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November 24th, 2008
Points: Here is your college football playoff system

Points: A Sports Column
Editor at Large

The shadow world of college football features the playoff system that everyone wants. You know, that playoff system that’s supposed to remove all the questions and controversies from deciding the national championship in college football. That one.

At the bowl level right now, it’s pretty well understood that the four leading teams are Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida. They’re figuring the rest of the Southeastern Conference season will untangle Alabama from Florida, then the Big 12 season will separate Texas and Oklahoma. But one of the Big 12 teams will drop off for no fault of its own and we already hear thunders of moral outrage because that possibility can even be anticipated.

You’ve probably heard that a playoff system would solve such problems, giving us a true measure of the top football teams, which will inevitably produce the best possible championship game. But you don’t hear that kind of child dreaming down in the college football shadow world, where they really do playoffs and understand what it means.

If the establishment of a national championship game between No. 1 and No. 2 is the over-arching administrative desire from the corridors of college football power, then the system in place remains the very best means of achieving it. You might wind up shedding a tear over that No. 3 team martyred by injustice, but you’ll certainly get a game involving No. 1 and a very strong challenger, which is likely to be the best possible challenger.

Play a tournament, and you soon discover that you have to live with the results. Last year, the NCAA Division I football playoffs for the championship subdivision (FCS) seeded Northern Iowa No. 1 and McNeese State No. 2. They ended up with a championship game between No. 7 Appalachian State and No. 8 Delaware.

Imagine if they drew up a 16-team playoff bracket in the bowl subdivision and seeded it by BCS rankings. Imagine that Texas Tech and Penn State were the seventh and eighth seeds, surviving to the championship game. That’s what you’d get. Did you spend four months watching college football, paying attention at the top, seeing Penn State lose at Iowa, then Texas Tech wiped out at Oklahoma, only to end up with Texas Tech and Penn State playing for the national championship?

The FCS tournament is exciting because it gives everyone a chance. Every team in the eight FCS conferences with automatic berths to the playoffs knows they’re in the mix for the national championship, no matter what anyone else says. At the bowl level this summer, there might have been a dozen, 15, maybe 20 teams thinking realistically that they could play for the national title. At the FCS level, it’s more like 75 or 80, and the other 35 or 40 teams could still go at large.

Naturally, some of the teams left out of the tournament are fuming about it, because the playoff system is no guarantee against controversy. Sunday, for example, the selection committee entered an 8-4 Maine team, which finished second in the Colonial Association’s North Division. Some thought the nod should have gone to 10-2 Big South champion Liberty.

You won’t hear Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso complaining about that on ESPN, but if Ball State were picked ahead of Ohio State for the last spot in a BCS tournament, it’s the lead story. Then, we’d hear the inevitable grousing about the seedings, and how it’s unfair for this team to play on the road while that team is in too easy of a bracket. The playoffs don’t answer as many questions as they raise.

But the tournament is wide open. Every team in this year’s FCS field, announced Sunday, has lost at least one game. It’s very difficult for FCS teams to go undefeated because that bowl-level team on the September schedule is almost always better, for understandable reasons.

Naturally, the recruits would rather play at the bowl level than at the playoff level. Given the choice between 2-10 Iowa State or 10-2 Northern Iowa, the good Iowa player will take the Big 12 school every time. A Kentucky player with offers from Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky would rather fight through the SEC than take a legitimate shot at a national championship.

Based on recruitment, the talent level in FCS isn’t the same. But a well-coached FCS team is still a pretty sight, and the NFL scouts are more likely to turn up their noses at the college football hype machine than at the Ohio Valley Conference, where they might find some pro players.

The focus of power in FCS lies in the Colonial Athletic Association, which is an amalgam of the league’s few football programs with the few football programs from Atlantic-10 schools. The Colonial league won five of the 16 bids to this year’s tournament, which begins next Saturday. The top among them is James Madison, which has been ranked No. 1 in FCS for eight weeks, since a 35-32 win against three-time defending national champion Appalachian State.

Despite having won two straight national titles, Appalachian State won its true fame and glory on Sept. 1, 2007, with a 34-32 win at Michigan. Beginning with that day, though, Michigan is 12-13, so maybe that game wasn’t such a breakthrough.

The two front runners, Appalachian State and James Madison, both feature dynamic quarterbacks.

Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards is a junior who passed for 1,946 yards and rushed for 1,588 yards in 2007. This season, he has cut back on the running to 890 yards and become a much more efficient passer, throwing for 2,146 yards and a 178.46 efficiency rating while tossing 25 touchdowns against two interceptions.

James Madison has surged this year with senior quarterback Rodney Landers, who has thrown for 1,236 yards this year with a 171.8 passer rating while rushing for 1,377 yards. According to form, the title game will come down to those two performers.

But the tournament is unpredictable, largely because it involves lots of regulars. Four schools in this year’s playoffs – Appalachian State, Southern Illinois, New Hampshire and Montana – are in for the fourth year in a row. Three more teams – Northern Iowa, Richmond and James Madison – are in for the third time in four years. Five other teams – Eastern Kentucky, Cal Poly, Texas State, Colgate and Wofford – are in for the second time in four years.

That’s 12 teams out of 16 with players making repeat appearances in the tournament, composing a very experienced field, a tough competition involving solid programs. But you won’t hear a lot about it. You’ll hear much more about the playoffs that aren’t happening.

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