budget that large; Duke (at just under $68 million) came closest.  The only FBS school in the region with a smaller athletic budget than Georgia Southern is Louisiana-Monroe, a school with an identity crisis if there ever was one, having in recent times changed its school name (from Northeast Louisiana to Louisiana-Monroe) and nickname (from Indians to Warhawks).  ULM, with an athletic budget of under $8 million, has never had a winning season at the FBS level since moving up in 1994, which made its 21-14 victory in 2007 over Alabama that much more embarassing for the Crimson Tide.

— To increase its budget, GSU is going to need to expand its base of athletic donors.  We’ve already seen that’s a problem due in part to its relatively small alumni base.  Georgia Southern had 2,110 members of its booster club, and raised around $1 million, in FY2008.  How does that compare to other schools?

Well, on the bright side, GSU has more booster club members than any school in the Sun Belt.  That doesn’t say much for the Sun Belt, though, because GSU would rank last in the ACC and SEC, and close to last in C-USA.  There are two schools in the SoCon with more donors.  Appalachian State is one of them, and the other is…The Citadel.  As of 2008 there were approximately 3,000 members of The Citadel Brigadier Foundation.  Wofford and Elon have almost as many boosters as GSU.  If you combined the total number of living alumni from The Citadel, Wofford, and Elon, that number would still not equal the total living alumni from Georgia Southern.  You see the problem.

The number of athletic donors by school varies widely across the region, even at the ACC/SEC level, in part because some schools require joining a booster club as a prerequisite to buying season tickets.  That said, Clemson’s 23,000+ strong donor list is very impressive.  North Carolina State (20,256) also has a sizeable booster club.  On the SEC side of things, only the Mississippi schools and Vanderbilt have fewer than 10,000 booster club members.  None of the non-BCS schools in the region can compare, with the exception of East Carolina (13,483).  Florida Atlantic has 500 athletic donors.

— The report compared home attendance for the 2007 season, which I found puzzling (it should have been a five-year average or something of that nature).  Also, I am referring to these figures as 2007 attendance numbers because that is what they are, not from 2008 as stated in the report.  The review of attendance figures is one of the weakest sections in the document.

Based on these 2007 numbers, however, GSU would have work to do, ranking in the middle of a listing that includes Sun Belt schools and behind every institution in the ACC, SEC, and C-USA (even Duke and UAB).  It’s actually worse than that, though.

From the report:  “It is important to note that reported attendance is not paid attendance…average paid admission for Georgia Southern home football games was approximately 9,500…”

Um, wow.  Students don’t have to pay to attend GSU football games, and so when you take them out of the mix, along with gameday personnel and comps, basically only half of the people at Paulson on a given Saturday actually paid to go to the game.

— The population base around Statesboro is not a natural for revenue generation, for several reasons.  One is that there simply isn’t that big a base.  GSU has fewer people living within a 50-mile radius of its campus than any school in the Southern Conference, and would rank near the bottom of most other leagues.  That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, though.  Many of the SEC schools, for example, are located in less-dense population areas.

A bigger problem, however, is that GSU’s market is demonstrably younger than most areas.  According to the report, the median age of the area around Georgia Southern is 31.7, which is the lowest such figure among every school surveyed for the report except UT-El Paso.  The Citadel has the second-youngest demographic area in the SoCon, but that market’s median age is 36.5, markedly higher than GSU’s.  This age differential has a lot to do with another comparison outlined in the report, Household Effective Buying Income.  Georgia Southern’s market ranks last in the SoCon in HEBI (at $32,272), and would be near the bottom of FBS conferences in the region.

In looking at the figures for this category, I noticed that the schools in the regions with the highest median age (in other words, those that skewed older) were either located in Florida or were within 50 miles of at least part of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Virginia Tech, Tennessee, Marshall, and Clemson).

— The corporate base around Georgia Southern is also small, ranking last in the SoCon (488 corporations within a 50-mile radius).  The Citadel, somewhat surprisingly, ranks next-to-last in the league (747) despite its Charleston location.  GSU would rank near the bottom of FBS in this category.  The lack of corporate entities hinders GSU’s (and The Citadel’s, for that matter) ability to sell advertising, sponsorships, PSLs and suites, naming rights, etc.

— Earlier I mentioned that Georgia Southern would have to increase its athletic budget if it moved to FBS.  One of the considerations there is that to comply with Title IX, GSU would have to add women’s scholarships to match the extra 22 scholarships allocated to football (as FCS squads can only have 63 schollies, not the 85-scholarship limit of FBS schools).  So whatever monies are spent for football essentially would have to be doubled for gender equity purposes (Georgia Southern is not in a position to cut another men’s sport).  GSU would add a women’s golf team, and increase expenditures for women’s sports across the board (presumably including the women’s swim team, which just eyeballing the numbers appears woefully underfunded).

The report concluded that the minimum yearly operating costs for Georgia Southern to operate an FBS program would be a little over $14 million, about a 40% increase over the current budget, but that’s not even taking into account the necessary capital improvements that would have to be made.  From the executive summary:

…a total capital expenditure of $84,374,391 is estimated, and, if all bonded, would represent an annual facilities cost of $5,484,154 plus $812,500 in additional annual maintenance costs.

That’s a whole lot of money that would need to be raised by a school with a relatively undersized booster club and a small alumni base, located in a region without a lot of people (and where the people that are there don’t have on average a great deal of disposable income), and with few corporations around to provide a quick influx of serious cash.

Let’s go back to South Florida, Boise State, and Marshall, and compare them to Georgia Southern.

— South Florida has a student enrollment of 42,785, and an alumni base of 180,000.  Over 40,000 people showed up to watch the football team play its first game ever (its 2007 average attendance:  53,170).  It doesn’t have that big a booster club (3,260 donors), but has a significant corporate base (3,896).  USF could probably sell most of its sponsor packages even if it were limited to the local strip clubs in Tampa.  The Bulls had an FY2008 athletic budget of over $32 million.

Georgia Southern shares a time zone with South Florida, but quite honestly there is little else the two schools have in common.

— Boise State is a school of a similar size to GSU, both in student enrollment (slightly larger) and alumni base (slightly smaller).  Boise State’s athletic budget of $26.55 million (FY2009) dwarfs Georgia Southern’s; it spends about the same amount of money on its football program as GSU spends on its entire athletic budget.  Boise has a huge advantage in its corporate base, with lots of tech, agricultural, mining, and timber companies (including Simplot, Micron, Boise Cascade, and Albertsons).  This probably helps account for its ability to spend that kind of money for athletics and its ability to raise money  for its athletic facilities.  BSU has a waiting list for football season tickets and over 4,000 members in its booster club.

It’s hard to compare a school in a part of the country so different than that of GSU, but I think it would be safe to say that Boise State has had an advantage over Georgia Southern as far as having money to spend on its program is concerned (including key capital projects).  BSU also had about a 20-year head start on GSU in terms of trying to move up to Division I-A.  The Broncos also got a little lucky, in my opinion — particularly with the expansion, and then contraction, of the original WAC.  The timing was just right for Boise State to move into the decimated WAC after the split.

The other thing going for Boise State is that, as far as FBS football is concerned, it’s the only game in town for miles around.  There is no FBS school within 300 miles of Boise State (and there is no major professional sports franchise in the area, either).  Boise, particularly with its corporate presence, is just large enough of a metro area to provide the resources needed for the school to successfully compete at the FBS level, especially given the lack of local (or even regional) competition.  In contrast, there are numerous college football programs in a 300-mile radius around Georgia Southern, including Georgia, Georgia Tech, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida, Florida State, and Auburn, plus NFL franchises in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Jacksonville.

— Marshall’s student enrollment is a bit larger than Georgia Southern’s.  Its football attendance is larger (the Thundering Herd averaged over 24,000 fans in 2007).  Its population base is larger and notably older (by about eight years in median age).  Marshall has an athletic budget of over $21 million.  MU has 2,900 booster club members; in 2008, its booster club raised $1.65 million (as compared to GSU’s $950,000).

I’ll say this, too.  Marshall had an enormous amount of success in the period in which it transitioned from I-AA to I-A, with multiple conference titles in both the Southern Conference and the MAC (although someone needs to tell the sports information department that the Thundering Herd did not win the SoCon in 1992, as stated in its media guide; Marshall won the national title that year, but The Citadel won the league crown).

My perception of Marshall is that at least at one time it had one of the more passionate fan bases around, one that “traveled well”, as the saying goes.  I often wondered, though, how sustainable its success would be as it moved further up the football ladder.  There are limitations to a football program from a non-flagship school based in Huntington, West Virginia.  Since moving to C-USA, Marshall has endured four consecutive losing seasons, and perhaps more ominously has not had a winning record to date in conference play.

This recent lack of success may have been covered up just a bit by a movie, but the school administration has to be concerned.  Marshall’s booster club donations dropped by 22% this past year.  The economy undoubtedly played a large role in that, but once things start going downhill, it can be hard to stop the rush down the tubes.  Marshall may have won a lot of games in the 1990s and early 2000s, but that won’t prevent it from ultimately becoming another who-cares FBS program with no notice on a national level if it doesn’t get back to winning, and soon.

When you digest all that information, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion other than Georgia Southern should stay right where it is, at the FCS level.  I can understand why some GSU fans would be less than satisfied with the program’s current status, though.    There are several things that feed this frustration:

— One factor is the “small time” perception of FCS football, exemplified by this rather silly piece of commentary by New York Daily News writer Filip Bondy, who is upset that his alma mater, Wisconsin, is playing Wofford this season.  Bondy is apparently unaware that Wisconsin could have (and should have) lost last season to an FCS school (Cal Poly) and was tied at halftime two years ago with one of Wofford’s fellow SoCon brethren (The Citadel).  It’s usually hard to take seriously a writer for a New York City tabloid when college football is the subject (or perhaps when anything is the subject), but that’s the kind of thing that’s out there.  (Bondy also seems annoyed at having to pay $41 for a ticket, but that isn’t too surprising a price for a BCS home game.  I tend to share his annoyance on that front, however.  North Carolina is charging $50 for single-game tickets for contests against The Citadel and Georgia Southern this season.)

— Then there is the disparity in schools within the Southern Conference itself, a historic problem for a league that has always been a grab-bag of regional colleges and universities, some of which have very little in common with each other.  If you are a Georgia Southern fan, it may be hard to get enthused about regularly playing small schools like The Citadel or Wofford as opposed to “like” institutions such as Appalachian State (or Marshall, back when it was still in the league).  There is also the complaint (groundless, in my view) that the conference has drifted more into the small and/or private school arena, particularly with the recent admission of Samford (at the expense of, say, Coastal Carolina).

I can understand some of that angst.  GSU fans want the conference to go in the direction that GSU wants to go.  The thing is, though, that the reverse is also true.  It can be very frustrating to be a supporter of a school like The Citadel and have to compete on a yearly basis in the conference with much larger schools with very different missions, and it has been that way for decades.  This is a league that as recently as the 1960s still had schools like West Virginia and Virginia Tech as members.  East Carolina was in the SoCon until 1976 (not to mention all the ACC/SEC schools that were in the league in the first half of the 20th century).

The Southern Conference was the ideal spot for Georgia Southern when it needed a place to land.  The conference hasn’t really changed.  Whether Georgia Southern’s priorities and expectations have changed or not is another matter.

— Another thing that may be causing frustration (or perhaps concern) is that in 2010 there will be another GSU playing FCS football, namely Georgia State, which has received a surprising amount of publicity for its entry into the football world (thanks to hiring Bill Curry, I believe).  Again, you have the “prestige” issue in play.  Georgia Southern fans want to be in the same galaxy with Georgia and Georgia Tech, not Georgia State.

What’s amazing (at least to me) is that Georgia State isn’t alone in starting a football program right now.  It won’t even be the only new program in the Colonial Athletic Association, as Old Dominion will begin play this fall.  Also soon to be lacing up the ol’ pigskin:  South Alabama (which plans on playing in the Sun Belt as an FBS program), UT-San Antonio (which has hired Larry Coker and also plans to eventually play at the FBS level), and UNC Charlotte.

South Alabama has already lined up games against Tennessee, Mississippi State, North Carolina State, Kent State, and Navy, according to this article by ESPN writer Ivan Maisel.

Tangent:  one part of the reclassification report I am dubious about is its estimate of how much money “guarantee” games would bring to the program.  Page 5-44 of the report outlines potential guarantees ranging between $150,000 and $500,000, but as Maisel’s article notes, much larger sums of money are being thrown around for a lot of these types of games (Tennessee will pay South Alabama $850,000 to come to Knoxville in 2013).  I think the report was a little too conservative in that section.

Given the current state of the economy, I was expecting less expansion of athletic programs and more news along the lines of Centenary dropping to Division III (the linked article comes complete with a couple of semi-nasty quotes from Tim Brando, of all people).

— You also have various conspiracy theories floating around that the current Georgia Southern administration adamantly opposes any move to FBS, and may even prefer to “dial down” athletics in general at the school.  There are some particularly strident fans who suggest that the current administrators have been less than competent.  These sentiments seep out in various ways, including message boards and, somewhat amusingly, Wikipedia.  The current wiki entry for Paulson Stadium includes the following paragraph:

Constructed at a cost of $4.7 million, the stadium was designed with two expansion phases in mind. The first would increase the capacity to approximately 35,000, while the final phase would expand seating to 50,000. However, because of the lack of effort on the part of school leadership, neither of these additions have been implemented. Permanent light fixtures were added prior to the 1994 season.

Of course, the report commissioned by GSU isn’t for these types of fans, because they wouldn’t believe anything in it anyway unless it said “GSU MUST MOVE UP TO FBS NOW!!” on the cover page.

Incidentally, The Citadel also studied whether or not it should move up to the FBS level  — in 1995.  At that time, a new rule had been enacted by the NCAA that required major-college teams to win six games against I-A competition in order to qualify for a bowl bid.  The rule meant that playing I-AA schools was counterproductive for the bigger schools.  The Citadel lost potential guarantee games against LSU and Clemson as a result, games the military college needed to balance its budget.

However, the school didn’t really want to leave I-AA, and when the NCAA changed the bowl-qualification rules to allow one victory against a I-AA school to count towards six bowl-worthy wins, The Citadel elected to stay right where it was.

So, to sum up…Georgia Southern has a winning tradition and a loyal fanbase.  That’s not enough to make a move to FBS, though.  You need to have the right resources to build and maintain an FBS program (that’s a polite way of saying you need a lot of cash, both on hand and in the future).  In 2009, Georgia Southern simply doesn’t have enough going for it to develop those resources, no matter how hard it squeezes the proverbial turnip.  Maybe down the road it will have the ability to successfully move up to that level, but for right now its fans should enjoy what they already have.

Bubbling Basketball, 3/14

There is a lot more uncertainty than usual on the Saturday morning before Selection Sunday.  Part of that is due to several surprise conference tournament finalists, and part of it is due to a more-mediocre-than-normal bubble.  Combine that with the traditional difficulty of evaluating mid-majors against middle-of-the-road majors and you have a bit of a mess.

Locks by conference:

ACC (6):  North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Florida State, Clemson, Boston College
Pac-10 (4):  Washington, UCLA, Arizona State, California
Big East (7):  Pittsburgh, Louisville, Connecticut, Villanova, Syracuse, Marquette, West Virginia
SEC (2):  LSU, Tennessee
Big 10 (4):  Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, Ohio State
Big XII (5)  Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma State
Mountain West (2):  Utah, Brigham Young
Other conferences (3):  Memphis, Xavier, Butler

How things shape up going into Saturday’s action…

  • The Atlantic-10 is likely a three-bid league, with today’s Temple-Duquesne winner joining Xavier and (probably) Dayton in the field.  Dayton is not quite a lock, but a lot of things would have to happen for the Flyers not to make the NCAAs.  Temple does not have enough to get an at-large bid, despite last night’s win over Xavier.  It’s a win-and-you’re-in situation for the Owls and Dukes.
  • Utah State survived New Mexico State last night and now must beat Nevada in Reno to grab the WAC’s automatic bid.  I don’t think an at-large will be available for the Aggies, although it would be tough for the committee to leave out a team with 29 wins.
  • Tulsa must beat Memphis and garner the automatic bid for C-USA if it hopes to make the NCAAs.  An at-large bid is not a realistic option for the Golden Hurricane.
  • Likewise, Baylor must beat Missouri in the Big XII final to grab a spot and steal a bid from an at-large contender.
  • Southern California will have a shot at an at-large bid if it loses the Pac-10 final to Arizona State, but I think the Trojans have to win that game.  The run to the final has probably moved Southern Cal ahead of Arizona on the committee’s S-curve, but that isn’t going to be enough.  The Pac-10 may wind up with just four bids.
  • San Diego State can guarantee a bid by winning the Mountain West tourney today, but the Aztecs are in fairly good shape now even if they don’t beat Utah.  SDSU’s chances of making the field absent a victory on Saturday are probably in the 80% range.  New Mexico tied for the MWC regular-season title but has nothing else to offer to the committee, and I don’t see four teams getting bids in the MWC.  UNLV is out after wasting a solid non-conference effort by going only 9-7 in the league and losing at home in the first round of the conference tournament to SDSU, which beat the Rebels three times this season.
  • I still think the SEC will get three bids no matter what, but the worst-case scenario for the league has unfolded.  Auburn can get that third bid with a win today over Tennessee, but a loss to the Vols leaves the Tigers in a precarious position, with several other bubble teams having better resumes.  I suppose it’s possible the SEC will just be a two-bid league, but I find it hard to believe.  Florida is almost certainly out, and so if Auburn loses the choice for a potential third SEC team in the field comes down to Auburn and South Carolina.
  • Maryland’s victory over Wake Forest in the ACC quarterfinals gives it three wins this season over teams ranked in the top 10 of the RPI, with two of those on neutral sites, plus a handy win over Michigan.  The Terps still don’t have a true road win over a top 100 team, but no other bubble team has as many high-end victories.  Barring another embarrassing loss to Duke in the ACC semis, Maryland looks to be in good shape for an at-large bid.  Beating Duke would make a trip to the dance a lock, of course.
  • The Big 10 is still hoping to get eight bids, but I think it’s going to be seven, with Penn State being left out after getting blown out by Purdue in the conference quarterfinals.  Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan all have better resumes, and none of them are locks, either.

How I see the bubble as of Saturday morning:

Texas A&M
Dayton
Minnesota
San Diego State
Wisconsin
Maryland
Michigan
Auburn
Creighton
—-
St. Mary’s
Southern California
Penn State
Arizona
South Carolina
New Mexico
Providence
Tulsa
Florida

Utah State, if it were to lose tonight, would probably be slotted behind St. Mary’s but ahead of Southern Cal (assuming the Trojans don’t beat Arizona State on Saturday).  Temple would be in the New Mexico-Providence range with a loss.  Baylor is a pure bid thief, Southern Cal could be a bid thief, and Tulsa is a de facto bid thief as well.