College football hits a decisive and exciting stretch every November, as championship contenders must climb high hurdles separating them from their dreams. Another tradition of November less enthralling is the annual SEC vs. FCS weekend. Every year in November’s third week, it happens. And every year is a reminder that it’s one tradition worth abandoning. While other conferences feature marquee match-ups with league title implications, seven SEC members are playing opponents from the Championship Subdivision.
Seven. That’s exactly half of college football’s most powerful conference putting its 85 scholarship players up against the 63 of a Championship Subdivision side. Here’s the slate:
- Western Carolina at Alabama
- Wofford at South Carolina
- Jacksonville State at Florida
- Alabama A&M at Auburn
- Georgia Southern at Georgia
- Sam Houston State at Texas A&M
- Samford at Kentucky
There are those who advocate barring FBS vs. FCS match-ups altogether; I do not share this sentiment. The paycheck from playing an FBS opponent helps sustain many FCS football programs, if not their entire athletic departments. These games are something of a necessity. FBS teams typically use these match-ups to fine tune facets of their play…in September.
Indeed, my issue isn’t so much the opponent as the timing. Playing a team from the FCS in late November acknowledges nothing beyond win column stuffing. There’s no fine tuning, no working on formations and getting players valuable repetitions in preparation for the season ahead.
Jeremy Fowler at CBS Sports summed up this scheduling philosophy:
Fans might not love these, but FCS games offer a few things for the power conferences: an easy home game before a rivalry week, playing time for second- and third-stringers, extra television inventory, another step toward a bowl game and a willing participant.
Beyond the first point, everything else can be accomplished in September, and the point of getting reserves repetitions sure seems more meaningful at the beginning of the season than at the end. And more to the point of this being near season’s end, it is season’s end for the FCS.
This Saturday marks the last of the FCS regular season. Selection Sunday to the NCAA Playoffs follows, and three of the teams opposite SEC foes will likely earn bids: Wofford, Georgia Southern and Sam Houston State. A fourth, Samford, could sneak in with an upset of Kentucky. This is another problem with the timing issue. Teams with an opportunity at their championship risk momentum, but more importantly injury just before the tournament.
Appalachian State ended 2010 at Florida and suffered a 48-10 loss. A few weeks later in the quarterfinals, ASU was completely outplayed by Villanova in a 42-24 loss. Villanova was a very good team; defending national champion, in fact. However, ASU had been one of the best FCS teams throughout the season and earned homefield advantage through the semifinals. The impact of being manhandled at Florida seemed to ripple through to the Mountaineers’ playoff performance.
It may be anecdotal, but consider no team that has played an SEC opponent at the end of the season has reached the Division I-AA/FCS championship game since at least 2004. The closest is 2005 Appalachian State, which played LSU in Week 10, but had two more regular season games in the Southern Conference before beginning the postseason.
The timing does a disservice to FCS teams in the playoff hunt. A cynic might implore those athletic programs to avoid scheduling an end-of-season SEC opponent if that’s the case. But the adage beggars can’t be choosers holds particular weight. As stated, these universities need the payday and are in no position to dictate terms. If a university from the SEC wants its match-up the week before Thanksgiving, that’s when it’s happening.
I don’t begrudge the SEC these opponents, nor the FCS programs for accepting the needed money. And Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity makes a valid point in the aforementioned CBS Sports column:
To add two tough nonconference games plus a nine-game schedule, that would be one tremendous grind.
Play those games. Get reserves playing time. Add a win to the bowl resume. Just do so when the rest of the nation is, in September.