The Maryland football team has scheduled a team from the Football Championship Subdivision in every season since 2006, a practice that will continue with Saturday’s home game against Old Dominion. The Terrapins also have committed to play FCS teams in each of the next four seasons: James Madison in 2014, Richmond in 2015, Howard in 2016 and Towson in 2017.
After that, Maryland will stop scheduling programs from the lower level of Division I, avoiding what has become a lose-lose scenario for Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Victories are often ho-hum affairs, one more tick in the win column but a knock against strength of schedule. Losses, however, bring public embarrassment, often at a steep financial cost.
Oregon State and South Florida reportedly shelled out $450,00 and $400,000 to Eastern Washington and McNeese State, respectively, only to fall at home in the season’s opening weekend. Six other FBS teams suffered similar fates.
For FCS schools, however, games against FBS teams provide a significant revenue boost — Maryland will reportedly pay Old Dominion $350,000 — and a chance at national attention by scoring an upset.
The Terps will move to the Big Ten next July, and Commissioner Jim Delany has strongly encouraged his member institutions to avoid such games. It’s not an outright ban, he told reporters this summer, but such games often result in lopsided outcomes with little television appeal.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Towson Coach Rob Ambrose, whose FCS team routed Connecticut on Aug. 29 and reportedly earned $275,000 in the process. “In the end, you have two choices in your perceptions: What do you believe makes the most money, or what’s in the best interest for the kids in the game? And the people who are saying not to play these games are saying they can’t draw ticket sales to come to a game of Kansas State and North Dakota State [the FCS Bison defeated the Wildcats on Aug. 30]. I’m going to stand on the other side and say the hell you can’t. The more we do this, the more fans in America want to root for the underdog. And now you’re going to take that away?”
A former offensive coordinator under Maryland Coach Randy Edsall at Connecticut, Ambrose has built his program by plucking undervalued talent from FBS schools. His defense currently fields transfers from Georgia, Virginia Tech and Maryland. The offense includes transfers from Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“It’s big,” Ambrose said. “It’s big. It’s a chance for these kids to say I told you so a little bit, it’s a chance to measure yourself against what’s considered the best of the best above you.”
If Maryland’s game on Saturday was supposed to be a gimme, its players have avoided publicly stating as much. Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke’s statistics dwarf that of many FBS signal-callers. He won the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, and his 730 passing yards against New Hampshire last season set a Division I single-game record.
“This is our game,” cornerback Dexter McDougle said, speaking for the Terps’ secondary. “It’s one of the biggest games of the season for us. We definitely want to prove to everybody who we are. It’s another game. We want to take it as just another game.”
Edsall has accepted the future move away from FCS games — “the television partners want the FBS versus the FBS,” he said this week — but it won’t affect Maryland until 2018. By then, the Big Ten will have moved to a nine-game conference schedule, leaving little room for games Delany likened this summer to “a high school team playing against a JV team.” Maryland scheduled Old Dominion, Towson and others like them to create an enticing local matchup that, while not necessarily attractive to Terps fans, would help fill Byrd Stadium with fans who wouldn’t have to travel far for the game.
“I know the philosophy of it was, if you’re playing a conference schedule, that’s hard,” Edsall said. “If you had the opportunity to do that, I think it was beneficial for the FBS schools, and it was beneficial for the FCS schools.”