Gophers football coach Jerry Kill was back at Northrop Mall on Friday, greeting students, asking each one about his or her major, and then handing them free tickets to Saturday’s game against Western Illinois.
“Here’s an extra one; bring a date,” Kill told a few students. “Come see us; have a good time.”
Saturday’s kickoff will be another early one, at 11 a.m. The Gophers predict the attendance will be about 44,000, with student season ticket sales at about 4,500.
Kill rallied support on campus before most home games last year, too, but generating interest often proves more challenging when the opponent comes from the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA).
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is urging member schools to take FCS teams off future schedules, knowing the selection committee will carefully consider strength of schedule when the four-team College Football Playoff begins next year.
Last month, Delany told the Associated Press that he won’t punish teams for keeping FCS teams on their schedule, but it’s clear the conference will frown on that.
“When every game is televised, every game matters, and the fans matter,” Delany said. “Interest in those [FCS] games is less. They’re from another division. They have 20 less scholarships. It’s like a junior college team playing against a high school team, or a high school team playing against a JV team.”
But the Gophers are hardly alone. Of the 125 teams in the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision), 106 will play at least one game against an FCS opponent this year, according to FBSchedules.com.
For the FCS teams, these games bring a chance for a big payday — the Gophers are paying Western Illinois $375,000 for this game, the same amount they paid New Hampshire last year — and the chance to play the Cinderella role.
FBS teams can count one victory over an FCS team toward bowl eligibility, and these games are usually chances to pad their records. Big Ten teams are 75-6 against FCS opponents since 1998, with the most famous exception coming in 2007, when Appalachian State knocked off Michigan.
But this year, several of these JV teams have been upsetting their varsity counterparts. Through two weeks, FCS teams have knocked off 11 FBS opponents, including eight in Week 1.
The list includes Eastern Washington over then-No. 25 Oregon State and North Dakota State over defending Big 12 champion Kansas State.
“You’re going to see some lopsided scores occasionally,” North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said. “But you’re seeing more and more upsets, and there was a reason why Fox Sports 1 chose to take North Dakota State vs. Kansas State and move the game to Friday night. That was to enhance the TV market.”
The Gophers already have replaced one of their future FCS opponents; South Dakota State came off the 2015 schedule to make room for Texas Christian. But the Gophers are still scheduled to face Eastern Illinois in next year’s opener.
One complaint about Delany’s new edict is that it will vanquish some intriguing regional matchups. North Dakota State, which has won the past two FCS championships, went to Minneapolis and defeated the Gophers in 2007 and 2011, with thousands of fans on hand wearing green and gold.
“I’d love to play North Dakota State,” Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague told the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead this summer. “But I have to be a good member of the Big Ten and go along with what we’re doing.”
Teague added: “It is primarily television pressuring and wanting the Big Ten to provide games that are FBS vs. FBS teams. … We operate in a world now in college athletics where we have to balance a budget. [Delany] needs to go out and redo our television contracts with ABC, ESPN, Big Ten Network, and we’ve got to be a very good partner with them, or we aren’t going to get the revenue we need to compete.”
Kill has plenty of respect for Western Illinois after coaching in the same conference at Southern Illinois from 2001 to 2007. Kill coached the Salukis to a 35-28 victory over Indiana in 2006, so he seems in no hurry to do away with matchups outside of divisions.
“The Southeast Conference [SEC] is not going to change; they’re still going to play I-AA programs, and the Big Ten came out and said they didn’t want us to go that route,” Kill said. “I’ve always been one where when an authority tells you to do something, you just do what you’re told and you move on.”
Bohl said from what he has gathered, the Big Ten is the only FBS conference working to eliminate future FCS games. Kill would prefer a level playing field, nationally, but he acknowledged there is little for a Big Ten team to gain by scheduling an FCS opponent.
“You’ve got the little guy getting the opportunity to compete against the big guy; that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “You pay them, and then they can beat you. It’s more of a risk than anything, in some aspects.”
The Gophers are 24-point favorites against Western Illinois, but both teams are 2-0. Kill won’t let his team take the Leathernecks lightly.
Then again, he didn’t hand out those student tickets expecting anything less than a win.