On Friday, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s football team plans on boarding a bus, driving about 150 miles and staying overnight at a hotel in Birmingham, Ala. The next morning, the players and coaches will wake up early and drive an hour to Tuscaloosa, where they will face the University of Alabama at 11 a.m. local time.
By all accounts, Chattanooga will have no shot at defeating Alabama. After all, the Mocs are in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), a level below major college football, while Alabama is eighth in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings. Alabama is 13-0 all-time against Chattanooga and has won those games by an average of 32.5 points.
Still, Chattanooga’s coaches, players and administrators view the chance to play Alabama as a major benefit.
Alabama is paying Chattanooga $600,000 to play the game, according to Mark Wharton, Chattanooga’s athletics director. Like many other FCS schools, the Mocs usually have at least one game each season against a major Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) program.
Wharton said the going rate for those so-called “buy games” is $500,000 to $600,000 for teams in the Power Five conferences: Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 and the Pac-12, which will only have two members after this season. Meanwhile, he added that lower-tier FBS schools typically pay Chattanooga $350,000 to $375,000 to play.
Next year, Chattanooga opens its season on the road against Tennessee and Georgia State. Those two games will bring in nearly $1 million to the Mocs’ athletics department, which in 2022 generated just over $21 million in revenue, according to the Knight-Newhouse college athletics database.
“We have to play one of those games,” Wharton said. “It’s hard to get the Power Five (schools), especially in this day and time, but that’s our preference and after that it’s a (smaller FBS) game if we can find that.”
He added: “I think it’s great for our players. The atmosphere is far different from the FCS, just the facilities and the amenities and crowd size. It’s a great benefit and certainly a recruiting tool for us.”
Rusty Wright, Chattanooga’s head coach, concurs about the buy games helping attract recruits. He said he prefers playing against schools that are in Southern states such as Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky, where the Mocs target their recruiting efforts. Chattanooga also wants to be within driving distance of the schools it plays so it doesn’t have to incur the cost of a private plane.
Saturday’s Alabama game was scheduled in 2016 before Wharton and Wright were even in their current roles, which is somewhat unusual, although games are typically scheduled a few years in advance. For instance, Chattanooga already knows it’s playing Memphis in 2025 and Mississippi State in 2027.
This year’s Chattanooga team features 14 players from Alabama, all of whom were told during the recruiting process about Saturday’s game. Playing the Crimson Tide was a selling point for Wright and his assistants.
“We talk about all of those (buy) games,” Wright said. “Kids want to know if they have those opportunities to play in games like that. We’re going to play as good of (teams) as we can play. It only makes you better at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter what happens. It makes you better, and it helps out the University.”
Chattanooga isn’t alone when it comes to relying on buy games for financial and recruiting help. This year, there are 118 games pitting FBS vs. FCS schools. Storied programs such as Georgia, Notre Dame, Oregon, Ohio State, Penn State, Clemson, Tennessee and LSU all have a game against an FCS opponent this year.
The concept isn’t unique to football. Each year, dozens of college basketball games feature Power Five schools playing lower conference programs.
Wharton said men’s basketball coach Dan Earl’s contract requires the Mocs to earn $170,000 each season through buy games. This year, Chattanooga generated that money by scheduling games at Louisville and at Auburn.
The Mocs on Friday accomplished the goal of any lower conference school when it upset Louisville, 81-71, in front of more than 10,000 fans on the road. It was the first time Chattanooga had defeated an ACC school in regular season play, although it had beaten Clemson in the 1985 NIT postseason event.
A football upset on Saturday seems highly unlikely considering Alabama has gone 13-0 against FCS opponents in Novembers since 2009, winning by an average of 43.6 points per game. Chattanooga played Alabama three times during that stretch, losing 45-0 in 2009, 49-0 in 2013 and 31-3 in 2016.
Saturday’s game is the regular season finale for Chattanooga, but the Mocs are hoping it won’t be their final game. Chattanooga (7-3) is ranked 16th in the FCS coaches poll and 18th in the Stats Perform FCS poll. The 24-team FCS playoff field will be announced on Sunday, and the Mocs could be among the teams selected.
First, though, they will play at famed Bryant-Denny Stadium on Alabama’s campus, an experience no one associated with the program will ever forget, regardless of the outcome.
“(The crowd) is a little louder, guys are a little bigger, a little faster,” Wright said. “You have to get adjusted to that a little bit, but once that happens it’s just playing football. Don’t get me wrong, Alabama’s probably one of the hottest teams in the country now. We’ll have to play really, really, really, really well just to have a chance.”
Still, he added, “you always want to play against the best anytime you get a chance.”