James Madison’s football season will commence Saturday much like its past two - and in a similar fashion to much of its brethren in the former Division I-AA, now the clumsily named Football Championship Subdivision.
The Dukes will roll into Byrd Stadium for a matchup with Maryland. Perhaps they will upset an ACC school like fellow Colonial Athletic Association members Richmond and William & Mary did last weekend. But win or lose, the most significant part of the endeavor is cashing a check: a cool $325,000 to be divvied up throughout James Madison’s athletic department.
“To be honest, it doesn’t affect the football budget a lot,” coach Mickey Matthews said. “It’s the other sports that need the money. We’re glad to do that. We feel really good about it. Every sport at JMU gets a percentage of that guarantee to enhance their budget. People ask me, and it doesn’t change my budget a lick. My budget’s set. We’ve used it a little bit, but we haven’t used it a lot.”
What not long ago was an occasional foray into high-profile showdowns and welcome paydays is now almost a prerequisite for survival in the former Division I-AA. Matthews played only three such games in his first eight seasons before the past three years.
Joe Trainer’s first coordinator job at a I-AA school was at Villanova in 1997, when such games weren’t a necessity. Now in his first year as Rhode Island’s coach, Trainer’s program has one major-college game locked in through 2013 - the year the Rams visit College Park.
“At the time, you were playing a I-A game every third or maybe fourth year as a recruiting tool,” Trainer said. “Now, with guarantees being what they are from Division I to I-AA, there’s so much money you benefit from with the guarantee game that everyone is playing one every year.”
He isn’t exaggerating. All 12 teams in the CAA will face a major-college opponent this season. The same applies to the Southern Conference, home to powerhouse Appalachian State. Ditto for the Missouri Valley.
In fact, some schools have gotten to the point of doubling their paydays and opting to play a pair of games up a division. Jacksonville State, perhaps angling for associate membership in the ACC, lost at Georgia Tech on Saturday and will play at Florida State this weekend.
But it’s not always about the money. Just ask Wofford.
The Terriers aren’t the most likely of powerhouses, even at the FCS level. With about 1,400 students, the Spartanburg, S.C., school’s enrollment is dwarfed by even conference foes Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
Yet Wofford was aggressive much of the past decade in securing visible games against major-college foes. The Terriers remained in the state to play Clemson and South Carolina but also traveled to Air Force, Maryland, N.C. State and West Virginia. This year, Wofford was set to open at South Florida before learning Wisconsin also needed an early season date.
And just like that, a school coming off back-to-back playoff appearances was playing two teams that reached bowl games in the first three weeks of the season.
“I think it definitely helps the total picture,” coach Mike Ayers said. “But I don’t think it has been our main driver. Our main driver that you get with those games is the excitement that those games bring. Our kids want to play those games. We do also as a staff.”
Often, the Terriers have kept things close. It didn’t quite unfold that way Saturday, when they lost 40-7 at South Florida. But for a school hoping to provide a recruiting platform in Big Ten country, next week’s game against Wisconsin remains appealing. And it provides a challenge for players who were overlooked when they tried to find a school.
“You have kids who were not selected to play at that level, and then they come to the next level,” Ayers said. “In the back of their minds they want to know, ‘Can I compete at that level? What’s it like at that level?’ ”