San Jose State Coach Dave Baldwin was explaining the near-impossible situation his team faces Saturday, on the road against top-rated Nebraska. San Jose State was ranked 89th by one publication that tried to peg all 115 Division I-A teams in its preseason forecasts, 100th by another.
Baldwin first mentioned some history, that Nebraska won 98 games in the 1970s, 103 games in the 1980s and 108 games in the 1990s. Then he said the Cornhuskers have won 75 of their last 78 home games and that two of those losses were to teams that went on to earn a share of the national championship (Colorado in 1990 and Washington in 1991).
So why is San Jose State playing Nebraska?
Baldwin said the Spartans usually have at least one especially tough game each season, then cut to the overriding reason: "It's definitely a money game."
San Jose State will be getting $475,000. In return, in the eyes of nearly everyone except Baldwin and his players, Nebraska will get to work out the usual first-game timing problems and still win by enough points to please football's electoral college -- its red-clad faithful in Memorial Stadium.
This is college football's first full weekend, and it might be the last time the haves and have-nots are happy at the same time. So many of them are playing each other, with the likes of Nebraska at one end getting a soft touch and the likes of Division I-AA The Citadel at the other end getting a huge payday, ranging from about $200,000 to $500,000.
To paraphrase a political aphorism: It's about the guarantee, stupid.
"About one-third of our football income for the year comes from this game," said The Citadel's assistant athletic director, Ray White, referring to Saturday's probable mismatch at Clemson. The guarantee totals $225,000, with $50,000 of it being 2,000 tickets at $25 each.
Among the other have vs. have not games Saturday: Division I-AA Southwest Missouri at Arkansas, Ball State at Florida, Bowling Green at Michigan, Central Michigan at Purdue, Middle Tennessee State at Illinois, Louisiana-Monroe at Minnesota, Texas-El Paso at Oklahoma, Division I-AA Western Carolina at LSU, Buffalo at Syracuse and Division I-AA Georgia Southern at Georgia and Division I-AA Western Illinois at Missouri. Thursday night, certain powers got a head start, as Miami topped McNeese State, 61-14, Marshall beat Southeast Missouri, 63-7, and Wisconsin was able to withstand the suspension of five starters against Western Michigan, 19-7.
All coaches preach to their players that every game is winnable, but Andy McCollum of Middle Tennessee State says: "If we play as good as we possibly can, regardless of the score, it'll be a success."
This is Middle Tennessee State's second year at college football's highest level. In addition to Illinois on the road Saturday, the Blue Raiders go to Florida next Saturday, to Maryland on Sept. 23 and to Mississippi State on Oct. 28.
"When we made up the schedule," McCollum said, "Illinois was down and so was Maryland. Now Illinois is on the rise, and so is Maryland. Now I flinch when I think about every game."
The worry for coaches such as Randy Ball of Southwest Missouri State is the possible carry-over from a money game. After Arkansas on the road Saturday, his Bears host Missouri Southern in what ordinarily would be a breather.
"If we play really good (against Arkansas), I'd worry about a letdown," Ball said. "If we get banged up, we'd be at about the same level (as Missouri Southern). There's not much depth at the I-AA level. I understand the monetary aspects, but all of us work 365 days for 11 outings. And the fact that one of those has such a great impact on the other 10 is difficult to handle."
Players at small schools are as keen as administrators to play money games. As tight end Jason Barley of The Citadel says: "All of us wished we could have played Division I-A. But we were too something: too small or too weak. This is our chance to prove we can compete at that level."
There is nothing worse for a traditional power than losing a money game -- as Stanford did each of the last two seasons against San Jose State. Last year, Stanford recovered and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl by winning the Pac-10 Conference championship.
So that gives San Jose State tight end Sean Brewer added confidence against Nebraska.
"This is the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to play with the best," he said. "We've played lots of big teams, but never No. 1. ... We want to show we're not a bunch of chumps, that we can do things on offense. We will move the ball on offense. It would be awesome to get the ball first and score, have them say, 'What's going on?' I would like the ball right away."
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