Thursday, September 6, 2012 Updated: September 7, 9:52 AM ET
Nonconference games hard to find
By David M. Hale NoleNation
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The long flight from Stillwater, Okla., landed about 4:30 in the morning, and Savannah State coach Steve Davenport needed to sleep.
He'd just witnessed one of the worst losses in recent history, his team thrashed to the tune of an 84-0 final score by an Oklahoma State team that pulled the bulk of its starters before halftime.
Sleep did little to rejuvenate Davenport's enthusiasm, knowing what was still in store for his bruised and battered team. Twelve hours after the carnage in Oklahoma ended, he sat down to begin watching film on his next opponent, No. 6-ranked Florida State.
"It was the proverbial frying-pan-into-the-fire kind of deal," Davenport said.
Savannah State, an FCS school with an annual athletics budget of less than $6.5 million and just 12 wins in its last seven seasons, will earn about $900,000 for its two games against top-25 teams. In the end, that's the draw for all parties involved.
Instead of standout West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, the Florida State defense will line up Saturday against Savannah State.
Until mid-February, Florida State was slated for a potentially riveting nonconference matchup with West Virginia, a game that would have pitted Heisman hopeful Geno Smith against one of the nation's elite defenses. But with the Mountaineers' switch from the Big East to the Big 12, West Virginia bailed just nine months before kickoff.
Florida State tried to find a quality opponent that would make the trip to Tallahassee without the promise of a return engagement, all for less than West Virginia's $500,000 buyout -- a necessity for an FSU athletics department that, at that point, faced a budget shortfall.
Not surprisingly, there were few takers.
"We called 73 schools this year," Jimbo Fisher said. "We called every who's who of college football and asked them to come play this year."
The practice of scheduling lower-tier opponents has been common for years, and there is a rich history of those FCS teams managing to remain competitive against bigger, stronger, faster competition. In 2007, little-known Appalachian State shocked powerhouse Michigan in one of college football's great upsets. Two years later, Florida State needed a fourth-quarter comeback to defeat Jacksonville State. Just last week, Pittsburgh fell to FCS foe Youngstown State. But those are the exceptions. The more likely scenario is an easy win for a big-budget team, and a hefty paycheck for its sparring partner.
The risks of scheduling big-name, nonconference opponents have increased for schools battling for lucrative BCS bowl bids, while the new BCS playoff system has diminished the rewards of a dramatic nonconference wins.
It's a recipe for cupcake games.
"Everybody says we need to play an aggressive schedule, but it's tough to get other programs at our level that want to play each other on a home-and-home basis," FSU athletic director Randy Spetman said. "I think in the new BCS matchup, it's going to be if you win all your games or not, and we have to be very careful as we schedule that way."
Conference expansion further complicates matters, particularly for programs such as Florida State.
With Pittsburgh and Syracuse set to come on board in 2013, the ACC's nine-game conference schedule leaves room for just three nonconference games. One goes to FSU's rivalry with SEC foe Florida, which leaves little room for another nonconference road trip.
"You must have seven home football games or not just football's going to suffer, but every other sport's going to suffer because that's where the money comes in," Fisher said.
The SEC chose to stick with an eight-game slate after conference expansion, but several teams around the country have already backed out contracts for marquee non-conference games.
Several neutral-site contests have spiced up the nonconference slate in recent years, and Fisher said Florida State remains open to scheduling those. But those opportunities are limited, which has made the demand for pushover opponents even greater.
"Scheduling is fixing to get hard, and they don't want to come play now and get beat up," Fisher said. "It's a bidding war to get those teams. The price of poker just went up. All those schools are going to demand a million, $1.2, $1.3 to get them. You can't pay it. It's created a big problem ... and every school is going to have to face it."
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Teams such as Wofford, The Citadel and Tennessee-Chattanooga will dot the FSU schedule during the next three seasons at costs ranging upward of $500,000. Nevada is on Florida State's schedule for 2013 at a price tag of $600,000, but that game, too, is in jeopardy as Nevada tries to find someone to take its spot on FSU's schedule and avoid a $600,000 buyout and net loss of $1.2 million, Rivals.com reported.
Meanwhile, attendance for games against expensive, lower-tier opponents continues to dwindle. FSU had its smallest crowd in nearly two years for its opener against Murray State.
"We've had to pay some dollar amounts that I never imagined," Spetman said. "I think it's going to continue to be that way, which makes it very difficult on your expense side. They have to be a quality opponent so you get enough fans to pay for the expense of paying the team to come."
A grotesque fascination with what promises to be an epic beating provides the only real storyline for Saturday's matchup against Savannah State. According to one Las Vegas oddsmaker, Florida State will be favored by 70 points, the largest point spread in college football history.
Davenport said he's still looking forward to the trip to Tallahassee on Saturday. He loves the atmosphere at Doak Campbell and says the tradition of Chief Osceola planting his spear at midfield is among the best in college football. He has family planning to attend the game, too, some of whom will be seeing him coach for the first time.
Yet his team's goal for Saturday's game remains remarkably simple.
"Really," Davenport said, "we want to survive."