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One AD thinks we'll see more FBS independents. Is that wishful thinking?

Good morning! Thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

Quick bit of ~*~NEWSLETTER BUSINESS~*~

My hit on Vox’s Today Explained podcast has finally pushed. Apparently that Donald Trump guy helped making news and we had to push me back a few days. If you’d like to listen to it, you can find it right here.

I’m just finishing up a few loose ends around a big interview related to NIL legislation that I think you will find informative and interesting, so look for that this coming week.

If you’re looking for the latest developments on the NIL front, the most significant is Florida Governor (R) Ron DeSantis endorsing player likeness legislation that moves on an even more aggressive timeline than California’s. You can read the text of that bill here. Any effort to paint California’s legislation as some leftist plot sort of falls apart now that a Republican state senator proposed similar legislation that is endorsed by a very conservative governor.

I’ll have more on this story early next week. But for now,

Let’s talk about FBS independents

Now that the AAC secured a waiver to hold a championship with only 11 teams (and an eight game conference schedule), any hopes of conference realignment in the next two years or so appear to be shot.

If you’re a program that was desperately hoping to secure a new home, like say, UMass, that news would be pretty devastating. But UMass is putting on a brave face, at least in public. And their athletic director had an interesting prediction.

Via the Recorder:

“From a football standpoint, looking at a league like the American with UConn and Temple in there would have made some sense,” Bamford said. “Now, I don’t think it does and we’ve found that being an independent and getting a really good, competitive, balanced schedule is doable. Now having lived it for three years and scheduling for the next three or four, there’s no real impetus for us to get into a league when I think there’s going to be more independent football-playing schools in the next three-to-five years as there’s going to be conference realignment.

“There’s going to be more schools that jump into independent realizing that we’ve done it and we can do it, and it’s not just Army and BYU and Notre Dame doing it, who are kind of outliers,” Bamford said. “It’s us and New Mexico State and Liberty and now UConn. We can do it, now all of us need to prove we can do it and win. It’s one thing to get a schedule, it’s another thing to go win against that schedule, that’s our next step, we need to start winning six, seven, eight games against a balanced schedule.”

So, this is probably a bit of a self-serving prediction here. The more independent teams there are, the more options UMass has for securing mid-to-late season opponents, and the better their chances are of locking down higher profile home games. Also, the idea that UMass wouldn’t be interested in the AAC now, because they’ve locked down these neato indie schedules is completely ridiculous. If an invite materialized, they’d be gone in ten minutes.

I want to dig into what it means to be an FBS independent in 2019 though, and what that might tell us about how likely Bamford’s prediction is.

First, is what UMass is doing…doable?

If we define “doable” as just “can you assemble a FBS-compliant schedule”, then yes, it’s clearly doable. UMass has assembled full schedules for the next few years that include a mix of regional opponents and winnable games, while only signing up for a few bodybag type games (at Auburn, at Florida State, at Texas A&M, etc). There’s enough flotsam and jetsam of FBS to piece together a schedule.

How good is that schedule? And does that schedule interest UMass fans, or help grow the brand? Eh, that’s a more complicated question. Most future schedules only have five FBS home opponents, and those pools draw heavily from either the other independents, or some of the worst or lowest profile teams in college football (Akron, FIU, Eastern Michigan, etc). Home games this season against Coastal Carolina and Akron had announced attendance under 9,000, which makes me think there were probably less than 7,000 people in the stadium. That’s an FCS crowd.

The bigger question, I think, is how does UMass, or any independent, really get better. UMass is an interesting case because they’ve never been good at the FBS level. They’ve never even been average. The team has yet to win five games in a season since joining FBS in 2012, and they weren’t even a consistently great FCS program for the 20 years before that. This year, by just about any metric, they’re one of the worst teams in FBS.

So sure, the school is assembling schedules against teams where they could theoretically win enough games to go 6-6 and make the Cure Bowl. But they’ve been terrible for years, and under this format, will mostly play games against other irrelevant teams, on a digital platform that doesn’t give them very much money, while sitting in a region without many good recruits.

Is this a success story? Is this what you pitch to convince other teams to go independent?

UConn looks a little better? But also has questions

UConn leaves the AAC after this season to join the Big East in everything put football. They’ll be competing as an independent moving forward, and what their 2020 schedule looked like was a major question.

Now, we have a pretty good idea what it’s going to be. Via the Courant, UConn’s 2020 slate will look something like this:

UConn Football 2020 Games Under Contract

Sept. 3: UMass

Sept. 12: at Illinois

Sept. 26: Indiana

Oct 24: at Ole Miss

Oct. 31: Liberty

Nov. 14: at San Jose State

Nov. 28: Army

Dates TBA: Maine, at Virginia.

That leaves three more games. One of those is likely to be MTSU:

Another will be a road game against an ACC team. The UConn Blog believes that will be UNC. Your candidates for that spot, if not a second FCS team, are probably Old Dominion or Georgia Southern.

So UConn will host a P5 team, two regional opponents (Army and UMass), plus a regional FCS team (Maine), and two lousy G5 teams. They won’t get much money for their road trips to Ole Miss or Virginia, but hey, you don’t have to play East Carolina or Tulsa anymore.

Is it that much better than what UMass can assemble? I don’t think so, but UConn fans can take comfort in knowing that this move at least gives them a basketball schedule they care much, much more about. Moving forward, the path is there for the school to get regular regional opponents (Rutgers, UMass, Boston College, Syracuse, Army, FCS New England school) and the occasional lower level Big Ten or ACC squad, to visit their home stadium. Schedule-wise, it’s probably rosier than UMass.

But this quote here from the school troubled me a bit. Again, via the Courant:

so what’s the end game and/or long-term goal for UConn football?

“Once we made the decision and we were going independent, I don't have a lot of time to think about what’s going to happen 10 years down the road, or even six or seven years down the road,” {UConn AD Dave} Benedict said. “I’m 100 percent focused on what's going on next year and it's a full-time job just in itself. ... I certainly appreciate the question, and it's a fair question, it's just that with the time crunch that we're on, we're 100 percent focused on trying to get things set for 2020. Once we get our schedule set, get some more progress in [other] years … deal with TV, then we can begin to contemplate some of those things that are a little bit longer term.”

That’s a big red flag to me!

Assembling a schedule is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what your long-term strategy is, how football fits in with your athletic department and institutional goals, and how you plan to build and invest to reach those goals.

What is UConn football trying to be? Do they want to just exist, not lose too much money for an already cash-strapped athletic department, and occasionally make the Armed Forces Bowl or something? Do they want to be a regular top 40 team that secures a TV deal? Do they want to be national? Regional? What’s the plan?

It doesn’t really matter who UConn plays if the school doesn’t have a rock solid plan to sell to a coach that isn’t Randy Edsall and a recruiting strategy that will allow them to get good enough players to reach that goal. Right now, just like UMass, UConn football is not bad. It is putrid. There are several FCS teams better than both UMass and UConn, and the quality of the play must improve if the school wants to hit any meaningful structural or financial goals.

I think New Mexico State has a relatively healthy understanding of what they are. They know their program isn’t going to bring in big bucks. They know they’re probably not upsetting anybody meaningful. They know that even quasi-regular bowl bids are out of the question, given their budget and history. But they know that being an FCS program helps the school recruit students that might otherwise go to UTEP or New Mexico, and it helps the visibility of their basketball program.

If that’s what UMass or UConn want to do, that’s fine. But then it doesn’t matter that much who they play. If they want to be more, then they need a more convincing vision and plan on how to get there, beyond that schedule.

Okay, but could anybody else want this life?

What, in 2019, is the real value proposition to being an FBS independent?

Like almost anything else, it depends on the school, and your goals for your program.

What are the big disadvantages to leaving a conference? You may not have a spot for your basketball or olympic sport revenue. You lose out on any conference TV distributions. You won’t have any built-in bowl tie-ins, and you need to figure out your own schedule.

If you’re a school in a power conference right now, or even the AAC, you probably won’t make as much money going on your own as you would with your own TV distribution. Your TV rights might also be tied up in long term contracts, so you couldn’t really leave if you wanted to. The only power conference school I can think of that might at least consider a world as an independent would be USC. I wrote about this a few years ago for SBNation.com, and I don’t think their argument changes that much, especially as Pac-12 leadership looks even more fraught now.

If you’re in a league with a very small TV payout, like the MAC, Sun Belt or Conference USA, you might consider it if a) you could find a place for your other sports and b) the savings from playing a more regionalized schedule/increased kickoff flexibility make forgoing that TV money worth it.

Notre Dame has its own deal with NBC, as do BYU with ESPN and Army with CBS Sports. For others, the financial blow depends on the context. As Moccia put it, when NMSU was kicked out of the Sun Belt, the Aggies’ media rights earnings at that point were not very large. Still, NMSU would welcome an invitation from the Mountain West or Conference USA.

“It wasn’t catastrophic from a financial standpoint not being affiliated with the Sun Belt,” Moccia said. “That said, we certainly want to be in a conference. We desperately need money, but it wasn’t a crippling blow.”

I just can’t think of very many schools where those situations might apply. The only two that really come to mind are Air Force, whose coach has already groused about their current league more than once, and UTEP, who has to travel across the country to play teams it shares no meaningful history with. Other fanbases may occasionally be frustrated with their conference leadership, but I’d need convincing to see how going alone would really be more beneficial to them.

One of the most read and shared editions of Extra Points was my theory of what conference realignment will look like in the future. I really do think that in the future, TV markets and population size will be much less important, and things like actual fanbase size, travel costs and shared visions become more important. But it seems much more likely that sprawling G5 leagues would break up and form new leagues, rather than another cadre of schools breaking off to go on their own.

The benefits of league membership, with perhaps a few tiny exceptions, outweigh the costs, at least right now. If many more schools decided to go on their own, I’d be pretty surprised. And if they did, it isn’t because they looked at anything UMass or UConn did and thought, “well, if they can do it….”

Because right now? They haven’t done anything but fill out of a spreadsheet with contracts.

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