College Football Nation: Will I-AA continue to contend?

Eric Avidon

Michigan fans have every right to be furious, and embarrassed.

Appalachian State fans have every right to be ecstatic.

And college football fans in general have every right to be both shocked and thrilled by what the Mountaineers did to the Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, becoming the first Div. I-AA (officially the Football Championship Subdivision) to ever beat a ranked Div. I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) team, and the No. 5 team at that.

"When we countered their first touchdown, we said, `We can play with these guys,' and we did in a very special venue," Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore said in the aftermath of the 34-32 win.

But it's not just that the Mountaineers can play with the Wolverines. What the upset showed for all to see is that top I-AA squads are good football teams, capable of beating I-A teams when the circumstances are right. Usually that means a bad I-A team, which has happened numerous times over the years, and Saturday it meant beating an under-prepared team.

"There are probably 10 or 15 teams at the Championship Subdivision Level that on any given Saturday can take it to you," said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, whose team won the ACC last year. "I think that there are just so many good football teams out there, so you have to be careful when you start talking about Bowl Subdivision and Championship Subdivision because when you get those top 10 or 15 teams in the Championship Subdivision you better play.

"There are enough teams like Appalachian State that have enough players, and if you don't play your best football they're going to beat you."

Appalachian State's win is something that's been brewing for a little while, something that maybe shouldn't have been totally unexpected. It's been boiling beneath the surface since 1994 when the NCAA limited the number of scholarships a Div. I-A team could award to 85, down from more than 100, thereby limiting the amount of talent a team could stockpile.

"The number of teams successful from our level is not a lot, but a guy like (Appalachian State's quarterback Armanti) Edwards can make a difference," said UMass coach Don Brown, whose team lost to the Mountaineers in last year's Div. I-AA championship game. "I still believe I-A teams have superiority, especially in terms of depth on the offensive and defensive lines. They're getting the cream of the crop there. ... There are a lot of skill guys out there, though, and they can go from potential to performance."

One of those skill players is Edwards, who threw for 227 yards and three touchdowns against Michigan.

Because of the reduction in scholarships, a coaching staff has to be much more strategic with its offers than it did pre-1994. Back then it could recruit every top tailback or quarterback in the country, and if it wound up with a passel of stud QBs so be it - let the competition begin. But now each scholarship is more precious, and once a school has a solid core of players at a given position it better focus on attracting some linemen or linebackers rather than waste a scholarship on a fourth-string QB who may never see the field.

Well, that QB or tailback - or linebacker or safety - whom coaching staffs don't feel is quite as good as another, now doesn't get the scholarship offer from the traditional college football powers. Yet, they're still good enough to play at a high level and do wind up with a scholarship someplace. Edwards is a perfect example, and Bellingham's Ricky Santos, the New Hampshire quarterback who won the Walter Payton Award last year, another.

The scholarship reduction meant that schools from lesser Div. I-A conferences like the Mid-American got better while the Big Ten, Pac 10, SEC and the rest got slightly worse. The same phenomenon trickled down to I-AA as well, where in the last few years UNH, for example, has knocked off Rutgers and Northwestern.

Beyond a narrowed talent gap, another reason there will be more I-AA teams beating I-A teams going forward is that more of those matchups are being scheduled. Div. I-A added a 12th regular-season game last year, and a lot of schools, rather than playing a strong non-conference opponent, choose to use the extra game to get what it figures will be an automatic win.

"The 12th game makes (wins over I-A teams) more plausible," said Brown. "We play a I-A team every year - Boston College this year, Texas Tech next year and then Kansas State - and you could see more upsets just because there are more games."

Last year UMass nearly beat Navy, losing by just one point.

"Because of that game (last weekend), though, I-A teams might be a little more careful who they schedule," Brown continued. "It's not a guarantee. People are going to pay attention to who they schedule."

Simply, don't expect Appalachian State's upset of Michigan to be an isolated incident. When the stars align, there will be similar upsets. They will be few and far between, because the best talent does still reside with the college game's traditional powers, but they'll be there.

"This is a good lesson for all of us," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. "The lesson is that anybody can be had. ... There's not a horse that can't be rode and not a rider that can't be throwed. I think that's what Appalachian State shows. There's nobody that can't be had, so you better be ready every Saturday."

What We Learned

It's nothing new, but it's unfair to make teams play conference games in their season openers.

There's no preseason, so when they take the field that first weekend there's an adjustment period. It takes a little while to get into the flow of real competition, adapt to the speed and ferocity of a true opponent. In some cases, like Boston College, which fell behind 14-0 to Wake Forest but stormed back, the adjustment is quick, just a couple of series.

But it took Florida State a full half to adapt against Clemson on Monday night. The Seminoles, with a new coordinator in Jimbo Fisher, fell behind 24-3 by halftime, and looked awful in the process. But FSU adjusted at halftime, and in the second half the Seminoles stormed back. It was too little, too late, however, and they lost 24-18.

"There are pros and cons mentally, and pros and cons physically, because you may or may not know how good your team is," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, who won on Monday night, said of playing a quality opponent so early. "Your team is definitely focused and will play with great emotion, but where Florida State did not play good in the first half against a quality opponent it's going to hurt. There's not much room for error when you play a quality team. They got just a little far behind ... in the first half and couldn't make it up."

It's one thing if an opening day loss comes in a non-conference affair. But not only are the Seminoles - and defending ACC champion Wake Forest, among others - 0-1 before they even have their legs, before they have their identity, before they've had time to see what's wrong and fix it, they're trailing in the conference race.

When top teams schedule others in early season non-conference affairs it hurts to lose. Ohio State was knocked from the national championship picture two years ago by Texas, and the reverse happened last year when the Buckeyes returned the favor. The reward, however, is worth the risk. An early season win over a top non-conference opponent propels a team to the top of the championship chase.

The loss, meanwhile, merely drops them a few notches in the polls and chase for a still subjective championship.

In the battle for their respective conference crowns, however, races determined solely by on-the-field play, they're unharmed. In fact, by playing a difficult non-conference opponent, they're better-prepared to play the top teams within their respective conferences.

And that, in truth, is what the early season should be about. It should be the time a team can learn about itself, the time it can prepare for its rivalries, its championship, its conference.

Game of the Week

There's a lot to like this week, like Miami traveling to Oklahoma in a game that would have been the best of the year five years ago. It's a matchup that will tell a lot about both teams, whether the impressive scores they put up last week were window dressing or a portent of things to come.

South Carolina at Georgia is another fun one - Steve Spurrier in his third year at the helm of the Gamecocks against a team with a good quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a mean defense and top-of-the-rankings aspirations.

And then there are Michigan and Notre Dame, the Wolverines hosting an Oregon team that is a more talented version of lightning-quick Appalachian State and the Fighting Irish traveling to play a Penn State team that might be in the top 10 pretty soon. Both Michigan and Notre Dame will be on display, showing whether they have life or this season will be disasters.

But nothing this week compares to Virginia Tech at LSU, the first game of the year between two top 10 teams.

The No. 9 Hokies did not look good last week, beating East Carolina 17-7. The No. 2 Tigers did, crushing Mississippi State 45-0. But there was a lot more than a football game going on last Saturday in Blacksburg, Va. There was a pregame ceremony honoring the 33 Virginia Tech students and faculty murdered last April, and it was a day long talked about as one that would help in the university's healing.

It had to be hard to play a football game.

"We understand the very difficult time that campus and that state has been through," said LSU coach Les Miles. "It appears to me that they're handling it very well. We look forward to seeing Virginia Tech, and we have great respect for Coach (Frank) Beamer and what they've done there."

He added, "We watched the East Carolina game, and it appeared they were in greater control of that game than what might have been the score."

This is a game that features two tremendous defenses. Virginia Tech was the No. 1 defense in the country last year, while LSU was No. 3. But - and it's a big but - LSU has an offense, while Virginia Tech has a good running back but a questionable offensive line and quarterback.

For the Hokies to pull of the upset - and it would be an upset - they'll need big plays on special teams, a staple under Beamer.

"We're playing one of the two best teams in the country this week, and that's no slight to three, four and five," said Beamer. "I know they're ranked second, but I'm not sure they're not first. They're tough. They play hard and they play tough. You've got a bunch of good athletes who are well coached ... and that presents a real challenge for our football team."

If I had a Ballot ...

1. USC: The win over Idaho was nothing special, but beating Nebraska big next week would be a win to justify the Trojans' ranking.

2. LSU: The Tigers can make a statement Saturday night against Virginia Tech.

3. West Virginia: They did what they were supposed to do, but the defense could be trouble down the road.

4. Wisconsin: The Badgers were solid in beating a decent Washington State team, even showing an aerial attack.

5. Texas: The Longhorns won, but unimpressively, so they fall from No. 3.

6. Florida: An easy win over Western Kentucky, and the Gators should have an easy time this week against Troy.

7. Oklahoma: This week's game against Miami will tell a bit about both teams.

8. California: Impressive win over Tennessee. The Bears wanted revenge and got it against an upper-tier SEC team, so they leapfrog their way into the rankings.

9. Louisville: 73 points against Murray State - impressive total, unimpressive opponent.

10. Virginia Tech: An upset of LSU would put them in the thick of the title chase.

(Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at eavidon@cnc.com or 508-626-3809.)