GAINESVILLE — As scheduling philosophies evolve, games like Saturday’s Florida-Towson matchup seem like an endangered species.
Fans don’t want to see Division I-A teams play I-AA teams; the announced crowd for UF’s 45-0 rout of UT Martin (80,007) on Sept. 7 the smallest at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 1990.
The outcome won’t determine whether the No. 9 Gators get back to Atlanta for the SEC title game or whether Towson makes the I-AA playoffs for the fourth time in nine seasons.
Even Towson athletic director Tim Leonard called the game “meaningless” before stopping himself.
“I shouldn’t say that,” Leonard said.
Leonard shouldn’t say that because he knows the truth: Games like the one UF will host Saturday do have meaning. They matter differently than Florida-Tennessee or Towson-James Madison, but they still add value to the sport as a whole.
You might not know it, but you’d miss them if they were gone.
The most obvious reason why these I-A vs. I-AA matchups matter is the money.
For Towson, the $500,000 payday means the Tigers could charter a flight to Maine two weeks ago instead of busing 600-plus miles each way. How much does a half-a-million-dollar game mean to UT Martin?
“We’re playing two of them this year, if that answers your question,” Skyhawks coach Jason Simpson said.
The $1 million total is a rounding error for UF (2017-18 athletic budget: $157 million, according to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education). But it’s massive for the Skyhawks, who can fund more than 10 percent of their $9.2 million athletic budget through two Saturdays.
Without that money, Simpson said, it would be hard for his program to pay for itself and its scholarships.
“College football needs this trickle-down effect,” Simpson said.
Jimbo Fisher feels the same way.
When he was at Florida State, the former Samford quarterback and assistant strongly advocated for I-AA games that help fund those programs, which can then help fund Division II teams.
“When you start taking these budgets away,” Fisher said in 2016, “where are all the high school football players going to go?”
If they’re not playing in college, they won’t be going to the NFL.
Although I-AA teams don’t have the overall talent or depth of larger programs, they still produce good players at the next level. That’s a key reason why Leonard schedules one I-A opponent a year: Playing a bigger team is a great chance for his program’s pro prospects, like quarterback Tom Flacco (the younger brother of another I-AA product, Joe Flacco).
“There’s a lot of phenomenal NFL guys that come out of the FCS ranks,” Leonard said. “We want to get them that opportunity to play on that stage and show what they’ve got so scouts can see some different things on film.”
Other coaches can also see different things on film because innovation frequently happens at smaller levels, away from the spotlight.
Dan Mullen and Urban Meyer didn’t create their cutting-edge offense at Florida; they started it years earlier at Bowling Green. An NAIA program (Glenville State College) accidentally birthed the zone-read option, which has spread to every level of the game. Anything that jeopardizes smaller programs, then, jeopardizes the sport’s evolution.
To be clear, I-AA football isn’t in danger of disappearing, but the number of paycheck games could be dwindling. Big Ten schools no longer play I-AA teams. UF, Florida State and Alabama are among the programs moving toward 10 Power Five games a year. More Power Five vs. Power Five matchups means fewer slots for everyone else.
Leonard said he hasn’t had problems finding future I-A opponents yet, but it’s one of his long-term financial concerns.
In the meantime, his Tigers are enjoying the opportunity they’ll have Saturday at The Swamp, regardless of what it really means.
“It’s going to be fun, there’s no question about it,” Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. “We’re going to go down there and have a blast.”