No matter the outcome, the University of Maine football team is cashing in on its game this weekend.

The Black Bears are being paid $350,000 for playing Saturday at Boston College. It’s serious money for the university’s athletic department, which runs a deficit each year.

But the advent of college football’s playoff system means big paydays are getting harder to find for small Division I programs, some of which have earned up to $1 million for traveling to play powerhouses such as Auburn and Michigan in recent years.

After Saturday, UMaine has no so-called “guarantee games” on the horizon, and first-year Athletic Director Karlton Creech is concerned about what that might mean for his budget.

“We’ve got to get to work,” Creech said of trying to find a big-name opponent for next season. “I still think we have an opportunity to find a game. If we don’t find one, we’ll just have to compensate for it. It’s a significant impact.”

Creech isn’t panicking, at least not yet. He had a phone call scheduled with an ESPN official this week, a matchmaker of sorts who tries to connect schools like UMaine looking for a payday with high-profile programs in need of an opponent next fall, a team that can keep their big stadiums from sitting empty on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s an increasingly common predicament for college football programs like UMaine, which plays in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. The FCS is a step below the major-college Football Bowl Subdivision in which schools like Boston College compete. In the past, the FBS schools were happy to write big checks to lure lesser opponents onto their campuses, knowing that each home game is worth millions of dollars in ticket, concessions and television revenue, and that there was little chance they would actually lose.

These days, the smaller schools aren’t the pushovers they used to be, although victories by FCS schools against FBS opponents are uncommon. Appalachian State became the toast of college football in 2007 when it went into Michigan’s famed “Big House” and handed the home team a stunning loss. North Dakota State in recent years has made a habit of knocking off the likes of Kansas State and Iowa State in the mighty Big 12 Conference.

NEW PLAYOFF SYSTEM A FACTOR

The biggest scheduling barrier for FCS schools is the debut this year of the NCAA’s playoff system in FBS. A selection committee will choose four teams to play for the FBS championship, and one of the criteria for consideration will be strength of schedule. So beating a team like UMaine in September will carry little weight with the committee when it sits down to deliberate in December. Losing to such a school? Forget it.

Already, the Big Ten Conference has started discouraging its 14 teams from playing FCS opponents. The other four conferences that make up the so-called “Power Five” also are casting a wary eye on such matchups.

For example, the Atlantic Coast Conference, to which Boston College belongs, has made only one requirement of its 14 teams – at least one of their four nonconference games must be against a fellow Power Five school. Michael Strickland, the conference’s senior associate commissioner for football operations, said the league wants to give its schools the freedom to schedule as they see fit. But that could change.

“Certainly, everyone’s paying attention to the first year of the selection committee,” Strickland said. “We all know that strength of schedule is going to be important. How much more so remains to be seen. I think you’ll see a lot of people pay attention to the discussions (about who makes the FBS playoffs) and then adjust if they need to.”

The Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences already have gone to nine-game league seasons, leaving only three nonconference contests available. The Big Ten is taking that step in 2016. The ACC and Southeastern Conference are staying at eight games for now.

Strickland said the ACC still wants to give FCS schools a shot at the increased exposure and money that playing a team like Florida State or Syracuse can bring.

“You’re not going to hear anybody bash FCS programs in our league. Those programs are far better than they’ve ever been,” he said.

What might change, Strickland said, is that teams will look for closer geographical ties when scheduling smaller rivals. Clemson played South Carolina State this year and has Wofford on the schedule next year. Duke is playing North Carolina Central next fall.

“It’s important to them, both being state schools, that they help out one another,” Strickland said.

UMaine-Boston College is another example of that. Being able to bus to the game, instead of flying as UMaine had to do to play Northwestern last year, can save about $100,000, said Black Bears Coach Jack Cosgrove.

Boston College Coach Steve Addazio, whose team is coming off a victory over USC, said he likes to schedule teams like UMaine. With eight conference games, plus matchups with Notre Dame or USC on the schedule, it’s a needed break for his squad, he said.

“It’s nice to have the ability to play some geographically suited teams that are up in this area for the fan bases,” Addazio said. “I think it’s a good mix.”

GUARANTEE GAMES A BIG PRIORITY

That’s good news for teams like the Black Bears only if Addazio continues to be allowed to schedule whoever he wants. If the ACC does start cracking down on such potential mismatches, or if it becomes apparent that FCS opponents are damaging to an FBS team’s championship aspirations, the smaller schools will face one more financial hurdle.

No FCS athletic department made money in 2013, according to the latest NCAA revenue report. And that gap is getting wider. Median revenue increased 1.1 percent in 2013, while expenses were up 2.7 percent. The median loss for an FCS football program was $1.97 million in 2013, and only one made money. Guarantee games, like UMaine-BC, constitute 12 percent of the budget at a typical FCS school.

“We budget for guarantee money each year and make it a priority to go out and schedule those games,” Creech said. “I’m making sure I’m as informed as I can be about the national landscape of college football. I’d like to get games scheduled years in advance. That’s great security.”

UMaine can make up for some of that loss by scheduling guarantee games in men’s basketball, the only other sport where the practice occurs. Creech had a clause about guarantee games written into the contract of new coach Bob Walsh, and he has three of them scheduled this winter (at Butler, Boston College and Seton Hall). But those contracts are usually in the $70,000 range, a far cry from what’s available in football.

WELCOME CHALLENGE FOR UMAINE

There was a time when Cosgrove was hesitant to play major-conference schools. Many such matchups resulted in 60-0 blowouts. He preferred to schedule fellow FCS schools like Montana.

But in 2004 he took his Black Bears to Mississippi State and came away with a 9-7 victory. The next year, UMaine was competitive but lost 25-7 at Nebraska. It hasn’t always been so close. The Black Bears have just two wins against FBS opposition, and were walloped 46-3 by Iowa in 2008.

“These games have been for the most part inspirational for UMaine football, the way we’ve performed in them,” Cosgrove said. “For me (that’s) the reason why we do this. It allows our players to be in a situation where they are challenged at the FBS level. A lot of them might have thought that they would be FBS players; well, here’s your chance to see.

“I don’t know year to year whether we’ve bitten off more than we can chew here. I didn’t sleep the whole summer (before) we played Nebraska.”

It’s also a much bigger stage for the Black Bear players. Last week they played in front of 3,291 fans at Bryant University, in what amounted to a high school stadium. On Saturday there will be 10 times that many in Alumni Stadium, with a capacity of 44,500.

“The lights are on, you can show the world,” said UMaine cornerback Sherrod Baltimore. “I like being in that environment. That makes the best come out in me every time.”

Baltimore is a junior. Will he get another chance to show the world in his final Black Bear season?

“We’re in a situation where we’re looking kind of at the last minute for a game, and we’ll need help to get there,” Creech said. “That’s what I want to avoid in the future. I don’t want to be looking for next year. I want to be looking for 2020 or 2021 so that we’ve got those contracts in place.”

Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at:

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