William and Mary went 1-9 versus Football Bowl Subdivision opponents during the last 10 seasons, but don’t for a moment believe that the Tribe was overwhelmed. Seven of those setbacks were by less than two touchdowns, three by a combined 11 points.
Catch a routine pass here, make a tackle there and William and Mary adds North Carolina (21-17 loss in 2010), Maryland (7-6 in 2012) and West Virginia (24-17 last year) to its 2009 conquest of Virginia.
“We’ve comported ourselves pretty well over the years,” Tribe athletic director Terry Driscoll understated.
So, too, have many Football Championship Subdivision programs, including Richmond, James Madison and Liberty here in-state. But as the FBS prepares for the 2014 launch of its four-team playoff, the wisdom of playing FCS opponents is being debated nationwide.
Driving the discussions: How much weight will the playoff selection committee place on schedule strength? Given the hair-splitting that may determine the final playoff team(s), could an FCS game, especially one against a lightweight, doom your chances?
Answers may be uncertain for years, forcing FBS programs to fly blindly as they finalize schedules as far out as 2020.
This much is clear: For FBS schools that don’t anticipate frequent playoff contention and want a relatively inexpensive, no-strings-attached home game, FCS is often the best option. And scholarship disparity notwithstanding — the FBS maximum is 85, the FCS 63 — the games can be competitive and compelling and merit preservation.
“There does have to be a common-sense component somewhere along the line,” third-year Richmond coach Danny Rocco said. “I don’t think any of us feel good about a 77-0 football game.”
Like William and Mary, Richmond has played an FBS team each of the last 10 years. The Spiders defeated Duke three times, and the average margin of their seven losses was 21.9 points, bookended by a 42-0 rout at North Carolina State in 2004 and a 23-21 heartbreaker there last season.
But either out of geographic convenience, sheer desperation or bad luck — a team you schedule for five years down the road may decline markedly — some FBS programs face truly hopeless FCS opponents. Last season, for example, ACC teams had 10 victories of 40-plus points versus the FCS, including Georgia Tech 70-0 over Elon and Miami 77-7 over Savannah State.
“I do think there’s going to be some kind of push back from some of those programs that truly do see themselves as being perennial contenders for this four-team playoff,” Rocco said, “because they have to be guarded against, not necessarily playing a FCS school, but playing a (low-level FCS) school. …
“But for a vast majority of (FBS) schools, the annual reality is they’re not in that mix for the four-team playoff. So I still think there’s going to continue to be a real strong rationale to continue to play FBS-FCS games.”
Fan appeal, recruiting and money are among the rationale.
William and Mary and Richmond fetch between $300,000 and $350,000 for their annual FBS games, considerable for athletic departments with budgets of $21 million and $23 million, respectively. Conversely, a one-time home game against an FBS team from, say, Conference USA or the MAC costs ACC or SEC schools at least twice as much, often more.
For example, Old Dominion is collecting $1 million for its trip to Vanderbilt this season.
“They need games,” Driscoll said of the FBS, “and they all want to play more home games than away games. That means you’re going to have to start buying games, and we are a less-expensive option.”
“It’s not insignificant,” Richmond athletic director Keith Gill said of the money, “but in some ways I would argue that it’s not compelling, either. … For us, it’s a recruiting tool, and our fans love those games. …
“We want to keep the games (regional). We want to keep the games against opponents that our fan base is familiar with. We generally have an alumni event around these games. It’s a great way to galvanize our campus community and our alums and donors.”
Virginia and Virginia Tech are happy to cooperate. The Cavaliers have contracted an FCS opponent for each season through 2019, rotating between Richmond and William and Mary. The Hokies have booked an FCS game for seven of the next eight seasons — 2019 is the exception — with opponents such as William and Mary, Furman, Liberty, Delaware and Richmond. The Spiders and Hokies have met 51 times, but not since 1986.
Similarly, Richmond and William and Mary have their FBS games set for the long term. The Tribe has Virginia, N.C. State and a probable date with Old Dominion. The Spiders have Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Maryland, the latter in 2015, before the Big Ten’s prohibition of such contests.
“The monetary reality is legitimate and significant, the ability to go on the road and get a payday,” Rocco said. “There’s some incentive in recruiting to know that each and every year, you’re going to be playing a regional (FBS) game. I think that’s big in recruiting. Student-athletes are attracted to that. They want to know who you’re playing in the (FBS). That’s one of the questions we get.”
William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock gets the same question and prefers to answer with specifics. That’s why Driscoll schedules long-term rather than wait for a panicked FBS school that might be willing to pay more than the going rate for a last-minute game.
And make no mistake, the risks of a lopsided defeat or even injury inherent in playing FBS teams do not faze FCS players. They read and hear about their FBS peers constantly, and in many cases competed against them in high school.
They want a chance, within reason, to measure themselves against the highest level.
“Big games in big stadiums against opponents we’ve all heard of,” Gill said.
“The money’s wonderful, and you’d like to get as much as you can,” Driscoll said, “but there is that component for us, that we want to be able to give these kids that opportunity. It’s been a much more positive influence on our program than any negatives that may be associated with it.”
David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.