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Big Five schools could pull plug on guarantee games, but will they?

When the commissioners of the Big Five conferences talk about change and wanting to form their own division within the NCAA, people like Charlie Cobb get a little nervous.

Cobb is the director of athletics at Appalachian State, which will play its final season as an FCS (formerly Division I-AA) member in 2013. In 2014 the Mountaineers will join the FBS as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

It will be a major leap of finances and faith for the school, located in Boone, N.C., which won three straight FCS national championships (2005-2007) and is best remembered for a stunning 34-32 win at Michigan's Big House in 2007.

One of the basic underpinnings of Appalachian State's move to FBS is the promise of larger paydays for "guarantee games." Guarantee games are those were a smaller school with significantly less resources plays at a big school with a big stadium for a big paycheck. Both sides get something they want. The small school gets a major infusion of cash for its athletics budget. The big school gets a guaranteed home win. Guarantee games have been a part of football since the leather helmet days.

Occasionally, David upsets Goliath, but 99 percent of the time the little guy takes a good beating, takes the money and limps home. The players of the little school get to play in a big-time environment and have a story to tell their grandchildren. It's just part of doing business at the lower levels of college football.

The payday for these guarantee games get significantly bigger when the FCS schools step up to FBS. In 2007 Appalachian State received $400,000 for traveling to Michigan. Next year, the Mountaineers will return to Ann Arbor as an FBS school and will be paid about $1 million.

"You shouldn't fall in love with guarantee games to build your program, so one a year is about the most we're going to do," Cobb said. "But the increased guarantees we receive from being in the FBS is significant. There is no question about that."

None of the Big Five commissioners has come right out and said it, but it has become pretty clear that they now have some leverage to get the kind of change they ultimately want. Among those changes is the ability to enhance the scholarship to include a stipend to cover the full cost of attendance. There is some talk that a new Division 4 (that would include the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12), could go back to the future on issues like training tables, athletic dorms and other benefits that were taken away under the philosophy of "mainstreaming" college athletes into the student body.

Our Dennis Dodd takes a look at how a Division 4 could ultimately happen and what the schools really want.

The ultimate leverage for the Big Five to get this change is the nuclear option. Those schools simply leave the NCAA and form their own governing body for college athletics. After all, they control more than 90 percent of the money in college football. The basketball component -- what to do about the NCAA tournament -- would be a bit messy but this decision is all about football.

"Nobody wants to do that," an athletics director in the Big Five told me.

The real leverage the Big Five has moving forward is to quit paying these large guarantees to the bottom half of the FBS and simply limit their nonconference games to other members of those five conferences. It would save several millions per year and, in the new world of the four-team playoff (starting in 2014) where the teams would be picked by a selection committee, it would address the strength of schedule question.

The Big Ten already has announced that it plans to phase out nonconference games against FCS opponents.

At the Pac-12 media days commissioner Larry Scott said that it was time for football to evolve from the concept of the big guys paying the little guys for an easy win.

"I'm not very sympathetic," Scott said. "I just don't think that the concept of the buy games is a healthy thing for college football or for fans. I think it's been a quirk in the system that they've benefitted from, and good for them. I certainly don't feel any sense of entitlement or right they have."

Now Scott and others have stopped short of saying that the Big Five would only play other Big Five schools if some accommodation is not made. Right now they don't have to say it, an athletics director told me.

"Everybody knows it [the threat] is out there," he said.

Dr. Brooks Keel, the president at Georgia Southern, sees the handwriting on the wall. Like Appalachian State, Georgia Southern is playing its final season in FCS and will join the Sun Belt for 2014. Georgia Southern had to crunch the numbers long and hard before making this decision. They are investing millions in stadium upgrades and training facilities. They are counting on guarantee games to fund this dream.

As a newcomer to FBS, he recognizes the days of using the antiquated NCAA legislative process to hold the big schools back is coming to an end.

"The Big Five conferences make a tremendous amount of money and have great resources," said Keel, a former vice chancellor at LSU, and assistant vice chancellor at Florida State. "But they also have big costs and big aspirations."

Keel believes that schools at Georgia Southern's level should find a way to work with the Big Five conferences, especially on issues like the cost of attendance stipend.

"That's not something that Georgia Southern can afford to do. I'm opposed to the cost of attendance stipend," Keel said. "But I also understand that the other schools don't want to be held back. If they want to put in a cost of attendance stipend, I don't have any issue with that."

Keel said that in the long run it's about opportunity for the students who participate in athletics.

"Yes, the money is important," Keel said. "But what is more important is the opportunity our students get to perform on a national stage. When we went to Alabama [in 2011], our football players played in that incredible setting. Our band had the opportunity to march on that field. Our fans got to tailgate on that campus. You can't put a dollar figure on that kind of experience."

Others question whether the Big Five would really pull the trigger on such a move. With most conferences going to nine league games, a team in pursuit of a championship is going to need some kind of break in its schedule. Playing 12 opponents from only Big Five conferences plus a conference championship game is not a recipe for success, goes the argument.

New Southern Mississippi coach Todd Monken threw down the gauntlet on the idea of the Big Five going it alone during Conference USA Media Days in July.

"Just have a nice NFL crossover where you play each other," Monken told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Then when you fire up a nice 7-5 and you're at a pretty good place and they fire you, they won't be real excited about it, because you won't have those games that they've been able to win. Plain and simple.

"Some of those teams that get bowl eligible when they 2-6 in their league and they go 6-6. Well, you'll be 2-10 or 3-9 and it won't feel so damn salty."

Stay tuned. The next couple of years are going to be very, very interesting.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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