Embrace the ‘Cupcake’ Matchups. They’re Saving College Football

The Appalachian State football program opened the 2019 season with a 42-7 beatdown of East Tennessee State. It’s what is known as a tune-up game, where the Mountaineers, part of the College Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), play a team from the lowly Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to get an easy win and prepare for the rigors of the season.

To some members of the media and football purists, it’s a travesty.

You’ll likely hear that kind of talk this weekend when Alabama takes on Western Carolina and Auburn faces Samford, with both Southeastern Conference (SEC) heavyweights seeking a breather before facing each other in the Iron Bowl. These same matchups also took place on Nov. 22, 2014, when both SEC powers won handily. On ESPN’s College GameDay the morning before the game, analyst Kirk Herbstreit was critical of the power teams for scheduling such “cupcake” games. 

“To me, there should be a penalty,” he said. “You should lose every debate when you play in games like this, and we need to eliminate these kinds of games when it comes to the non-conference. They’re not good for the FCS schools. They’re not good for the SEC schools or any other schools that play them. It’s just bad for the game.”

Herbstreit’s flippant statement missed the mark. Every FBS program should happily schedule an FCS opponent and no one should grumble about them doing so. It’s a win-win, even for the losing team, that makes the sport healthier in the long run.

First off, the FBS team enables the survival of an FCS team by cutting a large check to schedule them. This is a notion Appalachian State is well aware of after operating in the FCS (formerly known as Division I-AA) from 1978 through 2012, says David Jackson, the former associate athletic director for the Mountaineers and a play-by-play announcer for East Tennessee State. “For some it’s vital,” he says. For schools like Western Carolina that schedule two FBS opponents every year, “they need the revenue.”

Appalachian State paid East Tennessee State $250,000 for their Aug. 31 game, according to USA Today. Other schools can make much more. For this year’s trips to North Carolina State and Alabama, the Western Carolina athletic department will earn a total of $925,000. That covers roughly 8 percent of the department’s anticipated revenues.

It’s just good karma.

David Jackson, Play-by-play announcer for East Tennessee State football

To the big boys, it’s pennies. Western Carolina expected to receive $615,000 from the NCAA and the Southern Conference this past season, while each member of the SEC was given more than $43 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year — money that mostly comes from lucrative TV deals.

Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher, via a spokesperson, calls these matchups “good for the overall game of football” because of the “economic boost” for FCS teams. Dating back to his time as the head coach of Florida State, Fisher has long been a proponent of playing FCS teams. He argues that if lower-level collegiate football went away, including Division II and III, fewer students would play high school football and youth football due to a smaller pool of scholarship opportunities.

Most FBS programs do play an FCS opponent, as one such win can count toward a team’s total when determining bowl eligibility. Of the 65 football teams from the five power conferences plus independent Notre Dame, 49 play an FCS team this year, including every member of the SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference. Ten of the power-five teams that do not have an FCS program on their schedule are in the Big Ten, which for a period of time banned its members from doing so. 

There are only two FBS programs that have never scheduled an FCS team: UCLA and Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, at least, have made clear they won’t change course anytime soon. “We’re not going to play any FCS teams here. I’ve lost that argument a long time ago,” says Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly. “It wasn’t even up for discussion, so I don’t think it was an argument.” Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick told the university’s student newspaper, The Observer, over the summer that he won’t schedule an FCS team because the Irish don’t have the opportunity to play in a conference championship game — meaning their schedule needs to be as difficult as possible to make a case to make the college football playoffs.

Every year, a handful of FCS teams beat FBS teams. From 2014 to 2018, it happened 42 times, nine of which were power-five defeats. One of the most famous college football upsets of all time occurred in 2007 when Appalachian State — still an FCS team at the time — took down then-No. 5 Michigan on the road, 34-32. The Mountaineers were paid $400,000 to play in the game. While the three FCS national championships Appalachian State won from 2005 to 2007 put the program on the map, the win against Michigan made it a nationally recognized brand.

The Mountaineers officially joined the FBS in 2014 and quickly got a taste of their own medicine, losing to the then-FCS opponent Liberty. But it’s unlikely this or any future loss would deter the school from scheduling a lower-division opponent. There’s too much value in those matchups for both sides.

“It’s a full-circle type of opportunity because Appalachian State is a school that is where it is because people took chances and let them compete,” Jackson says. “Some schools lost to them and some of them won, and now they’re able to provide the same opportunity. I think that it’s just good karma.”

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