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College football's cupcake games are about more than just easy wins

They're easy to make fun of, but the sport's most boring games have a big impact beyond the field.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

In Week 1, a bunch of the biggest programs in college football will pay big sums to destroy lower-echelon teams.

Louisville will host Charlotte (for $600,000), Iowa will host Miami of Ohio (for $1 million) and Florida will host UMass (for $1.25 million), among scores of other games. The next week, Western Kentucky will earn $1.3 million to visit Alabama.

The hosts will win these games, just like they do (almost) every time. Power 5 fans will be so bored by their own teams' blowouts against FCS and Group of 5 teams, they'll amuse themselves by calling rival teams cowardly for doing the same thing. Unless they're playing a lower-level monster like North Dakota State.

In all this, cash-strapped smaller programs are willing participants.

The financial dealings behind "cupcake games" are fascinating, and they explain why the games might never end.

Russ Huesman has been the head coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga since 2008. The Mocs are a sturdy FCS program, winning plenty of games in the Southern Conference, where Huesman is a three-time coach of the year. The Mocs are still miles away from competing with Power 5 schools.

This hasn't stopped UT-Chattanooga from traveling to play at least one game against a top program just about every year. The Mocs have agreed to visit Auburn, Nebraska, Alabama, Tennessee and LSU, among others.

"Obviously the biggest [reason] is to help your budget, no question about that," Huesman said. "And anybody who says that they play them for any [other] reason are probably not telling the truth. Obviously, it helps our budget when you can get a guarantee game with a BCS program, so financially, it's huge for us."

Here's what UTC made on these games since 2010, according to the school:

Year Opponent Payout
2010 Auburn $450,000
2011 Nebraska $475,000
2012 South Florida $435,000
2013 Alabama $450,000
2014 Tennessee $450,000
2015 Florida State $500,000
2016 Alabama $500,000
2017 LSU $500,000
2018 Kentucky $450,000
Total $4.2 million

That $450,000 from the Tennessee game compares to the vast majority of UTC's annual game day operating expenses for football ($513,485) or roughly double the entire athletic department's annual recruiting budget for all sports ($227,364). In 2014-15, UTC reported total athletic revenue of $17,221,945.

The games often don't cost much in travel, especially when small teams make can schedule them close to campus.

"I want to play somewhere in our recruiting area, whether it's Alabama or somewhere in the recruiting area," Huesman said. "Or if it's some place where we need to get on a plane, it's Nebraska, which is a really cool place to play."

Such games have become a huge part of national football scheduling. ESPN reported that payout games cost teams at least $12.9 million in one weekend in 2014, and even that figure is just a minimum.

(Not that guarantee games are always a happy thing. They can be humiliating for the losing team, and whether the financial payoff is worth it could be reasonably debated between administrators and fans.)

"I think our guys have gone in excited and wanting to play in the game," he said.

"For the most part, they don't turn out real good for us, but as long as we can go in and play, that's the most important."

Huesman acknowledges that players in the South have their sights set on major programs, not on playing FCS ball. But when players don't get big-school offers, playing against them is a fun consolation.

"They're extremely excited to get the opportunity to play in front of 100,000, 105,000 and in a venue like that, and a team they see on TV," Huesman said.

"In recruiting, when you can go out and recruit kids, and probably the majority of them are disappointed that Alabama or LSU or Tennessee didn't take them, and you go in the home and say we're gonna play them, it helps in the recruiting process."

UTC is one of the FCS' strongest recruiters, averaging a ranking of 137th on the 247Sports Composite over the last four years, which would equate to roughly the top 10 among non-FBS teams.

There's often not a lot of financial difference between playing a cupcake and a ranked team.

It's easy to make fun of big programs for scheduling these games. But the games make excellent business sense for larger athletic departments.

For some programs, home games against marquee opponents only net moderately more revenue than games against teams from the Group of 5 or FCS. The gap in revenue depends mostly on ticket prices, because the best teams sell out their stadiums six-plus times per year no matter who they're playing.

"It's pretty similar," explained Ben Jay, a former Ohio State associate athletics director for finance and operations and Hawaii athletic director. "For the most part, you're going to sell out your tickets, and Ohio Stadium comes pretty close to selling out all the time. They do have those games, the non-conference games, where there's probably a couple thousand tickets to sell. But I'll tell you what: overall, the net in the end is still nice, and also needed for a program like Ohio State. They need to net as much as they can from their football team, because it does pay for the rest of the department."

Consider 2010, when Ohio State's home schedule included a game against No. 12 Miami and, two weeks later, a game against Eastern Michigan, which would finish near the bottom of the MAC.

Payment to road team Ticket revenue Attendance
EMU $850,000 $5,536,634 105,017
Miami $500,000 $6,496,306 105,454

According to game financial reports obtained by SB Nation through a public records request, Ohio State netted $959,672 more at the gate for the Miami game than the Eastern Michigan game. That's a drop in the bucket for the Buckeyes, who boast that their nine-figure budget is "the biggest in the history of college sports."

On the other hand, given the huge financial losses a program can take from a loss that costs postseason placement, playing a tough out-of-conference home game is a pretty big financial bet. Playing a cupcake is not.

But as ticket prices for marquee games go up, the financial loss for playing bad teams does, too. Consider how the equation has changed for Ohio State.

Ohio State's ticket prices have shot upward in recent years. Face value went up 90 percent from 2013 to 2014, and premium game pricing was part of the equation.

Schools that charge more for tickets to watch big-time opposition have a lot more to lose by playing paycheck games against lower-tier teams. Consider Ohio State in 2014:

Payment to road team Ticket Revenue Attendance
Kent State $850,000 $5,354,488 104,404
Virginia Tech $350,000 $9,434,863 107,517

The Buckeyes made $4.1 million more for a 2014 home game against Virginia Tech than they did against Kent State, a fourfold increase in the difference over similar games four years prior. That difference would've helped ease the financial regret if OSU had missed the Playoff because of a loss to an out-of-conference opponent (the Buckeyes did lose to VT, but won the Playoff anyway).

Few teams are capable of filling out their stadiums no matter who they play. For those that can, it's a balancing act between easy spots and leaving money on the table, or riskier games and filling up the coffers.

While the games are boring for fans and sometimes embarrassing for conferences, stakeholders simply have too much to gain for them to ever go away.

The Big Ten is moving this season from an eight-game league schedule to nine, and it's made a rule that requires all of its teams to schedule at least one Power 5 non-conference opponent.

That limits the opportunity to pay lower-echelon teams to visit. Notre Dame, UCLA and USC have never scheduled FCS opponents. Nick Saban wants Power 5 teams to exclusively play other Power 5 teams, though Alabama doesn't now.

It's not impossible that more Power 5 conferences follow the Big Ten's lead, and cupcake games -- or at least those against FCS teams -- go away. But the practice is likely to persist in some form, because the financial help from a paycheck game doesn't only help the small schools.

"It's just trying to net as much as they can to pay the bills," said Jay, the former Buckeye administrator. "It's the one thing about the Ohio State program. As big as their budget is and the amount of money that they generate, it takes quite a bit of money to run a program like that, so whatever they can net out at the end is usually put into reserves."

For a tiny program like UTC, the financial payoff is obvious, and there's a human benefit, too.

"They are hard games," said Huesman, the Mocs' head coach. "When you play Alabama, you know that you're playing one of the best in the country and it's really not a fair playing field, obviously. But you just wanna compete, and that's what I tell our guys: 'Just compete, and go make plays.'"