No matter what happens on the field Saturday, Idaho will be winners at Mizzou’s Homecoming

The 15-point underdogs will take home a $1.3 million payout from the University of Missouri.

Vandals Quarterback Matt Linehan throws a pass against UNLV. Courtesy of Idaho Athletics/Photo by Alec Sullivan

When the Idaho Vandals travel to Columbia this week to play the part of the easy opponent in Mizzou’s Homecoming festivities, one school will come away a winner regardless of whether it triumphs or falls at Faurot Field on Saturday.

That school is not the University of Missouri.

Win or lose, Idaho is taking home a $1.3 million gain from the event, compliments of Missouri, just for participating.

The Vandals enter the competition 2-4 on the season, fresh off back-to-back close losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and Appalachian State. Even a subpar Mizzou team will be a whole new level of opponent this year for the pride of the Potato State.

“[Missouri has] played some really good football teams,” Idaho head coach Paul Petrino said. “Their D-line is definitely the strength of their defense. They do a good job up front; they’re physical; they run hard; they get to the ball; they’re a fast-paced offense. So there are definitely things that as you watch them, we see they have SEC players. They’re a good football team.”

Idaho, which has moved from conference to conference in recent years, was not able to find stable residency in the Sun Belt Conference and will be relegated to a lower league in the Football Championship Subdivision when its contract with the Sun Belt expires after this season.

These turbulent times aren’t taking away from the program’s excitement coming into this one at all, though. A landmark opponent on Idaho’s schedule, the 1-5 Tigers are the first SEC team the Vandals will face since visiting Auburn in 2015. This will be the first matchup between the two teams in 54 years.

And as is seemingly the case with many large schools uncertain about the stability of their own football programs, Mizzou placed its Homecoming week at a time coinciding with the visit from a mid-major opponent in Idaho, the smallest school remaining on the Tigers’ schedule.

In the eyes of the University of Idaho Athletics department, scheduling this kind of game, even against a struggling team such as Mizzou, serves primarily to provide student athletes with prime competitive opportunities. And, of course, to make money.

“Our number one priority is to provide the best student-athlete experience we can,” said Dr. Rob Spear, University of Idaho athletic director, in a statement. “Giving our programs the chance to compete against some of the top programs and conferences in the country, in great stadiums and environments, is an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives.”

It’s also true that the $1.3 million going Idaho’s way is, while actually mildly larger than the standard, not abnormal for a payment to a “cupcake” opponent. These small schools, which don’t always possess the steady revenue source advantages that bigger ones have, often arrange “guarantee games” with those larger universities to trade a supposedly easy home win for profit.

“It is also a financial reality for us that we need to play these guarantee games,” Dr. Spear said in the statement. “There needs to be a balance, but it’s an all-around positive because our football program gets the opportunity to go out and compete against top-level opponents in an SEC atmosphere, which also helps us provide a premier student-athlete experience for all of our programs.”

Even Petrino, when asked about the potential to crash the homecoming party in Columbia, remained focused primarily on the pure scope of the game.

“I think our players are just excited to go into an SEC stadium and play that team,” he said. “Our guys will definitely be excited and fired up and ready to go in and try to play in that atmosphere.”

If the comments from Petrino and Dr. Spear, especially Spear’s reference to a “guarantee game,” indicate anything, it’s this: ultimately for Idaho, this game is a no-lose situation. With the Vandals currently holding as 15-point underdogs to Mizzou, there is no external expectation for them to win, and seemingly not much internally either.

Such is not the case for Mizzou.

Guarantee games are known for occasionally backfiring on the big school when an upset occurs. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it is undoubtedly embarrassing.

The most recent victim of one of these instances was also an SEC team, also called the Tigers, also hosting an underdog out of the Sun Belt and also in its homecoming game; Troy shocked LSU and the college football world two-and-a-half weeks ago by leaving Baton Rouge with $985,000 and a 24-21 memorable win.

Missouri’s Tigers are bitterly familiar with the experience of such a defeat as well. Last year, they brought in a cupcake worth $1.1 million for Homecoming. It did not go as planned, as the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee shocked the hosts in a 51-45 shootout, raining on the homecoming parade.

Idaho hopes to do the same thing this year but is not losing sight of the importance of seizing the opportunity to play on a big stage; in fact, the team’s motivation arises largely from just that.

“I think our guys are very excited to travel, to go play in that atmosphere and play there,” Petrino said. “They’re definitely excited to go play on the SEC Network and play to the best of their abilities. They’ll be excited and ready to go for the game, no question.”

Win or lose, when the Vandals hop on the plane home after Saturday’s game, they’ll have minds heavier with experience … and heavier pockets.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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