These first few weeks of the college football season feature dozens of so-called "guarantee games" with smaller programs collecting big paychecks by hitting the road for games against major-conference teams.
For instance, South Carolina State's trip to Clemson last week resulted in a 73-7 loss and a $275,000 payment. UC Davis is getting $350,000 for its season-opening visit to Stanford that resulted in a 45-0 trouncing. Sam Houston State got blown out 56-0 at LSU last week but is receiving $500,000.
There's no guarantee these types of games — at least the ones involving Football Championship Subdivision programs — will be as common in the College Football Playoff era.
The Big Ten already is discouraging its teams from scheduling FCS foes, though not penalizing those that do. The Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference want their schools to play at least one nonconference game against a team from the Power Five leagues.
"We're already, what's the old saying, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," Chattanooga athletic director David Blackburn said. "We are having those conversations, trying to be educated as much as we can to find out where in the landscape of college football that is headed."
These games produce big money for FCS athletic departments, which posted median total revenues of $14.7 million in 2013, according to NCAA data. Occasionally, they also result in big wins.
North Dakota State, winner of the last three FCS championships, beat Iowa State in its season opener and is getting paid $350,000 for making the trip. The Bison have won their last five games against Football Bowl Subdivision schools. McNeese State received $415,000 to play at Nebraska last week and lost 31-24 only after giving up a tiebreaking touchdown with 20 seconds left.
"Obviously it's a positive from a financial standpoint, but I've always taken it as a positive from a competitive standpoint," McNeese State coach Matt Viator said. "And I think it enhances the student-athlete experience at McNeese to have (this) opportunity. We open with Nebraska this year. We're at LSU to start the next season. I mean, wow, it's two of the best venues you can play at in college football."
Viator and his colleagues hope these games won't become tougher to schedule. The marketplace suggests major-conference programs would rather play guarantee games against lower-level FBS programs than FCS schools. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith explained why the Big Ten doesn't want its schools playing FCS teams.
"It's twofold," Smith said. "Part of it was strength of schedule. We're trying to improve our nonconference strength of schedule. And the other part was television. We have been wildly successful with our television package. And as we move toward renegotiation for future years, we want to make sure that we have the most attractive nonconference schedules that we can have, and FBS schools are looked upon more favorably by television."
The preference to play lower-level FBS programs instead of FCS schools is reflected in the marketplace. For example, Tennessee has nonconference home games this season with Utah State, Arkansas State and Chattanooga. Tennessee is paying $1 million to Arkansas State, $950,000 to Utah State and just $450,000 to Chattanooga, the lone FCS program of the three.
Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said the cost of scheduling guarantee games with other FBS programs has "skyrocketed."
"We've got colleagues in the MAC and the Sun Belt and Conference USA that aren't even willing to talk for less than a million dollars," said Ron Prettyman, athletic director at FCS program Indiana State. "In the past, they were getting between $500,000 to $700,000 for those same games."
Conference schedules also could have an impact on the future of guarantee games. The Pac-12 and Big 12 already play nine conference games and the Big Ten is making that transition in 2016. Blackburn wonders whether FCS programs could get hurt if the Pac-12, SEC and Big Ten require larger league schedules to add programming to their respective conference networks.
"The SEC right now plays eight conference games," Blackburn said. "Our fear is one day they're going to say you've got to play nine or 10 league games. Then that could cut us out."
With five major conferences competing for four playoff spots, the leagues could be tempted to boost schedule strength by avoiding FCS teams. FCS athletic directors note only the top programs in those conferences are going to be annual playoff contenders, and that other schools may look out for their own interests. Prettyman said that "for a school like Indiana, the game with Indiana State could be the difference between them making a bowl or not."
"They're going to look at the strength of schedule for the FBS playoff, (but) how many teams realistically in a given year are going to be thinking about that?" Western Carolina athletic director Randy Eaton said. "Just think of the SEC. You've kind of got your top five teams that are always going to be there. What about the (others)? Do they really care if they play an FCS team or not?"
And if power schools don't schedule FCS programs as often, FCS schools can instead line up lower-payday games with FBS teams from outside the major conferences.
"For me, there's no concern," Savannah State athletic director Sterling Steward said. "There are 128 FBS teams. There are only four positions in the playoffs. The strength of schedule's only going to be (relevant) for the top 15 in the AP or the coaches' poll. Those other schools... they still need those games to play. Hopefully, they'll understand and look to play us."
South Dakota State athletic director Justin Sell agreed.
"I think it's worth keeping an eye on, but we don't lose a lot of sleep over it," he said.
AP Sports Writers John Marshall in Phoenix, Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and Eric Olson in Lincoln, Nebraska, contributed to this report.