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2014 Saw All Of Division I Football Break Into Cliques

You may remember the genius of Groucho Marx, the bespectacled Marx Brother with the grease-painted eyebrows and mustache.  One of my all-time favorite films, Horse Feathers, featured Groucho, Harpo, and Chico on the football field (actually the Rose Bowl), representing their "school" in a particularly important game.

But it's a particular quote of his that seems to summarize Division I football perfectly, at both the FCS and FBS levels.

"I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."

Division I has never truly been a large tent of equal schools.  It was a division that counted as members Texas (whose athletic budget is as large as some small nations), Mississippi Valley State (whose entire athletics budget is about the size of what the University of Texas pays for socks for its athletes) and Marist (who doesn't even spend any money on athletics scholarships for its football athletes).

But 2014 was a year of true soul-searching in athletics, where a whole lot of schools decided they didn't want to belong to the Division I club that accepts them as members.

Once upon a time on January 1st, 2014, Division I football consisted of 252 teams in a very large tent.

Sure, there were subdivisions in that big tent.  FBS teams elected to have 85 full-headcount scholarships, while FCS teams chose to have up to 63 scholarships for its members, dividing them up however they liked.

There were restrictions to prevent Texas A&M from, say, scheduling Marist, Mississippi Valley State and Stephen F. Austin as their only out-of-conference games, but on the whole the schools were happy.  The Aggies would be able to play FCS teams once, paying them good money to do so.  The FCS schools would be able to get a nice injection of cash and a game which would really bring enthusiasm to the school.  Life is good.

But then one day, five conferences decided to move to allow themselves "autonomy."

The Big Ten, Big XII, Pac Ten, SEC, and ACC decided that they wanted to make a subdivision inside a subdivision, a "Power 5" clique inside of FBS that would be allowed to make their own rules.

Why?  Perhaps it was due to tha fact that a bit of legislation they wanted, something called "full cost of attendance" that allows them to increase the size of their scholarships by up to $5,000, didn't pass through the NCAA governance structure.  Or maybe it was so that they could control all the money involved with a brand-new, lucrative four-game playoff.  No longer would they have to be annoyed with teams like Nevada and Boise State crashing their postseason.  They'll be happy with the Belk Bowl, you picture them saying to themselves.

At first, people insisted nothing would change with this "Power 5" clique, although almost immediately people grouped the rest of FBS into their own de-facto clique and called them the "Group of 5".  But by the end of the year, with not a single G5 team getting seriously considered for the postseason, the separation into cliques was all but official.  There's the teams that can seriously compete in that lucrative four-team playoff, and the rest of the flotsam of FBS teams like Louisiana-Lafayette, Eastern Michigan, and Fresno State.

One school, UAB, decided to quit competing in the G5 after the 2014 season.  It was the first time a school decided to fold up their program at the FBS level in nearly twenty years.

Most think it was vengence enacted by old enemies of UAB in the form of their Power 5 clique member, Alabama, but others think that the president of UAB looked around and said, "I don't want to be in this group of 5 that would allow me to be a member," and quit.

It was a decent expectation that the G5 teams would take a look at their new subdivision, forced upon them by the Power 5, and re-evaluate their own positions.  What has been more interesting, however, is how that process also seems to be happening at the FCS level as well, the subdivision that ostensibly would be completely unaffected by the goings-on on the FBS level.

After the 2014 season, the presidents of the MEAC got together and decided to forego the FCS playoffs in 2015 in favor of a ESPN-sponsored bowl pitting the champions of the SWAC and the MEAC.

The idea of the Heritage Bowl between two conferences with historically black institutions (or HBCU's) is not new.  The bowl, after all, existed ten years ago, though the MEAC used to not send their champions.  They'd send the most highly-qualified team that didn't make the playoffs.

Like the UAB decision, the MEAC's choice to drop the playoffs is a first - the first time a sitting conference has elected to opt-out of an autobid to the playoffs to pursue another postseason opportunity.

Why now?

Some say the money ESPN was dangling for the conferences, almost $1 million per year, was too significant for those cash-strapped conferences to pass up.  Additionally, the teams appearing in the bowl game would make even more money.

Additionally, many fans of MEAC schools care more about how they rank with similar schools, like Grambling and Mississippi Valley State, than they do Eastern Washington or North Dakota State.

But I think that, at some level, the presidents of the MEAC looked around, and said, "I don't want to be in this FCS subdivision that would allow me to be a member," and opted out.

They see a world coming where stipends become part of the scholarships at a lot of schools - and not just schools from the Power 5 conferences.  It seems inconceivable that the schools of the Missouri Valley would not offer stipends for their college basketball teams when the time comes, and that largesse will extend to football.  It will have to, somehow.

I think the presidents of the MEAC look around and say, "With this stipend business, we can't compete with the cream of what the FCS will be like.  Our fans care more about beating Southern than Southern Illinois.  ESPN is willing to pay to make this happen.  So why not?"

It even helps the MEAC in case the SWAC and MEAC are forced, with new rules or subdivisions, to need to relocate to Division II.  The MEAC could now drop sports to the Division II level, spend even less on football scholarships, yet still get the millions from the bowl game.  The fact that the SWAC and MEAC are Division II would be unlikely to affect the payouts or the ratings of the game.

The rest of the conferences in FCS, too, have to be looking around and seeing what their cliques are going to look like.

They are going to look at an FCS playoff stucture that is less diverse.  The MEAC is not particularly hurt by leaving the FCS playoffs, but the playoffs themselves are deeply damaged by the MEAC's exit.

Many of the remaining schools look a lot like junior varsity state schools with aspirations to be the third-most known schools in their state, like Northern Iowa, Eastern Washington or Illinois State.  People may correctly state that the MEAC champions struggled at times in the FCS playoffs, but there was never any debate that the cream of the HBCUs played for a true national championship.  They competed against the best, and had their chance to see how they measured up.

If the MEAC had opted out of the playoffs this season, Morgan State's spot would have likely be taken by a Youngstown State - a fifth-placed team from the Missouri Valley, or maybe a third-placed school like Idaho State from the Big Sky.  It makes for a blander playoffs - no South Carolina State or Bethune-Cookman bands making a playoff trip.

It feels like the FCS, which is in the process of breaking out into cliques, will really lose from this significantly.

As the FBS will learn, playoffs benefit from diversity - diverstiy of conferences, schools, and types of institutions.  The FCS playoffs would be at its absolute strongest when all of it's conferences - the Ivy League, the SWAC, the MEAC, and everyone - send their champions to the playoff grid, and schools that ordinarily wouldn't play each other, like Bethune-Cookman and New Hampshire, get to square off and see who's best.

HBCU's vs. Harvard.  Eastern Illinois vs. North Carolina A&T.  Princeton vs. Villanova.  It's something to behold - if everyone were to participate.  (Isn't that the great lesson of the NCAA men's basketball tournament?)

But with the MEAC signing out, and the promise of even more cliques forming in the FCS, 2014 might be seen as the time when the FCS playoffs went from being a great, democratic experiment encompassing a wide variety of different schools to the same old cookie cutter schools qualifying every single year.

2014 won't be seen as the year that the FCS playoffs died.  But it might be seen as the year when it faded into obscurity - thanks to cliques.


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