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Do We Belong?

By now you've heard Lehigh was not selected as an at-large team to the FCS playoffs, despite their 10-1 record.

While most years, most Lehigh fans, including myself, would pull ourselves together, accept our fate, and then pull together and root for Colgate to make a run to Frisco, this year it hasn't been the case.

There is still a lot of bitterness out there.  And I know why.

It is not just the function of one playoff snub.

It is the mounting evidence over the last couple of years that Lehigh, and by extension the rest of the Patriot League, is a part of FCS, but not really.

There have been exactly two teams with ten Division I wins that were not invited to the playoffs.

The first, in 1997, was another Patriot League team - Bucknell.

After going 10-0 and beating Harvard in Cambridge and Yale in New Haven, Tom Gadd's Bison fell 48-14 to Colgate in Hamilton, at a stroke losing the Patriot League title to the "inconsistent" 7-4 Raiders and the league's inaugural autobid to the I-AA playoffs.

Bucknell beat Ivy League champion Harvard, who was led defensively by DE Tom Smith and was the Crimson's first nine-win squad since 1919, but that wasn't enough to get into the field.

The "non-scholarship" Patriot League was considered much weaker than the 14th-seeded team in the 16-team bracket, 9-2 Hofstra, who was then an Eastern independent and sported victories over Liberty in Lynchburg (40-27), Buffalo (37-26), in their final years before joining the MAC at the FBS level. and Lehigh in Hempstead (45-38).

Yet few saw Bucknell's exclusion at 10-1 as a snub at the time.

Despite the presence of Harvard on the schedule, it was considered very weak, and besides, the autobid for the "non-scholarship" Patriot League was seen more as one of a gift to the young conference than anything else.  Colgate, the lowest seed, would play at Villanova, a team who had future pro RB Brian Westbrook already starting to warm up towards a record-setting career as a freshman.

Multiple bids to a league that hadn't proved it's mettle just weren't going to happen.  Play better teams, some said, and win some games in the playoffs, and things will get better.

Fifteen years later, the landscape is very different.

The FCS playoffs no longer seeds all the teams.  The field has expanded from 16 to 20 teams, and will - sadly, too late for Lehigh - expand to 24 teams next year.

The Patriot League this season will be offering conventional scholarships to its recruits, different from their need-based aid only in the sense that it no longer will need to be needs-tested, i.e., they will not need to go through the financial aid office to meet that test.

Most importantly, though, the Patriot League, and Lehigh in particular, has proven beyond doubt that they belong in the playoffs.

Nobody gave Lehigh much of a shot in 1998 when they traveled to Richmond to face the Spiders, the CAA champions.  One last-second FG, and a 24-23 victory later, they had sent the CAA champs packing, in their first and only trip to Richmond to play football.  While Lafayette would play the Spiders in the future, Richmond never invited Lehigh back.

The next week they would travel to UMass, where they would give the eventual national champions everything they could handle, only falling 26-21 after the Minutemen defense would hold on 4th and 5 at their 7 yard line with under a minute to play.

The Minutemen, who took an early leave from the CAA to move to the world of FBS football in the MAC, never invited Lehigh back for a rematch.

Lehigh's success didn't end there, either.  They'd be invited to Macomb, Illinois in 2000, a "weak team" that traveled to the Gateway (now Missouri Valley) Conference champs.  The Leathernecks expected a walkover.  Instead, the Mountain Hawks put on a clinic, pulverizing Western Illinois 37-7.  Like UMass, they never invited them back.

They'd beat Hofstra 27-24 in 2001 in the first-ever playoff game in Murray Goodman stadium, avenging the loss in Hempstead in 1999, 27-15, after a late interception return for touchdown would thwart a late Lehigh drive.  After Lehigh's close shave in Hempstead in 1997, the Flying Dutchmen would never schedule Lehigh during the regular season again.

They'd fall to James Madison, 14-13, in a game defined by a "7th-and-goal" goalline stand where Lehigh stood up Mickey Matthews' Dukes six straight times at the 1 before giving up the touchdown.  They would go on to win the national championship that year, and like many teams, they didn't invite Lehigh a chance to avenge the loss.  (The Dukes will, however, finally play Lehigh in 2014, ten years after their playoff matchup.)

The only team not frightened by Lehigh's success, it seemed, was Delaware, who not only beat them soundly in their two playoff matchups in  2000 and 2010, but also scheduled them in two different times at the Tub.

Traveling on the road in those games, Lehigh stunned Tubby Raymond's Blue Hens in 1999, 42-35, a game which ultimately may have been the deciding factor in Lehigh's inclusion in the FCS playoffs that year and Delaware's exclusion.

An overtime loss in Newark in 2005 - 34-33, after a missed Lehigh extra-point in overtime - sent a message to Delaware, and likely many other teams, that the Mountain Hawks are a scary team.

Then, of course, there's the recent playoff success.  The 14-7 win at the Missouri Valley champs, Northern Iowa in 2010, followed by the loss to Delaware, who would go all the way to the championship game.  The 40-38 win at the CAA champs, Towson, followed by the loss to the national-champion North Dakota State Bison.

I don't mean to give short shrift, too, to the rest of the Patriot League, who have consistently, as a conference, had more success and given more headaches to good teams in the playoffs than any other of the so-called mid-major conferences.  There's that Colgate 2003 march to the championship.  Fordham's win over the CAA champions.  Holy Cross giving eventual national champ Villanova all they could handle.  Lafayette a bogus onsides-kick call away from stunning eventual Appalachian State in Boone.

Fans and officials of other conferences look at Lehigh's schedule, and by extension the Patriot League this season, though, and see 1997 all over again.

Though Central Connecticut State and Monmouth have scholarship athletes, the Mountain Hawk wins against the Hawks and Blue Devils are dismissed.  While Princeton was in the running for the Ivy League title in the final weeks of the year, they were seen as weak.  Despite the fact that Liberty not only beat Stony Brook on November 10th, they dominated them 28-14, since Lehigh beat them when they were winless, the win was considered worthless.

Detractors say: "Well, Lehigh, you learned your lesson.  Schedule tougher opponents, and beat them."

Yet what is that, anyway?  Sam Houston State scheduled Incarnate Word, a D-II team.  Wofford scheduled Lincoln, an NAIA school.   Lehigh had a full Division I schedule, and didn't schedule a single non-scholarship team.  Wofford scheduled Gardner-Webb and Lincoln, and Gardner Webb, if you believe the computers, was a weaker team than any squad Lehigh faced this season.

When Lehigh fans bring this up as a criticism, the detractors retort that schools like Sam Houston State and Wofford have been also able to put Texas A&M and South Carolina on the schedule as well.

To which one could say: Lehigh could have gone 1-1 against South Carolina and Lincoln, too.

Lehigh has consistently had the opportunity to play the best at the FCS level, and time and again, beat the best.  Too many people say that this shouldn't matter, to only look at the schedule for this year, yet Sam Houston State coasts into the playoffs with a ton of lesser FCS-or-lower opponents on the schedule, and nobody bats an eyelash.  Same with New Hampshire.

Look up and down the at-large field of ten teams to the FCS playoffs.  You'll see a lot of teams with the same scheduling mentality: schedule an FBS squad, and a couple struggling FCS squads, or a non-D-I team.  When tournament time comes, they are counting that the committee will look at the FBS games and say, "wow, they played Wyoming, so they played a tough schedule".  And they do.

Add to that a legacy of playoff success, like Georgia Southern's six championships or New Hampshire's ten-game streak of invites to the playoffs, and those schools are thrown in the field, without a word, while Lehigh, somehow, needs to prove itself all over again.

In any year, this would be a terrible decision and an awful precedent.  But for Lehigh fans, after the extremely questionable Ryan Spadola suspension before the playoff game against North Dakota State, it seems to feed a greater issue.

It felt like the NCAA was re-interpreting its rules on the fly in order to keep Lehigh's star player out of the playoffs - as if Lehigh's success, somehow, would wreck the status quo, where a more conventional-looking state-school champion, perhaps one auditioning for a future slot in the Sun Belt, or Conference USA would emerge the victor.

I'm not saying that's what happened, but you can bet there are a lot of people that feel that way.

To these people, it feels like the FCS playoffs are a club, where only the UMass', and the wannabe UMass', are invited, and any schools that might look different, more private, more Academic Index-y, more happy to be in FCS and aspire to nothing more than that level of excellence, need not be invited.

So I ask, to the NCAA, the officials of other schools, to anyone reading this: Do we belong here? 

Are the rules really fair?  Do other schools suffer re-interpretations of the rules the week before a playoff game?  Does a 10 win season - 10 wins!  Something only four schools in the entire subdivision achieved! - in one league count, but not in another?  Does the rulebook say a full Division I schedule merits better consideration, but those guidelines are thrown out when the opportunity to shoe-horn in a third program from a so-called "power conference" into the playoffs presents itself?  Does a program's playoff history matter in one case, but not the other?

Is it worth bothering competing in the FCS when the leadership of other schools and conferences simply don't appear to have an ounce of respect for the Patriot League - despite the immense body of work over the last decade that the Patriot League deserves, at some level, a tiny benefit of the doubt?

In the end, do we belong with the Northern Iowa's, the Montana's, the Towson's, the Appalachian State's?  Are we seen as anything of value to this subdivision, or are we just the unwanted cousin who shows up on the holiday, ruining the party for everyone else?

To them, do we bring any value?  For us, do they bring any value?


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