The sound of me cheering my own cleverness, however, is about the only sound you'll be hearing from fans at Lehigh, Colgate, Holy Cross and Lafayette this Sunday - the four teams picked to be Patriot League title contenders by almost everyone but the most rabid of Bucknell and Georgetown fans.
The dismal performance by the Mountain Hawks, Crusaders, Leopards and Raiders shows so clearly a new expanse between the top teams of the Football Championship Subdivision and the Patriot League this year. A "gap". (more)
I came up with my Word this week well before I knew the carnage that would be occurring later in the day - even before I found out that Colgate was walloped by Furman 45-15 and Holy Cross was pounded by No. 18-ranked UMass 31-7. I came up with "gap" midway through the 3rd quarter of Lehigh's own spanking at the hands of the top team in the country.
I came up with the word because it was just so obvious that there was a "gap" between Lehigh and Villanova.
Every team enters the season with the dream - with that powerful performance, against the powerful team that will make the world stand up and take notice. Maybe that highly-ranked team takes you lightly - maybe they're looking ahead. It sets up those App State 34, Michigan 32 moments that signals that this team, this year, will be different.
Now granted, the Wildcats were No. 2 in the country - and now, quite possibly, on their way back to No. 1. Asking a 4-7 team to be their complete equal would not be fair. Going into the week, there was an obvious "gap" between Villanova and Lehigh - one was 15-1 last year and national champions, and the other was a 4-7 team that was just happy to have beaten Lafayette last year. I didn't predict a shutout, but I had no delusions as to the enormity of the task at hand.
And it's not like it was out of the realm of possibility that a Patriot League team could beat a CAA team. Colgate had beaten UMass at home in 2005, the same year Lafayette had knocked off Richmond. Northeastern fell to Holy Cross just last year. In 2007 and 2008, before scholarships entered the equation, Fordham won back-to-back games against Rhode Island.
Add to that an impressive victory by Lafayette over Liberty in 2008, a last-gasp Raider win over Coastal Carolina that same year, and a Colgate win over Big South champion Stony Brook the year after that - and you have a conference that has had some pretty good records playing against scholarship out-of-conference opponents over the years. Regular season games where SoCon teams and Patriot League teams are rarer, but even Lehigh did beat Wofford in 2000. Over the last ten years, it didn't seem like there was much of a "gap" between top Patriot League teams and the big dogs of FCS.
It sure feels like there is one now, though.
Lehigh's first team offense could not get anything moving at all against one of the best defenses in the nation. Or their second team. Junior P/DB Dominic Scarnecchia, at the end of the game, lined up on defense and tackled freshman RB Keith Sherman after a 5 yard gain. Fittingly, Lehigh didn't get the first down.
Villanova's first and second team offense averaged 5.3 yards per carry, to the tune of 330 yards. Freshman QB Dustin Thomas, getting mop-up duty, got 4 rushes for 31 yards against our first-team defense. Eight different players for Villanova got positive rushing yards against the Mountain Hawks. Obviously, Villanova's offensive line was making a whole lot of "gaps" against Lehigh's defense. Lots of them.
It was too early to tell when I originally picked the "Word", but similar stories would play themselves out in the Patriot League later that afternoon and evening.
While Lehigh's eight first downs would look bad, Holy Cross' twelve first downs versus UMass would not look much better, nor would Colgate's seventeen.
At first glance, giving up 495 yards to Villanova might seem disappointing - until you consider Holy Cross gave up 525 yards to UMass, and Colgate gave up 536 to Furman.
Only Colgate's game against Furman, an unranked opponent, would be competitive at halftime with a 17-7 score, though it wouldn't last long in the second half. In Amherst, UMass would score all the points they needed - 31 of them - by halftime.
Against the first teams of UMass, Furman, and Villanova - Colgate, Holy Cross and Lehigh would never, at any point in the game, have the lead. In the first half of all three games, the Patriot League three would score one touchdown. One.
Those statistics are beyond sugarcoating. That, my friends, is a "gap". A yawning one.
Meanwhile, up in Poughkeepsie, New York, Bucknell would be busy losing to Marist 14-3. Playing in the Pioneer Football League, Marist had never beaten the Bison before, and had only beaten four schools in their history - Sacred Heart, Georgetown, St Francis (PA) and Bryant - that would be considered to have any players receiving aid other than that of the need-based variety.
Excluding the Georgetown upset of Lafayette, that put the out-of-conference record of the Patriot League teams eligible for the league title at 0-4 this week. Those Patriot League teams would be outscored by a hundred points.
It's striking that Fordham's win - a 27-25 win against Rhode Island - was the only out-of-conference win from a Patriot League team this weekend. They are ineligible for the league title, however, since starting this year they started offering football scholarships. Their level of scholarships is nowhere near that of Villanova, UMass or Furman, but they've begun the process of getting there, and it's unlikely their quarterback, junior QB Blake Wayne, would be on Rose Hill today if it weren't for football scholarships.
The scholarship Big South Conference, once a five-team conference with no autobid, now has two teams in its seven-team conference with wins over FBS schools. The scholarship Northeast Conference, with Albany's 3-0 win over Maine, has more wins over CAA teams than the Patriot League. Both conferences only were formed, or started offering full scholarships, in the past five years.
I don't bring up these statistics to be depressing, or even to say that the Patriot League season is doomed. It is only Week 2, after all - there's plenty of time for every team to get their acts together and make a run at the title. But it's worth wondering "why did this happen?"
You have to be fair and say that almost every Patriot League team had a significant question mark going into this season. Five teams were breaking in new quarterbacks, and two teams had seen QB Dominic Randolph and QB John Skelton, two of the best players that ever played in the Patriot League, graduate.
But even so there have been signs in the past few years that the "gap" between the CAA and Patriot League has been widening. Somewhere, wins over the "big boys" of FCS became "close loss moral victories", and wins over Rhode Island, Liberty and Stony Brook became the marquee wins for the conference instead of wins over FBS teams, Delaware and Richmond.
As recently as seven years ago, Lehigh, Colgate and Fordham were beating those teams. Regularly. In their championship run of 2003, Colgate beat FBS Buffalo and embarrassed a Florida Atlantic team coached by Howard Schnellenberger that used FCS as a stepping stone to low-rent FBS.
Also, the game has changed significantly too. Spread offenses - which kill using speed - are becoming the norm among the elite teams in FCS and FBS. They, in effect, line up their best athletes against your best athletes, and if you can't stop them 1-on-1, then you lose.
It used to be that you didn't have to be the most talented team to win a game. If you were smart enough, fast enough and tough enough you could win games against bigger teams. When Lehigh lined up against Western Illinois in 2000, the Leathernecks had most of the athletes, but Lehigh had the system, the smarts and the knowledge that they can win every time they step on the field. It's not like Lehigh had no athletes of course. But the "gap" was so small that smart play could bridge the gap easily.
That doesn't fly anymore. The elite teams of FCS have embraced the spread offense - they have for some time - and frequently have out-hustled and out-recruited the bigger FBS schools to get ever better players. The best FCS teams are no question as good or better than MAC or Sun Belt teams - or even better. James Madison this past weekend became the second FCS team to upset a nationally ranked FBS team with their gutty 21-16 win over FBS Virginia Tech.
And it's not like all the Patriot League's opponents have sold their programs to the devil to get to that level, either. For example, Villanova's Academic Progress Rate, the NCAA's measure for academic performance, was 978 this year - basically, the same APR rate that all the Patriot League schools have. Furman (974) is similar. Andy Talley and Bobby Lamb are known for running clean, classy programs that, for the most part, graduate students. There's no "gap" there between them and the Patriot League academically.
The biggest thing that separates a Furman and a Lehigh is merit-based football scholarships.
I won't go over all the discussions on merit-based aid and football scholarships. I've gone over all that before, in gory detail. But I'll try to sum it up quickly.
Last year, Fordham announced they are going to start offering merit-based aid, thus making them ineligible for the title in 2010 and beyond (the first year scholarship players will be suiting up for Fordham in competition). But they're still in the Patriot League - for now. The Patriot League has publicly stated that they are discussing the possibility of allowing the league to offer football scholarships - the same type of aid, incidentally, that is offered in every other type of sport, including basketball. The decision is to be made by the end of 2010.
The differences between a conventional football scholarship and Patriot League-based aid can be summed up like this:
When Bobby Lamb goes to a high-academic football recruit, he can tell him that he wants him to play at Furman, and they won't have to pay the $50,000 in yearly tuition. When Andy Coen goes to the same recruit, he has to go with a calculator and a sliding scale and ask him what the net worth of his family is, to see if he can have his tuition paid.
For a variety of reasons, the method used by the schools that offer full scholarships get more students than the ones that have to go through the financial aid office. Sometimes it's an "ego thing", and other times a school like Furman will pay for the entire education while Lehigh will only pay for part of it. The net is, however, that Lehigh loses good academic football-playing students to other universities.
Offering football scholarships certainly would put football in line with every other Patriot League sport, and should increase the pool of potential football recruits. There's an ethical question, too: is it right to be able to offer men's basketball player one type of aid, but deny football players the same type of aid? When basketball and football were treated the same, it was easy to say that principles of offering scholarships were being upheld. Now that basketball has taken the plunge wholeheartedly - and the Patriot League hasn't collapsed or become renegade programs as a result - it just seems discriminatory that the aid is treated differently.
But it's about more than that. With enough merit-based scholarships, you can approach the big boys of FBS with a "gap" in their schedule and offer to play a game at their place - for a nice, six figure check - that counts for their bowl eligibility. FCS teams like Liberty, James Madison, Gardner-Webb and Jacksonville State can go to FBS teams Ball State, Virginia Tech, Akron, and Ole Miss and get paid - and when they win, get recognition on a national level. Beat a nationally ranked FBS team like Michigan or Virginia Tech, and you really hit the jackpot.
Having FBS games are fantastic challenges for the athletes to give themselves a chance to line up against the top programs in football - events that they will never forget. Even a losing effort generates publicity and gets the name of the school in the scoreboard crawl. They also can make teams better - playing against better competition makes for better teams in the future.
It's these sorts of challenges that Patriot League teams have been missing. These games help generate excitement in the program, sure, but they are also effective recruiting tools to have high-academic football players choose their program. Scholarship programs can offer more than just aid - they also offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. When Villanova played West Virginia a couple of years ago, you can bet every recruit got that information. Every kid knows what West Virginia is.
You can't say definitively that playing West Virginia back then, and Temple in the ensuing years, eventually made Villanova win the championship last year. But you can make a damned good case that it helped.
At least one head coach - Villanova's Andy Talley - thinks that merit-based aid would have an immediate impact on competitiveness. "If the Patriot League goes to scholarships, they will be elite teams in I-AA [FCS]," Talley told Keith Groller of the Morning Call earlier this year. "Lafayette has great facilities, so does Lehigh, and Colgate has improved its situation. They can sell education and there's no doubt they would be top-10 teams in the country with scholarships."
The Patriot League presidents need to decide - will they give their football kids the opportunity to compete with the rest of the nation? I have to believe they saw these games this weekend - these uncompetitive games - and made some sort of decision.
They may have decided that they would close the "gap" by allowing football scholarships in 2011 - and maybe, soon, their teams would be able to compete again against the top teams in the nation. It may, however, cause one or more schools to leave the conference or drop football.
Or they may have decided that closing the "gap" would not be worth it ethically and morally - which would certainly cause one or more other schools to leave the conference to pursue scholarship football.
Which will it be?