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VOL. 36 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 5, 2012

MTSU football: A big price to pay for biting the hand

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Payout games. Guarantee games.

They are an ugly part of college football that gives us such results as Oklahoma State beating Savannah State 84-0 earlier this season.

Smaller Division I schools not in power conferences such as the SEC, ACC, Big Ten or Big 12 have to do it, often sacrificing a lopsided loss for a big payday and a boost to the athletic department budget.

But what happens when the underdog bites the hands that feeds it.

It happened last weekend when MTSU upset Georgia Tech 49-28 in Atlanta. Sure, it’s a signature victory for MTSU, but schools are not looking to pay big money for a loss.

Fellow Sun Belt schools Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Monroe staged similar upsets earlier this season. Western won 32-31 at Kentucky, and Louisiana-Monroe won 43-31 at Arkansas. Monroe also took Auburn to overtime before losing.

MTSU athletics director Chris Massaro admits that, on occasion, such upsets result in a slammed door the next time Middle Tennessee tries to schedule a game against a power-conference foe. But Massaro welcomes the rejection, saying it’s all part of a program growing up.

“That does happen to you,” Massaro says. “But it’s kind of the evolution you want to go though as a program.

“I use the example of Gonzaga in basketball,” he adds. “At first fans and people didn’t understand how their team could lose to Gonzaga. But now, they have had so much success that opposing teams now point to that as a signature game on their schedule.

“In order to reach that level, you’ve got to go through that process first.”

Butler is another good college basketball example. Boise State and, in a resurgent sort of way, Texas Christian are good examples of small schools climbing the ranks of college football.

The contract with Georgia Tech was actually a two-for-one series, rather than the straight “guarantee” game, with the Yellow Jackets coming to Floyd Stadium in return for the Blue Raiders making two trips to Atlanta.

But later this month, Middle Tennessee will travel to Starkville, Miss., for a date against Mississippi State. That game will earn the Blue Raiders a reported $930,000 just for showing up.

“What I’m trying to do scheduling-wise with those kinds of conferences is gear more toward the middle of the conference rather than the upper end of it,” Massaro says. “Mississippi State, of course, is undefeated right now and might win the West. But traditionally, they have been more of a middle-of-the-pack team.

“So rather than play Ohio State, we played Purdue last year. That way, you give yourself a chance to win, even though the odds can still be very long.”

Massaro says the win at Georgia Tech is evidence of parity in college football. There are still a handful of super powers at the top like Alabama, LSU and Southern Cal, etc., he admits, and that there will always be schools struggling at the lower end.

But in his mind, MTSU and others have lifted themselves into an ever-growing middle class of college football.

“It think our win over Georgia Tech speaks to the parity you’ve seem in college football,” Massaro says. “The results from week to week don’t really carry over, unless your team is either very, very good or very, very bad. And there are a large group of schools in middle that you can play and the results will vary.

“We’d like to consider ourselves in that middle pack of schools, and on any Saturday when we play, we feel like we’ve got a chance.”

One reason this is happening is the ever-changing landscape of college football. Schools are jumping from conference to conference with little thought to long-time ties and rivalries.

That, too, makes scheduling more difficult, Massaro says.

“It’s interesting, when I was doing scheduling for South Carolina 10 years ago, we were pretty much locked down,” Massaro says. “We knew who we were playing what weekend and generally what time we were going to play. Our schedule was mapped out nearly eight years in advance.

“But now you don’t know whether conferences are going to play eight conference games or add a ninth one, and there are a lot more adjustments.”

Massaro says this year’s football schedule was still unsettled in February, “and we still have an opening for a game on our schedule next year.”

But that’s not always a bad thing. The longer he waits to fill his schedule, he says, the more leverage he has in dealing with a quality opponent.

“That way teams get a little more desperate for a game, and you can perhaps get a home and home component to it or some type of guarantee,” Massaro says.

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is the AFC blogger for National Football Post.

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