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How the Other College Football Teams Earn Their Championships

By Bill Peterson · November 30th, 2005 · Sports
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Jerry Dowling



Because the Bowl Championship Series this year will produce two, and only two, worthy entrants for the national championship game, a void is left where the punditry would ordinarily address the moment's specific injustice.

Unless the universities of Colorado and California at Los Angeles suddenly develop laboratory solutions for Vince Young and Reggie Bush, respectively, almost no one will complain when the universities of Texas and Southern California turn their student-athletes loose at the Rose Bowl for the mythical title.

For reasons that never change -- the disinterest of college presidents, the reticence of college football coaches, the interests of the bowls and the logistical nightmares for fans -- the colleges playing football at the highest level will never decide a champion with playoffs.

Except for years such as this, in which only two teams will last the regular season undefeated, the process treats someone quite unfairly. By the usual turns of reasoning in sports, a large-scale tournament would rectify all the injustices and make the college experience whole.

In practice, though, playoff tournaments at the levels in which the NCAA still controls college football rage with controversy, albeit quiet controversy, since so few pay much attention. Playoff systems in the NCAA's lower three divisions constantly are adjusted in response to complaints, and no two of those three divisions use the same system.

As a purely theoretical exercise, since playoffs will never occur in Division I-A, try answering a question: How would the playoff teams be picked? For whatever number of teams -- four, eight, 12, 16, 24, 32 -- if we could even answer that question, we still need to decide who's going. And for every tournament, there's a different method of decision.

Start at the bottom, with NCAA Division III. The tournament, which began Nov. 9, includes 32 teams. The first 21 spots go to the champions of 21 conferences. Another four spots are reserved for at-large teams from the remaining six conferences and the independents. That leaves seven more discretionary berths for the NCAA Selection Committee, which is supposed to decide on the basis of prescribed criteria.

The criteria also guide the committee through the process of seeding teams in four roughly geographic regional tournaments of eight teams each. But the seedings aren't altogether determined by relative merit, because the committee is empowered to match up first round games so as to prevent long trips.

When two first-round opponents live within 500 miles of each other, the visiting team travels by bus. Otherwise, the NCAA springs for air travel.

The mighty Wildcats of Linfield College, located in McMinnville, Ore., entered this year's tournament as the champions in waiting after completing last year's 13-0 season with a 28-21 win against Mary Hardin-Baylor in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. The Wildcats have since extended their winning streak to 23 with another easy championship in the fabled Northwest Conference, where they knocked off this year's top contender, Willamette, 63-21. Over the last four seasons, this one included, Linfield is 44-2.

But beware. These are playoffs, after all, and the decision will be made on the field. Furthermore, the committee evidently decided to mess with Linfield this year. After the final American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) poll made Linfield the landslide No. 1 team with 38 of 40 first place votes, the committee put Linfield into a first-round game against fifth-rated Occidental (Calif.). But the Wildcats simply brushed it off with another 63-21 win.

Should the Wildcats go all the way, they will earn it. Saturday's quarterfinal game, by form, is the championship, for the opposition is supplied by third-rated Wisconsin-Whitewater, which crushed second-ranked traditional power St. John's (Minn.) 34-7 on Nov. 26.

And a danger lurks down the road, emanating from Alliance, Ohio, home of the sixth-ranked Mount Union Purple Raiders. Mount Union is no stranger to this big dance, appearing in the championship game four straight times before last year and winning three of them. Check out their record since 1998: 89-4!

Saturday, the Purple Raiders will undertake a homefield rematch against Ohio Athletic Conference rival Capital, which resides in Columbus. The Purple Raiders won their Oct. 1 meeting 42-24, running their winning streak against the Capital City college to 18 games. But Capital already has engineered one of the tournament's biggest upsets, a 14-11 win at Wabash, seeded at the top of the north bracket.

Division II lives in an entirely different world, except that the tournament is broken into four regions. But each region includes only six teams, making a total of 24 contestants.

How do they decide who plays? Polls. And not just polls, but regional polls -- one for each of the four regions. And that's all there is to it. Conference championships mean nothing, unless they impress voters. The national AFCA poll means nothing. Simply finish the regular season in the top six of your regional poll and you go to the playoffs, seeded accordingly.

If anything is to be learned from this year's Division II playoffs, it's how poorly the polls might fare when they're tested on the field. Of 16 games played in the first two rounds, 12 ended in seed upsets. Only one regional top seed survived its region to this weekend's round of semifinals. Of the sixth seeds, that is, the lowest seeds, two won their regions and remain alive this weekend.

All of which points to a pretty easy cruise for Grand Valley State University of Allendale, Mich., the AFCA's top-ranked team in the national poll and the only remaining top seed. Should the Lakers prevail Saturday against AFCA No. 17 East Stroudsburg State (Pa.), their championship opponent will be a sixth seed, either AFCA No. 13 North Alabama or No. 21 Northwest Missouri State.

As the Southeast region winner, North Alabama demonstrates a peculiar case. Oddly, for example, the AFCA voted Albany State (Ga.) No. 3 nationally, but the Southeast regional poll seeded Albany State only fourth in the region. Not that any of this mattered, since none of the region's top four seeds won a game in the tournament.

The Division I-AA playoffs include only 16 teams, with automatic berths for the winners of eight conferences and another eight at-large berths to be chosen from any of the division's 15 conferences, plus independents. Again, a selection committee rears its head in a manner that reeks of politics.

Most of the picks were obvious. After taking the eight automatic bids, the committee put in Texas State, Montana, Furman and Georgia Southern, all of which are Top 10 teams in the main two polls, The Sports Network media poll and the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll. A couple more at-large picks, Southern Illinois and Cal Poly, are Top 10 in one poll and barely out of it in the other. Richmond is a defensible pick, No. 12 by the media and No. 17 by the coaches.

But then the committee held one more berth and gave it, more or less inexplicably, to Lafayette, No. 25 by the media and No. 30 by the coaches. It's not like the Patriot League absolutely needed a second team in the playoffs. Grambling, Youngstown State, South Carolina State, Montana State, Massachusetts, Coastal Carolina, Lehigh and Illinois State, all left out of the tournament, all rate higher than Lafayette in both polls. So who owed what to whom?

Fortunately, the first round burned out the rabble. Only one big upset emerged when Richmond beat third-seeded and second-ranked (by both polls) Hampton, 38-10. Montana, ranked third by the coaches and ninth by the media, lost 35-21 to Cal Poly, ranked 13th and 10th. Otherwise, this affair is going according to form, which portends a championship for top-seeded New Hampshire, the Atlantic-10 North Division champs ranked on top of both polls.

But it's going to have to happen on the field, and it has to happen three more times. Form says New Hampshire would have to beat Northern Iowa, Texas State and Appalachian State, all of which are Top 10 in both polls, while the latter two are top six in both polls. Quite a test. What if USC or Texas had to beat Auburn and Virginia Tech to qualify for the big game? No wonder so many coaches don't want Division I-A playoffs.

In other words, if New Hampshire wins the national title everyone expects, that title is earned. Will we really be able to say that about Texas or USC?

 
 
 
 

 

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