Sunday, September 02, 2007

Putting an upset into context

Lost amid the schadenfreude most of the country is experiencing on the heels of Appalachian State's historic upset of Michigan, Saturday, is the impact of this game years down the road on college football scheduling. And, for the I-AA folks out there, the result is unlikely to be well-received.

Any sports fan worth a damn knows the double-meaning of a "guarantee game," so there's little point in getting into how poorly the Mountaineers played up to their end of the bargain. I haven't been able to find out exactly how much the guarantee was in this game, but based on the figures I've seen, it's likely that the visitor made somewhere between $750,000 to a million for the pleasure of making Lloyd Carr's final season with the Wolverines even better for the Sack Carr folks.

While there's little doubt that a lot of high-fives were exchanged in the offices of I-AA football programs Sunday, one has to wonder if there wasn't a little apprehension mixed in with the celebration. Even if Appalachian State goes on to win the I-AA title, it won't provide any salve for the humiliation felt by Michigan. Couple Saturday's upset with last season's 19-10 upset of Colorado by the Big Sky's Montana State — in new head coach Dan Hawkins' debut, no less — and that's two season's worth of proof for I-A programs that the only guarantee these games provide is a no-win situation.

College football program are notoriously risk-averse, unless a five-star recruit with a rap sheet is involved. Most programs have realized that the K-State model to program building — schedule horseshit opponents in the early season while voters aren't paying attention — is both effective and the correct percentage play. That's why guarantee games have exploded in popularity in the last 10 years, with most teams playing a I-AA opponent at least once every two seasons, if not annually.

But what sounds like exploitation is actually a fair shake. The idea of financial viability for collegiate athletic programs is mostly a mirage — Arizona's can count itself as one of a half-dozen or so that actually pays for itself — and is a complete fantasy for programs relegated to I-AA in football, which aren't allowed to feed from the BCS television contract trough. The growth of guarantee games presented an annual opportunity for smaller programs to get a piece of the pie, converting the "pocket change" of I-A programs into financial windfalls. Idaho State's $200,000 or so guarantee for a 2005 matchup against San Diego State — a smaller sum because of the Aztecs' mid-major status — represented a little less than 1/10th of that year's athletic department revenue, if my memory serves.

While Idaho State, a mid-level program that rarely glimpses the playoffs, is unlikely to pull off an upset when it plays Oregon State in two weeks, one has to wonder if the Beavers are a little worried. The talent gap is much smaller than perceived by many fans, especially at the skill positions, between the Idaho States and the Oregon States of the world. The real rub comes at the lines — the Bengals once played an entire season with a 235-pound right tackle — and in depth. While those differences would be extremely apparent over the course of an entire season against I-A competition, it's less important in a one-game trial. Even if the odds of an upset are less than 5 percent, there's still a 5 percent chance that an entire season could be destroyed. While a loss to a I-A bottom-feeder like Louisiana-Monroe would be humiliating, at least it's a I-A school.

There's already some indication that guarantee games might start to peter out. Odds are good that any program that doesn't already have a scheduled game against Appalachian State won't be in a rush to book them, and it's been years since perennial power Montana has been able to attract any I-A program in its region to take the challenge (though the Griz athletic department, which is a financial titan within the Big Sky and the rest of the I-AA landscape, spins the situation by claiming it's not in the market for guarantees).

Most of the 2008 scheduling has already been arranged, and any cancellations would cause a shitstorm. But I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a noticeable downturn in the total number of I-AA programs playing with the big boys in 2009, who are probably figuring out right now that there are better uses for those hundreds of thousands burning a hole in their pockets.


Brett said...

There's one thing that I haven't really heard anyone mention about this yet, at least not the blowholes on television/talk radio (i'll wait to see what his highness Cowherd says tomorrow though...). Nobody has yet mentioned that this "upset" really wasn't that bad.

If you had to do the math, how good is Appalachian State? Oregon State good from last season? Maybe not, but it's a good parallel so I'll use it.

I'm not convinced Appalachian State - the two-time defending I-AA (sorry, the championship subdivision, gag me) champs - isn't the 35-40th best team in the country - both "subdivisions" combined. Couple that with the fact that Michigan is (again) overrated --- they are NOT a national title contender, i don't know why we must go through this every year --- and you have a team "also receiving votes" (metaphorically speaking) beating a top 10 team. Arizona beat an overrated top-10 UCLA team in 2005; a top-20 Cal team that was ranked top 10 at the time in 2006. Was Arizona one of the top 60 teams in America either year? No way.

Sure there were other circumstances involved, but Oregon State "shocked" USC last season. Couldn't that "upset" really, based on a team's win-ability, be comparable to Ap-State beating Michigan? The only reason people are up in arms is this is Michigan. The Big House. History. Hail to the Victors. Blah Blah Blah. If this was Virginia Tech - also a national title contender, and a better one then the maize and blue at that - there wouldn't have been nearly as much outrage.

I agree with everything you said Connor, just wanted to see what your take was on this, too...

b said...

I remember when Diesel told me that Idaho State would "hang" with the Aztecs before they fell behind 21-0 with 10:00 left and me and Pepe went looking for a bar inside Jack Murphy to watch Alexis Serna vs LSU.

You're points (Diesel's and Brett's) are all valid, but the growing number of I-A teams that play in I-A yet don't meet I-A standards of anything is staggering. Florida Int'l? Buffalo? Most of the WAC and Sun Belt, some of C-USA? Those are the new cupcake games, my friend - Florida Int'l plays Penn State, Maryland, Miami and Arkansas this year, and will laugh all the way to the bank. But since they are a (really bad) I-A team, nobody scoffs at it, and the aforementioned schools don't have to defend why they scheduled a I-AA opponent. There are a handful of I-AA teams that are better, but are now having harder times scheduling games for the reasons you mentioned. In addition to the fact they were getting better, Marshall and Youngstown State had to move up a level years back just to survive, because nobody wanted to schedule them back then since they were pretty good.

If anything, give Michigan credit for having the balls to schedule these guys - sure, they should have won in every imaginable way, but this wasn't FIU or Eastern Michigan. App State are the two-time defending I-AA champ, had everybody returning, played an offensive style Michigan's defense has never been able to stop and this game was their Super Bowl - it was a perfect storm so much so that, when the game was announced in April, I was incredibly leery of the game (ask RF or my parents if you don't think I'm serious). Should Michigan still have won? Of course - they had every advantage, bar motivation (which turned out to be a really big one), on their side.

I think this was Lloyd's last season anyway, but this game represents a lot of things I don't like about Michigan: arrogant fans, over-heightened expectations, not enough character (even though they throw around the term "Michigan Man" endlessly) and an athletic department that is distancing itself from the fans with stadium expansion and seat licensing to "keep up with the Oregons." I get the need to make money, but the beauty of having a 110,000-seat stadium was that everybody had a chance to get in, and now, with luxury suites being built soon, they are pricing themselves out of a market whose state's economy is in the toilet.

I've had this conversation with my dad a hundred times, but despite our dislike of Michigan State, we love their basketball program, which is done the way every major program should be - great coach, marquee games, mix of local and national kids, all while keeping the fans (and students especially) involved. Michigan's already lost the state - I believe State is more popular, or at least more accessible and likeable - and their national reputation was already terrible.

It's the arrogance of fans greeting Jim Harbaugh at last year's Rose Bowl pep rally with snickers that he would coach in the Pac-10 (yes, Harbaugh spoke at a Michigan pep rally just 9 months ago), a pep rally that was more about celebrating their arrogance more than anything else, all over again: who are you to look down your noses right now at anyone, let alone the Pac-10? That losing streak is back on the line this Saturday....

Pat said...

"Give Michigan credit for having the balls to schedule these guys."
Well, yes, booking App State last year was ballsy, considering the team was already a champion. But why did Michigan have an opening? Because they were dodging Hawaii!!
(According to the WAC commish, at least, who said a few months back that UM didn't want to open against the Rainbows, err, Warriors, because they wanted to play a weaker team).
And, like I mentioned to you last night, B, didn't Michigan REFUSE to play I-AA teams until last year in the name of competition? Didn't they hang their hats on the fact that they didn't, in Doyle's verbiage, rent a victim?
So does UM get credit for picking a good I-AA team, instead of a bad one? I guess.
But the reason they were there in the first place doesn't get me all goosebumpy.
And also, if NAU beats the UA this weekend, is NAU autmatically a great team? Do we praise the UA for playing a team that so obviously belongs in the big-boy conference? Of course not.
Granted, NAU isn't the defending champ. But the "Give App State credit" argument CANNOT extend to "Wow, Michigan is so noble for playing them."
You guys sit here and say App State could beat Oregon State?
I'll say that every Div. I-A team — with more money, scholarships, talent (or at least players with talent and less baggage), smarter coaches, better facilities, etc. — should be better than every I-AA team.
I-AA teams that are good — or at least better than I-A teams — are the exception, not the rule.
I know we can't all open with Illinois.
But App State's better than Illinois, aren't they?

b said...

Yes, that comment by the WAC commish wasn't at all self-serving - surely we will hear it again if Hawaii goes undefeated, gets left out of the BCS and Colt Brennan doesn't win the Heisman - Well, we tried to play someone, but Michigan bailed! I hadn't heard anything about a Michigan-Hawaii game until after Michigan lost to App State, so this guy's just piling on. So by "ballsy" I meant "Not Murray State." It wouldn't make sense for Michigan to play Hawaii because A) Hawaii's good and B) Michigan's non-conf schedule (ND and Oregon) was already loaded. So playing the two-time defending I-AA champ is nothing to scoff at.

Pepe said...

What the eff happened to the comment I posted earlier? I dropped a good 300 words about this ridiculous Finley comparison between NAU/UA and App State/Michigan. In short, nobody gives a shit if NAU beats UA because Arizona sucks and has sucked for seven years. The whole reason it's a story is because it's Michigan we're talking about! At home!

Pat, you should just join the blog. Your pseudonym can be Redherring Cripplelover.