Hey, Look! A Real Division I Championship Playoff!
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On Sun 24 Nov, amidst a spattering of national fanfare, the NCAA set the field for the only Division I football championship it recognizes.
The Football Championship Series playoffs are under way.
There are surely a couple of 25th-best candidates grumbling that they were really No 24, but it's hard to argue with the candidates. Those FCS teams, limited to 65 scholarships as opposed to the FBS cap of 85, play tough non-conference schedules -- often against their FBS brethren in buy-a-win matches where the underdogs have been known to bite back -- and the selectors commonly reward teams for their ambitions. Three-loss teams make the bracket every season.
Last weekend, the tournament's first round produced few surprises, but at the very least, it gave gray-area entrants their chance to grab the brass ring. The top-seeded teams had byes and will now enter into the fray for Round Two. They'll face a few stiff challenges. Among them:
- The Furman Paladins (8-5, winners of the Southern Conference) jump right into the fire against a top-seeded North Dakota State team that beat Kansas State as the first victory in the Bison's 11-0 season.
- Third-seeded Eastern Washington (10-2, Big Sky champs), conquerors of mercurial Oregon State, hosts South Dakota State (9-4), who handily beat Big Sky runner-up Northern Arizona in the first round.
- Sam Houston State (9-4) finished tied for third in the Southland Conference, but squeezed into the bracket, hammered Southern Utah, and now meets fourth-seed Southeastern Louisiana.
- Tony Romo's alma mater, Eastern Illinois, is seeded second and draws a dangerous Tennessee State team that whitwashed Butler, 31-0, in the opening round.
There are things to be said about the bowl system. It guarantees that 35 FBS teams will end their seasons with a victory. It guarantees that holiday parties will be had in locales from Shreveport to San Francisco. It assures 70 teams will conduct extra practices, probably the most underrated advantage of the bowl system.
It's also a money chase that's beginning to backfire. That's why the so-called FBS bowls are so coveted. It'd be an accomplishment to bust a $17million payout. It's also why the real FBS bowl drama isn't who gets to the national title tilt, it's who of the lesser-funded programs will prevail for the 'final' opening. That's now a poll race for Northern Illinois, which must either finish in the BCS Top 14 or higher than an automatic qualifying (AQ) conference champion to make a second consecutive FBS bowl, probably the Fiesta. Its mark in the latter is the American Athletic's odds-on champion, Central Florida, who merely need to knock off SMU this weekend to secure the title.
Truth be told, conferences like the Pac-12 and Big Ten had to be dragged into a championship scenario. They had a good gig as it was, being traditionally entitled to the Rose Bowl, which already had massive payouts that all their members shared.
When Pasadena's Tournament of Roses organizers concluded in 1916 that football was a better centerpiece to its annual New Year's Day celebrations than Roman chariot races, a tradition was born. It's now an institution so embedded that it will always exist in some form.
Whether or not that form would ever coincide with even an 8-team title playoff is anyone's guess. The obvious factor is money, both for the schools and the various civic bowl committees.
Until then, as far as the NCAA is concerned, the true Division I champion will be crowned when the final whistle blows in Frisco, Texas on Sat 4 Jan.
And there will be no doubt the winner earned it.