Standing 6 feet 2 inches, weighing 305 pounds and topped by shock of red hair, Aaron Mitchell in no shape or form resembles a sacrificial lamb.
In fact, if the Bulldogs’ senior center weren’t such a nice guy, he’d probably sock me in the mouth for suggesting so.
“We live for this stuff,” Mitchell said of Fresno State facing top-ranked Alabama on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa.
“For guys who want to play in the NFL, this is a great opportunity because you’re going to be playing guys like Alabama every week. I’ve dreamed of this moment for a long time, ever since I found out we were going to play them. Now it’s here, and I’m excited for it.”
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You have to like Mitchell’s attitude. It’s exactly the attitude a 43½ -point underdog should have in these situations.
Let’s be real, though. The Bulldogs aren’t playing No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Washington in back-to-back weeks for reasons that have anything to do with competition.
They’re playing for the paychecks, $2.4 million worth.
If we’re going to go somewhere tough like Alabama, we need to get paid for it.
Fresno State AD Jim Bartko
Guarantee games, when one school pays another an agreed-upon sum to play at its stadium, are part of the commerce of college football. About $150 million will change hands this season, according to USA Today, including 26 instances when a Power 5 Conference school pays at least $1 million to an opponent.
Fresno State, as far as I can tell, is the only school with two million-dollar paydays: $1.4 million for Alabama and $1 million for Washington.
Better have the matchmaker of that 1-2 punch explain.
“I had two (schools) call at the same time,” Fresno State Athletic Director Jim Bartko said. “I had two openings two years ago and two years ago we had no (guarantee games), so we popped them in. Just happened to fit our schedule.”
Time to spread a little context. At the time Bartko set up the Alabama and Washington games, he was new on the job and the Bulldogs had played in three straight Mountain West championships. He didn’t know the crater was imminent.
Also, while Alabama is Alabama, Washington was coming off an 8-6 season in Year 1 under Chris Petersen. Now that Fresno State has to play the game, the Huskies are a season removed from 12-2 and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Bartko certainly has bills to pay. Every time the poor guy turns around someone’s going through his pockets. Pony up for wrestling and women’s water polo, which go live in November. Pony up for cost of attendance stipends. Pony up for Jeff Tedford’s new contract, with its hefty incentive clauses, while having to pay off three more years of Tim DeRuyter.
$2.4M Total of Fresno State’s guaranteed payouts for road games at Alabama and Washington
And do it at a time when ticket sales for football, his primary revenue source, plunged in parallel with the team’s record.
“We’re still catching up with all that,” Bartko said.
I have little doubt Bartko and Associate Athletic Director for Business Operations Terry Donovan can find a slot for every nickel of that $2.4 million.
But there’s a price to pay for an overreliance on guarantee games, which schools like Fresno State are all but guaranteed to lose. Yes, health is one of them. The Bulldogs could get physically abused by Alabama, though the risk of injury is probably the same no matter who you play. Football is funny like that.
The other costs are what those L’s do to your hopes of ever playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game – say au revoir to that hefty payout – and, if lopsided enough, what they do to the spirits of your own fans.
We’ll find out Sept. 30, when Fresno State plays its next home game after likely getting clobbered on consecutive Saturdays and a well-placed bye.
Bartko’s ideal formula for a nonconference schedule would be one game against an A level opponent (i.e. Alabama or USC), two against a B level (i.e. Oregon State or Tulsa) and one against a C (i.e. Cal Poly or UC Davis).
“There might be some years where we have to play two (As), but we go in thinking one A, two Bs and a C,” he said.
Would I do it again, having two games like (Alabama and Washington) back to back? Probably not.
It’s probably not financially realistic for Fresno State to wean itself off all guarantee games. But Bartko should avoid, if at all possible, a repeat of this year. One massive payday for a massive beatdown is enough.
Especially in seasons when the Bulldogs are expected to be competitive.
A better model, one that schools like San Diego State use, is to avoid guarantee games in favor of home-and-home series with attractive opponents, which boost ticket sales. In this manner, the Aztecs have future home games with the likes of Stanford, UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona.
Heck, even UNLV got UCLA to come to town in 2015 and has Arizona State visiting in 2020.
Fresno State, by contrast, has Minnesota (2019) and Oregon State (2022) as future home-and-home opponents. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs visit UCLA and USC three times apiece between 2018 and 2025 – all for seven-figure guarantees.
“Sure we’ve tried to get the UCLAs and Arizona States to play here,” Bartko said. “San Diego is a little different, a bigger stadium. And UNLV is Vegas.”
Bartko will be able to make a better case if and when Bulldog Stadium gets redone. As things stand now, revenues are essentially locked in because of the limited suites and absence of any club seats.
The bottom line is that Fresno State must find other ways to balance its budget than on the backs of its football team. That’s no way to nurture your most valuable asset. One dip into the cookie jar is plenty.
Fresno State’s future nonconference schedules
2018: Idaho, at Minnesota, at UCLA, Toledo
2019: at USC, Minnesota, Sacramento State, TBD
2020: at Colorado, at Texas A&M, TBD, TBD
2021: at Oregon, at UCLA, TBD, TBD
2022: Sacramento State, Oregon State, at USC, TBD