There’s a big difference between walking into the lion’s den and walking into the dragon’s lair. The lion, you could tame. The dragon, you just have to survive.
This weekend, Samford University marches into the dragon’s lair of Athens to face the University of Georgia. It’s the latest, and most notable, example of an ongoing, often painful-to-watch Power 5 tradition — the decimation of the early season sacrificial lamb. Last week, Alabama throttled Utah State, Texas A&M bashed Sam Houston, Michigan demolished Colorado State, and Baylor stomped Albany by a combined score of 206-17.
And now comes Samford, which could lose by that margin all by itself. As if Georgia’s whole “reigning national champion” status wasn’t intimidating enough, the Dawgs are coming off a 49-3 evisceration of the No. 11 Oregon Ducks. The odds, to put it politely, do not favor Samford’s Bulldogs … but they’re trying not to let that bother them.
“Our guys, they’re smart players,” Samford head coach Chris Hatcher told Yahoo Sports. “They understand the odds are against them. They understand that their very best hope is that Georgia doesn’t play their very best, and that’s their only chance to win.”
Shug Jordan, the legendary Auburn coach, had a saying for moments like these: Remember that Goliath was a 40-point favorite against David. It’s a nice thought, a scrap of hope to carry you to kickoff … that is, until you look at this week’s lines and see Ohio State is a 44.5-point favorite over Arkansas State, Michigan is a 51.5-point favorite against Hawaii, and Georgia’s advantage over Samford is so vast that lines weren’t even posted as of Wednesday afternoon.
Miracles can happen; Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32 still stands as a beacon (or a warning, to Power 5 teams) 15 years after it happened. Samford itself threw scares into both Florida and Florida State in recent years. Far more likely, though, are point differentials that top the half-century mark, like Miami’s 57-point victory over Bethune-Cookman last weekend.
This isn’t anything close to a fair fight. So how did we get here? The answer, as it always is in college football, comes down to three factors: tradition, spectacle and money. Mostly money.
Why does Samford put itself through this?
Samford University is a small Christian school on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, a quiet school of red bricks and wide grassy expanses, with an enrollment of less than 6,000. It boasts a bit of a college football pedigree — both Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher once played there — but it usually sticks within its FCS boundaries, playing opponents like Furman, Wofford and Mercer. Usually.
Once a year, Samford suits up against a giant — Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State, Georgia — and prepares to do battle both for glory and for the bottom line.
The advantages to an unfair matchup like this for a leviathan like Georgia are obvious: a chance to compete in a game-day environment at home, with all the requisite revenue that entails. Samford, unlike Power 5 schools, isn’t asking for a home-and-home. FCS-level matchups don’t exactly demand four quarters of effort from the starters, so coaches can get an early look at players lower on the depth chart. (Yes, there’s also the all-but-guaranteed win factor, but when you’re Georgia, that’s not as much of an issue, no matter whom you’re playing.)
The advantages for Samford, on the other hand, are this: a Saturday afternoon turn on the big stage … and a whole lot of cash. For fiscal 2021 — July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021 — Samford reported football expenses of $5.3 million, about one-fourth of the athletic department’s total expenditures, according to the U.S. Department of Education. (The University of Georgia had football expenses of $36.2 million and total expenses of $113.2 million over the same period.)
So when a marquee program comes along offering the going rate of $500,000 — 10 percent of the football program’s entire budget — for one day’s work, that’s an awfully enticing proposition for a small school.
“These games are hard to get,” Hatcher said. “We schedule them way out in advance. Anybody who’s willing to pay us half a million dollars, we’re willing to travel. We need the money.”
“Some of these programs cannot, cannot survive,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said Monday, “without these games.”
How to prepare for (almost) certain doom
Part of the allure — and madness — of college football is that it’s the last place where future NFL All-Pros will meet up on a level playing field against future auto dealership owners and insurance salesmen. The difference in talent between players on opposite sides of an NFL field isn’t nearly as vast as the difference between players from the SEC’s top team and colleges with enrollments that barely top four figures.
That’s why it’s so crucial to have coaches like Hatcher, who possesses the kind of raw-throated optimism that rallies teams heading toward certain doom. He and Smart have a history — Smart began his career in 2000 at Division II Valdosta State under Hatcher, and took lessons from that experience that he employs to this day.
“He was incredible, his disposition with the team, was always confident,” Smart recalled of their days together. “And just believed that we could win every game. And he embodied that. He embraced that. His players loved playing for him because of the energy he exudes with the players."
Hatcher uses that positive energy every time he leads his Bulldogs into The Swamp or Jordan-Hare or, this weekend, into Sanford Stadium.
“The teams that I’ve had, there’s no intimidation factor,” Hatcher said. “They love it. We play (at home) in front of six to 10,000 fans, so when you get on the big stage, there’s an electric atmosphere, and they really love that atmosphere.”
He won’t change his pregame message to the team — “You know you’re going into a fight with a smaller weapon than the other guy, but you’ve still got to go play” — and the pain of a loss still stings, no matter how much you know it’s coming.
The looming question for Samford and other similar programs is, how long can they count on these profitable, glorious, doomed games?
End of FCS-Power 5 games ahead?
There are troubling signs on the horizon for FCS schools hoping to continue scheduling Power 5 opponents. As conferences expand and in-conference schedules increase, available slots for outside opponents diminish. The COVID-enforced schedules of 2020, when Power 5 schools largely played within their own conferences, made for a grim forecast of what could happen to these smaller schools if they weren’t able to schedule dates with the powerhouses. Smart understands the balancing act that’s at work here, from youth leagues all the way to the professional ranks. Take away playing opportunities in the middle, and options upstream soon diminish.
“High schools are our feeder programs, just like we are for the NFL,” he said. “ And if you're going to have good high school programs, you got to have kids getting opportunities to play at all levels. Because there's a lot more kids playing at a non-Power 5 level than at the Power 5 level. So if you're a supplier of talent and the growth of the game comes from your youth sports and your high school sports, you're going to diminish that as these programs fade away.”
That’s a challenge for the future. For now, Hatcher is focused on the game coming this weekend.
The key difference between playing, say, Kennesaw State and playing the University of Georgia is along the lines, Hatcher believes. “Defensively, we have to get a few more guys on the line of scrimmage,” he said. “Offensively, we’re a lot more cognizant of protection of the quarterback. They can rush three and get pressure. Other teams are not able to do that.”
“For their players, this is an opportunity to play on a really large stage,” Smart said. “And Chris Hatcher does a great job of getting his team prepared for moments like this and confidence in throwing the ball."
Last year, Hatcher’s Bulldogs threw for 410 yards, scored in truckloads, and were within four points of Florida — 56 to 52 — with less than 10 minutes left in the game. Four years ago, Samford threw for 475 yards and were within three points of the Seminoles, 29 to 26, with less than three minutes remaining in the game.
It’s highly unlikely Georgia will allow the other Bulldogs to hang around that late. Even so, Hatcher isn’t prepared to give up before the game even starts.
“There’s never been a game we coached in that I didn’t think we could win,” Hatcher said. “I always tell my teams, if I think we can’t win, I won’t show up. I’ve been a head coach for 23 years, and I’ve never missed a ball game.”
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.