Call them cupcakes, cream puffs, cannon fodder or just plain UNDERDOGS. But every college football season features matchups between power conference titans and lower-tier opponents who, on the surface, appear to be sacrificing their pride—and their bodies—for a big payout. There's actually a lot more on the line
And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.... He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, "Why have you come out to draw up for battle? ... Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me."
—I Samuel 17:4--8
AT 6:30 A.M. on the last Wednesday of August, a stream of bleary-eyed, backpack-wearing Florida A&M football players boarded four tour buses idling in the predawn darkness.
Each player held a bottle or two of water or Powerade. Most had another in their backpacks. Hydration would be particularly important, because in about 35 hours they would be playing against Arkansas, a team with larger, faster and more-skilled players, as well as more coaches, superior facilities and equipment and every other advantage, including transportation.
The question, Why not fly? had not gone unasked in the days leading up to the game. ESPN's Jay Bilas tweeted about FAMU's 12-hour ride to Little Rock: "All players are used to make their schools money. A crazy bus ride to Arkansas ... for $750,000." He was referring to the six- and seven-figure checks that FCS schools receive after these so-called "money games." First, to be wholly accurate, Arkansas's deal with FAMU was for $700,000. The school would have received $750,000 had the Rattlers brought their world-famous band on the trip. But renting more buses and hotel rooms for the Marching 100 would've cost a lot more than 50 grand. More to the point, as FAMU athletic director Milton Overton explained, "This is not a situation where we're pocketing this money. We're not running out buying cars with it."
Overton is 44 and still built like the Oklahoma offensive lineman he was from 1992 to '95. He has been the boss at FAMU for two years, following successful stints at Texas A&M and Alabama, the latter stop earning him three national-title rings. (Overton would accept the AD job at Kennesaw State on Oct. 31.) "A Power 5 [athletics] budget is $100 million, $125 million," Overton explained. "This level is more akin to pure amateurism." The athletic budget at FAMU is about $10 million, he adds. The most critical portion of that sum, in Overton's eyes, is the $2.7 million or so that pays for athletes' scholarships. "This game will cover about a fourth of that," he says proudly. "When you're in a Power 5 conference you don't think about, Who gets to go to summer school? Who gets books? It's a given. It's not a given here."
FAMU's game against Arkansas would be one of 98 waged this year between FBS and FCS teams—games considered mismatches for many reasons, but mostly because of the 85 scholarships FBS programs have versus just 63 for FCS teams. Above the hum of Bus 3's tires, wide receivers coach Steven Jerry, who's been with the Rattlers for eight years, said that these matchups prove valuable when NFL scouts come to campus. "They want to see two things from me: [video of] the games we played against FBS teams, and they want to see when our guys went against NFL prospects." There aren't any FBS teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and only a handful of NFL prospects, but in each of the last eight seasons FAMU coaches have had a tape of a "money game" to show scouts.
Jerry cited FAMU's trip to Oklahoma in 2012, when Rattlers' receiver Travis Harvey made four catches for 118 yards in a 69--13 FAMU loss. Making first-team All-MEAC was nice, but that's not what got Harvey invited to the Titans' training camp in 2013, which led to stints with the Giants, the Bills and the Cardinals. "It was that Oklahoma game," Jerry says. He gestures toward the sleeping players. "All these guys want is a shot."
FAMU's top NFL prospect was out cold on Bus 2, splayed across two seats while his teammates quietly watched Batman vs. Superman. Brandon Norwood is a senior receiver from Atlanta, a 6'1" route-running virtuoso who could probably start on half of the nation's 130 FBS teams. A couple of hours before kickoff, when asked about playing in a game that helps pay for his scholarship, Norwood looked confused. Not because he didn't understand the question but because he was preoccupied. "I just know there's a football game and I'm playing in it," he said.
Loubens Polinice, a 6'3", 275-pound offensive tackle for FAMU, one of the few Rattlers who could hope to match up with Arkansas's starters, said, "Being the underdog is fun to me." Of the money involved, the grad-school-bound physical-therapy major laughed and said, "I don't think we're being exploited at all."
The rain fell steadily near the Tennessee line, the rivulets on the windows casting shadows across the players' sleeping faces. "We'll fly to three conference games this year," said sports information director Vaughn Wilson, "two games in Virginia [against Norfolk State and Hampton] and one in Maryland [Morgan State]. Taking the bus to this game makes those flights possible."
"These buses cost us about $20,000," Overton clarified. "Chartering a plane [to Little Rock] would have cost at least $80,000. That's a difference of $60,000. Guess how much it costs for us to send our kids to summer school? $60,000. Saying yes to summer school is more important than flying to this game."
On Bus 3, defensive ends coach Todd Middleton called up a list of FCS upsets on his phone and shared them with a couple of other coaches: Appalachian State over Michigan (2007), Jacksonville State over Ole Miss (2010), Georgia Southern over Florida (2013).
The list included FAMU's win over Miami in 1979, but these wins were aberrations and the FAMU coaches knew it. These games are hard on coaches, too. Players study their coaches' faces more closely during weeks like this, seeking any hint of resignation, hoping to find in the eyes of men who have seen it all something that tells the kids they have a chance, that they won't have to be removed from the field with a spatula. FAMU's coaches spoke haltingly about the Arkansas matchup, perhaps recalling last year's 70--3 pummeling at Miami, using euphemisms like "If what people expect to happen, happens ..." and "If we can keep the game close... " and a mischievous "You never know."
That afternoon, as Arkansas's players were alternately eating, hydrating, stretching and watching film of FAMU's season-opening win over Texas Southern, the Rattlers stood in 90˚ heat, waiting to use the men's room at a rest stop near Forrest City, Ark.
When the team finally arrived in Little Rock at 7 p.m., strength coach Parker Brooks led the players through an impromptu stretching session in the vast, carpeted foyer of the Four Points Sheraton. That was followed by a team prayer and a white-tablecloth dinner in an adjacent ballroom. Head coach Alex Wood repeated the mantra he'd been sharing with his team all week: "Just play football. Play your best game. Play as hard as you can until someone tells you to stop."
On game day, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long sat in a hospitality suite inside War Memorial Stadium. "I played Division III football," said Long. "I was the AD at Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, so I know both sides of these games. Florida A&M—they might lose today, but if one of their players makes a catch against a corner who ends up going to the league, he can say, 'I went up against that guy, and I got him.' I get chills just thinking about it, because I've been there. Playing against a team like Arkansas would have been a dream come true for me." In addition to the nearly $3 million in gross revenue that the game will generate for Arkansas, plus the presumed victory, Long said that his reason for opening the season against an FCS team was "to get a game under our belt before we start our more difficult nonconference and conference play."
Meanwhile, Overton and Wood were meeting in the tunnel with officials who informed them that the Rattlers would be penalized one timeout per quarter because their white-on-white jerseys violated a three-year-old NCAA rule mandating that numbers clearly contrast with the shirt color. "That's on me," said an embarrassed Overton when the meeting broke up, "but that's what happens when you have one equipment manager."
Arkansas received the opening kickoff. Facing their first third down, the Razorbacks called a running play that was stuffed at the line, forcing a punt. FAMU's celebrating defense had hardly jogged off the field before it was time to jog back on, thanks to the first of what would be six three-and-outs for the Rattlers' offense. Early in the second quarter FAMU only trailed 7--0. Two run-heavy drives put Arkansas up 21--0 at intermission, but the Rattlers still had plenty of fight in them.
In the locker room, shouts of, "We got them boys shook!" echoed from the DBs. Norwood, the standout receiver who had only run short routes in the first half due to the Rattlers' size disadvantage on pass protection, sat peacefully on the floor, legs splayed in a V, stretching his turf-burnt calves. Before the Rattlers took the field again, 6'6" receiver Chaviss Murphy goaded his teammates, "F--- the scoreboard! Keep fighting, brah! They're gonna try to take our heart!"
On FAMU's third play of the third quarter, a screen on third-and-long, 185-pound running back Hans Supre got sandwiched between a 239-pound linebacker and a 290-pound defensive end and fumbled into the arms of a cornerback who will be employed by an NFL team in a few months and seemed to be running toward that future when he crossed the goal line to make it 28--zip, Hogs.
It was 42--0 in the fourth quarter when a bad snap on the Rattlers' seventh punt of the day forced punter Chris Faddoul to run for his life—and for 26 yards and a first down while he was at it. After a couple of catches by Norwood, FAMU found itself facing third-and-goal at the Arkansas seven. Norwood beckoned his coaches, loudly enough for the Arkansas DBs to hear, for a fade route to his side of the field.
With the crowd roaring, eager to see a shutout, Norwood lined up wide left. At the snap he sprinted toward the back corner of the end zone, then stomped hard with his left foot and exploded out of his cut, shaking free of his defender. Polinice, the sweat-soaked left tackle, did his best to protect quarterback Vince Jeffries from a stunting, 280-pound end who had chosen the Hogs over a bevy of Power 5 programs. Jeffries, who had quarterbacked Santa Rosa [Calif.] Junior College last fall, fired a low spiral that Norwood caught while sliding feet-first beneath the goalposts.
The visitors' sideline erupted. A few feet from Norwood's muted end zone celebration a beaming Overton high-fived the university president and a few green-clad boosters. Summer school books, funded scholarships and a touchdown against an SEC team?
Well worth the drive.
LIBERTY IS A PRIVATE, "Christian research university" with a $1.1 billion endowment. The Flames don't schedule games against FBS teams for the money; they do so to enhance their national profile and to prepare for their transition to full-time FBS status in 2018. Matching up against power conference teams such as Baylor also helps fulfill the vision of Liberty's late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., who wanted his football program to provide a touchstone for evangelical Christians the way that Notre Dame's does for Catholics and Brigham Young's does for Mormons.
The university's Lynchburg campus is currently a hive of athletics construction. The recently completed, $29 million indoor football facility exceeds in quality the buildings at most FBS schools. Against the Bears, Liberty had another advantage, one conferred on few other FCS schools. The Flames have 75 players on scholarship this year, a stepping stone to reaching the FBS limit of 85 next fall. They also had a secret weapon on their chartered 737 jet (no long bus rides for Liberty, thanks), a 180-pound sophomore quarterback named Stephen Buckshot Calvert—that's his legal middle name. He possesses both a right arm and a feel for the game that evokes Lamar Jackson, even as his body looks more like Andrew Jackson's. And Buckshot has two receivers—Damian King and Antonio Gandy-Golden, the latter a 6'4", 200-pound velociraptor in sticky gloves, who would plant themselves on NFL prospect boards before the night was through.
Among the 45,784 fans in attendance at McLane Stadium on Sept. 2, few could have known that Buckshot and Gandy-Golden had roomed together as freshmen and had worked out every night in the empty football stadium, perfecting every route in the tree, before switching sides and running them all again. Four times each.
Baylor, meanwhile, had an entirely new coaching staff that was scrambling to repair an injury-ravaged secondary. Still, bookmakers installed the Bears as 34½-point favorites.
IF ONE THING became clear during this three-week sojourn into college football's Valley of Elah, it's that the gap between Power 5 starters and FCS starters is not the gaping chasm most fans might think. Gandy-Golden said after the game that he sensed he had an advantage over Baylor's secondary in the first quarter. "They didn't seem like they wanted to cover us. I expected them to be a lot bigger."
In the fourth quarter, with Liberty up 34--31, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades stopped by the press box to meet with a reporter. Rhoades was gracious enough, but he was visibly preoccupied with the scoreboard and the dwindling clock. "Are you surprised by this?" he was asked.
"No, I'm not," Rhoades said as Buckshot completed another laser beyond the fingertips of a Bears corner. "We knew Liberty was a really good team. Look at their quarterback and their two receivers—absolutely they could be playing at this level."
When Baylor's Hail Mary was intercepted with no time left—final score: Flames 48, Bears 45—a half-dozen Liberty coaches burst out of Booth 507 in the press box and sprinted giddily to the elevator. "We've been dreaming of this moment for eight months," one of them said on the ride down to the locker room. "To God be the glory."
On a weekend that featured Wake Forest nipping Presbyterian 51--7, Kansas State edging Central Arkansas 55--19, and TCU and Mississippi State squeaking past Jackson State and Charleston Southern, respectively, by a combined score of 112--0, Liberty pulled off one of the biggest point-spread upsets in college football history. Just two hours later there was an even bigger one, as Howard was in the process of beating UNLV 43--40. Had the Bison walked down the Vegas strip before the game and bet the $600,000 UNLV gave them on their own team, they would have raked in $429 million. Talk about a money game.
IN MACON, GA., on Sept. 15, Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski began his Friday meeting with his players by projecting a photo of Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed with 87,500 fans, on the big screen at the front of the room. In 30 hours or so, the Bears would play the first of two FBS games this season that will add a combined $1,050,000 to Mercer's $18.7 million athletics budget. With a click, the fiery 60-year-old Kolakowski replaced Auburn's stadium with a shot of Mercer's, capacity: 10,200.
"What do these places have in common?" Kolakowski asked his players.
"The field," said senior end Isaiah Buehler.
"That's right." Click. "It's 100 yards long and 531/3 yards wide. Goalposts are the same height and width as ours. Everything that's not on the field is what?"
"It's clutter, men. We gotta eliminate the clutter." Kolakowski pointed at Auburn's massive upper decks, its skyscraper press box. "None of this stuff matters."
Winning the turnover battle would matter, Kolakowski believed, which explained the signs throughout Mercer's field house that blared: THE BALL IS THE ISSUE.
"I don't know if I've seen 90,000 people in one place in my whole life," freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley joked after practice. But his 19-year-old eyes had seen the highlights of Liberty's win, and Howard's, too. "Anything's possible," he said.
The three-hour bus ride to Auburn the next day was led by a police escort that blocked the main intersections in little towns such as Midland, Ga., and Smiths Station, Ala. Daniel Tate, the associate AD who had scheduled this game, was wearing the same orange-and-white buttondown he'd worn the day Mercer upset Duke in the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. "We created an algorithm we called the Duke Effect," Tate said, "to determine the effect that that game had on our national profile and our enrollment." Coach Bobby Lamb's summary of those findings was unscientific: "Applications went through the roof," Lamb said in his Georgia drawl. "We didn't have enough people to handle 'em all."
Mercer officials will tell you that this is why its football team plays money games. Not to pay for scholarships or because it aspires to Division I relevance, but because, as university president Bill Underwood put it, "We are one of the top six private research universities in the southeast, but we're not nearly as well known as the other five. When people think about schools like Vanderbilt, Duke, Wake Forest, I want them to think about us."
But this was no basketball game. Mismatched bodies would soon be violently colliding on every snap. "Yes, that has crossed my mind," said Lamb. "In games like this, your body soreness is probably more on Sunday than it would be if we were playing a team in our conference, just because of the size you're playing against."
All was quiet in Mercer's locker room, where 70 players stuffed themselves into shoulder pads encased in new white jerseys. To the players' surprise, their last names had been stitched on the back for the first time. But how many of those players had noticed that their win probability was 0.7%, or that Auburn was favored by 41½ points—figures bleaker than the ones Liberty or Howard faced?
"We gotta eliminate what?" Kolakowski asked his defense.
"Clutter," they replied.
"That's right. And what's clutter?"
The players pointed toward the rumbling stands above their heads.
"Lemme see everybody's eyes right now," Lamb said. "We put these names on the back of your jerseys today because that represents you. That represents your mama, your daddy, your brothers, your sisters.... Here's all I ask of you today, men. Go out there and expect to win the game when we walk through that door. Play your guts out! For 60 minutes! For four quarters I need your guts, you understand me? Play for each other! Bear down! Let's go!"
The players rose and roared, each one slapping the sign that someone had duct-taped over the door (BEAR DOWN EVERY DOWN) as he ran into the overwhelming crowd noise.
Combine the attendance at FAMU-Arkansas (36,055) and Liberty-Baylor (45,784) and you'd still be 5,000 fans short of the sense-pounding mob of 87,033 that greeted Mercer's players. On Auburn's first series, 200-pound linebacker LeMarkus Bailey stripped the ball from an Auburn receiver who outweighed him, then Bailey fell on the ball—the first of five turnovers the Bears would force on the day.
"What'd I tell ya?" Lamb bellowed in the locker room, his team trailing just 10--3 at half. "We're outplayin' 'em. The defense is knocking the stem-windin' crap out of 'em. We're runnin' inside zone just like we want to, we're double teamin' them two big ol' fat asses outta there. We're right where we need to be! ... The field's 100 yards! The ball's oblong! Goalposts are the same width! You got an opportunity, men!"
Auburn's coaches may have been ambushed in the first half, but they weren't going to be caught off guard in the second. They fed Mercer's defenders a steady diet of Kam Pettway from halftime on, the Tigers' 235-pound tailback capping a 10-play drive with a TD run that gave the Tigers a 17--3 lead. "In the third quarter, you could see the 85-to-63 scholarship factor," Lamb said afterward.
With Auburn driving again, Mercer cornerback Kam Lott—a player Kolakowski had singled out at halftime, "We need all you got, Kam!"—jumped a slant route and made an interception reminiscent of Malcolm Butler's in Super Bowl XLIX. Four Riley completions later, Mercer had third-and-goal at the Auburn six, with a chance to pull within seven. The clock showed 13:50.
Riley fielded a shotgun snap, calmly aimed his toes at the Mercer sideline, and fired a slant that receiver Marquise Irvin caught in the end zone, transforming the tiny square of Mercer fans in that corner into a white-and-orange riot. "We've got a game," Joel Meyers told SEC Network's viewers. "Ninety seconds into the fourth quarter, they are stunned in Auburn, Alabama."
A 26-yard field goal try from Auburn's All-America kicker, Daniel Carlson, hooked wide left with nine minutes left. The clutter fell quiet as Lamb walked to the hashmark with his offense, trailing 17--10. "Guys, I told y'all. Right now on ESPN it says, UPSET ALERT, MERCER BEARS." The players laughed, which made Lamb laugh. Sure, they had dreamed, but now, as one player put it later, "the s--- was happening."
Unfortunately for people who root for David over Goliath, what followed was Mercer's "poorest series of the night"—as Lamb would describe it later—"and our poorest punt of the night, and then we get a [15-yard] targeting [penalty] on the punt return."
Gifted with a short field, Pettway hammered away until his 34th carry of the game landed him in the end zone, sealing the 24--10 win. "Boy, y'all have got a good program," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told Lamb at midfield, the duration of his grip suggesting he wasn't merely talking about talent.
On the moonlit bus ride home, Lamb turned on his iPad and watched his son, Taylor, quarterback Appalachian State, the program that had resurrected the idea of the FCS upset 10 years earlier, to a win over Texas State. Someone in the back of the bus cued up a playlist of '90s R&B that, although it was kept at a respectful volume, jangled the nerves of a few exhausted O-linemen.
As the bus pulled into Macon, Lamb stood and acknowledged that Travel Rule No. 4 ("Keep your music to yourself") had been violated, but he couldn't bring himself to punish anyone, not after the effort he'd witnessed that afternoon.
"No big deal," he said, cognizant that his team would face an even sterner test on Nov. 18, in exchange for $600,000 and more publicity for the school, when their buses left town for Tuscaloosa.
"They didn't seem like they wanted to cover us," said a Liberty receiver of Baylor's defense. "I EXPECTED THEM TO BE A LOT BIGGER."