Every rule has unintended consequences. The higher up on the mountain the changes start, the larger its effects can be felt down at the bottom. In this case, the Big Ten's proposal to eliminate FCS games from its non-conference scheduling may seem like a minor tremor, but it could wind up as an avalanche at the base of Division I football.
For the uninitiated, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez mentioned on his monthly radio show Tuesday that Big Ten officials had agreed as a whole to remove FCS opponents from its non-conference schedules. With the upcoming four-team playoff taking strength of schedule into account when weighing teams, the league understandably wants to put itself in the best possible light with the selection committee. This move has been applauded by many in the college football media landscape.
“I would tell you the loss of the Big Ten schools will be devastating, to UNI and to a lot of our peers," Northern Iowa athletic director Tony Dannen told the (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. "Not just because we wouldn’t play Iowa and have the guarantee, if you think this will stop at the Big Ten…I look at things happening in the equity leagues in fives, and so I have to believe this might lead to additional dominoes.”
Guarantee games are often worth between $300,000 and $1 million (and sometimes even more) to FCS programs. At that the FCS level, that's game-changing money. Once that paycheck is gone from a school like Northern Iowa's budget, there's no way to make it up. FCS programs may schedule more aggressively within their own ranks, but ESPN isn't offering seven-figures to see Northern Iowa and Appalachian State square off at the Georgia Dome.
"The tough part of this is obviously the financial aspect as many schools need the net payouts from these games to help meet annual budgets," Towson athletic director Mike Waddell responded when we reached out for comment. "Tickets and sponsor dollars are already tight for FCS, so making up a net $250,000-300,000 annually will be a rough road."
Here's another off-shoot to the Big Ten's proposal: banning FCS games is far from a guarantee that the conference's collective schedule strengths in the first place. Take a look at Jeff Sagarin's year-end football ratings. FCS champion North Dakota State checks in as the 35th-best football team in all of Division I. Runner-up Sam Houston State is No. 63. Air Force, which visited Michigan on Sept. 8 and closed its season in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, is No. 130. Massachusetts, who came to the Big House on Sept. 15 is No. 178.
Heck, the 2013 season-opener between Southern Illinois (No. 102) and Illinois (No. 120) will do more damage to the Salukis' strength of schedule than the Big Ten's own Fighting Illini's according to Sagarin's 2012 year end ratings. All told, 21 FCS teams rank inside Sagarin's top 120 Division I teams.
Whether North Dakota State is actually as good as Sagarin's formula indicates is irrelevant. Regardless of where the teams actually rank, there are annually between one and two dozen FCS teams that outperform FBS teams that regularly find themselves in Big Ten stadiums every September. So why is the Big Ten throwing a tarp over the entire FCS, and thereby threatening irreparable harm to football on that level if other leagues follow suit, when there's no promise Big Ten strength of schedules will actually improve? After all, that's what the proposed rule has set out to do in the first place.
When the intended consequence isn't even met, is this rule truly worth following through considering the weight of its unintended consequences?