PLAYING FOOTBALL GAMES against Air Force, Central Florida, Clemson and South Carolina is all part of the maturation process for an FCS program. At least that is the way South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough sees it.
Pough has led the charge for his fellow MEAC teams to play games annually against FBS schools. It has more to do with sizing up the competition than collecting the handsome paychecks FCS schools receive.
While Pough does not endorse Delaware State's deal to forfeit a conference game against North Carolina A&T so it can accept a $500,000 check to play at Michigan in October, he does believe there is much to be gained by playing big-name schools.
S.C. State will collect $230,000 to play USC at Williams-Brice Stadium. Better still, Pough's Bulldogs will gain a better sense of how much progress they have made since dropping a 38-3 decision to the Gamecocks two seasons ago.
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"All of our teams now are playing out-of-league games against Division I programs," Pough says. "(MEAC schools have) played Rutgers and Kentucky. (Florida A&M) is playing Miami this year.
"We're hoping that a lot of things we see on film, a lot of those things the bigger programs do, will rub off on us to the point where our league will continue to improve."
So far, or at least since 2006 when FBS regular-season schedules were expanded to 12 games, the going has been difficult for MEAC programs. The league has not won in 15 tries against the big boys and has been manhandled by an average score of 41 to 4.
Not surprisingly, S.C. State offers the one game in which the MEAC made a respectable showing. The Bulldogs trailed Central Florida 7-0 after three quarters before losing 17-0 in the 2008 season-opener.
For the league to garner more respect nationally, it needs to win one of these games, although that is not likely this season with remaining games that include S.C. State at USC, Delaware State at Michigan and Florida A&M at Miami.
"Our league's coaches have improved to the point where we feel like the entire league is better," Pough says. "Those things come with better competition. We have progressed. So, now we're trying to gain the respect of the entire country.
"We've just got to win a few games before they finally figure out we are better."
As much as a win against an FBS opponent would gain instant respect for the MEAC, the league also desperately needs to win an FCS playoff game. MEAC teams are 8-20 all-time in the FCS playoffs and have not won a game since Florida A&M advanced to the national semifinals in 1999.
S.C. State went unbeaten in conference play a season ago, but had the misfortune of playing its first-round FCS playoff game at three-time defending national champion Appalachian State.
A better draw would enhance S.C. State's chances of winning a playoff game, and it would surprise no one if the Bulldogs become the first MEAC team in a decade to do so. S.C. State has been the class of the league since Pough arrived for the 2002 season, having brought with him big ideas from his stint as an assistant coach at USC.
It took nearly three seasons to institute, but at Pough's urging every MEAC program now uses "intercutting" of its videotapes. Subject to a penalty from the league office, every team must videotape each home game with the same guidelines that include three angles of every play as well as a shot of the scoreboard between plays.
Pough also worked a videotape exchange system that he borrowed from his days in the SEC. Now, instead of hustling videotapes to other schools via airplanes, buses or cars, all are available on the Internet.
On the field, Pough has set the standard. His S.C. State teams carry a 60-24 record into Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, including a sterling 44-12 record in conference play. Pough's teams are well-coached and well-prepared.
Pough admits success against the big boys might not come soon. It is a slow, steady process of first gaining respectability. Once it gauges its progress against USC on Saturday, S.C. State will open the 2010 season at Georgia Tech.
In between, S.C. State aims to defend its MEAC championship and win an FCS playoff game. Then Pough and his Bulldogs will have found a spot on the national college football map.