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.