To understand why Florida A&M is playing at Ohio State on Saturday, first consider the financial mess that the Rattlers are trying to clean up.
The Florida A&M athletic department is digging out of a $6 million deficit.
“That’s from over a period of time. It just didn’t accumulate in one year,” said Michael Smith, who took over as interim athletic director in June when Derek Horne was fired by interim president Larry Robinson.
Florida A&M, a historically black university in Tallahassee, is looking for its 10th athletic director in the past 11 years. Smith is in his second interim stint and hopes to make the role permanent by restoring financial order.
“We’re trying to get ourselves together in a better position,” Smith said.
Playing No. 4 Ohio State helps. Florida A&M (1-2), a member of the Football Championship Subdivision, will receive $900,000 for the game, in which it is a 50-point underdog.
The matchup was scheduled by former AD Bill Hayes, and not solely for financial reasons. Florida A&M, a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, sees itself as a possible Cinderella, not cannon fodder.
“I think it’s for the kids,” Rattlers coach Earl Holmes said. “You have aspirations of playing (in the NFL), so here you can find exactly where you fit. And it’s the atmosphere. You have one of the best stadiums to play in college football. Everything is positive. I appreciate those kids getting those opportunities.”
Such chances soon will evaporate, at least in the Big Ten. In April, commissioner Jim Delany told league members to stop scheduling FCS opponents in 2016, when the league schedule expands to nine games after the addition next year of Rutgers and Maryland.
Better competition will help Delany negotiate a better national television contract for the Big Ten, whose current deal expires in 2016-17. Most of all, the league is demanding tougher nonconference opponents because the College Football Playoff, which begins next year, will have a selection committee using strength of schedule as part of its criteria.
“We get that and understand that,” Smith said. “That’s why we’re excited for this opportunity. We view this as an opportunity for our university, not just the athletic department. This is another branding opportunity for the university.”
Appalachian State won three consecutive FCS national championships from 2005 to ’07, but it made more of a name for itself with a 34-32 victory at Michigan in 2007.
North Dakota State, winners of the past two FCS national titles, is playing host to ESPN College GameDay on Saturday largely because it is 7-3 in its past 10 games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams, winning at least one in each of the past four seasons.
But such upsets are rare. Eastern Washington’s 49-46 victory at Oregon State on Aug. 31 was only the third by an FCS team against a ranked FBS opponent, and the first since 2010. FBS programs have defeated FCS teams at an .800 clip, and by an average margin of three touchdowns since Division I football divided in 1978.
Still, the money paid out for such matchups has grown, especially since a 12th regular-season game was added in 2006, creating negotiating leverage for underdogs to market themselves as road opponents. Florida A&M’s $900,000 paycheck is more than half of its annual football budget of $1.6 million and nearly one-tenth of the $10.5 million operating budget for the school’s 18 varsity sports.
Those paydays will vanish if other conferences follow the Big Ten’s lead and demand that their members not play FCS opponents.
“I’m not very sympathetic,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in July. “I just don’t think that the concept of the buy games is a healthy thing for college football or for fans.”
In the meantime, Florida A&M is going to try to win Saturday, meet with Ohio State officials for business tips, earn $900,000 and not worry about losing future opportunities to cash in on playing FBS teams.
“Inside our market,” Smith said, “we have to go back and start redefining our niche apart from having the guaranteed games, if those inventories go away.”