LAFAYETTE — For Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson, scheduling isn’t all about the benjamins — at least not in the short term — and he hopes the rest of his league sees it that way, too.
Nonconference scheduling was one of the major topics Benson touched upon during his opening address at SBC media day earlier this week, specifically moving away from the “addiction” to money games against so-called Power Five conferences and toward more games against teams in the SBC’s peer conferences.
“We need to schedule with a balance against the big five, but more importantly we need to schedule against our peer conferences,” Benson said. “The Sun Belt goal is to be the best conference of our four peer conferences — Conference USA, the American, the Mid-American and the Mountain West.”
Benson’s sights are set on higher, more prestigious goals for the conference.
By taking fewer money games — in which an SBC school receives a six or seven-figure payment to travel to, and often lose to, a school from the Power Five conferences — an SBC school improves its odds at being the highest-rated school from the “group of five” conferences, ensuring a slot in a premier bowl game.
“We have teams that, if the stars are aligned, they could be a 12-0 team,” Benson said. “We know under the new (College Football Playoff) model, that the highest-rated champion of the five play in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, the Cotton Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. That’s our goal.
“It’s not a matter of if, but when a Sun Belt team becomes that highest-rated champion and plays in one of those New Year’s Day games.”
Louisiana-Lafayette is one SBC school that bought into the approach whole-heartedly, even as the athletic department is in fundraising mode for improved athletic facilities. This season, the Cajuns will face one Power Five school, one FCS school and two opponents from peer conferences.
“We only play one money game,” athletic director Scott Farmer said. “Get as much as you possibly can, negotiate as hard as you can, get enough so you only have to play one. There are still schools in this league that play two or three. Balance that with an FCS, so now you have a home/away balance right there. Then try to go out and get two home-and-homes with group of five conference schools.
“When you’re head-to-head with them, you’ve got to beat them. There’s money tied to that, now. There’s some significant money tied to that.”
It’s a bit of a gamble for some schools, who would have to avoid the sure thing payout of a money game and bank on the chance of an SBC school landing that coveted spot, which in turn would generate a higher dollar figure from the CFP to be dispersed among the conference’s 11 schools.
It’s a gamble some schools are not yet financially in position to take.
Louisiana-Monroe opens its season on the road against Georgia, then travels to Alabama three weeks later — both games that will generate a significant amount of money for the athletics department.
In 2014, the Warhawks’ nonconference slate was comprised of three games against teams from the Southeastern Conference and one against Wake Forest from the Atlantic Coastal Conference. They went 1-3 in nonconference play.
According to a report from the Monroe News-Star, only 39 percent of UL-Monroe’s athletic budget comes from the university, a figure that the rest of the conference dwarfs on average.
“Our operating budget is below 40 percent while other universities are providing 60-70 percent, so we have to have more money,” said UL-Monroe coach Todd Berry, according to the News-Star. “Until that dynamic changes where we can get more money from the university then we’re going to have to continue to play these games.”
Of course it was the Warhawks who turned the college football world on its head in 2013 when they upended then No. 8 Arkansas on its home turf.
That’s the other side of the scheduling debate. It didn’t matter that Razorbacks team didn’t end up being worthy of such a lofty ranking. The Warhawks had a signature win that has since stayed with the program.
But in Benson’s opinion, a memorable win amongst many other forgettable losses isn’t as profitable as consistent wins against your peers.
“As nice as it is and as great as it is to win a game against one of the big five — and I don’t want to minimize that — right now, in the system that we have, the competition with our peer conferences are so important, the financial stakes are so important, that those are the games we need to focus on,” Benson said.