As I watched ESPN's College GameDay last week, I found myself nodding as analyst Desmond Howard ripped paycheck games. When Howard said teams such as Savannah State were "prostituting themselves," I wrote on Twitter that I couldn't agree more. Later, as I thought a little more about the issue of lower-tier schools accepting huge checks to play upper-tier ones with no return game, I began to think I might be wrong.
Then the Shock in Little Rock happened.
Louisiana-Monroe beat Arkansas in a paycheck game -- albeit an unusually arranged one. In return for $950,000, Louisiana-Monroe agreed to play a "home game" at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium while wearing road jerseys in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Arkansas crowd. The Warhawks shouldn't have stood a chance. According to data provided by the schools to the U.S. Department of Education, the Razorbacks' football revenue in the 2010-11 school year ($61.1 million) was more than six times the size of Louisiana-Monroe's entire athletics budget and more than 20 times the amount the Warhawks brought in from football.
Yet there was quarterback Kolton Browning scoring in overtime to stun the college football world last week. Louisiana-Monroe isn't alone, either. Sure, Savannah State got humiliated in paycheck games against Oklahoma State and Florida State, but Savannah State probably doesn't even belong in the FCS -- much less playing power-conference FBS teams. This season, the cupcakes are kicking butt with startling regularity. Some are taking their money and leaving town with a win. In the first two weeks, seven FCS schools have beaten FBS opponents. Some of those FBS programs (Memphis and Idaho, for example) would probably be middle-of-the-pack FCS programs, but there is no excuse for Pittsburgh or Colorado ever to lose to a program that has 22 fewer scholarships. Yet the Panthers lost to Youngstown State in Week 1, and the Buffalos lost to Sacramento State last week.
Boise State has trained us to be less shocked when a non-AQ team beats an AQ team. But eyes still pop a little when Ohio beats Penn State or Rice beats Kansas. Then, when a Louisiana-Monroe beats a top-10 team, eyes nearly fall out of their sockets. "When something happens like what happens Saturday," Louisiana-Monroe athletic director Bobby Staub told SI.com, "that's a memory for a lifetime for these kids."
You probably despise these games. Most fans do. So does every television executive who writes massive checks to show college football. The only people who like them, it seems, are power-conference athletic directors and the administrators, coaches and players at the sacrificial lamb programs. Staub wouldn't want to load up on paycheck games as Louisiana-Monroe had to do after it transitioned from the former Division I-AA beginning in 1994, but he would play at least one of those games a year even if he didn't need them to balance the budget -- which he does. These games are a vital part of college football's economic ecosystem, but they also offer some added value for the smaller schools. "Obviously, there's a financial component there that allows us to do some things," Staub said. "But there are also some added benefits. One is the television exposure. Also, I think our kids love playing in these games. They play in front of 80,000 or 90,000 people. We recruit to that."
How big is that financial component for a Louisiana-Monroe? The money the Warhawks made off the Arkansas game and the $1.05 million they'll receive from this weekend's visit to Auburn will cover 50-60 percent of their football budget this year, Staub said. Not bad for two weeks' work. And when they win, they get more publicity for the program than they could ever afford to buy. How many times have you seen Browning score that touchdown on SportsCenter this week? You wouldn't have seen it once had it come against McNeese State. "We're a little bit of a novelty right now," Staub said. "It's not like a Boise that's been doing it year after year. We kind of came out of nowhere, and society is fascinated by the underdog."
Meanwhile, big-money school ADs love the bottom-line value of bringing in a lower-tier school. While their fans may want to see home-and-home series against other AQ-conference schools, those games don't make financial or competitive sense. An SEC or Big Ten program that grosses $4 million from a home game can pay a cupcake $1 million this year and pay another cupcake $1 million next year. Over a two-year period, that schedule slot clears $6 million. Scheduling a home-and-home series -- in which each team keeps the take from its home game -- the program would clear $4 million over the same period. Plus there are other considerations. It's easier to get bowl eligible by buying wins. In a BCS era in which any loss is punished far more than a quality win is rewarded, teams from strong conferences do themselves a disservice in the national title race by scheduling their peers out of conference.
That era may come to a close with the advent of the four-team playoff beginning in 2014, but Staub hopes the big boys still have a place on the schedule for his team. The Warhawks enjoyed a credibility bump when they beat Alabama in 2007, and they're riding high after last week's Arkansas win. A win on the Plains Saturday against Staub's alma mater would make Louisiana-Monroe the nation's darling once again. Of course, the Warhawks have visited Jordan-Hare Stadium three times since 2004 and lost by a combined score of 117-3.
"We've not played real well the last three times," Staub said with a laugh. "Cam Newton had something to do with one of those. ... I don't see having a letdown or being too big for our britches. Our kids know what they're facing."
• Cal at Ohio State: Remember back in 2004 when Facebook and YouTube had just been invented and Jeff Tedford and Urban Meyer were the two hottest names in coaching? Meyer is still hot. If he divines a way for the Buckeyes to gain yards without running quarterback Braxton Miller more than 20 times a game, Ohio State will have a sustainable winning formula.
• TCU at Kansas: Gary Patterson vs. Charlie Weis. The Big 12 certainly knows how to give a new team a hospitable welcome.
• Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh: Nothing about the Panthers on film should scare the Hokies, and that's exactly why Virginia Tech should be concerned. When this game was scheduled, it looked like a nice, semi-challenging out-of-conference game. Now it looks like a blowout. Hokies' coaches have to make sure their players take the Panthers seriously. They don't need another 2010 James Madison on their hands.
• Wake Forest at Florida State: It appears undersized-but-overtalented Wake Forest nose tackle Nikita Whitlock will miss the matchup with the Seminoles because of a sprained ankle. That's unfortunate for the Demon Deacons, but it does mean Walkthrough favorite Godspower Offor has a shot at more playing time in his home state.
• Alabama at Arkansas: Arkansas coach John L. Smith decided to go Fight Club on the day before a visit from the top-ranked Crimson Tide. After a few days of updates, the new first rule of Tyler Wilson's concussion is "Don't talk about Tyler Wilson's concussion." That probably tells you all you need to know about Wilson's availability.
• Tennessee Tech at Oregon: After opening with LSU last season, the Ducks learned their lesson about scheduling in the BCS era. (Which, fortunately, is almost over.) Their nonconference slate is comprised entirely of non-AQ and FCS teams this year. But this one should be interesting for one Golden Eagle. Receiver Da'Rick Rogers, booted from Tennessee last month, will get to play at a familiar speed. Averaging 20.4 yards a catch through two games, Rogers will get his only chance to play against FBS competition this season. As an added bonus, Tennessee Tech will attempt to dress even more hideously than the Ducks.
• Navy at Penn State: If the Nittany Lions can't win this week or next week against Temple, their prospects in Big Ten play are beyond dismal.
• Florida at Tennessee:Click here if you want to read about what this game means to each program. Scroll down if you want to see video of a guy who is probably much more excited about this game than you are.
• USC at Stanford: For Trojans seniors who didn't redshirt, this is the final shot to beat Stanford. After losing a triple-overtime heartbreaker last year, USC players should have plenty of motivation. Meanwhile, the Cardinal would love to prove they can still be an elite program without Andrew Luck. Hurting USC's national title chances would certainly do that.
• Idaho at LSU: This one won't be close, but if LSU officials want to keep fans in the stands past halftime, they'll schedule an arm-wrestling match between Les Miles and Vandals coach Robb Akey between the third and fourth quarters.
• Notre Dame at Michigan State: This matchup returns to Spartan Stadium for the first time since "Little Giants" stunned the Fighting Irish two years ago. Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell hears about that play plenty. His roommate, former Spartans punter Aaron Bates, threw the winning touchdown pass to Charlie Gantt.
• Texas at Ole Miss: Texas coaches considered recruiting Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace out of East Mississippi Community College, but they ultimately decided they wanted to ride with David Ash and Case McCoy. That was great for Ole Miss, because Wallace has fit quite well into first-year coach Hugh Freeze's offense. Unfortunately for Wallace, he hasn't seen anything like coordinator Manny Diaz's defense.
"My teammates and I got into his head, and that's one thing I'm going to do every game if you're on offense against me. He would call out the signals and I'd tell everybody what the play was and he'd get that confused look in his face."
-- Mississippi State linebacker Cam Lawrence to The Columbus Dispatch after the Bulldogs thumped Auburn. Mississippi State players managed to steal all of Auburn's pertinent offensive signals by watching video of the Tigers' loss to Clemson. Then they unleashed hell upon unsuspecting quarterback Kiehl Frazier. Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler might want to come up with a better signal for a shovel pass than pantomiming the digging of his own professional grave. (OK, I made that one up. I think.)
In Western Kentucky lived a coach named Taggart,Whose hatred of blue made some think him a braggart.Down players' throats ball security he did ram,By swiping the best motivational ploy from The Program.
Sometimes, college football teams inspire their fans to break into song. Enthusiastically. Fear not, Notre Dame fans. You won't find Freekbass here. These aren't hired guns. These folks, despite their varying musical abilities, are singing from the heart.
5. Every Dawg
Because quality country songwriting requires heartbreak and broken dreams, it's appropriate that a Georgia fan would pen a tender ballad about the past 20 years of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. It opens with "500 miles from a game we should have won/Man, we ought to burn down that stadium" and only gets better.
4. Return of the Quack
It's hard to pick just one tune from Supwitchugirl's catalogue of Oregon odes, but this one wins for the guest appearance from an olfactory-challenged Joey Harrington.
3. I Love You, Denard
This might be creepy if the songwriting weren't so tight. Sample lyric: "I love you, Denard. I don't know how to show it/I used to be scared every time that you would throw it."
2. Wife Me
This weekend is Armageddon for Lawyer Mike, an unapologetic Florida fan living in Tennessee. When not writing rhymes like "You and me apart is like a sandwich without the bread/I was messed up -- messed up -- in the head," Lawyer Mike is proposing to his beloved with a replica 2008 national championship ring.
1. Just like last week, you knew where this was going
It's not the song. It's not the hat. It's not the headset. It's the Scotch tape pig nose that gets me every time.
Flying into Detroit to attend Notre Dame-Michigan State? Stop at Slow's Bar-B-Q in the city's Corktown neighborhood for Amish chicken and some of the best mac and cheese to ever clog an artery. Smoking chicken is difficult for obvious reasons. Birds aren't as fat as pigs or cows. But Slow's does it right, somehow managing to produce tender, juicy meat and crispy skin. If you have a designated driver chauffeuring you to East Lansing, by all means partake in the massive, carefully curated draft beer selection at Slow's. If Michigan State hits another Little Giants, you may need to partake of that beer selection on the way home, too.