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Lance Gould Headshot

College Football's Cupcake Problem

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President Barack Obama, an avowed college-football fan, has frequently weighed in on the sport's need to reform the dysfunctional way it chooses a national champion. But perhaps it is First Lady Michelle Obama, an avowed reformer of unhealthy eating habits, who should have a say, given the propensity of college football's big-time programs to devour "cupcakes."

There are 124 programs in NCAA football's FBS (Division 1-A), its highest level of competition. And yet instead of playing each other every weekend, many of these gargantuan schools schedule games with teensy opponents from the NCAA's weaker Division 1 FCS (formerly 1-AA), looking to line up easy victories and forge feel-good memories for their fan bases (and donation-happy alumni).

Looking at the scoreboard from this weekend alone, there were at least a dozen such nationally recognized programs that annihilated schools not even in the FBS, including Oregon (routed Tennessee Tech, 63-14); West Virginia (pasted James Madison, 42-14); Clemson (shellacked Furman, 41-7); Vanderbilt (crushed Presbyterian, 58-0); and Illinois (embarrassed Charleston Southern University, 44-0).

Do these games actually count in the march to the national championship? Why, yes! The NCAA states, in its Ambien-effective "Division 1 manual," that snarfing such cupcakes is a sanctioned activity, as long as the knobby-kneed school "has averaged 90 percent of the permissible maximum number of grants-in-aid per year in football during a rolling two-year period" (er, got that?).

But with most of the 124 elite-level teams playing 12 games annually, and with the sport near-constantly embroiled in controversy over the decades of ineptitude it has demonstrated in attempting to settle its championship -- Playoff systems! Writers' polls! Computer votes! Coaches polls! -- you'd think that the governing body that oversees FBS college football would at least maximize teams' schedules and force them to play, you know, each other.

Instead, even the highest-profile teams take advantage of the lax rules to line up wins and artificially inflate their cases for advancement. This year, #1-ranked Alabama will play its penultimate game of the season against the lower-division Western Carolina. Fifth-ranked Florida State's first two games were against such lower-division opponents. The Seminoles beat Murray State 69-3 in their season opener, then smashed Savannah State 55-0. The latter was a game that was mercifully shortened to three quarters because of an act of God (lightning -- not a Hail Mary).

Savannah State was a 70.5-point underdog in the game -- bookmakers may have read the tea leaves in Savannah State's play the week before in its season opener, an 84-0 drubbing by Oklahoma State.

Perhaps none of this is surprising from a money-mad sport that has seen such a mad scrambling and shifting of its traditional leagues that the names of its six most powerful ones hardly even make any sense -- even in a mind-expanding philosophy class: the Big 10 now has 12 teams, the Big 12 has 10 teams, the Big East has a team from Idaho, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) has a team from Missouri, the Pacific-12 Conference (PAC-12) has teams from Colorado and Utah, and the Atlantic Coast Conference has a team from the Rust Belt.

Imagine if pro-sports teams were allowed to enhance their records against minor-league teams? Beyond a handful of fans of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats -- hopeful their squad might finally win a couple of games -- few others would support such an endeavor, as it would dilute the overall product.

What kind of lessons are taught our scholar athletes when they participate in such a farcical bake-off? It's one thing when an opponent in the same division is overmatched, as often happens when one gigantic state school just happens to have a better football program than another gigantic state school. But when a behemoth lines up a cupcake from a smaller division, it seems almost everybody wins: the visitors (and the cupcakes are almost always the visitors) go home with a few hundred-thousand dollars in their pocket protectors for having made the day so thoroughly enjoyable for the home team -- in Savannah State's case, a combined $860,000 from Oklahoma State and Florida State. And that home team stands to gain even more: most readily, they can practically guarantee a win, and then hope to ride their improved won-loss record to a much bigger payday in the form of an invitation to a bowl game. Bowl games are like Candyland for participating schools: They receive a solid six-figure payout, they give the school exposure to a national audience, they usually take place in a warm-weather city, and thus are holiday gifts to the schools fan base looking for December revelry, and the results in all but a couple of them are utterly meaningless. One just hopes the naming rights of the bowl game to which their school has been invited have not been sold to a corporation with too embarrassing a moniker.

Well, everybody wins, that is, except those with any integrity. What about "success with honor," a phrase associated with late Penn State coach Joe Paterno? Uh, never mind.