There's only one national champ on football field - James Madison

OTHER VOICES

December 21, 2004|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

TWO WEEKS from now, the grand pooh-bahs of college football will be counting on you, the consumer, to step up. While they're busy lighting their cigars with $50 bills and gargling with champagne, they're hopeful you'll be planted in front of your television for four hours, captivated by a football game that, in truth, everyone knows is both a sham and a lie.

It's called the FedEx Orange Bowl, and when it's over, there will be pressure to declare the winner of that game - be it Oklahoma or Southern California - college football's "National Champion." As far as I'm concerned, there's only one program that deserves to call itself national champ this season, and it certainly isn't Oklahoma or USC. It's also not Auburn, Utah or Boise State, the other three teams with a chance to finish the year undefeated.

It's James Madison.

It hurts me to type those words, because just last Friday, the Dukes defeated my alma mater, the Montana Grizzlies, 31-21, in the Division I-AA national championship. But I also take comfort in knowing the Dukes won their championship fair and square, the same way Marshall did back in 1996, when I was a skinny freshman linebacker for the Grizzlies, and a guy named Randy Moss - yes, that Randy Moss - caught four touchdowns against us to lead the Thundering Herd to a 49-29 victory in the I-AA final.

Even though James Madison didn't even win its own conference outright, no one has dared suggest that the Dukes aren't deserving champions, because that's how it works in Division I-AA football. The players settle the issue on the field, with a 16-team playoff, and leave the politics and computer conundrums behind.

James Madison's coach, Mickey Mathews, didn't have to shamelessly lobby for votes late in the season, unlike Texas' Mack Brown, and no one thinks the Dukes got to participate in the postseason only because they could guarantee their fan base was willing to travel to a host city, then spend truckloads of money there.

What James Madison did do was win three consecutive road games in the I-AA playoffs to reach the title game, a feat that had never been accomplished. Each step of the way, I-AA pundits predicted the Dukes wouldn't have enough firepower, but game after game, they kept winning. Instead of playing in a meaningless bowl game sponsored by power tools, fast food or a soon-to-be-bankrupt Internet company, James Madison got the opportunity to prove that it was the best team, even if a collection of coaches, sportswriters and computers didn't think so two weeks ago.

No one has been able to present a credible argument as to why a similar playoff format couldn't work for Division I-A football programs, but there are two tired arguments that people regurgitate whenever the subject comes up: First, a playoff would be too much of a burden for the Division I-A student-athletes to handle academically, and, second, it would make the regular season less "special."

The first argument would be hilarious if it wasn't also so incredibly hypocritical. In recent years, more and more universities - Maryland included - have chosen to schedule regular-season games during the week, deciding that the benefits of playing on national television outweigh the difficulty of getting up for 8 a.m. class. (Toledo, for instance, played three times on Tuesday night this year.) Florida State even canceled two days of classes in 2002 before a Thursday night game with Clemson to help assuage, of all things, campus traffic problems.

What you don't often hear is that Division I-AA football players attend classes during the playoffs (for the most part without complaint), and when they can't, the universities make compromises with the student-athletes. In 1996, I took my finals early before the team flew to Huntington, W.Va., to play Marshall. This year, Montana quarterback Craig Ochs took one of his finals in the team hotel. NCAA basketball players also tend to miss their share of class during tournament time - a weeklong tournament in Hawaii, anyone?

And I'd argue that a playoff would make the regular season better, not worse. Right now, most decent programs are terrified to play anyone outside their own conference for fear that one freak upset might ruin their shot at a major bowl game. There's a reason Auburn's nonconference schedule this year included games against Louisiana-Monroe and The Citadel instead of teams like Michigan or Arizona State. And anyone who claims no one cares about the regular season in basketball has clearly never slept in a tent, or on the floor of Cole Field House, hoping to get a ticket to watch Duke.

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