Monday, November 19, 2012

Sunday's Word: Unfair


Lehigh won ten Division I games this year, something that only three other schools managed this season. 

Only one, North Dakota State, was the autobid champions of their conference; the other two, Old Dominion and Montana State, not only made the FCS Playoff field of 20 with ease, they were seeded as one of the Top 5 teams in the country.

Lehigh won their final game of the year against their bitter rivals, Lafayette, in impressive fashion, winning 38-21, a three-score victory. 

In contrast, FCS playoff participants New Hampshire, Illinois State, and Wofford lost their games by three scores or more, to Towson, North Dakota State, and FBS South Carolina, respectively. ( The Wildcats, in fact, gave up 64 points for the second time this season, falling 64-35 to a team, Towson, that Lehigh beat in the first round of the playoffs last season.)

Lehigh went 10-1 on the season, and even led at halftime over the eventual Patriot League champions, Colgate, before falling in the second half.  The 35-24 game, won by the Raiders, was a big-time, championship, hard-fought game, that was eminently visible to anyone who actually watched it.

The FCS playoff committee, though, apparently thought the Mountain Hawks needed to be perfect in order to make it in the field.

And that's "unfair" - to the fans of the FCS playoffs.

Even with the win on Saturday, it seemed certain that it was going to be a long wait.

Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani thought Lehigh was certainly in the field, congratulating Lehigh for their win in the 148th meeting between the two schools and mentioning that he thought they would do great representing the league in the playoffs.

But talking to many folks after the game, people were still not sure.

Head coach Andy Coen, visibly impressed by his players' season, did come off at times like a coach who was still trying to sell Lehigh to the FCS playoff selection committee at times. 

“We’ve represented the Patriot League tremendously over the last two seasons,” he said. “We had an opportunity to handle it last week, and it shows a lot about the character of our team to come back like this and dominate the way we did in the second half. That proves a lot about what our football team is all about.

“Alabama loses games. Sometimes you lose a game. We won 18 [regular-season] games in a row which is not easy to do. This team’s accomplished a lot and deserves the opportunity to keep playing.”

As impressive as Lehigh's win was - falling behind 21-10, and then scoring the next 28 points while shutting out the Leopards - other Patriot League and Lehigh folks also seemed pretty nervous. 

"We're not exactly getting much help," one Lehigh person shared with me who had already seen that VMI did not upset Liberty, Delaware did not upset Villanova, nor did New Hampshire take care of business at home against Towson.

Other Patriot League people, too, hardly thought Lehigh was a sure thing, perhaps being the last team in the field if everything fell right.

That was in contrast to the large cross-section of Lehigh and Lafayette fans I talked to.  To them, there was no doubt - Lehigh was in the playoffs.  Period.

"Didn't they get 10 wins?  And didn't they win two playoff games the last couple of years?  How do you keep them out?" one asked me as I was enjoying a Yuengling Black and Tan with some friends after the game. 

I cautiously agreed with them, but I knew enough to know that strange stuff happens behind closed doors when it comes to selecting these teams.  I felt Lehigh was in.  But I knew it was awfully close.

By last night, I had heard all the arguments.

Lehigh's 10-1, but they didn't have anyone on the schedule who was anywhere near most people's Top 25. And it's true - they did not.

But not only did Lehigh not have any control over that, 10 wins isn't easy to do, no matter who's on the schedule.  And it's not like they needed to prove that they belonged in the playoffs.  Wins over Towson and Northern Iowa in consecutive years proved that.

The other important thing I thought was that Lehigh's perceived "schedule strength", I felt, was being underrepresented, as it always is, due to the fact that they had two games against the Ivy League.

Fans across the country seem to pooh-pooh games versus the Ivy League, and say wins over teams like Princeton aren't good wins.  But I did think that people inside the FCS playoff committee, people who watch and follow FCS football, would certainly see that some of these teams are very good, especially Princeton.  Tiger DT Caraun Reid is a guy who will be an NFL defensive lineman for certain.  I'd put him up against any FCS offensive lineman any day of the week.  If nobody else, Fordham athletic director Frank McLaughlin, the Patriot League representative on the committee, would let everyone know how good that Princeton win was.  Right?


The Mountain Hawks lost to the best team they played, Colgate, who also lost to the worst team in the Missouri Valley, South Dakota, to start the season.  While Colgate's losses shouldn't matter in the slightest when evaluating Lehigh - last I checked, the transitive property does not apply to football - it nonetheless is true.  Colgate started slow, starting the season 1-3, and thus was on nobody's radar screen until they won seven straight football games, which, aside from being the second-longest streak in FCS, it was more than enough to win the Patriot League championship and autobid.

And anyone who actually watched that game knows how evenly matched Lehigh and Colgate actually were.  The Mountain Hawks were up early, and led by two scores at halftime before a few offensive errors gave Colgate an opening, and they took it.  Colgate went on three sustained drives, all touchdowns, and that was all the defense the Raiders needed to win the game. 

Ultimately, I thought what my friends at the party thought.  "How do you keep out a ten win team that has proven the last two years they belong?"  I knew the FCS playoff bubble was the toughest ever to crack, but I kept thinking ten wins, ten wins

What does that say to a school, or a conference, if you leave out a ten win team?  Ten wins isn't enough?  It had to be eleven?  Not only would that be a smack in the face to the school, it's a smack in the face to the entire conference as well.  A ten win team in your conference isn't better than the third-placed team in, say, the Missouri Valley or CAA, who went 8-3?  Really?

Leaving a team out with ten wins would be the ultimate statement that sure, we think of you as an FCS conference, but not really.  You don't get the benefit of the doubt on tough conference games, like our schools do.  You wouldn't give your right arm to be an FBS school, like many of us do - and some of us are either out the door to FBS, or paying for exploratory studies as to how best to get us to FBS.  You're a bunch of academic schools, happy to be here, and that's your problem, really.

The NCAA handbook, when it comes to picking playoff teams, talks specifically about how "the committee may give more consideration to those teams that have played all Division I opponents".  It's a statement that buoyed me a lot this week.  Do you really deny a 10-1 Lehigh team over a potential school that has not done so, such as, say, Wofford, who only had seven Division I wins, or Stony Brook, who only had eight?

As convinced as I was of my own argument, I had to admit that one could certainly still argue that Lehigh did not belong in one of the most extraordinary at-large pools in playoff history.

But only if you swallow the wooly idea that "strength of schedule" in a world where a loss over a 2-8 FBS team and a win over an NAIA school gives you "strength of schedule" over a school that plays eleven FCS schools.

And when push came to shove, I thought the doubts about schedule would be bucked by either memory of past playoff wins, or at least the horrible precedent it would set.  I thought Lehigh was in.  Barely, but still in.

*****

When I saw New Hampshire was playing at Wofford in the second round, I knew Lehigh was in trouble, since two precious at-large bids were now occupied by the Wildcats and Terriers.

While I was disappointed that the Terriers made it with 7 Division I wins over Lehigh, I at least sort-of understood it.  They played FBS South Carolina tough - something that Patriot League teams have been largely unable to do for the last decade since most Patriot League teams have not been able to qualify as "bowl counters" for FBS teams.

What was extra-stunning, though, to me was that 8-3 New Hampshire was on the board at all after getting pulverized by Towson, another bubble team that didn't make it, 64-35 on Saturday.

Losing to close the year is one thing, but getting blown out by more than four touchdowns? 

Lehigh had to get to ten wins to even merit consideration, yet ultimately it didn't matter whether 8-2 UNH wins or loses against Towson?

The selection show didn't end well, either, once it was revealed that it would be 8-3 Illinois State who got the final at-large bid, to play at Appalachian State in Round 2 in Boone, North Carolina.

The Mountain Hawk bubble burst to a Redbird team that didn't just have one conference loss, they had three - including one to 3-8 Missouri State.

How is a team that loses once all season, to the eventual conference champ, behind a school with three conference losses, including a shutout at home to Southern Illinois and that loss to the 3-8 Bears?

Yet it doesn't matter how many holes I poke in the argument. 

The decision was made, whether the folks in that locked room, without any media present, quantitatively weighed the pros and cons of every team or simply picked the teams whose colors they liked best. 

And it's done.  No matter how I feel about it, no mater how unjust I think it is, no matter how shabbily I think the entire Patriot League was treated this time around, it's done.

But my heart especially sank for this group of seniors that would not be able to get one more shot at North Dakota State - this time with a full squad.

Senior WR Ryan Spadola, senior QB Mike Colvin, senior LB Billy Boyko, senior NT Sajjad Chagani and many others would go out winners, thanks to the Lafayette game - but they wouldn't get a chance to compete for the national championship in 2012.
 
What flashed through my mind was there are so many stories that could have been written with Lehigh players in these playoffs.

They deserved the chance to do this.  Of this I have absolutely no doubt.

But sometimes, life isn't fair.

It's "unfair" that playoffs don't get a team like Lehigh in there - to scare, and sometimes beat, the schools in the FCS country club.

Had Lehigh faced off against Villanova, it would have been a tough battle between two private universities separated by an hour's drive.  It could have been great theater, facing off against Andy Talley and Villanova, getting their first victory over the Wildcats in three tries, and another chance to knock off a CAA champ.

A playoff game versus Stony Brook would have been a great battle versus two programs with playoff wins last year, only a couple hours' drive from one another.  A game in Long Island might have been a sellout - and I guarantee no team would want to face the winner in that one.


If Lehigh had had the opportunity made it back to Fargo, it would have been the talk of the playoffs, guaranteed.   It would have been a chance for Spadola and Colvin finally getting a chance to erase the memories of Ryan's controversial suspension, and Mike's interception at the goal line in Fargo.

It is really not fair that the nation won't be able to enjoy these matchups, featuring a team with ten Division I wins, that did everything they were asked to do, except what the committee wanted them to do, which was to be perfect.

Where others are expected to merely good enough, the Patriot League needs to be perfect.  There's something wrong with that.

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