The recent statement by Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez that Big Ten schools had agreed to stop scheduling FCS opponents was greeted with near universal praise among journalists, bloggers and fans. With the sport switching to a playoff, and with the league (correctly) facing widespread criticism for sucking, why should any team schedule an obvious creampuff? Clearly the Big Ten needs more opportunities to get big wins on a big stage, and wins over Illinois State or Eastern Kentucky would impress nobody. Plus, those games are boring.
On the latter point you will get no argument from me. FCS competition seldom drives ticket sales, TV ratings or all important page clicks. The potential strength of schedule hit however, may end up being very overblown.
Not many stats services track and compare both FBS and FCS teams, but USA TODAY's Saragin Ratings do. The 2012 ratings certainly have a few surprises when it comes to FCS squads.
First, while there are 124 FBS teams, the top FCS squad checks in all the way up at #35, in North Dakota State. The Bison were the FCS champs, had a gaudy 14-1 record, and throttled FBS Colorado State during the season. Under the Saragin statistical model, NDSU would be a slight favorite on the road against major players like Tennessee, Iowa State and Virginia Tech. NDSU would have been the 8th highest ranked team in the Big Ten, just behind #34 Michigan State. If the Saragin model is accurate, assuming NDSU played a manageable non-league schedule, not only would the Bison have been competitive in the Big Ten, they probably would have made a bowl.
Sam Houston State was the next highest at #63, which was still a higher ranking than Minnesota, Iowa, Purdue, Indiana or Illinois. Georgia Southern (#72), South Dakota State (#79), Eastern Washington (#88), Montana State (#90), Northern Iowa (#92, who almost beat Wisconsin), Indiana State (#95, almost beat Indiana), Youngstown State (#97) and something called a Cal Poly-SLO (#99) ALL check in before future Big Ten squad Maryland (#101) or current Leader and Legend Illinois (#124).
If the league is concerned about laggards dragging down their perception, their own bottom feeders may be a bigger problem.
It isn't just Big Ten teams that are struggling behind some FCS squads. Last season, Indiana played Umass, who finished far below Indiana State, an FCS squad the Hoosiers struggled to put away a few weeks before. Iowa lost to #111 Central Michigan, a team that finished below fellow non conference opponent Northern Iowa.
Ohio State opened the season with a victory over #124 Miami of Ohio, who finished well below several strong FCS squads. Nebraska's tilt with #168 Southern Miss was certainly a less than enthralling victory. Virtually every Big Ten team played at least one FBS team that finished below multiple FCS outfits in the final statistical rankings.
That doesn't mean that every FCS team that was scheduled was any good, even for FCS standard's. Northwestern faced a South Dakota team than went 1-10, and Ohio State will face off against a terribly over matched Florida A&M squad next season that may not even crack the top 200.
2012 wasn't just some statistical aberration either. The 2011 Ohio State Buckeyes (#49) finished lower than (#37) FCS North Dakota State (cue Buckeye fans sadly nodding), and league squads Minnesota and Indiana finished below dozens of FCS teams. 2010 Indiana finished at 98, just below James Madison, and Purdue finished below something called a Wofford.
It is important to remember the incentives for scheduling these kinds of teams, and the opportunity costs associated with the games. If you're a school like Minnesota or Indiana, there remains a powerful incentive to schedule more beatable teams to improve their chances at 6, 7 wins and an illusive bowl spot. If Indiana can't schedule Indiana State, they're going to replace them with a MAC or CUSA team, not UCLA...and quite frankly, that CUSA team may turn out to be worse than the FCS squad they would have otherwise scheduled.
A team with national title aspirations, or at least playoff aspirations, shouldn't schedule an FCS team. There isn't a need, and a matchup with anybody outside of the very elite would end up a mismatch. Those same squads probably shouldn't schedule games with bottom feeders from lower conferences either though, and playing two of them in the same season, like Ohio State is doing next year, feels pretty inexcusable. The only reason a team like Florida A&M should EVER be scheduled would be when another, higher profile team backs out at the last second.
For the non-elite league teams though, painting the scheduling problem as FCS-specific feels wrongheaded, as the worst of FBS is easily just as bad, if not worse, than many FCS squads. If the Big Ten was serious about improving the quality of scheduling across the board, they're institute a minimum standard for BCS-caliber schools each year, say, two. It would probably hurt the Indiana's and Minnesota's of the conference, but it would send a strong message that mediocrity won't be tolerated.
And that has to be the key message, since at the end of the day, the Big Ten's problems aren't with Indiana State or Charleston Southern. They're with Illinois and Iowa. The recent announcement that the Big Ten will stop playing football games against FCS squads won universal praise, but maybe it shouldn't have. Your strength of schedule, after all, is more than just the names on your jerseys.