Who’s more I-A?

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InfoCision Stadium in Akron, Ohio, minutes before the University of Akron played JMU in a football game Saturday. The Zips won 35-33.

This story compares Akron’s Division I-A athletic program and James Madison’s Division I-AA athletic program. They are not dissimilar. The gap between the bottom of I-A and the top of I-AA is small, and the game proved it. There were five lead changes, and JMU led 13-0 in the first quarter. The game wasn’t decided until the last second. Even though Akron has been one of the worst I-A teams in the country — the Zips’ record entering Saturday’s game was 3-34 since 2010 — the game still showed that non-BCS I-A and elite I-AA aren’t far apart. This story ran Sept. 3, 2013.

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Mickey Matthews was vehement in his assertion that a Division I-A team — a team from the highest classification in college football, the one with the most scholarships and the biggest stadiums — would ever play a road game at a I-AA opponent.

“Never happen,” the James Madison coach said Monday at his weekly press conference. “On God’s green earth, it’s not going to happen. It has never happened in the history of football. It’s not gonna happen. A I-A team is not gonna lower themselves to come to a I-AA team. Let’s be honest about it. They’re not gonna do it. I guess if we offered them $800,000 to come here, they’d probably consider it, but I bet, even then, you’d have a hard time to have anybody take that.”

If any I-AA school ever had a case, it might be JMU this weekend.

Saturday, the Dukes (1-0) will play at I-A Akron (0-1). Madison, which dropped one spot to No. 20 in The Sports Network’s Division I-AA poll Monday, is only a three-point underdog. And it could even be argued that JMU is more I-A than Akron, which jumped from I-AA to I-A in 1987 and currently plays in the Mid-American Conference — a league whose newest member is I-AA defector Massachusetts, which used to play in JMU’s conference: the Colonial Athletic Association.

First, look at attendance. In 2012, Madison out-drew Akron by an average of 13,508 fans per game. JMU averaged 22,783 in 24,887-seat Bridgeforth Stadium last year (92 percent of capacity), while the Zips averaged 9,275 in 27,881-seat InfoCision Stadium (33 percent of capacity). The two stadiums also are comparably priced. Akron’s cost $61.6 million, and an expansion of JMU’s cost $62.5 million.

Overall, JMU spends more money on its athletics department and football program than Akron. Madison’s athletics budget is $34.5 million, with $6.6 million of that going to football. Akron’s budget is $25.5 million, with $5.9 million going to football — and the Zips are paying JMU $300,000 for Saturday’s game.

There’s even a case for JMU’s superiority on the field, despite 22 fewer scholarships. I-A teams are allowed 85 by the NCAA; I-AA teams get 63.

The Dukes have as many wins over I-A opponents as Akron from 2010-13. During that stretch, the Zips’ record is 3-34, including a 38-7 loss to Central Florida last Thursday.

Akron went 1-11 in 2010, 2011 and 2012, its first season under coach Terry Bowden, the Auburn coach from 1993-98 and the son of former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. That year, the Zips lost 22-14 to UMass. It was the Minutemen’s only win of the season, their first in I-A. The last time JMU played UMass, the Dukes won 34-17 in 2011 in Amherst, Mass.

Two of Akron’s three wins from 2010-12 were against I-AA teams: Morgan State in 2012 and VMI in 2011. Akron’s lone I-A win during that stretch was a 22-14 victory over Buffalo in 2010. JMU beat Virginia Tech, then ranked 13th in the country by the Associated Press, 21-16 in 2010.

“This is not one of those gimme, lower-level teams,” Bowden said of JMU on the MAC conference call Monday. “They’re one of the better teams in I-AA football.”

Asking Virginia Tech, North Carolina or West Virginia — JMU’s last three I-A opponents — for a home-and-home series would be silly. Those teams, all major I-A programs in BCS conferences, play in 60,000-seat plus stadiums. Asking a low-level I-A like Akron doesn’t seem so taboo.

JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne said Monday that JMU did not ask for a home-and-home with Akron, a game the two schools booked, Bourne said, about a year and a half ago.

Bourne said a reason I-AA teams don’t host I-A teams is because I-A teams — which typically have much bigger stadiums — don’t want to give up the revenue generated by ticket and concession sales. But, in the case of JMU and Akron, where the stadium-size problem is negligible, it probably has more to do with status.

It just looks bad if a I-A team goes to a I-AA team’s stadium.

“It’s a perceptual issue with their fans,” Bourne said. “The fact that it’s not been done, I think, makes it challenging.”

But would it be too gauche to even ask?

“I don’t know that there’s an inherent rationale in why we wouldn’t — at least have dialogue,” Bourne said.


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