November 20, 2008

Once again, we've got a good, old-fashioned, one-loss logjam near the top of the BCS standings, which means sometime soon the national focus will turn to each team's "body of work." And even though the advice we're about to dispense will come too late for this year's contenders, maybe it will help steer future national-title aspirants in the right direction.

First, a bit of clarification: The terms 'I-A' and 'I-AA' are technically outdated. But so is college football's system for determining a national champion, so we're sticking with them anyway. 'I-A' is now officially 'FBS' (Football Bowl Subdivision) and 'I-AA' is now 'FCS' (Football Championship Subdivision), thereby satiating the public's endless longing for an even more confusing way to group college football teams. But we're using the more traditional 'I-A' and 'I-AA' designations, because they're more familiar and sensible. And if doing so happens to stymie the NCAA's clumsy attempt at re-branding, that's an added bonus.

One other thing about I-A and I-AA programs: That distinction has to do with a convoluted formula dealing with school enrollment, athletic-department budgets, home-game attendance, political influence and deftness in filling out paperwork. It has virtually nothing to do with how good a football program actually is. If it did, Washington State would probably be I-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

Scheduling I-AA opponents is all the rage these days, especially since those wins once again count toward bowl eligibility. And like recreational drugs in a dorm room (we know, drugs are illegal and nobody actually ever breaks the law), everybody's doing it. Since the advent of the BCS, only two teams from BCS conferences plus Notre Dame have never scheduled a I-AA opponent.

These I-AA teams are supposed to roll into town and play cannon fodder, often for Homecoming or Parents' Weekend. They're supposed to be less lively than tackling dummies. These are the Saturdays in which that fifth-string tailback who can't even carry the athletic tape without fumbling tucks his mullet under his helmet and rumbles in for a two-yard touchdown he'll one day bore his grandkids to tears remembering.

In other words, the I-AA opponents in these affairs are like the groom at a wedding: a necessary piece of the puzzle, but little more than a prop, a part of the scenery.

So why, then, are big-time I-A programs foolish to schedule their I-AA brethren? It's not even for the most obvious reason, which is that every now and then the I-AA team politely cashes its paycheck and then impolitely pulls a historic upset (cough*AppState*cough).

No, it's because not only do they not help a team's BCS ranking, their perceived weakness can actually cause that ranking to take a hit. In the realpolitik of the BCS, a win over a I-AA team is at best the equivalent of a bye and at worst a virtual loss. And sometimes, it's even an actual loss (cough*AppState*cough). The media used to blindly praise these lopsided wins, but now these games are picked apart and analysts question why they were scheduled in the first place.

This is not meant as a slight against I-AA (not a major slight, at least). I-AA fans and programs are just as passionate and steeped in tradition as their generally larger, money-grubbing counterparts. And even when they don't manage to pull off an upset for the ages (cough*AppState*cough), they are known to provide a stiff early season test (as North Carolina learned when it barely escaped I-AA McNeese State earlier in the season). And I-AA football has something I-A cannot touch: actual playoffs that crown a legitimate champion.

The problem lies with public perception of these teams, and the havoc they can wreak on top I-A teams' computer averages. To see how this might come into play this season, let's look at every non-Big 12 fan's second favorite team, that rowdy, gun-slinging Texas Tech squad.

The Red Raiders have been a breath of fresh air this season, from their swashbuckling head coach Mike Leach to Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree's last-second heroics. But a Tech loss to Oklahoma on Saturday would create a three-way tie in the Big 12 South between the Sooners, Red Raiders and Texas Longhorns, with the tiebreaker going to whichever team has the highest BCS ranking. In a beauty contest where every opponent and every quarter is scrutinized, here's the dirty little truth about the Red Raiders: Two of their wins are over I-AA opponents, Eastern Washington and Massachusetts. Even though they've played remarkably well in the sport's toughest division, if their one-loss résumé gets stacked up next to several others, those two wins could do almost as much harm as the one loss.

But Texas Tech isn't the only top five heavyweight to have baked a cupcake this year. After playing arguably the best stretch of football this season, Florida has decided to prove its mettle against The Citadel. The South Carolina-based I-AA military school might have one of the coolest university names in the nation and a proud history of service to this country, but it's not exactly the type of stiff competition would-be champions should be facing. Granted, The Citadel might put up more of a fight than UF's recent conference foes (especially its counterpart from the Palmetto State, the Gamecocks), but the Gators probably have enough name recognition by now to schedule better than that.

So what? you might ask. The Gators play in one of the top two toughest conferences in football, and will have also played nonconference tilts against Miami and Florida State. But if a berth in the title game comes down to, say, Florida and Texas (which could happen if the Sooners knock off Texas Tech), The Citadel might be the only team that can stop Urban Meyer's club.

And speaking of the Sooners, they're not innocent bystanders, either. They roughed up I-AA Chattanooga, 57-2, early in the season (with that lone safety the only proof the game even happened), a game that will look as good on their résumé as that temp job you got fired from will look on yours.

Any way you calculate it, there's a very good chance Oklahoma, Texas Tech or Florida will get left out of the title game despite having only one loss. So one more impressive win over a I-A opponent instead of a I-AA patsy might have made up that difference.

Still not convinced that it could come back to bite one of those teams? Just ask Auburn, which rang up a perfect 2004 season only to get left out of the title game. Guess which opponent perhaps did more than any other to keep Auburn from leapfrogging No. 2 Oklahoma into the title game. You guessed it -- that pesky Citadel.

The point is, I-A powerhouses' athletic directors should be very wary of taking calls from I-AA programs, because sometimes they do more than just cash a check and stand there like a piñata for four hours on a fall Saturday. Sometimes, they can derail national-title hopes, even when the spread's covered. And every now and then they find a way to win, send national title-winning head coaches into early retirement and knock programs into downward vortexes of soul-searching and teeth gnashing (cough*AppState*cough).

That's all for this week. Remember: Just because college football fans believe it's true, doesn't mean it is.

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