by John Furgele
The bowl season kicked off yesterday with Colorado State rallying in the New Mexico Bowl, Louisiana-Lafayette holding off Tulane in the all-state battle at the New Orleans Bowl, San Diego State smashing Buffalo in the Potato Bowl, and USC showing the world that they meant business in the Las Vegas Bowl. In addition, Northwest Missouri State was winning the Division II title, Wisconsin-Whitewater beat old foe Mount Union in the Division III final and North Dakota State and Towson reached the final of the Division 1-AA (FCS) title game.
If you like college football, this is a wonderful—and a bit crazy—time of the year. And, for the most part, it actually looked like the attendance at these venues was good. The Vegas Bowl looked packed and over 54,000 were in the Superdome to see a Bayou Battle between Tulane and ULL. Let’s face it, there are a lot of bowl games, probably too many, but it definitely makes college football unique. The bowl games love them or not, have been part of the fabric of the sport for years. The good thing is there will be a four team playoff next year and the other good thing is that the bowl games will also remain.
Division 1-AA (FCS) has and still has a playoff and this year, 24 teams vied for the title. On January 4, Towson will battle North Dakota State for the championship, and for North Dakota State, a chance for a threepeat. Towson used to be a 1-AA bottom feeder, but yesterday’s thrilling last second win at Eastern Washington has the Tigers on the map.
1-AA football fascinates for many reasons. First, it’s good football. Schools can have 63 scholarship players, so the level of play is quite good. Joe Flacco and Tony Romo are both 1-AA products, so to say that 1-AA doesn’t produce pro players would be wrong. At the same time, 1-AA football makes you wonder. Does 1-AA success mean anything? In Division II and III, it’s different. NW Missouri State won the Division II title. All their sports play at the Division II level, a level that allows for 36 football scholarships. NWMS is not going anywhere. But, all 1-AA football schools play at the Division I level in their other sports. As good as Towson is, they can be national 1-AA champions, but if they make the NCAA tournament in basketball, they will be competing with Duke, Louisville and Syracuse. They don’t do that in football, and for that reason, the 1-AA classification has always been a bit odd. Why not give these schools the obvious choice: if you play Division I, you play Division I in all sports, if not, you play Division II. Why is there a 1-AA level at all? Yes, there are lots of schools that are Division I in sports but don’t have football. That is why the 1-AA level exists, I get it. It gives schools like Georgetown and Villanova the opportunity to have a football team. If these schools had to be Division II in football and all other sports, they would drop football, so to encourage more college football, this hybrid level was created. When you think about it, it makes sense.
Getting back to 1-AA success meaning anything? Towson coach Rob Ambrose was upset when 4,200 fans were in attendance for a home playoff game. What does that mean? Do the students care? Do local fans really care about this level of football? And, with Towson being so close to Baltimore, do pro sports dominate so much that 1-AA football just gets lost? In small towns, 1-AA football is part of the local culture and it is important. There is great pride in Montana when the Grizzlies are at the top of the 1-AA mountain, same in the state of Delaware and in Fargo, ND, where the Bison are the two time defending champions.
Look at Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, who have won six and three 1-AA titles respectively. Both are moving up to the 1-A (FBS) level next year and will be members of the Sun Belt Conference. If they win their conference title, they will likely be playing in the New Orleans Bowl and will likely never, ever play for the CFP championship, no matter how glossy their record is. Which is better? Winning national titles at the lower level or being a little guy in the big guy world? North Dakota State has been so dominant that some are asking whether the Bison are contemplating a move up to 1-A. As of now, the leaders of the school say no, and moving up is not that easy as it takes millions of dollars to facilitate such an adventure.
There is also talk of a purer Division 1-A separation. Currently, there are 10 1-A conferences, the big five consisting of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC, and the other five consisting of the Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt, American Athletic, and Conference USA. There is potential of having the big five play at their level and the other five AND all 1-AA schools playing at their level. In theory, all would be Division I schools and the 1-AA classification would be gone altogether. All schools would be eligible for the CFP, and those that don’t make it would be play in Division I bowl games.
In this case, a Georgia Southern could make the CFP or play against a Minnesota, Tulsa or North Dakota State in a bowl game. This would no different than Georgia Southern playing Minnesota or Duke in college basketball or soccer. In the end, it might be more beneficial for the current 1-AA schools because every bowl game is on television; not every 1-AA playoff game is. Furthermore, because every football school would be Division 1, Alabama can schedule Chattanooga without being mocked. The Crimson Tide gets to look at their second and third team players while Chattanooga gets the thrill of playing in front of 90,000 and takes home a nice $500,000 for their participation.
Division 1-AA schools make noise, plenty of noise. The question remains: does anybody hear it and if not, is there a new sound on the horizon?