Victory is just a consolation prize in some NCAA football games.

Ball State has little shot at defeating Texas A&M when the teams play next September. The Southeastern Conference opponent is bigger, faster and historically competes at a higher level than the Cardinals.

To help offset the lopsided odds, the Aggies’ athletic department will dish out $1.2 million in compensation. The payout is called a guarantee. Big schools pay smaller schools every year to play in games that may not even be competitive.

Ball State could be in line to get its hands on more valuable guarantee games when the NCAA votes to adopt new legislation at its January convention. In August, the NCAA granted autonomy to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference, referred to as the Power 5 conferences.

That means those five conferences, the wealthiest in college sports, can now adopt legislation separate from other conferences. Ball State interim athletic director Brian Hardin said those conferences will now likely encourage member schools to cut Football Championship Series opponents, the lowest level of Division I competition, from their schedules.

“It won’t so much impact [Ball State],” he said. “It could indirectly benefit us, because we’ll have more opportunities to play schools from a conference that don’t want to play an FCS team.”

The strength of schedule component used in the new College Football Playoff format will make playing bottom-feeders a big handicap for Power 5 schools. Starting this year, a selection committee will choose four schools to play in a single-elimination bracket deciding the national champion.

That means a team like Ohio State from the Big Ten might avoid adding Indiana State from the Missouri Valley Football Conference to its non-conference schedule, Hardin said. That game could be too big of a blemish for the Buckeyes.

“If you’re Ohio State,” he said, “you have to make sure your schedule strength is going to match up with that of a conference champion from the SEC or the Pac-12.”

Last year, Ball State pocketed $975,000 in guarantee payouts — the second largest revenue listed in the athletic budget. Ball State received at least $1 million from guarantee payouts in three years prior to last.

It’s a consistent form of income that, despite the chance of suffering a defeat, head coach and associate athletic director Pete Lembo has to consider when scheduling non-conference opponents.

“You embrace it and make the most of it,” he said. “You use it as an opportunity. It’s going to be a great experience for the team. It’s going to be a great experience for the constituents that go to the game, and it's going to be great exposure for the university.”

Exposure and income can greatly benefit Ball State, but some argue it’s not completely worth it. Jeff Smith, a leading voice on college athletics, said the current format is only beneficial at a surface level.

“The NCAA is broken,” Smith said. “Part of the reason there are so many schools in Division I is because the big schools want to play somebody smaller, pay them a bit and get a couple home games. You’ve seen the scores — sometimes they’re 70-3.”

Smith has done extensive research on spending by college universities. He said one reason Ball State and other middle-of-the-pack colleges find themselves in a hole financially is because they want to compete with the big dogs. It’s all about portraying an image, Smith said.

But the big schools need smaller schools, too. If Michigan only ever played other Big Ten schools, it would struggle to boost its record. Playing MAC schools can lead to a couple extra wins on the year, and that helps ensure a bowl game. Bowl eligibility drives scheduling decisions at most schools. 

Lembo works closely with the university president and athletic director to schedule non-conference opponents. It’s usually four games a season that include one big guarantee game for the income, two competitive Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, and one FCS game that’s winnable.

It’s what Lembo calls the 1-2-1 approach. Long-term goals like bowl eligibility can be maintained while also pumping that extra money into the athletic budget. He hopes to go 2-2 in non-conference competition each year.

“Then you’re in pretty good shape relative to being bowl eligible,” he said. “If you have a really good team, it’s not going to disaffect your team’s ability to compete for a MAC championship.”

Though Ball State isn’t bowl eligible this year, it likely won’t change anything in scheduling for upcoming seasons. Teams often enter scheduling contracts for more than 10 years at a time. On Ball State athletics’ website, some non-conference matchups have been scheduled as far ahead as 2020-21.

Ball State will take on Big Ten schools Illinois and Michigan, ACC member North Carolina State and Western Kentucky from Conference USA over the next six years. Hardin said any change in scheduling by the Power 5 conferences won’t necessarily impact how Ball State selects its non-conference opponents.