It’s probably one of the more astonishing factoids in college football this season, but because it doesn’t reflect well on anyone, it isn’t brought up much: The first two seasonal opponents for Fresno State, which plays Washington Saturday at Husky Stadium (6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) were Alabama and, ahem, the University of the Incarnate Word.
For those few of you who haven’t heard of the Cardinals of UIW (who said there was no I in UW?), the small, private Catholic school was founded in 1881 in San Antonio by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word as a women’s college. Things went downhill from there.
Skipping ahead quickly, the school is now an NCAA Division I member of the Southland Conference. In the opener of their first season in which they are eligible for NCAA championships, the Cardinals were throttled by Fresno State 66-0. In their second game, Sacramento State beat the In-Words 56-22.
Regarding the schedule of Fresno State, the slaughterer of the Incarnate innocents, the Bulldogs stepped up a bit to face No. 1-ranked Alabama. The 41-10 rout was kept close mostly by the Crimson Tide’s use of third-stringers inserted somewhere between “Oh say can you see” and “by the dawn’s early light.”
And now Fresno State gets to play sixth-ranked Washington, one of the other semifinalists in last season’s College Football Playoffs.
The industry perhaps looks at it like this: For smiting Incarnate Word, Fresno State must be twice punished.
That assessment, however, implies someone would care about competitive integrity. That concept evaporated about the same time as the disappearance of the raccoon coat.
These non-conference mismatches, called paycheck games, provide the smaller school with large cash in exchange for use of their players as tackling dummies in the larger school’s need for a scrimmage game in which they can charge customers full price.
Fresno received $1.4 million to doormat for Alabama, and the Huskies will pay the Bulldogs $1 million for same. No word yet on how much Fresno put in the collection plate for the In-Words.
For Fresno to climb college football’s incredibly lengthy ladder from bottom to top in one week must have induced oxygen deprivation, or the bends, or something. But no, according to their first-year coach, Jeff Tedford. He claims it is a great experience.
“To play two of the top four teams in the playoff last year, back-to-back on the road, I don’t know how many people are doing that,” Tedford told The Athletic. “But it is what it is, and it’s a good experience to put our kids on the big stage and play big-time football.”
As with most industries and nations, massive wealth disparity causes social disorder and dysfunction. Except in college football, where it is blithely accepted as the cost of doing business, as Tedford indicated. The mismatches happen every year; it’s just that in this preseason, Fresno gets to be bludgeoner before twice being bludgeonee.
Huskies coach Chris Petersen doesn’t particularly like taking questions about the subject, suggesting it is all above his considerable pay grade.
“These are tough questions,” he said this week. “I just don’t have any influence in those areas. I haven’t spent a bunch of time thinking about it. I’ve talked about scheduling a lot, about how important those games are to the FCS schools, paying bills and those type of things.”
Sort of in the way prostitution allows women to pay the bills.
Petersen did allow as to how he likes the NFL’s method of leveling the field with payroll minimums and maximums to at least make a head fake toward competitive equality.
“I look at the NFL and admire that situation,” he said. “You have 32 teams, and they’re all on the same page. We have (in NCAA Division I) 120-some teams, all different levels of teams, and they’re making rules for (the biggest schools) and (with smaller schools) they want different things. It’s complicated.
“I do think it’s something everyone needs to be on the same page about. It’s one of the frustrations about college football right now. We don’t get on the same page about most anything.”
And it’s not going to get better. Big-time college football is inexorably pulling apart. The industry has already divided between Power Five conferences (ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12) and Group of Five (FCS) conferences (American Athletic, Mountain West, Mid-American, Conference USA, Sun Belt).
Athletics departments in nearly all schools in the Group of Five are running annual deficits because television revenues are meager compared to the big boys. So the colleges need to schedule wallopings in order to keep the various chancellors and regents from shutting down programs that are draining general-fund budgets dedicated to pay for, you know, school.
And the big schools like it because, well, their $4 million coaches don’t like playing Alabama or Washington every week. Unless you’re Fresno State.
Tedford isn’t complaining. He was Cal’s head coach from 2002-12, and spent last year with Washington as a consultant, mostly because of his friendship with Petersen. He knows the paycheck-game cruelties from both sides, but is not paid to care.
“We want to play good teams and compete with them,” he said. “The money piece, I understand the business, but it’s not my job to figure that out. Now that I’m here, hopefully I’ll have more say in what we do with scheduling, But I understand the business and I understand what it’s all about.”
Unfortunately for him, Fresno State and many others in the Group of Five, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay in business. As the Power Five edge closer to complete professionalization, and budgets at smaller schools continue to shrink, there likely will come a time when even annual bludgeonings won’t provide enough green to stem the red ink.