Why Mercer wants Bama and Auburn in the same year

The holidays are almost here, and that means it’s time to start thinking about food. So how do you like your cupcakes? Drenched in frosting? Super-sweet? Maybe with sprinkles? OK, then, now that you have it pictured in your mind, how much are you willing to pay for that perfect cupcake? Six bucks? How about 600,000 bucks?

That’s how much Alabama is shelling out for the custom-baked, black-and-orange cupcakes being shipped to Tuscaloosa from Macon, Georgia, this Saturday, via the Mercer Bears Bakery.

“Of course, the Paul Finebaums of the world, they’ll say, ‘Hey, who the heck is Mercer?'” said Thomas Marchman, a junior offensive lineman for the Bears, an FCS program that’s still a 5-year-old cub, but sitting 5-5 after last weekend’s upset of 25th-ranked FCS foe Western Carolina. “That’s just something you gotta wear. You gotta take the cupcake. And hopefully, prove ’em wrong.”

Mercer’s visit to Bryant Denny Stadium is merely one serving of the annual mid-November cupcake smorgasbord. On Saturday, fellow Southern Conference members Wofford, Western Carolina and The Citadel will visit South Carolina, North Carolina and Clemson, respectively, while fellow FCS school Delaware State visits Florida State. Meanwhile, UAB, a team that didn’t exist this time last year, travels to The Swamp to play Florida. In all, there were 98 FCS vs. FBS matchups scheduled in 2017, the vast majority played over the season’s first three weekends, followed by this week’s five-game slate.

Whenever these cross-subdivision weekends roll around, they are met with angst, ire and venom from college football fans and foes alike. That includes spats between Power 5 conferences, slinging criticisms at the audacity of their potential College Football Playoff opponents’ scheduling practices.

Cupcakes start fights between big-time programs about eight-game vs. nine-game conference schedules. Cupcakes start fights between season-ticket holders and athletic directors over decreased investment values. Cupcakes start fights between media members about the merit of scheduling a game with zero benefit for the home team. Cupcakes start fights between coaches and those media members for suggesting that the outcome is inevitable.

You remember Nick Saban’s “s— through a tin horn” rant in 2015? That was in response to a question about that week’s cupcake game against Charleston Southern, referring to a 2011 matchup with Georgia Southern, in which the Tide’s national title-winning defense was indeed run through by the Eagles’ triple-option like some bleep through whatever the bleep is a tin bleeping horn.

But you want to know who never fights about the upside of cupcake games? The cupcakes themselves.

“If you see ever see our school on the schedule of an SEC school, you can stop with that feeling sorry for us stuff, because we love it,” Nicholls coach Tim Rebowe said. The Colonels are members of the FCS’s Southland Conference, and Rebowe is in his third season at the helm. Over that time, the Colonels have traveled away from Thibodaux, Louisiana, to face five FBS opponents. In 2015, they went to nearby Louisiana Monroe and not-so-nearby Colorado and lost by a combined 95-0. But in ’16 they went to Georgia and famously rallied in the fourth quarter before losing 26-24. They opened this season with a trip to Texas A&M, falling 24-14.

“Those trips, for us — those are a measuring stick of where we are as a program,” Rebowe said. “We’re in Athens, Georgia, last year and we came in at halftime and our guys said, ‘Hey, we have a chance to be this game if we limit big plays.'”

Nicholls came within one third-down stop of having a shot to shock the Dawgs. Regardless, the day was a shot in the arm to the program.

“It showed that we can play with anybody,” said Hezekiah White, a junior linebacker in the middle of a defense that held Nick Chubb to 80 yards rushing that day. “That day was big for us, because we knew what we could do if we played together. We have ever since.”

He pointed out that the Colonels were 3-8 leading into that Georgia game. Since that day, they are 13-5 and currently ranked 17th in the FCS Top 25. This is a program that’s only made the postseason three times in 44 seasons of football. When the FCS bracket is revealed on Nov. 19, that stat will likely have to be updated.

So as it turns out, at least for cupcakes, there are indeed moral victories in football, which often help smaller programs start achieving actual victories. But in the cupcake’s pursuit to build a better program, gains in confidence along the line of scrimmage pale in comparison to gains made along the bottom line.

Nicholls received a check for $525,000 to play Georgia in 2016 and $550,000 to go to Texas A&M earlier this year. In 2015-16, the school’s entire athletic revenue was $8.6 million, ranked 216th out of 230 schools. It cleared just under $95,000.

In other words, without those games, the athletic department would have ended the season deep in the red. With those games, every team can breathe much easier.

“You’re not only assisting your own program, but you’re assisting all the programs on campus and the athletic department,” Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb explained. The Bears field 18 varsity athletic teams, eight for men and 10 for women. The extensive cost of competing in sports like lacrosse, tennis and cross country is typically forgotten by football-obsessed fan bases, but there’s a reason they’re labeled as “non-revenue sports.” At every school, large or small, it’s up to football to underwrite the others.

“[The university] gets a huge splash from [a] publicity standpoint,” Lamb said. “But you do take care of all the other sports on campus with one big game.”

In Mercer’s case, two big games. This weekend’s trip to Tuscaloosa is the second half of a 2017 Yellowhammer State doubleheader. The Bears visited Jordan-Hare Stadium in Week 3, losing 24-10. Auburn paid Mercer $450,000. Added to Alabama’s $600,000, it’s a seven-figure boost for a school that resurrected its defunct football program only five years ago.

“My associate AD called me and said, ‘Listen, we just got a call from Alabama. They want to play us in ’17, too,'” Lamb recalled. “My first thought was, ‘No way, Jose.’ Then I went home and told my wife, and she said, ‘Are you crazy?!'”

Lamb said the more he thought about it, the more he realized the impact an Iron Bowl doubleheader would have on recruiting, fundraising and the challenge of promoting football within a community that shelved football at the start of World War II and didn’t revive it until 2013.

“That’s the first thing when we’d go out recruiting this past year,” Lamb explained. “We said, ‘Hey, we’re going to play Alabama and Auburn.’ … When young men hear the word ‘Alabama,’ their ears perk up.”

Almost as much as the ears of the accountants.

“Basically, you’re working for three hours,” the coach added. “You can make somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000. Anytime you can make that in three hours, that’s a pretty good pay day.”

The man who decided to bring Mercer football back, athletic director Jim Cole, said that cash is applied to current bill-paying but is also stashed away to cover any unforeseen bills. Remember when the Bears stunned Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament and made it all the way into the Sweet Sixteen? As exciting as that run was, it also created unplanned financial burdens, from travel costs to purchasing ticket allotments. The next time that happens, Mercer has a “rainy day” fund to cover those expenditures. With future FBS games already scheduled through 2023 (Memphis in ’18; UNC in ’19; Vanderbilt in ’20; Alabama in ’21; Auburn in ’22; and Ole Miss in ’23) that fund should be in good shape for years to come.

That money also trickles down. A portion of the estimated $150 million paid to FCS teams from FBS programs is turned around and paid out by FCS schools when they schedule their own version of cupcakes, NCAA Division II teams. Those checks are nowhere close to the FBS-to-FCS guarantees, but the percentages are very similar when it comes to covering chunks of a D-II athletic department budget.

Clemson will have paid fellow Palmetto State residents South Carolina State, The Citadel and Furman a total of $960,000 to come to Death Valley from 2016-18. Over that same stretch, those three FCS schools will be paying cash to D-II schools in the Carolinas, such as Johnson C. Smith and Newberry College.

“I’ve heard other coaches get knocked for saying this, but it’s true. Traditionally, we play schools in our region because we want to help those schools in our area who [are] trying to build something,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. When the Tigers have scheduled games with lower division teams, they have indeed traditionally kept those dates in their South Carolina neighborhood. They’ve played their smaller in-state schools — Furman, The Citadel, Coastal Carolina, Wofford, Presbyterian South Carolina State, even Erskine and Newberry — a combined 152 times. Recent years have essentially seen a rotation among the state’s FCS schools. This weekend it’s The Citadel’s turn.

“You look at every coaching staff at every FBS school in the nation, and where did we all come from? We all spent time working for small-college programs,” said Mike Leach, who did time at Cal Poly, College of the Desert, Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State before serving as head coach at Texas Tech and Washington State. “Now, we’re not fooling anyone on this notion of scheduling what should be a guaranteed win. There are multiple reasons they call it a ‘guarantee game.’ But we also all have a soft spot for small-college programs who are working their asses off with little or no financial margin. We all wish someone had helped us along the way when we had to buy new equipment or figure out how to cover the cost of those scholarships.

But your charitable nature needs to have its limits. You’d better win the damn ballgame.”

Leach has entirely too much experience on this topic. In 2015 and ’16, the Cougars lost their season openers to FCS schools Portland State and Eastern Washington, respectively.

That bit of information brings us to the dream of all teams that find themselves on the underdog end of one of these guarantee games. To be that one cupcake that’s just sweet enough to give Superman a cavity. In other words, to be the next Appalachian State.

“I mean, [that game] is still around,” Appalachian State senior safety A.J. Howard said of the Mountaineers’ legendary win at Michigan, a game that happened a decade ago. “It’s still around the town of Boone (N.C.). It’s still around the facility and things like that, you know what I mean? It still resonates with us.”

Those echoes have reached much further than football. In the weeks following that win at the Big House, the university experienced a spike in inquiries and applications from around the nation that has yet to subside. Increased applications means increased average test scores, which means increased caliber of students, which means increased ability to recruit professors — and football players.

“It put Appalachian State on the map,” said head coach Scott Satterfield, who led the program’s move from FCS to FBS in 2014. This season will mark the program’s third consecutive bowl appearance. “Our attendance in our school has gone up. We’re able to recruit a higher-caliber player. Everywhere you go, they have heard of our school because of that game.”

Those world-changing victories don’t happen very often. Appalachian State’s win was one of only four losses ever by ranked FBS teams to an FCS opponent. But truthfully, the final score isn’t as important as the story of a cupcake that pushes a powerhouse deep into the fourth quarter. In the age of social media, becoming a trending topic on a Saturday afternoon can be just what it takes to bump one’s program to a higher division of the nation’s psyche, even if you play football in a lower division.

No one knows that better than Lamb, who quarterbacked Furman to victories over South Carolina, Georgia Tech and NC State between 1982 and 1985. Those victories brought in a recruiting class behind him that won an FCS national championship for the Paladins in 1988. He was an assistant coach when Furman rushed Mack Brown’s North Carolina squad in ’99, and his son, Taylor, just set a new Sun Belt Conference record for TD passes as the man behind center for Appalachian State.

“You look at what Jacksonville State did a couple of years ago at Auburn,” Lamb said of the 2015 Week 3 contest in which the Gamecocks pushed the sixth-ranked Tigers into overtime, before losing 27-20. “They were right there. They probably should have won that game at the end. Now Jacksonville State has a very good football team. One of the top in FCS. We hope our program can get there one day.”

One day, perhaps. But before that day comes Saturday. Can the cupcake roll back the Tide? Probably not. Does that matter? Absolutely not. Moral wins are fantastic. Actual wins are even better. The paycheck is the best. But in the end, for the cupcake, it’s just cool, man.

“Yeah, no matter the outcome, it’s going to be a huge moment,” Marchman said. “Just, you know, to maybe tell my kids that I played against Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. And they’ll say, ‘No way! They’re the best!’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, we did.’ And it’ll be awesome.”

Jalaine Edwards contributed to this story.

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