Sometime around 11:30 p.m. Saturday, McNeese State players and coaches will load into their bus and travel back to Lake Charles having lost to LSU by 35 points or so.
That’s what normally happens when a Football Championship Subdivision team meets a Southeastern Conference squad.
SEC teams have won 219 of 225 games against FCS programs since the NCAA divided the top division in college football in 1978 — a 97.3 percent winning clip.
They are mostly blowouts. Take, for instance, the average score for an SEC/FCS game over the past five seasons: 48-11.
This isn’t some new revelation. Everyone is well aware of the numbers, including those who help schedule the games.
It’s a reason McNeese is LSU’s season-opening opponent before a critical two-game stretch against conference foes. It’s a reason, for the past six years, Alabama has played an FCS team the week before the Iron Bowl against Auburn, and South Carolina, for three of the past four seasons, has played an FCS team before its clash with rival Clemson.
It’s a reason, too, why Tennessee this season plays Western Carolina between games against Oklahoma and Florida, and why Auburn has Jacksonville State on its schedule before LSU and after a highly anticipated season opener against Louisville.
They’re easy victories that often end with the starters playing no more than three quarters.
College football’s first Saturday of the season is a lackluster one for much of the SEC for that reason. Three SEC teams open this season with FCS squads — LSU, Missouri and Ole Miss — and seven more play the likes of Bowling Green, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette, New Mexico State, Western Kentucky, UTEP and Southern Miss.
They are tune-ups for what administrators and coaches call a “grueling” eight-game conference schedule.
“You have to look at, ‘What does your overall 12-game schedule look like?’ ” said Mark Womack, SEC executive associate commissioner overseeing scheduling. “In our league, when you play an eight-game SEC schedule, that’s grueling. You add one “Power Five” (opponent), that’s nine games that are pretty grueling. At some point, you have to look at how that impacts your team.”
Verge Ausberry looks at just that.
Ausberry, along with LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva, schedules LSU’s football games. It’s no coincidence that the Tigers host McNeese at 6:30 p.m. Saturday before traveling to Mississippi State, a 10-win team last year with a Heisman Trophy hopeful quarterback, and then hosting Auburn, predicted to win the SEC.
It’s a strategic move.
“When the SEC approached us about playing two early big SEC games back-to-back, McNeese was a good fit, especially with a young team,” Ausberry said. “With the young guys and young team we have, you’ve got to get in game mode. It all depends on where you put these (FCS) games. I’m not saying that McNeese can’t come up here and beat you. It’s happened around the country.”
For the FCS programs, the SEC’s winning percentage and average margin of victory aren’t the important numbers. LSU will pay McNeese $500,000 for Saturday’s game — that’s more than 5 percent of the school’s total athletic budget.
“It’s financial,” McNeese State Athletic Director Bruce Hemphill said. “That’s a big part of it.”
In many ways, it’s a win-win. LSU gets a tuneup scrimmage that counts as a victory. McNeese gets a financial boost, exposure and experience in a major college environment.
You could see why SEC and FCS teams are in the midst of what appears to be a long-lasting relationship.
In four of the previous five seasons, 13 of 14 SEC teams played an FCS squad. Florida is the only SEC team that won’t play an FCS member this season. The NCAA allows FBS schools to count one win against an FCS team per season, Womack said.
Last year, Tennessee, South Carolina and Arkansas finished the regular season 6-6. They each beat an FCS team by combined a 159-23 score. Meanwhile, those three schools had payouts that combined for more than $1 million.
“I know what LSU did and what other schools have done for us,” Sam Houston State Athletic Director Bobby Williams said. “I appreciate what they do. Some people don’t view it as good for college football. I do.”
Williams has been AD at Sam Houston, an FCS program, since 1997. He has been part of the program since 1982 and has been integral during much of the last three decades in the school’s scheduling.
The Bearkats have been playing FBS opponents for years, and they make an effort to play at least one each season. He understands the disadvantages. FCS teams, after all, are limited to 63 scholarships they can disperse to 85 players. FBS programs have 85 full scholarships.
LSU’s athletics budget is $122 million, sixth nationally. Sam Houston’s budget is $15 million.
LSU paid Sam Houston $500,000 for last year’s game — a 56-0 Tigers win. Sam Houston opens its season Saturday at Texas Tech and will play New Mexico next year.
The Bearkats advanced to the FCS national title game in 2011 and 2012. They’ve become an FCS powerhouse. The guarantee payouts the school received from FBS programs in the 1990s and early 2000s are behind the team’s current success, Williams said.
When Sam Houston’s athletic budget was $2.5 million years ago, the $200,000 paychecks were a necessity. Now, checks like the one LSU wrote to the school are being used for improvements that boosters typically fund at major programs.
“Upgrading the locker room, offices, weight room. Put a nice sound system and TVs in there,” Williams said. “Coaches bonuses in some aspects that we haven’t been able to do or sending the coaches on developmental trips. Going to LSU and other schools for staff development. Helps with recruiting, academics with tutorial services and the academic center.”
Despite those perks, Williams has to deal with fans clamoring to end the trend of playing an FBS team each season. Ausberry hears the opposite: Stop playing FCS teams.
“I hear it, but it doesn’t affect our scheduling,” he said. “We do what makes sense for us.”
LSU’s scheduling philosophy isn’t changing anytime soon. Each year, the Tigers like to play one FCS team, two mid-majors and a team from a “Power Five” conference. The latter is now mandated by the SEC but something Ausberry and Alleva have been doing for years.
In searching for FCS teams, Ausberry said LSU looks at in-state schools and the FCS rankings. McNeese falls inside the poll this year. Ausberry said LSU expects to soon schedule Southeastern Louisiana, which has had recent success.
Another possible change down the road, Ausberry said: LSU playing two nonconference games against “Power Five” teams — one at home, one at a neutral site. The program has a neutral-site game scheduled against Miami in 2018.
The Tigers play marquee home-and-home deals from 2019 to 2024 with Texas, UCLA and Arizona State. It’s all part of forming the best résumé to advance to the College Football Playoff.
“Win the games, and you’re in the championship. I don’t think people will say we’ll be left out because we don’t play a tough enough schedule,” Ausberry said.
The Big Ten has taken its scheduling criteria farther than any other conference. The league will move to a nine game-schedule, mandate one game against a fellow power conference and eliminate FCS foes. Will the elimination of FCS games happen in the SEC?
“You never say never,” Womack said.
“I don’t see it happening,” Ausberry said. “It might be a national (mandate) if it happens. You want to do things that’s fair to your team and conference.”
One SEC athletic director, Arkansas’ Jeff Long, said he wants to phase out the scheduling of FCS schools. That could be detrimental to the little guys — and the littler guys.
Hemphill’s school has an athletic budget of $9 million, but that’s far more than, say, the athletic budget at Mississippi College in Jackson, Mississippi. The Cowboys will play the small private school, which competes in the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association, later this year and will make a payout of $70,000 — funds sometimes supplied by McNeese’s check from FBS games.
McNeese will have the advantage in that game. LSU will have the advantage in this one, but that doesn’t stop Hemphill from believing the Cowboys can’t hang with the Tigers. They did it last year at Nebraska: The Cornhuskers broke a tie with 20 seconds left on a 58-yard touchdown pass.
“We look at this as,” Hemphill said, “we’re McNeese, we expect to win.”
LSU’s nonconference games
Sept. 3: vs. Wisconsin (at Green Bay, Wis.)
Sept. 10: Jacksonville State
Oct. 15: Southern Miss
Nov. 19: South Alabama
Sept. 2: BYU
Sept. 9: Chattanooga
Sept. 23: Syracuse
Sept. 30: Troy
Sept. 1: vs. Miami (in Arlington, Texas)
Sept. 7: at Texas
Sept. 12: vs. Texas
Sept. 4: at UCLA
Sept. 10: at Arizona State
Sept. 9: Arizona State
Aug. 31: UCLA
Series with Oklahoma
LSU and Oklahoma have agreed to play a home-and-home series. The series was originally scheduled for 2018 (at Oklahoma) and 2019 (at LSU) but has been moved to 2027-28.
All dates subject to change.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.