They once mockingly were called "body-bag games."
Coaches of schools in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA, knew what they had to do when matched against richer, deeper Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I-A) opponents: Collect a big paycheck for traveling far from home, hope to avoid serious injuries and try to keep the defeat respectable.
Then something happened.
Smaller programs at colleges like Sacramento State and UC Davis started to become more competitive, even pulling off headline-grabbing upsets now and then.
The Aggies, with essentially a non-scholarship team, upset Stanford 20-17 in Palo Alto in 2005. Five years later, they knocked off San Jose State 14-13.
In 2011, Sac State shocked Oregon State 29-28 in overtime in Corvallis, Ore., then beat another Pacific-12 Conference team last season, rallying to top host Colorado 30-28 in Boulder on a late field goal.
Tonight the Hornets go for a Pac-12 three-peat at Arizona State. Then on Saturday, UCD will try for its third win over an FBS opponent since 2005 when it travels to Reno to play Nevada in the renewal of the once-popular rivalry.
Sac State and UCD aren't the only FCS schools pulling off upsets, either. In the opening week of the college football season, eight FCS schools won games against FBS teams.
Defending FCS national champion North Dakota State beat Kansas State 24-21. The Wildcats played in the Fiesta Bowl last season and were ranked in the top five by The Associated Press for several weeks.
Eastern Washington, which plays in the Big Sky Conference with Sac State and UCD, shocked Oregon State 49-46, becoming the fourth FCS team to upset a ranked FBS team. The Beavers began the season ranked 25th.
"College football is filled with upsets week in, week out," said new San Jose State coach Ron Caragher, who coached previously at FCS San Diego. " Having coached at the FCS level, I have the utmost respect for those teams. They recruit and get guys. There are a lot of FCS players now playing in the National Football League."
The gap is narrowing
Sac State athletic director Terry Wanless said the gap in talent between FBS and FCS schools is narrowing, despite the difference in scholarships that can be awarded. FBS schools can offer 85 football scholarships; FCS schools 63.
"There are more good football players in America wanting and needing a place to go," Wanless said. "Ten years ago, there was a significant physical difference between the two levels. We'd have 270-pound tackles playing against 310-pounders. That's not the case anymore."
Portland State coach Nigel Burton, who starred at Jesuit, played at Washington and whose team plays in the Big Sky Conference, credits the Internet for helping narrow the gap.
"When everything went digital, that changed the landscape of recruiting," he said. "When we were coming out of college, the only way you got recruited is that recruiters came to your campus to pick up film. It was a process.
"Now with email and a click of a button you can turn over a rock and find talent. We've now got kids from Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Samoa. The bigger schools can't hoard it like in the past."
Still, the odds will be stacked against Sac State and UCD tonight and Saturday.
The Hornets are 2-11 against the big boys since 2002, including last Thursday's 24-0 loss at San Jose State, and UCD is 2-9 in matchups against FBS teams in the last eight years.
The end of an era?
Sac State and UCD administrators, coaches and players hope those interdivisional games don't end as some are predicting could happen when the FBS goes to a playoff system in 2014.
They say the David-vs.-Goliath matchups bring much-needed buzz to their campuses, help with recruiting and supplement tight budgets.
Sacramento State senior linebacker Todd Davis played in the Oregon State and Colorado games and can't wait to step on the field tonight at Sun Devil Stadium.
"It's a great opportunity for us as a Division I-AA program to show that we can compete at the D-I level," said Davis, who is 10th all-time in tackles for the Hornets. "All the guys are excited for these games."
The games also produce windfalls for programs used to playing to modest-sized crowds.
Sacramento State will get $435,000 for playing Arizona State and made $300,000 against San Jose State. UCD's payday for playing Nevada is $250,000.
"Revenue is a very important part of these opportunities," Wanless said. "It's also a great opportunity for our football team to play in a special environment in front of 50,000 and 60,000 spectators. It creates lifetime memories."
Playing FBS schools and having beaten some of them also helps with recruiting.
"Kids want to play at the highest level, so it absolutely helps us by playing those kind of teams," UCD coach Ron Gould said.
Regional games are best bet
Wanless and UCD AD Terry Tumey try to be careful when making their football schedules.
That means trying to schedule a long-distance national power such as Alabama, Notre Dame or LSU is usually out of the question. Regional matchups, especially for short hops to the Bay Area, Fresno and Reno, are relished. They enhance rivalries and reduce travel costs.
Sac State has played Stanford, Cal, Boise State, Nevada and UNLV, in addition to Oregon State (twice). The Hornets' longest trips have been to UTEP, New Mexico, New Mexico State, Colorado and Colorado State, all more than 1,000 miles.
In addition to Stanford, UCD has played Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Cal and Arizona State. In 2006, UCD played at TCU. And the Aggies have played San Jose State four times since 2007.
"There is somewhat of a science to it," said Mike Robles, UCD's assistant AD/communications. "You want the right team, the right opportunity. An Alabama might offer $800,000, but it might not make sense because of the travel and potential to get hurt."
Regional games make the most sense, and that's why Tumey and Robles are pleased UCD will play Nevada for the first time since 1989.
The schools were longtime rivals they first played in 1915 before the series ended when Nevada started its transition to Division I-A.
Playoff will alter things
These so-called payday games may not be as plentiful in the future with the sweeping changes under way in college football.
The shift to nine-game conference schedules, increased emphasis on strength of schedule for the coming College Football Playoff and the push to have power conferences beef up their made-for-TV matchups could have an impact.
Although the Big Ten Conference already has requested that its schools no longer schedule FCS teams, Wanless still thinks there is strong support for interdivisional games.
Sac State has contracts to play Cal in 2014, Washington in 2015, Fresno State in 2016 and Arizona State in 2019, with an agreement in principle with a Pac-12 school for 2020.
UCD will play Stanford next year, Nevada in 2015 and Oregon in 2016.
"So far, the Pac-12 schools, the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 have shown no indication they're going to move in the direction of the Big Ten," Wanless said. "So we're optimistic."
Wanless remembers when Hornets players were just happy to be on the same field as players from Oregon State, Cal or Boise State.
"Arizona State is going to be a great test for our kids," Wanless said. "They are one of the stronger teams we have played in recent history.
"But the nice thing about our guys is they'll go down there with confidence and no fear. That's what winning a couple of games (against the Pac-12) will do."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.