August 29, 2000

The Other League

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College Football.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Virginia Tech? Alex Brown? The Rubber Bowl? The Carrier Dome? The UCLA cheerleaders?

How about Division I-AA college football.

Now what comes to mind? Ah, the ever familiar burst of hot air . . hmmm.

There are 20,000 leagues of college football and yet we only know one: Division I-A. There is a whole other side of football that we’ve never seen, heard, smelled, touched or even tasted. There stands a whole group of players who work just as hard as the next athlete but don’t have their faces plastered all over Sports Illustrated. They’re in it for the long haul, just like the rest of you. But do they get any credit? Hell no.

How many of you thought of Ryan Helming or Ricky Rahne, two of last year’s superhuman quarterbacks in the “other” league. Or how about little Poteete and the Southern Illinois Salukis. Did you know the Yale Bowl can house more people than the Carrier Dome? Did you even care?

And therein lies the problem: a complacency towards the obvious better choice. Ninety-nine percent of the country clamors for the end of the dadgum bowl games, and the insertion of a system to determine the true champion. And yet there is the answer, on the next page, in the corner, in .5 font, in the form of Division I-AA’s playoffs.

Sure we don’t have Michael Vick to dazzle us day in and day out, but have you seen Marrial Shields? He’s Valparaiso’s football version of Bryce Drew. The dude can juke with the best of them and is a time bomb just waiting to explode.

Sure Maryland’s LaMont Jordan and Texas Tech’s Ricky Williams can put up some flashy numbers, but have you heard of Sacramento State’s Charles Roberts? Remember that name. The kid is going to be famous. Roberts rushed for a staggering 2,082 yards last year and is averaging over 2,100 yards per season. With 2,030 more yards, he will become the all-time leading rusher in all divisions in the history of college football. He makes Ron Dayne look like a little boy. The countdown begins . . .

Admittedly, Division I-A does hold the history card over the I-AA. In 1973, college football was broken up into three divisions: I, II and III. The idea was to give the little guys a chance at some sort of national title.

In 1978, under financial pressure, a new division was created from Division I and the fledgling Division I-AA was thrown from the nest. Schools were given five years to meet certain stantards to remain in Division I-A. The Ivy League, Missouri Valley and Southern Conferences were automatically reclassified as they didn’t meet these criteria. The Cornell, Harvard, and Yale teams of old had crumbled while Nebraskas and Oklahomas rose anew.

To make the new league more enticing, officials added a playoff system to determine the I-AA national champion. Sixty teams joined the new division and a decade later, 60 more were forced to join from Divisions II and III, which leaves us with our current 122 schools. The division hasn’t had time to forge new rivalries, form a line of great coaches, or even establish themselves among football fans as Division I has had. But give it a few years, and it will be there. In the meantime, here is a look at Division I-AA as it stands today.

Among the 13 leagues, two clearly stand at the forefront: the Atlantic 10 and Southern. Southern holds three traditional powerhouses: Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and Furman. Meanwhile, the Atlantic 10 houses a number of strong teams, eight of whom could break the top 25 at some point in the season.

Georgia Southern stands as the poster boy of the division. The Eagles have won five titles, played in eight and have been to the playoffs 13 out of the 22 years the system has been in place. They are led by last year’s Walter Payton Award winner (for top running back) Adrian Peterson, but look to have an uphill battle this season with the loss of veteran quarterback Greg Hill.

The Youngstown State Penguins were the team of the 90s, displaying their grit and heart year in and year out, reaching six National Championships and winning four. Last season’s playoffs gave us a treat, producing a Georgia Southern-Youngstown State championship, i.e., the champions of old against the champions of new. In a somewhat anticlimatic finale, the Eagles made mincemeat out of the Penguins, cruising to a 59-24 victory.

In this season’s CNNSI preseason poll, Georgia Southern and Youngstown are ranked first and third respectively. The team in the middle, UMass, holds a number of rising stars of its own, including All-American running back Marcel Shipp and Buck-Buchanan Award runner up middle linebacker Kole Ayi. But they will be challenged with a tough schedule that includes Hofstra, Delaware and Villanova, all top-25 teams.

Ivy League football stands short among the competition. Its football teams traditionally do not play in the postseason, and therefore have never been involved in the playoffs; which means that winning the Ivy Championship is everything. This is truly unfortunate as a break-out season this year for Cornell could very well place them among the elite in the division.

The Big Red’s toughest opponents, Lehigh and Colgate are ranked 22nd and 27th respectively. Lehigh, the nation’s third-best scoring offense lost their starting quarterback and placekicker, and now look to their defense, which returns five starters, to lead the team.

Colgate sustained a huge blow, losing three-time Player of the Year quarterback Ryan Vena and 80% of its offensive line. However, the Patriot League’s number one back, Randall Joseph returns to haunt defenses around the nation.

The media have dubbed Cornell and Yale tied for first place in the preseason Ivy League poll, while coaches ranked Brown, Yale, and Penn above the Big Red in the national poll. Anything can happen, but wins over Yale and Brown will have us sitting pretty.

So while you’re watching your Virginia Tech-Miami, Florida – Florida State, and Syracuse – Rutgers battles, be sure to check out channels in the 1000s, where you might be lucky enough to find games from the other division.

Archived article by Sumeet Sarin