The Independent New Mexico State Aggies Should Play Four Guarantee Games a Season

A couple of months ago, I was talking with New Mexico State athletics director Mario Moccia about the future of the football program. One of the things he said he was working on was for the Aggies to have two “money” games per season.

These “money” games are your guarantee games, where you travel to play a Power 5 team, play a game somewhere between “boy we almost had ’em” and “give me a minute to grab my ankles”, and you head home with a paycheck — anywhere between $800,000 and $1.5 million depending on the opponent.

Moccia’s reasoning for the move is that the first of those guaranteed paychecks has to go into the general athletic department coffers, while the second check can go entirely to the football program.

At first I thought to myself ‘hey, that’s a solid move, like a million-dollar alumni donation you can count on every year.”

But then I thought for another second, looked at Mario and asked, “well, why not 12 guaranteed games, then?”

I was partly joking because I know the answer, but I still waited for his confirmation. It’s because you don’t want to spend your whole season getting beaten down solely for the sake of money, let alone the unrealistic logistics of that many road games.

As I kept thinking about it on my own, I took it a step further. Sure, a season of nothing but guarantee games is a horrible idea for a multitude of reasons, but if two is fine, then why not four, or six?

What about competitive balance?

Obviously, you’re scheduling teams that are appreciably better than you, so much so that you are little more than a check paid to fill a weekly schedule slot.

So the question then becomes where do you set the limit in order to minimize the threat that the gap in competition poses?

Two money games are far less frequent these days, but the practice still isn’t totally dead for the Sun Belt or Mid-American Conference.

On the other end, any coach will tell you that playing too many top-tier teams can be an avenue for a devastating rash of injuries. Todd Berry probably has the shakes even thinking about his past ULM schedules.

I refer, of course, to Berry’s second, third and fourth seasons with the Warhawks (2011-13) where ULM played three P5 opponents in their first four games with no off dates all three years, and only one (2012 Baylor) was at home.

He appeared to learn his lesson the next year when they faced Kentucky and LSU on the road, but they were at opposite ends of the season and the team had a bye week after both.

Obviously, you have to be careful about who you schedule. Three games against CFP-caliber teams is liable to get your team physically and morally trounced, so you might want to schedule one very good team and two non-elite powers.

Even then, college football’s cyclical nature means you could have a bottom feeder who is Top-25 material by the time you actually play them (i.e. Colorado).

Three to four “money” games is perhaps not palatable to any coach unless he has a strong team and is gunning for a New Year’s Six bowl.

New Mexico State is nowhere near that level and likely never will be but as an FBS independent, they may be forced to schedule up anyway.

There’s also the potential increase in injury risk when you’re playing teams that are much deeper and more athletic than you are.

That increase is likely only significant enough to be dangerous if you play exclusively top-30 programs and all of them always leave their starters in the whole game, regardless of what the scoreboard says. I can’t envision that scenario, but you can’t rule it out either.

One body bag game could avoid that concern entirely as it won’t wreck your team unless you have really bad luck, but three to four could easily wear down your team.

Playing P5’s back-to-back at the start of the season is a great way to get your morale busted before you even start playing teams on your level. If you’ve lost 2-3 star players to injury at that point, that jeopardizes the rest of your season.

Three P5 road games should probably involve scheduling two towards the start of the season (not back-to-back), then one more in October or November, and using bye weeks before those games as often as possible.

Regardless of the debate about a bye week’s effect on performance in either direction, they give your guys a chance to heal, so it seems wise to err towards using them as strategic gaps for getting healthy. Ideally, you’d use it before that last P5 game because you might get knocked around a lot in that one.

What about the money?

Two is surely doable and three is achievable with the right plan in place, but five or six is perhaps now entering that masochistic “only in it for the money” territory. So where’s the happy medium?

Your average “money” game will net around $1 million, but you could get $1.5 million-plus from a top-5 team. The Aggies only got $975,000 in 2014 for traveling to Baton Rouge to face LSU; they’re also getting relatively small payouts in the amount of $800,000 for the three Power 5 games in 2017, 2018 and 2020 (Arizona State and Minnesota) that they negotiated during their previous independence.

On the flip side, last season NMSU got $1.3 million from Kentucky and $1.5 million from Texas A&M and this season they’ll be getting $1.35 million from Arkansas. Obviously, the SEC isn’t the only conference that gives payouts that large, but that’s the sample we’ve got to work with.

This is also not something new to the Aggies. Doug Martin scheduled three major games a year for East Carolina from 1992-96 when he was its head coach, and they weren’t even in Conference USA yet. The Pirates found great benefit in such practices even back when they were lucky to get $2.4 million total for their three money games.

Turn that total into something closer to $4 million and now you’re talking substantial money. Add a fourth guarantee game where you’re flirting with $6 million per year and that’s program-changing money that could do useful things, like getting the facilities they need to compete (and not just for the football program).

The reality of the situation

As it turns out, I was not too far off base with this idea, but not for the reasons I expected. I spoke again with Moccia about this, and he informed me that his plan and his model moving forward is to play three guarantee games a year.

“Here’s how we use them in my mind,” said Moccia. “2018, 19, 20, 21, the mortgage is paid off, and hopefully we can move into a conference. I have to use (the first) game guarantee to pay the school. Then a second game to fund the program. Then that third check can go to the football program to augment recruiting, maybe do cost of attendance,  even significantly improve the nutrition program.”

So they’ve got a mortgage.

Wait, what?

Moccia explained a little further.

“The (previous) athletic department (administration) ended up with a $10 million deficit with the facilities and the spending,” he said. “The state then said ‘hey, hang on, you guys can’t run up a deficit like that’ even though it was being covered by the university. I compare it to a kid with a credit card and mom and dad are making the payments but the bank said ‘were not going to let you guys do that anymore’.”

“We got put on a payback plan with the state and in that 10-year plan, we’ve got basically an annual mortgage that I’ve got to pay the university and that fluctuates from $800,000 to $1.3 million. This fiscal year’s payment was $1.3 million, so I virtually took the check from the Kentucky game and handed it to the campus CFO and said ‘here’s my mortgage payment’.”

That is mighty fiscally responsible of the state, but it also had an effect on their decision to become an FBS independent versus dropping down to FCS.

There’s no way the school could generate enough revenue to cover that annual repayment by playing an FCS schedule. As Moccia said, NMSU “(had) to stay FBS at least until the debt is paid off, as that was the only way to pay it off.”

He is also hopeful that at the end of what appears to be a five-year plan for independence, maybe an opening will form that will allow a conference to welcome them back in, and the boost from funds like this can be the start of that.

“All we can do is control us, have as much success on the field as possible, improve our facilities as much as possible, and maintain good relationships so that if the conversation happens again we’re in a good place.”

That said, Moccia pointed out that were it not for their unique financial and geographical situation, he would be pursuing as few “money” games as possible.

“If we were in a league and the first (money) game was enough to fund operations, there is no way I would look to play two of these. You can look around and the best group of 5 teams just play one.”

Is it really a choice between winning and money?

Here is where I beg to differ with Mario. I’m reading between the lines a bit, but he mentioned several times in our talks the number of Group of Five teams that have reached bowl eligibility in recent years and how many “money” games those teams endured.

His contention is that there is little hope of New Mexico State being a team that flirts with and/or achieves bowl eligibility and therefore makes itself very appealing to a future conference if they play too many “money” games in a given season.

I would conversely contend that there are two holes in this logic. One is the assumption that NMSU could play too many ‘money’ games to reach bowl eligibility.

The second is that “winning enough to be bowl eligible annually” is the thing that would make them most attractive to a potential conference.

There were very few true “money” games to research since G5 teams largely get their P5 matchups through home-and-home, 2-for-1 or 3-for-1 contracts where a P5 team comes to town and give you a sellout (i.e. South Alabama selling 38,000+ for their game against Mississippi State), instead of any direct contractual payment.

That said, I assumed Moccia’s concern was the ability of G5 teams to play multiple P5 teams in a single season and still achieve bowl eligibility. So here is the list of G5 teams in the last four seasons who have done exactly that:

  • 2016 Army, MTSU, La Tech, So Miss, Hawaii*, Idaho, Ohio, WMU
  • 2015 WKU*, MTSU, La Tech, Utah State, San Diego State, USF, Georgia Southern, BGSU, NIU, CMU
  • 2014 UAB, ODU, La Tech, Utah State, San Diego State, Fresno State, Memphis, ECU, Temple, Georgia Southern, Arkansas State, NIU, WMU, CMU
  • 2013 ECU, FAU, Utah State, San Jose State, ULL, Arkansas State, ULM, Troy, Buffalo, NIU, CMU, Toledo

That’s 44 times in four seasons. I understand that we can’t use Louisiana Tech as a good example due to a very different fiscal situation, but there are still comparably unique examples here. Louisiana-Monroe did it in 2013, UAB did it in 2014, and perhaps most aptly Hawai’i did it just last season.

That last example is most crucial to me. The Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors played not one or two but three road games against P5 opponents. Yes, I’m counting a “neutral site” game in Australia as a road game. They played three P5 road games in their first four weeks, had to travel almost 25,000 miles to do it, and still managed to win six games.

No offense, but if they can do it, literally any other program can. Heck, the Aggies themselves have had exactly one season with more than six wins in the last 50 years, and that was a 2002 season that saw them play on the road against Cal, South Carolina, and Georgia and still go 7-5.

Even without that precedent, the notion that four “money” games a year somehow dooms New Mexico State to a bowl-ineligible existence is flawed. In that scenario, they would still have the other eight games comprised of an FCS opponent and seven G5 teams, two of which are already guaranteed to be New Mexico and UTEP.

To be so sure of missing out on bowl eligibility says that you don’t think you can ever go 5-2 against a schedule where you already know two opponents are guaranteed to never be worse than coin-flip odds of winning. That is selling your team short.

So what if the Aggies continue to go 3-9 or 4-8 (or worse) every season – as they’ve done in 36 of their previous 49 seasons – but now brings in additional millions in revenue each season, is that really terrible?

You don’t get the prestige of claiming yourselves as a team that has annually reached the postseason, but you do get money that could provide the facilities upgrades that conferences will care about just as much.

Not only that, but extra revenue from a fourth “money” game now means the mortgage is paid off in 2019, and as any savvy debt-payer can tell you, the freedom of paying off a debt sooner than anticipated is great.

Where does that leave us?

As of this moment, the 2018 schedule that currently features Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Lafayette, Minnesota, New Mexico, UTEP, and Wyoming. There are at least two more “money” games to come, which is good since those six are only bringing in $800,000 (from Minnesota). There’s also room – even after more guaranteed money – for the Aggies to win enough to make a bowl game.

There’s no reason that schedule couldn’t add a paycheck or two from the SEC (Auburn, Ole Miss, and South Carolina have a need) and another from the Big 12 (Oklahoma State, TCU, and Texas Tech). With those, that would be another $3-5 million to work with, while still leaving plenty of room for more Group of 5 opponents that keep the Aggies in sight of a bowl game.

I appreciate that four money games mean you’re almost guaranteed four losses per year, and maybe you go 1-3 occasionally or you trip into 2-2 when the stars align. You have to weigh the money vs. the risk of losses and injuries, but it can work and is worth trying. Your best case scenario is surprising everyone by making a bowl game, and your worst case scenario is a team that doesn’t impress on the field, but does bring in the kind of funds that can allow you to improve everywhere else in the short term.

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