Thursday, September 21, 2006

Humiliation does have its price, at least in college football.

For Middle Tennessee State, it was a whopping $500,000 — the sum the University of Maryland paid the Blue Raiders to come to Byrd Stadium two weeks ago and, presumably, take a whipping.

That was a relative bargain for the Terrapins — even if they bought only a 24-10 victory, not a rout — considering the spike in the purchase price of a patsy.

“It is getting out of hand,” said Jim Weaver, the athletic director at Virginia Tech. “Something has to be done about it.”

These games between big-time programs and small-time foes commonly are known as “money games.” The transaction goes like this: The powerhouse gets a guaranteed victory, and the little team that probably can’t gets a big, guaranteed payday and, in all likelihood, a bad beating and a roster full of bruised egos.

Money games are at a premium this year because the NCAA added a 12th game to the regular-season schedule, one more than last season.

The move was intended to allow athletic programs to generate more revenue. Nebraska, for example, typically takes in about $3 million in tickets sales alone for one game in its 92,000-seat stadium.

The expansion prompted major-conference teams such as Nebraska, Wisconsin and South Carolina to fill that extra spot on the schedule with a home game against a weaker team, a contest promising both easy victory and easy money.

The result: A hot market for whipping boys — the low Division I-A programs such as Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic and Louisiana-Monroe and Division I-AA teams such as Northeastern and Eastern Washington.

This weekend is a prime example.

Troy University will receive $750,000 to play at 23rd-ranked Nebraska. Buffalo, meanwhile, travels to No. 2 Auburn as a 43-point underdog. The balm for the pain the Bulls surely will suffer? A $600,000 payday.

No school, however, has profited so much from indignity as Florida Atlantic, which currently is embarked on a four-week trail of smears that will leave the Owls in fine shape financially but in the poorhouse competitively.

Florida Atlantic opened the season with a 54-6 debacle against No. 19 Clemson, followed by a 45-0 trouncing by Kansas State and a 48-8 shellacking by Oklahoma State.

Another thrashing is in the forecast this weekend: Florida Atlantic on Saturday faces coach Steve Spurrier and South Carolina, and the Gamecocks are a 30-point favorite.

The cumulative damage reflected on the scoreboard is frightful — the Owls were outscored 147-14 in those three games — and the psychological toll … well, it can’t be good.

The bottom line, however, is all good: Florida Atlantic will net $1.8 million for its express journey to college football loserville.

“It is a great thing for us financially, but even if that reward was not there, it would still be very important,” Owls coach Howard Schnellenberger said. “With tongue in cheek, I have said time and time again that we would pay for the opportunity to play them.”

Paul Wulff, on the other hand, would much rather receive than give.

Wulff’s Eastern Washington Eagles were on the decidedly wrong end of a 52-3 walloping by the West Virginia Mountaineers a few weeks ago.

“My No. 1 goal was to not get anyone seriously hurt,” Wulff said.

Goal No. 2 undoubtedly involved collecting the $450,000 check the Eagles received for playing doormat for the then-No. 5 Mountaineers.

“It gives us renovations in our locker room and coaches offices, video equipment and things for our weight room,” said Wulff, whose squad got another big payday in a 56-17 demolition by Oregon State a week earlier. “At I-AA, we have a hard time getting that kind of money from fundraising.”

Still, a 49-point pummeling must leave emotional scar tissue, no matter how many weight machines the proceeds can fund.

“There is no question that it is going to challenge you somewhat in your psyche,” said Wulff, whose team actually is a contender for the Division I-AA playoffs.

There is another upside for the major-conference teams — other than the added revenue and the sheer pleasure of running up the score on a helpless opponent.

Schools such as Maryland, Kentucky and South Carolina may need the victories to reach the six needed for postseason bowl eligibility.

Thus, the Terrapins will play host to Florida International on Saturday at Byrd Stadium. The contest is part of a three-game deal: The Terps will head to Miami next season, and the Golden Panthers will get $400,000 when they return to College Park in 2010.

“We always try to fill the 12th game with a home game,” said Debbie Yow, Maryland’s athletic director. “Not only does it provide a competitive advantage, but it is a lot more than that. It provided a home gate that will help pay for all our other sports.”

The competitive expectations for such contests are low.

The Mountaineers cleared their bench in what amounted to a light workout against Eastern Washington, playing even walk-on players and the fourth-string quarterback.

In addition to a fat check, the Eagles received some faint praise to help ease the sting of their loss.

“Those guys played hard,” said Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia’s coach. “They had a nice drive on us in the first half.”

On very rare occasions, however, the well-paid visitors have taken the money and won. Division I-AA Montana State, for example, stunned Colorado earlier this season.

But, more often, they just take the money and try to forget the lopsided result on the scoreboard.

For Buffalo, one of the worst teams in Division I-A, this season is a case of embarrassment with riches. The Bulls will earn close to $2 million for playing big-time programs at Auburn, Boston College and Wisconsin.

“It helps football, but more importantly it helps our whole program,” coach Turner Gill said. “That’s why you do these things.”

And the market has never been better.

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