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Northwestern vs. FCS Teams: A Synopsis

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

After playing three teams in a row from BCS conferences, Northwestern gets a well-deserved break against FCS South Dakota. But don't tell Pat Fitzgerald that.

"I don’t think (the players) care who we play," he said. "That’s for you guys to talk about and for our fans to talk about. We talk about who the young men are that we’re competing against, their strengths that we see in our opinion, who they are, what they do schematically, but, then why would we play the games? We had no chance at beating Nebraska last year on the road (so) why did we even go? We could have saved about $85,000."

Fitzgerald has a point. Anything can happen in college football, and he actually lost his first game against an FCS team. However, the talent gap is big enough that it shouldn't happen.

Talent Gap

FCS teams tend to have some solid skill position players, because there is a surplus of quick players with playmaking abilities. Of course, while nobody on South Dakota is at Venric Mark's level, there are certainly some FBS-level players in FCS that slipped under the radar. Take former Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards —Michigan's torturer in 2007 — for example, or Northern Iowa running back David Johnson, who finished with 107 receiving yards to be the game-leader in that category against Wisconsin. In general, the talent level is lower, but if a team has an FBS-level playmaker, they can make it interesting.

While the talent gap isn't always huge at the skill positions, it's typically big on the lines. FBS teams have much bigger players in the trenches, and without a push on either side of the line, FCS teams struggle to open things up for their playmakers. The aforementioned Northern Iowa team is a good one, but it was ultimately worn down in the trenches and couldn't establish the run or stop its opponent's run game.

For South Dakota, the line could be an even bigger problem, as the Coyotes have a bad run defense for FCS standards, ranking last in their own conference (the Missouri Valley). That could spell trouble for USD and foil any attempts at an upset bid.

NU vs. FCS

Northwestern is 5-1 against FCS teams in the Fitzgerald era. Here's the full breakdown:

2006: L, 34-17 vs. New Hampshire

2007: W, 27-0 vs. Northeastern

2008: W, 33-7 vs. Southern Illinois

2009: W, 47-14 vs. Towson

2010: W, 37-3 vs. Illinois State

2011: W, 42-21 vs. Eastern Illinois

The Wildcats have outscored their FCS foes 203-to-79 over that span — 186-to-45 in wins. South Dakota, meanwhile, is 2-25 against Big Ten competition, with those two wins coming against Minnesota. The Coyotes just joined the Missouri Valley Conference — arguably the best league in the FCS, with five ranked teams — so eventually they could enjoy some relative success against FBS foes, like some of their conference brethren. However, with a new coach and a weak run defense, that trend seems unlikely to start on Saturday.


Payouts from FBS teams to FCS teams are perhaps the hardest thing to explain to non-college football fans. "Northwestern is paying South Dakota to come play them? Why?" I'll respond by saying the NU wants the revenue from an extra home game and essentially wants a team to beat up on as a breather. They'll typically respond by saying, "That doesn't sound fair," and when you think about it, they're right. However, that's the norm in college football, and it benefits both sides, as the FBS team gets a home game and (typically) a win, and the FCS team gets a nice paycheck.

Payments from top FBS teams to low-level FBS teams can reach $1 million, but for FCS teams, they're typically much less. NU doesn't release financial information, so we don't know how much the athletic department pays all of its opponents, but a South Dakota paper indicated the Coyotes will get $325,000 for this trip. We emailed all of NU's FCS opponents since 2006 to try to find out what they received, and only Illinois State responded or could release that information, saying it was paid $250,000 to come to Ryan Field in 2010.

At first glance, this seems a very low, but it's not that far off what others pay their opponents, especially when you consider NU's game day revenue (ticket sales, and therefore, concessions and merchandise) is lower than it is at many FBS schools. Here's a sampling of what some other Big Ten paid FCS teams this year (note: Don't try to find a trend here. This is very random and a very small sample size).

Wisconsin vs. Northern Iowa: $450,000

Illinois vs. Charleston Southern: $410,000

Minnesota vs. New Hampshire: $375,000

Purdue vs. Eastern Kentucky: $400,000

There are plenty more examples from around the country, but the king of the "paycheck game" might be Savannah State. The Tigers received a total of $1.245 million to lose to Oklahoma State and Florida state by a combined score of 139-0 — it likely would have been more, but the Florida State game was (mercifully) ended in the third quarter due to bad weather.