Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What if Saturday is just the start for the CAA in I-A?

Rodney Dangerfield would appreciate the plight this week of the Flying Dutchmen football team.

The first tip of the basketball season is more than two months away, but the Virginia-based CAA schools are already screwing Hofstra. Clearly, it was part of the Grand Conspiracy for Richmond and William & Mary to thrash Duke and Virginia in their season openers, thereby minimizing in the eyes of voters nationwide the Dutchmen’s routine win over Stony Brook in the annual (for now) Unwinnable Game.

And it worked! The Dutchmen fell out of the top 25 in the coaches poll—at the expense, I kid you not, of a pair of teams that LOST their season openers. Granted, Eastern Kentucky and Liberty gave I-A Indiana and West Virginia quite a scare before falling by six and 13 points, respectively. But still, they got style points for losing while the Dutchmen got the boot for winning. Why doesn’t Tom Yeager just go ahead and award CAA membership to Eastern Kentucky and Liberty!

Of course, all blog bias aside, it was pretty awesome to hear about Richmond and William & Mary beating Duke and Virginia. (I guess Villanova’s win over Temple counts as a win over a I-A opponent, even if Temple hasn’t been any good since Hofstra was pounding the Owls so badly it scarred Bill Cosby for life)

All good Americans loathe Duke, even if getting Schadenfreude-like joy out of the Blue Devils losing a football game—which Duke does better than just about anyone else in I-A—is a lot like laughing at Pittsburgh because of the Pirates. It’s kind of mean-spirited and the source of your contempt doesn’t even acknowledge its inept brethren, but in a pinch it’ll do. So hooray Richmond!

And it’s always nice to see arrogance—in this case Al Groh, who is one of those fools of minimal accomplishment who nonetheless thinks he’s superior enough to protect the identity of his starting quarterback as if it’s a bigger secret than the code to The Bomb—brought down a peg. Yeah Al, that really worked for you last week. Presumably, Eric Mangini—who followed in Groh’s footsteps by first inexplicably landing the head coaching job with the Jets and then approaching said job in hilariously secretive fashion—will learn that this week. So whoohoo, William & Mary!

The urge following a day like Saturday is to declare several CAA teams could compete in a I-A conference, or at least the ACC. Such declarations are usually foolish, because as invigorating as it is to bound off the porch and knock off the big dogs, such performances are rare outliers. The three wins by the CAA were the only wins for I-AA teams in 37 games against I-A foes last week and account for one-fifth of the 15 wins I-AA teams have recorded against I-A teams since 2000. Far more often than not, those 22 extra scholarships at I-A come in pretty handy.

But I’m not so sure it’s foolish to wonder if Saturday won’t further inspire and fuel CAA football to make an eventual move to I-A. It won’t happen any year soon, and this is pure conjecture on my part, but maybe CAA football—which placed eight teams in the preseason top 25 coaches poll and five teams in each of the last two tournaments and whose schools have accounted for four of the last 11 national champions—is outgrowing I-AA.

It’s always easy to spend somebody else’s money, and making the leap to I-A would be a staggeringly expensive proposition. The NCAA requires I-A programs to play in a facility that holds at least 30,000 butts, and only Delaware (22,000) and Richmond (21,329) play in stadiums with capacities of at least 20,000. Then of course there’s the matter of adding those 22 scholarships and upgrading the program in myriad other ways.

Popular convention is that leaping to I-A is a quick way for a school to make money and become relevant. The truth is it’s a get rich quick scheme that rarely works out. More than 90 percent of all bowl money went to the six BCS schools in 2002 and most of the non-BCS bowls are played in front of plenty of empty seats.

But to look at the CAA is to see six schools that would seem, from the outside looking in, to have the fan base and the tradition to at least consider the I-A move: Richmond, Delaware, Massachusetts, James Madison, Villanova and William & Mary. Assume, too, that the infant programs at Old Dominion (which played its first football game in 68 years Saturday to great hype and anticipation), Georgia State and Charlotte will, having already spent millions to begin playing football, be more open to making a further investment and skipping the usual lengthy apprenticeship at I-AA. That’s nine schools (eight if you figure Villanova leaves for the Big East), more than enough for a conference.

And with the approaching apocalypse in Division I sports, maybe the CAA views upgrading to I-A in football as its last chance to be known as more than just a really good mid-major conference. Perhaps, as we alluded to a few months ago, it also pares down a potentially unwieldy conference and allows schools that aren’t driven by football to deemphasize their programs as painlessly and smoothly as possible.

Of course, this is a lot more complex than anything we can write in 1,000 or so words, and New Hampshire and Maine, in particular, would not be thrilled to be left behind if CAA moved to I-A. And what to do with VCU and George Mason (must resist urge to say what the CAA can do with George Mason), neither of whom play football but both of whom are indelibly associated with the CAA?

But what if the CAA decides it wants to do a lot more than just occasionally spoil a September Saturday for Division I opponents? What if the CAA is headed for the day when it is a peer with the ACC in football instead of the cuddly underdog?

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