Lower divisions could show BCS a thing or two

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By NANCY ARMOUR AP Sports Columnist

Hey BCS big shots, take a tip from the little guys.

No, not the Hawaiis and the Boise States, the real little guys. Divisions II and III, and that one formerly known as I-AA. The little guys have the same reasons for not having a playoff system -- academics, time constraints, travel budgets and that oh, so tricky issue of who gets in and who doesn't -- but they found a way to make it work.

And they don't have nearly the resources you do.

Wailing and whining about the Bowl Championship Series is as much a part of this time of year as holiday cards and office parties. The powers-that-be have been trying since 1998 to perfect a system that will produce a true national champion year in and year out, and still don't have it right.

In fact, they might be further away than ever.

Depending upon what happens Saturday, a two-loss team could play for the national title Jan. 7 in New Orleans. Ohio State might get shut out simply because it had the misfortune to lose late in the year. The only undefeated team, Hawaii, has no shot at the national championship.

The lower divisions, meanwhile, are quietly going about their playoffs. The quarterfinals are this weekend, and there will be undisputed national champions in all three lower divisions, as well as the NAIA, by the time the Poinsettia Bowl kicks off Dec. 20.

"I think it's great that it ultimately decides who the national champion will be," said Wisconsin-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold, whose Warhawks play Wabash on Saturday and are trying to make it to the D-III title game for a third straight year.

Imagine that, national champions that are decided on the field. While exams are going on, no less.

There are reasons a full-scale playoff system wouldn't be good for Division I, most of them having to do with large sums of money. But the ones typically given -- schoolwork, timing, travel, seeding -- are little more than flimsy excuses, especially when you consider what the little guys do year after year.

Lower-division playoffs start in the middle of November and run four or five games. Anywhere from 16 (Football Championship Subdivision) to 32 (Division III) teams make it in.

Sure, there's griping from teams No. 17 and 33, or from a school sure it deserved better than a sixth seed. But the same thing happens with the NCAA basketball tournament, and life goes on. Besides, with 16 or 24 or 32 teams, the real contenders are going to make it in, and then it's up to them to play their way to the top. But at least they have the chance.

The format for the lower-division playoffs has the finals at specific venues, with early rounds at campus sites. The D-I folks say that kind of setup would never work, even if the existing bowl system was used. Fans wouldn't travel, and the early round games would be marginalized.

Well, Cedar Falls, Iowa -- home of Northern Iowa, the FCS' top seed -- will never be mistaken for a tourist destination in the winter months. Yet they managed to pack 16,015 fans in last weekend, a school postseason record. Abilene Christian got 7,300 people to come out for its win over Mesa State in the first round of the D-II playoffs.

As for that concern about cutting into class time and sacrificing academics, please.

Lower-division players have just as many demands on their time. Tutors aren't set up for them, and they don't have someone who makes sure they have time-friendly schedules. The D-III guys don't even get scholarships.

Most travel the old-school way, too: By bus. Under D-III rules, you don't fly unless a game is more than 500 miles away. And they don't leave Wednesday or Thursday for a Saturday game. They go on Friday, usually after classes.

Yet they've managed to juggle football and their schoolwork just fine during the postseason. There are countless stories about coaches (who are also teachers) overseeing exams because the team is on the road. Or players missing or showing up late for practice because of class.

Wisconsin-Whitewater has played 15 games each of the last two seasons. The team GPA? A 3.0. The Warhawks even managed to pull off long-distance graduations.

Whitewater's mid-year commencement fell on the same day as the Stagg Bowl the last two years. The players who were graduating brought their caps and gowns with them, a teleconference was set up with the school's chancellor and they got their diplomas the day before the game.

So it was a little unorthodox. It worked.

That's what the little guys have been doing for years, finding ways to make the playoffs work.

The BCS might want to try it. ------ Nancy Armour is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to her at narmour@ap.org

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-11-30-07 1729MST

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