Last year, the Big Ten announced its plans to no longer play FCS teams in an effort to boost its strength of schedule in the College Football Playoff era. The concept seemed reasonable, since even though some FCS teams are better than lower-level FBS teams, there's still a negative connotation that comes with Big Ten teams winning blowouts against FCS foes.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez was the most vocal critic of FCS scheduling:
"The nonconference schedule in our league is ridiculous," Alvarez said on WIBA-AM in Madison, Wis. "It's not very appealing ...
"So we've made an agreement that our future games will all be Division I schools. It will not be FCS schools."
But now, some schools, including Northwestern, are apparently rethinking the Big Ten's new policy.
N’western AD Jim Phillips on B1G not playing FCS anymore: "Really hard decision. Don’t know if we’re sure that’s right decision to make"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) June 10, 2014
There will be lots of "Northwestern is scared to play the MAC" jokes, but Jim Phillips really does have a point, and in fact, non-conference schedules do not have to suffer with the inclusion of FCS teams.
Last week, a Fox Sports investigation showed that NU is pretty cheap when it comes to non-conference payouts. Many schools pay upwards of a million dollars to bring schedule MAC schools, but the Wildcats simply don't have the budget to do it. That's resulted in many MAC teams choosing not to play NU, and the ones that do — like Northern Illinois — get pretty good, non-monetary deals out of it (close proximity, a good allotment, etc.).
It's much cheaper to schedule FCS teams, which generally go for less than $400,000 per game. And is it really compromising NU's strength of schedule that much if the Wildcats play a good FCS team rather than a bad MAC team?
College football is pretty averse to advanced statistics, so many people just assume most FCS teams are worse than FBS teams. But according to last year's final Sagarin ratings — one of the few rating systems that actually includes FCS teams — 72 FCS teams were better than the Wildcats' MAC opponent of the year, Western Michigan.
I understand the Big Ten worrying about public perception when it schedules lower-division teams, but according to the advanced metrics, it makes more competitive AND financial sense for schools to be allowed to schedule FCS teams.
If he wants to be efficient in his scheduling, Phillips should lobby the CFP committee to start using advanced rating systems when they make their decisions. Stats may be for losers, but in this case, they're also for savers.