Small Programs Seek Windfall From National Football Poll Rankings

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When this year’s AP Top 25 college football preseason poll was released in August, two new inclusions made history: Coastal Carolina, coming in at No. 22, and Louisiana Lafayette right behind at 23. Both Sun Belt Conference members also found themselves similarly ranked in the coaches’ preseason poll. The milestones marked the first preseason national rankings for either program, but while the schools are suddenly on the same page with perennial contenders from Power 5 conferences, they’re nowhere near their new peers in the polls financially.

The Sun Belt standouts and the AAC’s Cincinnati, which earned a pair of Top 10 preseason rankings, were the only non-Power 5 FBS football programs to make AP’s initial Top 25, and a look at their budgets show that millions of dollars separate them from the rest of the pack. While rankings don’t directly bring any financial benefits, there’s potential money to be mined from making the list.

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Rankings in the AP or in the Coaches polls don’t matter in any literal sense. They don’t impact playoffs, nor do they dictate bowl game seeding or selection. But they do give the public a sense of how teams might stack up against one another throughout the season based on their records, though even that is not apples-to-apples when strength of schedule is taken into consideration. Central Florida, for example, was the only FBS team in the country to finish undefeated in 2017 and yet finished No. 6 in the final AP poll, behind four teams with two losses each. As Knights fans will gladly remind us all, if Alabama or Ohio State had gone undefeated, they likely would have found themselves atop the rankings.

In the poll with the most tangible importance, the College Football Playoff, UCF found itself at No. 12 in the final tally, eight spots away from national championship contention despite its perfect record.

Still, even simple perception is something schools like Coastal Carolina and Louisiana Lafayette can use to chip away at the financial gap that separates them from college football’s established elite. Accolades are selling points, and additional funding means more of a chance to compete.

The Sun Belt schools’ preseason perceptions come on the heels of successful 2020 campaigns. The conference champion Chanticleers went undefeated for the first time ever, gained their first regular-season national Top 25 ranking and finished No. 14 in both the final AP and Coaches polls (both conference records). The Ragin' Cajuns finished right behind Coastal at No. 15 after also breaking into the AP Top 25 for the first time last fall.

“For somebody that's as new to this level as we are, and as small as we are, it’s really an incredible accomplishment,” Joe Moglia, Coastal Carolina’s executive director for football and chair of athletics, said in an interview. Coastal Carolina has only been playing football at the FBS level since 2017, and Moglia, the former chairman of the board and former CEO of TD Ameritrade, helped the team transition to college football’s top tier in the final stretch of his six seasons as head coach.

A poll appearance can foster a lot of potential follow-on effects. “That national recognition should enhance our ability to raise money, which, as a Group of Five school, that's something we desperately need,” Moglia said.

The national spotlight lands more of the school’s contests on national television and attracts better recruits, creating an ecosystem primed for continued success. That then boosts attendance and ticket revenue, and brings in more donor dollars. Football success also increases awareness for the school more broadly, which can lead to an increase in applications—Coastal did in fact see an uptick in applications for this school year, Moglia said—and eventual attendance, which brings in additional tuition revenues.

That’s particularly important at smaller athletic departments, like Coastal’s, which tend to be far more dependent on school support than their Power 5 peers. Coastal Carolina’s $37 million total athletic department budget in 2019 (the last year for which financial documents are available without any COVID impact) was just about half of Alabama’s football budget alone that same year, and just 20% of the Crimson Tide’s total $185 million department outlay.

Direct and indirect institutional support accounted for Coastal Carolina’s top two revenue streams in FY19, with student fees—each of the school’s approximately 10,000 enrollees account for upwards of $400 per student per year on average, according to estimates based on financial documents—making up the third-largest source of income. Donor contributions were the athletic department’s No. 4 revenue generator in 2019. Moglia expects revenues from donor support and attendance in the Chanticleers’ newly expanded 20,000-seat Brooks Stadium to increase because of the program’s newfound exposure.

“Power 5 schools get one single check largely for football [from their conference’s TV revenues], and it's 50-something-million dollars,” Moglia said. “Our entire athletic budget is in the $30 million [range], for all 17 sports. So for us, a national ranking and the ability to generate some more revenue from it is incredibly positive. More people are aware of us, more people are excited about what we're doing [and] excited about the program.”

To be clear, Coastal Carolina isn’t the first non-Power 5 program to find itself among the country’s top-ranked teams, or the first to try to capitalize on the financial windfall that can come from that standing. Each year a few schools in similar financial positions find themselves ranked among the country’s best. In 2019, three Group of Five conferences had a combined seven schools in the final AP poll of the season. Memphis, Cincinnati, Navy and UCF of the AAC; Air Force and Boise State (Mountain West): and the Sun Belt’s Appalachian State all appeared in the rankings, though none higher than No. 17. None were contending with LSU or Clemson for the top spots; none were in the playoff picture—and yet, their rankings were still noted on campus and in their greater communities because of the perceived value of prominence. Of the seven, only Cincinnati is in this year’s preseason Top 25—highlighting how fleeting such success can be, and how crucial it is for these programs to capitalize when they do find themselves in the spotlight.