by Nicholas Tolomeo - 08/25/2008
For the first time in six years Division IA football will be getting a new full-fledged football team. After a sample of six games last season against teams from the highest division, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers will jump into a full 10-game foray against Division IA teams, playing as an independent.
They open the season Saturday at noon with a road game against Indiana. Western Kentucky is a modest 20 point underdog against a Big Ten team that reached a bowl game last season. They should expect to see monster lines throughout the season with road trips to Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia Tech. They close the season at Florida International University (FIU), who coincidentally was one of the last Division I-AA team to make the jump up in class.
FIU and Florida Atlantic made their initial moves in 2001 and 2002, respectively, and by 2005 they were both playing a full schedule of games against D-IA schools. Both teams failed to have winning seasons straight up as could be expected with Florida Atlantic struggling against the spread posting a 3-8 mark and 2-9 SU record. FIU, playing nine games with posted lines, went 5-4 ATS and 5-6 SU. Things did not get any easier the following season as Florida Atlantic still lost money with a 5-6 ATS record and FIU fell off considerably, going 3-9 ATS and not winning a single game SU.
By the third year Florida Atlantic had finally got its backers into the black with an 8-5 ATS campaign while FIU inched closer to returning a profit at 5-7 ATS, despite a 1-11 SU result.
The ascension of these new Division IA schools has been remarkable. While FIU had a hot start, it was Florida Atlantic that started off slow but has seen steady improvement including a New Orleans Bowl win last season. Another Florida school, South Florida, made the jump in 2002 and just last year they were ranked No. 2 in the country at one point. They enjoyed success their first year straight up (9-2) and ATS (7-2). They followed with two down years in 2003 and 2004, going a combined 7-12 ATS before posting profit making years in 2005 (6-5 ATS) 2006 (8-4 ATS ) and last season (7-5 ATS).
Both Florida Atlantic and FIU faced monster spreads in their opening games of their first full-fledged Division IA series and both schools covered. At Kansas State FIU were 33-point underdogs and lost by only two touchdowns. At Kansas Florida Atlantic was getting 28.5 points and stayed within 11 points of the Jayhawks.
Another relatively new program, Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) struggled in 1998 after joining Division I-A. They were 3-5 ATS but they also covered a mammoth opening week spread of 46.5 at Nebraska. They did not even let the Cornhuskers reach 46 points, UAB lost 38-7.
The University of Louisiana-Monroe opened Division IA play in 1997 and turned a profit with a 6-4 ATS mark, including covering a 22-point spread at Arkansas in the opening week. UL-Monroe lost the game by 12. Bookmakers have generally made it a practice to post inflated lines when a Division IA newcomer opens its first season in the big leagues against a BCS conference opponent. The 20-point line against Indiana seems reasonable, but recent history would let you know that Western Kentucky plans on making it a much closer game.
Other Hilltopper games down the road to keep an eye on for are matchups against Ball State, North Texas, Troy and Middle Tennessee State. They met each team last year while they were still in D-I AA and went a combined 1-3 SU but losses against North Texas and Troy came by a combined five points.