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September 5, 2007 It was inevitable. At some point in all these Division I-A teams scheduling I-AA opponents for a 12th game, a big fish was finally going to fall. College football is so unpredictable that the Appalachian State-Michigan game was inevitable. For Wolverine fans it might be hard to swallow right now, but there is no doubt some other school would have fallen to a I-AA school eventually. It is just probability, but nevertheless now is a good time to review the practice of scheduling I-AA teams or “buying wins.”

First as an issues writer I cannot help but pitch in my opinion on the new naming system for college football divisions. While I-A and I-AA do not really mesh well with Divisions II and III below, that is a much better fit than FBS and FCS as the new division names. While major media will try their best to adopt the new terminology, I’m going to spend the remainder of this article and probably this year calling the lower division I-AA. If Division I-A eventually becomes a plus one system or playoff, will we still call it the FBS despite the bowl system becoming a secondary consideration in a playoff world? Changing the terminology is just silly. The proper thing to do would be to call I-A just simply Division I, I-AA becomes Division II, and the other divisions move down a number. There’s no truly justifiable reason to avoid this outcome, as nobody argues that the different divisions have a whole different caliber of football teams. For the time being, it’s going to be I-A and I-AA in this column.

When college football officially moved to a 12-game schedule recently, the idea was that more major conference teams could now have the flexibility to schedule bigger out-of-conference opponents and inter-regional rivalries would develop. Most schools just added another cupcake to the schedule. Whether the cupcake consists of a non-BCS conference school or a I-AA school, the concept is the same. The bigger teams bring in the smaller schools for a free win or tune-up game, and the smaller school gets a little national exposure and a nice paycheck. These smaller teams can make their athletic department’s day simply by accepting half a million dollars from one of these major schools for one of these games. There’s no downside for schools like Appalachian State or Youngstown State because their athletic department gets much needed capital, their players get an experience of a lifetime, and a blowout loss is not embarrassing against the top teams in I-A. It seemed like a win-win from that perspective.

While one can applaud these bigger schools for helping keep the smaller schools’ athletic departments afloat with these games, the dark side appears when looking at the big schools scheduling these games. The fans of these bigger schools have no reason to get excited about paying full ticket prices for these games against cupcakes that mean absolutely nothing, assuming the bigger school takes care of business on the field. Take this example from an Ohio State fan (when not writing on here) – the 2006 regular season was one of the worst and most boring seasons for going to all the home games because the Buckeyes blew out every single outclassed opponent until Michigan came to town (and that game is always compelling anyway). While it is nice to cheer for your team when they are winning, I feel as a fan that you get so much more out of your season tickets when the opponents are more competitive. The drama of needing to step up and play well or come from behind can make some of the most memorable experiences in the stadium. Even had the Buckeyes not fallen apart against Florida in January, the 2006 season could not hold a candle to the experience of the 2002 national championship season. The primary reason being that every week in 2002 was edge-of-your-seat excitement, drama, and BCS debate, while 2006 was just a boring wire-to-wire run with blowouts every week.

There’s more than just the competition and fan excitement factor weighing against big schools accepting these games. Even though the BCS system has been adjusted to the point where computer rankings mean very little, strength of schedule is something even the human pollsters take into account. While many teams have decided to schedule these I-AA or lesser opponents, others have followed the spirit of adding the 12th game in order to renew inter-regional or old rivalries or adding another premiere game to the schedule. This pays huge dividends when comparing very close one-loss teams when deciding who should play for the national title. Although Washington is a long-shot to go 12-1 this season, they would almost certainly beat out even SEC one-loss teams in a debate over who should play in the BCS Championship game (non-conference schedule is at Syracuse, at Hawaii, and home against Boise State and Ohio State). While this schedule is a bit rougher than should be expected, the Huskies should be applauded for trying to schedule high-quality opponents instead of I-AA teams or free wins.

There are of course many more variables to consider in this debate, but keep in mind that certain “cupcake” games are desirable to keep local college rivalries going. Ohio State puts an emphasis on playing 2-3 Ohio schools since there are so many of them in I-A, and the glut of Big Ten versus MAC games is not necessarily a bad thing. Those games can be kept because the non-BCS conferences should be able to play a couple of games each season against the big boys. The concern is those schedules with no justification for having 4 out-of-conference cupcakes including I-AA teams other than wanting more home games or more chances to make a bowl game.

So the issue comes down to this: do the reasons for scheduling these I-AA opponents outweigh those reasons against? After the Michigan loss this weekend, perhaps this debate will work itself out as teams become cautionary about scheduling I-AA opponents every year. As many of the I-AA schools benefit greatly from the opportunity and cash flow, I simply cannot object to regional or in-state games such as Youngstown State versus Ohio State. If a major conference team schedules one of these games, I think the athletic department needs to go out of its way to schedule 2 BCS-conference opponents or 2 high quality opponents (such as Boise State, TCU, or Hawaii) to make up for this game. That seems only fair to the fans buying season tickets and to the pollsters trying to evaluate how good of a team you are and how good your league really is. One thing is for sure – nobody will take the best teams of I-AA as lightly as Michigan did this past weekend. The era of free wins is finally over, and now is the time to see which direction the big school athletic departments go in the next five years in scheduling these I-AA schools.

Despite my views on I-AA games, nothing should take away from Appalachian State’s accomplishment on Saturday. The Wolverines did not show up ready to play for sure, but the fact still remains that the Mountaineers outplayed the Wolverines in almost every aspect of the game for the entire contest. A team led by strong senior personalities like Mike Hart and Chad Henne should have known better. Appalachian State would have beaten many I-A teams with their effort and quality of play on Saturday, but that should not be a reason to keep Michigan ranked.

In the words of Earl Pitts, WAKE UP AMERICA! Keeping Michigan in your top 25 is an absolute joke to ranking systems everywhere right now. Appalachian State might be the two-time defending national champion in I-AA, but every good team that has made the jump to I-A ends up on the fringes of the Top 25 at best over time. Michigan should not lose home games to the likes of this, and there’s absolutely, positively, definitively NO WAY Michigan gets any consideration for the BCS Championship game for the rest of 2007. Every team in the rankings after week 1 should at least be in the conversation for the national title, and a team that cannot make it in even by winning out is no better than Boise State last year. Sure, Michigan will go to a Rose Bowl at 11-1 - but they have shown nothing that indicates the Wolverines deserve a top 25 spot. I think top 25 votes should be fluid in the early season as the body of work each team presents can change dramatically from week to week, but many of my colleagues would disagree. Therefore you will not find Michigan in my top 25 this week because they would not make my top 50 this week.

Moving to another issue entirely, I would like to briefly speak about the Big Ten Network and the battle raging with cable companies in my area and other parts of Big Ten country. This showdown is important because other BCS conferences will certainly follow the NFL and Big Ten in making their own cable networks if these two are successful. Money and TV contracts are a powerful draw, as evidenced by Notre Dame’s refusal of all attempts to get them to join the Big Ten. Here’s the facts for those not following the situation: the Big Ten network insists on being included in a standard cable package instead of a specialty sports package (like the NFL network), but BTN expects cable companies in Big Ten states to pay $1.10 per customer per month for the service while charging out-of-conference states $0.10 per customer per month for the same service. This rate in Big Ten states is higher than many networks people consider crucial to the standard cable package (such as Headline News, MTV, ESPN, and Comedy Central).

While one of the big three cable companies and DirectTV caved into the BTN demands, the largest two cable companies in the region have not. Both sides are vigorously running television advertisements soliciting customers to call in and support their side of the argument. The fact of the matter is that BTN is being completely unfair by taking away games that used to be carried by local networks and ABC/ESPN. If BTN were asking a reasonable royalty for their niche network (outside of football games, those who want to watch BTN are a small number) or willing to be put on a special sports package, that would be OK. The problem is that if every conference does this, then all the fans at home lose because all those games of the hometown teams will be snatched away unless you pay extra money. For those Big Ten fans outside the Big Ten market, this development is great because you can save money by ordering BTN instead of ESPN Gameplan (which costs much more for a season subscription). If you are a general college football fan, you have to be worried that all these conferences will make their own networks and cut out ESPN/ABC, which leads to you paying much more to get access to the same games you could get for one low price under ESPN Gameplan. I cannot condone either the NFL network or BTN for taking games out of view in order to make more money, as that alienates their fan bases. Please support those cable companies holding out against the BTN, as this battle may lead to disastrous future consequences for the entire nation of college football fans.

If I do not stop complaining, I suppose there will be nothing to talk about next week. Therefore it is high time we move on to the three games of the week, my top 10 rankings, and the good parts of college football. One final note is that while it was great to watch college football come back around the country, the end of the cycle of healing for Virginia Tech’s community marked by the Hokies running out onto the football field was a beautiful thing to witness. As I said last week, it is moments like these that make college football the best sport in America. Welcome back to some modicum of normalcy Virginia Tech, and may there never be another tragedy like that on your campus or any other in the future.

While there are a number of games that just missed the cut this week (namely, Nebraska at Wake Forest, Oregon at Michigan, and Notre Dame at Penn State), Week 2 brings much more excitement overall than Week 1’s slate did. The first game of the week is Miami at Oklahoma. Both of these teams broke in new quarterbacks last week, and the results could not have been more different. Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford was an astounding 21-23 passing for 363 yards, while Miami’s Kirby Freeman struggled to 9-21 passing for only 81 yards. Miami is a much better team already under coach Randy Shannon than they have been the past 2-3 years, including a much more potent offense behind the rushing duo Graig Cooper and Javarris James. Oklahoma will likely rise to the challenge defensively, but the Hurricanes are eager to get a big road win for their new coach to turn things around. This game stays closer than most expect through the fourth quarter, but Oklahoma pulls away late by 14.

The second game of the week is TCU at Texas. This game was already intriguing as a matchup between one of the three best non-BCS programs and a BCS national title contender. Boise State proved those schools can beat the Big XII leaders last season, and TCU is a legitimate threat to the Longhorns. The Horned Frogs defense is a stingy unit with many returning starters from last year, and the Longhorns will need to play much better than they did against Arkansas State to score on TCU. Texas has far more talent and will be playing on the home field in Austin, but TCU appears to have all the right ingredients for a big upset. Texas plays much better than last week but still suffers a 4 point loss at home to TCU.

The final game of the week is the best game in the whole month of September, Virginia Tech at LSU. These two teams have helped two of the bigger campuses in America overcome terrible tragedies of the past two years. LSU appears to be one of the best two teams in America after dismantling Mississippi State last week, while Virginia Tech had trouble dispatching East Carolina at home. The Hokies will probably get back on track this week away from the emotion at home, but the hardest team on Tech’s schedule will make truly getting on track offensively very difficult. LSU QB Matt Flynn will test the Hokie defense with his arm as well as his running ability. A week or two down the road Virginia Tech might have what it takes to pull this off, but even with all the emotion behind them, it will be almost impossible to beat LSU at their place. LSU by 21.

GOTW Record to Date: 2-1 (.666)
Last Week: 2-1

Fitz Top 10 – Week 1
1. USC (1-0)
2. LSU (1-0)
3. Wisconsin (1-0)
4. Louisville (1-0)
5. Oklahoma (1-0)
6. Ohio State (1-0)
7. West Virginia (1-0)
8. Miami (1-0)
9. California (1-0)
10. Georgia (1-0)
Just Missed: UCLA, Florida, Penn State, Rutgers, Texas

Until next week, have a good time poking fun at the poor Wolverines, Fighting Irish, and Seminoles. Time will tell if those programs can recover from devastating opening losses, or if 2007 will be a hot seat year for Charlie Weis, Lloyd Carr, and Bobby Bowden. It’s funny that everyone thought Joe Paterno was the old coach losing his touch 3 years ago, but now he’s the one winning 10+ games a year, while FSU struggles to keep up in the ACC. That’s a discussion for another time. See you next week!

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