Opening weekend in college football saw some interesting and exciting early season games…TCU-Baylor, Brigham Young-Ole Miss, even Notre Dame’s upset loss to South Florida were a few of the games that had great drama amongst a sea of mismatches and tune-ups for those in the major football conferences. Then you have North Carolina Central, Indiana State, Chattanooga, and Fordham among others. These schools take a pay day to go out and try and be David against Goliath, and try and capture the one day where a major school may have a bad day and a team plays well above it’s level, recreating the landmark upset Appalachian State had at Michigan several years ago, a loss which really was more about the Wolverines downward slide than ASU’s rise (the school is regularly a national power at the college bowl subdivision level). Yet these schools talk about the experience and the great feeling it gives alumni and the unprecedented power that such a game has, making it more than a payday to subsidize an athletic department budget in challenging times. But is it, especially in football, where injuries and games are a precious commodity in the high pressure world of coaching and development?
Football is a different animal than its basketball cousin. Mid-majors can go and take a pay day and then bounce back, rarely without long term downward effects in hoops. The length of the season allows one if not more shots for teams to dance among the larger powers, and even an occasional major upset does not spell doom for even the most elite of programs. Not so on the gridiron. In football the size and speed difference can make devastating injuries a season-ender for top-flight athletes and can play havoc with the aspirations of young coaches. Elite football programs cannot allow even close games early in their schedules, so huge differences in scores, even wider than the talent gap, are not uncommon. Often times the “excitement” generated by the school coming to play the game fades very quickly with the result. There is a chance to play on a second tier TV schedule, some exposure maybe in a major market newspaper or two, but then things move on to whomever is next. Now if the game is part of a strategic move to a larger conference, one that say Villanova or Florida Atlantic or Florida International or Alabama Birmingham have tried over recent years, a steady scaling up to full-time 1-A status, that’s a different story. Usually what it means is a sacrifice of body and ego for a pay day, and the effects afterward are minimal. There is no “tradition,” since a rivalry can’t be built on a one-sided loss. The continual hope for that big upset becomes less and less over time with BCS conferences expanding their reach. Even media coverage in these challenging times is difficult, as many of the games occur at off-hours and outside of the league TV schedule, making the desire to put them on air minimal at best.
Yes these games can be a learning experience. From a business standpoint, smaller schools can use the games as a one-off on the revenue side, but also to build on an individual performance to get some added exposure for that athlete. Smaller schools can also learn about more best practices and effective game day management from being a part of the experience. Maybe there is a brand looking to gain up and coming exposure who can glean on to the larger game experience and leverage that experience in favor of the smaller school. However avoiding devastation and embarrassment seems to be more the norm these days in the big vs. little discrepancy of college football, and the gap continues to widen. Into that void falls the fodder, hopefully with better results ahead for when the schools play at the level they are designed to compete at.