When the Big Ten decided early last year to institute a policy against playing FCS opponents, fans and common sense were the big winners.
Yet there's a long way between the conception of that policy and its actual execution, especially as the league faces some tough realities with scheduling and views the rest of the college football landscape. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips was asked about the FCS policy on Tuesday at the College Sports Information Directors of America convention in Orlando.
"That was really a hard decision," he said. "I don’t know if we’re sure that’s the right decision to make.”
Is there some waffling on the Big Ten's part? If so, there are understandable reasons why.
Nonconference scheduling is becoming more and more of a headache, and a wildly expensive one at that. As this recent Fox Sports Wisconsin report illustrates, the cost of a guaranteed home game is skyrocketing. The average price to schedule a lower-level FBS team to come to a Big Ten stadium without a return date is $827,838 this year, with several of those games costing more than $1 million, according to the report.
Leagues such as the MAC have a lot of leverage now, with power teams needing seven home games to make budget and having to find a mid-major program willing to travel for a one-shot opportunity. Excluding FCS teams from the mix further shrinks the pool of available opponents.
Complicating matters is the arrival of the nine-game Big Ten schedule in 2016. The divisions will rotate the home-road ratio, meaning league teams will have four home conference games every other year. That leaves three nonconference slots that must be filled by guarantee games in order to get to seven home dates.
"When you put a pencil to it, can everybody get FBS schools?" Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez told Fox Sports. "Can you find enough of them? Do we have to make some exceptions and have some FCS schools? That's what you have to take a look at. In some cases, they're a tougher opponent than some of the FBS opponents. If your choice is to not play a game because you can't find anybody or play an FCS team, you don't have much choice."
And like the move to a nine-game conference schedule, the Big Ten is going to a place where other leagues won't. While a few prominent SEC coaches such as Alabama's Nick Saban and Florida's Will Muschamp recently came out in favor of avoiding FCS foes (Muschamp might have ulterior motives), SEC commissioner Mike Slive said last month that his league does not plan any sort of anti-FCS scheduling policy. Yea, more exciting October and November clashes like this one and that one.
Similarly, the ACC has no interest in quitting its FCS relationships. All 14 ACC schools will play an FCS opponent this year. So you have two leagues whom the Big Ten might be competing against for spots in the four-team playoff who will soon be A) playing one less conference game per season; and B) scheduling easy wins over FCS teams. Sure, that sounds fair.
So you can understand why the Big Ten might not want to be alone on this island. Still, there are many good reasons why the league should not be scheduling FCS teams, as Phillips explains.
"With the new structure of the playoff system, you will be rewarded [for playing tougher schedules], like in basketball," he said. "Also ... our fans really want you to challenge yourself in the nonconference schedule. And candidly television [is a reason]; look at ratings, that had an effect.”
Athletic directors and administrators are already worried about declining attendance, especially among students, and what that means for the future. Schools are paying millions of dollars to upgrade their video boards and enhance Wi-Fi capabilities in their stadiums, all in an effort to keep people from staying home and watching the game on their high-definition TVs.
So it runs counter to that movement to schedule a game against an FCS team that no fan wants to see. There are some exceptions, such as Northern Iowa vs. Iowa or North Dakota State vs. Minnesota. But for every one of those, there are dozens more unwatchable games like these 2013 thrillers: Ohio State 76, Florida A&M 0; Wisconsin 48, Tennessee Tech 0; Michigan State 55, Youngstown State 17; and Indiana 73, Indiana State 35.
The argument that FBS schools should play FCS teams to help them with their budgets makes no sense. Since when did big-time football become a charitable organization? The power-five conferences are already trying to write their own rules and threatening to start their own division. How does that jibe with suddenly wanting to give FCS schools a handout? And if FCS teams can't make their budget without those one-time paydays, maybe they need to scale back their football programs.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com that the conference is "continuing to work with people" on scheduling and the FCS policy. Minnesota and Purdue have FCS games on their 2016 schedule, and Delany said it could be until 2017 or 2018 until the policy, which he said should not be described as an outright ban, really goes into effect.
Let's hope the Big Ten sticks to its guns here. Playing FCS opponents might save some money, but the league is rolling in cash, so it's hard to cry poverty. Neutral-site games are a potential option, too. The Big Ten's future TV partners won't want to see Citadels and Eastern Kentuckys on the schedule when they fork over billions for the broadcast rights.
The strength-of-schedule angle is also a big one for a conference that probably will need every possible talking point in its favor in the annual playoff debates. Better opponents make for better games, better experiences for fans and a better overall sport.
The Big Ten was right to go to nine conference games and is correct in eliminating FCS opponents. If other leagues are too cowardly to follow suit, so be it. Let the conference that once gave us a Leaders Division show some true leadership to improve the game.