Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When it comes to I-A, "what if" is probably more fun than the answer

The CAA shouldn't be tricked by the romanticism of Boise State's emergence as a I-A power.

Admittedly, wondering just how the CAA would fare in Division I-A in the midst of and immediately following the Flying Dutchmen’s impressively competitive 24-10 loss to Western Michigan is kneejerk armchair quarterbacking at its worst. The law of transitive property—i.e. Richmond destroyed the Dutchmen 47-0 a week prior, so imagine what the Spiders would do to Western Michigan—does not work in sports, no matter how often I like to think the Dutchmen would have made the Final Four in 2006 because, duh, they beat George Mason twice that season.

The transitive property is particularly useless when it comes to projecting how a I-AA team would fare in a I-A conference, because imagine the kind of advantage the I-A teams would enjoy with 22 extra scholarships over the course of an entire season, not just one game.

Still, though: To examine the CAA’s success against I-A schools this year is to once again ponder if the end game for the conference is in fact a leap to I-A.

The CAA is 4-7 against I-A foes so far. The rest of the I-AA conferences are a combined 0-59 against I-A. Oh-and-fifty-nine.

The average margin of defeat for the CAA in these games has been 11.5 points, almost three touchdowns lower than the overall average margin of defeat for the I-AA conferences (32.3 points). The Missouri Valley has the next lowest average margin of defeat at 22 points.

CAA teams have lost two games to I-A foes by eight points or less. The rest of the I-AA conferences have combined for eight such losses. The CAA has absorbed one shutout loss, and Northeastern’s 54-0 loss to Boston College marked the only time a CAA school was held under 10 points. The rest of the I-AA conferences have endured nine shutouts and 23 other games in which the loser scored less than 10 points.

The stats don’t tell the entire story. One big reason the CAA has fared so much better than the rest of I-AA is its athletic programs are well-off enough, financially as well as football-wise, so that they don’t have to take the really big payday and go to a true I-A monster and endure soul-crushing defeats. The same cannot be said for Idaho State (a 64-0 loser to Oklahoma), Charleston Southern (a 62-3 loser to Florida), Southeast Missouri State (a 70-3 loser to Cincinnati) or Grambling (a 56-6 loser to Oklahoma State), just to name a few.

None of the CAA’s I-A foes—who enter play this weekend with a combined record of 18-24—are going to be in the national championship discussion, and the most successful of these squads will likely be relegated to nothing more than a token appearance in a bowl nobody watches the week before or after Christmas.

But the ubiquitous nature of the CAA in the weekly polls, as well as its record-setting success in the I-AA tournament, indicates just how far ahead it is of the field. Mike Litos wrote earlier this month how he foresees this dominance continuing—in football as well as the basketball version of I-AA—once Division I realigns sometime next decade.

And that would appear to be the best way to go. Sure, Western Michigan and the rest of the MAC are technically playing for the biggest of the big prizes in football, but the BCS isn’t exactly known for inviting the little guy to the dance. Better for the CAA to establish itself as the best league at a pretty darn good level and enjoy the opportunity to regularly compete for the national title in football and basketball.

But Division I-AA doesn’t send hearts aflutter among the general population, and it would be regrettable—if completely understandable, from the human perspective—if the same feelings trickled up to the administrative level within the CAA and the league’s eyes grew bigger than its stomach as it envisioned Boise State-like success for its top programs.

I imagine the concept of Boise State leaping to I-A was fairly unimaginable 15 years ago, when the Broncos were coming off a season in which they did not even receive a vote in the final Sports Network poll. Yet here it is, 2009, and Boise State is one of the most successful I-A programs in the land, one that is currently ranked in the top five of the AP poll and positioned to once again crash the BCS party, if not the actual national championship game.

If Boise State has made the jump to I-A superstardom, why can’t Richmond or James Madison or Delaware or Massachusetts, all of whom have won the I-AA national title since 1998?

But Boise State is the exceedingly rare outlier. A perfect CAA team at I-A would be far more likely to experience what MAC champion and former I-AA power Marshall did in 1999, when the Thundering Herd went 13-0 but still only ranked 10th in the final AP poll and played its bowl game Dec. 27.

Sure, a CAA team might follow the path blazed by Boise State. But no matter how well the CAA has fared against I-A opposition recently, my guess is it’ll be more fun to wonder how Richmond would fare at I-A than to actually find out.

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

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