College Football: Why guarantee games are here to stay

Whatever you call them, guarantee games are a critical part of scheduling for Group of Five and FCS schools. Here is why the drive to end them is misguided.

They go by many names. Whether you elect to call them guarantee games, or paycheck games, or cupcake games, or any other of the myriad variants used to describe them, non-conference contests between Power Five powerhouses and a slew of Group of Five and FCS opponents are a critical part of college football. Love them or hate them, they serve a valuable function in a sport where there is a large vacuum in terms of redistributing the massive revenues generated at the top.

With the advent of the College Football Playoff, one of the biggest talking points has been how it frees up teams to play more challenging non-conference opponents. Power Five conferences have grappled with whether to allow their members to schedule guarantee games against smaller schools, with the Big Ten first restricting and then once again allowing their programs to schedule showdowns against FCS teams.

While games like the Florida-Miami showcase that kicks off the 2019 season are often lauded by fans, many of the other opening-weekend games are likely to earn more scorn than celebration. Out of the 124 games played over the long Week 1 between August 24 and September 1, more than one-third feature games between smaller schools and Power Five programs. But without those games filling out schedules across the country, college football would be a far shallower game for the absence.

In this week’s Sunday Morning Quarterback, we are going to dive in and look at the history and significance of guarantee games. By doing so, we will begin to see why they are so enduring as a phenomenon and so valuable to the fabric of the game.

When did guarantee games become a thing?

The concept of the guarantee game is as old as the hierarchies that define college football. Before the United States entered World War I, powerhouse programs were paying relative minnows to travel for beatdowns.

Often cited as the earliest instance of a paycheck game is the infamous 1916 mismatch between John Heisman’s Georgia Tech juggernauts and the ragtag group that took a 222-0 shellacking as representatives of Cumberland College. Looking for fodder in the midst of a 33-game winning streak, Heisman’s Yellow Jackets showed no mercy in their early-season victory.

That it came against a school whose athletic program had been dissolved, and which sent 16 players east for the pasting only to avoid a $3,000 buyout fee instead of pocketing $500 for the effort, was of little consequence. The precedent had been set that smaller programs could buttress their meager athletic department budgets with these guarantee games.

In that regard, these types of guarantee game setups between established powers and overmatched upstarts are as traditional as other things we take for granted as college football fans such as bowl games and the regional nature of conferences.

What is the value of guarantee games economically for small schools?

From a pure revenue standpoint, guarantee games can make or break athletic department budgets for Group of Five and FCS schools. Especially from schools at the FCS level, these games can represent a windfall that basically pays most if not all of the football team’s operating expenses for the remainder of the season.

Just as it was for Cumberland more than a century ago, most athletic departments outside of the largest programs are left clinging precariously to survival. These games provide the windfall that allow schools not only to continue playing football but also offering opportunities for more student-athletes in other sports as well.

In some cases, guarantee games can net more than $1 million for a brand-name Group of Five program with a competitive track record against Power Five competition such as Appalachian State. For a program like Alabama or Clemson, $1 million is effectively a rounding error. For a program from the Group of Five or the FCS, that quantity is a windfall that opens the door to new possibilities for the entire athletic department.

Why are guarantee games valuable beyond the money?

On paper, the vast majority of guarantee games are nothing more than guaranteed blowouts. The perception of these smaller schools as cupcakes has endured for a reason, because most games live up to their appearance on paper. Schools from Power Five conferences invite these opponents to their home fields, after all, not for a competitive contest but rather to guarantee one more victory toward bowl eligibility and another game’s worth of gate receipts.

Sometimes, however, these games do not go to script. A close call for a powerhouse can be embarrassing enough, leading to a slide down the rankings and diminished status among conference rivals. Losing guarantee games outright, though, has an even greater impact for both the vanquished power and the victorious underdog.

For example, the foundation for Boise State’s launch to prominence came years before their landmark Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma. Instead, looking back to the last year of the Big West Conference, the Broncos became a national story when they played both Arkansas and Washington State to within a touchdown in their only two losses of the season.

Even in defeat, the Broncos proved they were a competitive outfit that would continue to make noise. It is similar to the model that Fresno State followed for years in the early 21st century under longtime head coach Pat Hill.

At the same time, a dearth of these games can doom a team with intentions of trying to not only win its conference but also to threaten the powers that control the College Football Playoff itself. UCF has run into this issue in recent years, as the Knights put up gaudy numbers for two straight years but lacked a substantive track record against Power Five competition.

(It must be noted that the Knights had a second game against a Power Five opponent scheduled in both 2017 and 2018 that were canceled each year due to hurricanes. Given the way the two teams UCF was scheduled to play performed in the rest of their games, wins over Georgia Tech and North Carolina were unlikely to give the Knights the boost in reputation needed to convince the selection committee of their relevance in a Playoff situation.)

A team is guaranteed to leave with a paycheck. Upsets are not guaranteed, but they can have lingering significance for the program that successfully achieves one over a Power Five opponent.

Final thoughts

We focused mainly on the impacts that guarantee games have on the programs that benefit on both an economic and a reputation level. But they also have significance to the individual students who participate for underdogs in such games.

Because the FCS is largely absent from television, and scouts are not always likely to travel to places like Cheney or Fargo to check out prospects, these guarantee games offer an instant impact against a top-tier opponent.

For those FCS players that perform well in such games, it can invite everything from a graduate transfer to a Power Five hopeful (see, for instance, former Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. signing on for his final season with Oregon) to a professional contract at the NFL level. Guarantee games boost the resumes of everyone on the team at those smaller schools that participate in them.

Between the economic value, the opportunity for Cinderella stories and long-term growth, and the individual impact for students with dreams of going pro, guarantee games guarantee departmental survival, a richer intercollegiate sporting experience, the hope of upsets, and a shot at NFL paychecks.

Not only do they allow more teams to provide scholarships to football players, they open the door for more scholarships and athletic opportunities for other students in other sports. Not only do they provide a game on the schedule, they provide an opportunity for greatness. And not only do they serve as an opportunity for injury for players, but they also provide a chance to produce film for scouts against a Power Five team.

Instead of taking the Nick Saban approach and calling for Power Five teams to only play one another, both in and out of conference, we should embrace the power of guarantee games.