William and Mary, Richmond prove worthiness of FBS-FCS games

David, Goliath are near an impasse as major-college playoff looms, intensifying debate about strength of schedule

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William and Mary went 1-9 versus Football Bowl Subdivision opponents during the last 10 seasons, but don’t for a moment believe that the Tribe was overwhelmed. Seven of those setbacks were by less than two touchdowns, three by a combined 11 points.

Catch a routine pass here, make a tackle there and William and Mary adds North Carolina (21-17 loss in 2010), Maryland (7-6 in 2012) and West Virginia (24-17 last year) to its 2009 conquest of Virginia.

“We’ve comported ourselves pretty well over the years,” Tribe athletic director Terry Driscoll understated.

So, too, have many Football Championship Subdivision programs, including Richmond, James Madison and Liberty here in-state. But as the FBS prepares for the 2014 launch of its four-team playoff, the wisdom of playing FCS opponents is being debated nationwide.

The Big Ten has outlawed such matchups, effective 2016. The ACC and Southeastern Conference considered the issue at their recent spring meetings and left the decision to individual schools.

Driving the discussions: How much weight will the playoff selection committee place on  schedule strength? Given the hair-splitting that may determine the final playoff team(s), could an FCS game, especially one against a lightweight, doom your chances?

Answers may be uncertain for years, forcing FBS programs to fly blindly as they finalize schedules as far out as 2020.

This much is clear: For FBS schools that don’t anticipate frequent playoff contention and want a relatively inexpensive, no-strings-attached home game, FCS is often the best option. And scholarship disparity notwithstanding — the FBS maximum is 85, the FCS 63 — the games can be competitive and compelling and merit preservation.

“There does have to be a common-sense component somewhere along the line,” third-year Richmond coach Danny Rocco said. “I don’t think any of us feel good about a 77-0 football game.”

In six seasons as Liberty’s head coach, Rocco was 1-4 against the FBS. His 2010 Flames defeated the Mid-American Conference’s Ball State, and the average margin of the four defeats was 14.3 points.

Like William and Mary, Richmond has played an FBS team each of the last 10 years. The Spiders defeated Duke three times, and the average margin of their seven losses was 21.9 points, bookended by a 42-0 rout at North Carolina State in 2004 and a 23-21 heartbreaker there last season.

But either out of geographic convenience, sheer desperation or bad luck — a team you schedule for five years down the road may decline markedly — some FBS programs face truly hopeless FCS opponents. Last season, for example, ACC teams had 10 victories of 40-plus points versus the FCS, including Georgia Tech 70-0 over Elon and Miami 77-7 over Savannah State.

“I do think there’s going to be some kind of push back from some of those programs that truly do see themselves as being perennial contenders for this four-team playoff,” Rocco said, “because they have to be guarded against, not necessarily playing a FCS school, but playing a (low-level FCS) school. …

“But for a vast majority of (FBS) schools, the annual reality is they’re not in that mix for the four-team playoff. So I still think there’s going to continue to be a real strong rationale to continue to play FBS-FCS games.”

Fan appeal, recruiting and money are among the rationale.

William and Mary and Richmond fetch between $300,000 and $350,000 for their annual FBS games, considerable for athletic departments with budgets of $21 million and $23 million, respectively. Conversely, a one-time home game against an FBS team from, say, Conference USA or the MAC costs ACC or SEC schools at least twice as much, often more.

For example, Old Dominion is collecting $1 million for its trip to Vanderbilt this season.

“They need games,” Driscoll said of the FBS, “and they all want to play more home games than away games. That means you’re going to have to start buying games, and we are a less-expensive option.”

“It’s not insignificant,” Richmond athletic director Keith Gill said of the money, “but in some ways I would argue that it’s not compelling, either. … For us, it’s a recruiting tool, and our fans love those games. …

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