Friday, December 14, 2007

The Real NCAA Football Championship

By Bobby

Whilst the controversy over who deserves to play in the Allstate BCS Championship Game (Ohio State vs Louisiana State), let it be remembered the biggest upset in Division I football, Appalachian State’s win over Michigan, should be back in the issue in light of the Mountaineers’ big 55-35 win over the Richmond in the NCAA Division I Semifinal.

The NCAA Division I Tournament, at 16 teams, is the smallest of the divisions considering the number of teams that play Championship Subdivision Football. Only a selected number of conferences automatically send their champions, while other conferences have to be wary just to earn a postseason bid especially with the number of at-large bids. (The Ivy, Southwestern Athletic, and a few smaller conferences do not want their teams in the NCAA Tournament, with the SWAC wanting better exposure with well-attended rivalry games after Thanksgiving and their conference championship a week later conflicting with the tournament. The other major Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Division I conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic, sends their champion into the tournament.)

Like basketball, the controversy over the RPI index drew the attention of the selection process when the second-place team in the Southern Conference, Appalachian State (Boone), earned a home playoff game, while SoCon champion Wofford (Spartanburg) had a road game in the first round. (Wofford won the head-to-head, and the automatic bid as both teams were tied in conference standings.) Appalachian State’s big win over Michigan was worth points in the RPI index that helped when playoff bids were awarded.

The beauty of the Championship Subdivision is shown in those fifteen games known as the playoffs. While everyone in the BCS is playing in warm climates for their games such as Glendale, Pasadena, Miami Gardens, or New Orleans (with the first and last in domes; Glendale has a retractable dome), the NCAA Division I Football Tournament, like their professional brethren, is played on home fields of the higher-ranked team in the playoffs. The players are playing on Friday nights or Saturdays (depending on ESPN’s request), and the best part of playoff games comes with playing championship football in frigid temperatures, whether it is in Amherst, Bozeman, Boone, Youngstown (where Jim Tressel honed his coaching skills before heading to Columbus), Wilmington, or any of the other cold-weather climates of FCS football. They don’t play in pampered conditions that a Bowl Subdivision team earns with their nice games (and yes, that includes a postseason game in Michigan and one in Ontario played in domes) that mean nothing, but the importance of winning a playoff game, especially if you can upset a highly-ranked team with a big road win, and advancing to the championship, cannot be taken lightly.

In fact, once in the 1980’s and once in the 2000’s, there has been a team in the NCAA Tournament where at the start of the decade, the team did not field a football program, and that team advanced to the tournament very early in their careers. Georgia Southern, which hired Erk Russell (who was behind Georgia’s “Junkyard Dogs” defense) to run their new football program in 1982, was by 1985 a tournament team and became a SoCon force and National Championship winner of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, despite being a new program; their stadium is supported by the Paulson family of Gulfstream Aviation. Coastal Carolina, based in Conway, had its first class of seniors (began play in 2003; started recruiting in 2002 and redshirted all players) make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large (the Big South does not have the automatic bid) in 2006, and has their stadium endowed by the Brooks family of Hooters of America (including Eastern Foods, makers of Naturally Fresh salad dressing). I wonder if by the early 2010’s, if Old Dominion University in Virginia (recruiting for the Monarchs’ first football team begins this recruiting season; all players will be redshirted, and the first team plays in 2009) will be the same.

Oddly, South Florida (which started an FCS team in 1997, and moved to FBS in 2002; the Bulls’ head coach was hired in the recruiting-only year and has been with the program since the inception) did not make an FCS playoff in their time as an FCS team and only recently began playing FBS postseason games.

When Appalachian State and Delaware play Friday in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game, they were not selected to the title by a poll of man, their peers, or computer power rankings. The Mountaineers and Blue Hens were the best two that came from a sixteen-team tournament that included conference champions and worthy teams, and earned their way to the NCAA Championship in three hard-fought playoff matches in the hardest conditions possible, that included the NCAA giving Delaware a shot at in-state rival Delaware State (automatic bid MEAC) of Dover in the first round, a match that took over 100 years to finally play.

When they take to the field in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Friday, they will truly play for the official NCAA Division I Football Championship, and the survivor can truly show why they hold the distinction as the true NCAA Champion as they will have defeated four teams in four weeks to determine the title, and not face any subjective polling to advance to such a game.

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