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Collegiate Football Divisions

From the New York Times (registration required):

For more than 30 years, major college football teams have been labeled Division I-A by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, distinguishing them from Division I-AA teams, which play a lower-cost, and lower-profile, version of the game.

In time, exacting membership standards were established for universities to stay in Division I-A, including a requirement that every team average at least 15,000 in home attendance or be relegated to Division I-AA. At the end of last season, that regulation should have caused the expulsion of several universities that did not meet the attendance cutoff.

But at a meeting this week, the N.C.A.A. Division I board of directors will most likely save those programs by repealing or drastically modifying the requirement.

Talk of changing or eliminating the requirement has set in motion a series of related proposals to change other rules, including permitting more games between I-A and I-AA teams to count toward eligibility for bowl games and to do away with the designation I-AA.

These proposals, and a measure to allow a 12th regular-season game in college football, make up a weighty agenda for the Division I board of directors, who are to meet tomorrow in Indianapolis. "It could be a pretty energetic meeting," Robert Hemenway, the board chairman, said. "And I've learned not to predict how the board will act."

The 15,000 minimum attendance restriction places a constraint upon teams. Softening the constraint or removing it altogether provides an incentive for non 1A programs to seek entry into this division.

This (Phil - the maximum scholarship requirement (85 in 1A and 63 in 1AA)) has not stopped a significant number of universities from abandoning I-AA for I-A in the last few years. Some leaders of I-AA conferences say the watering down or elimination of the attendance requirement would increase the migration to I-A and devalue I-AA football. So when the Division I board of directors first began talking about changing the attendance requirement in January, a caucus of commissioners from I-AA conferences persuaded the N.C.A.A. to propose a series of compromise measures meant to appease I-AA members.

There are further ripple effects for divisions farther down the NCAA ladder. As programs migrate from 1AA to 1A distinction, teams from other divisions such as former D2 programs like Northern Colorado and South Dakota State migrate in to 1AA.

According to the article, the following items are up for discussion: 1. allowing a 1A team to count one victory against a 1AA team towards bowl eligibility each season (for the most part, the current rule allows a 1A program to count 1 victory against a 1AA program every four years. See page 10 of this NCAA rule book); 2. allowing 1 game against a 1AA opponent to count towards the minumum number of home games (each 1A team is required to have 5 home games each season); 3. scrap the 1A and 1AA designations and reassign each program into divisions with respect to each programs intentions to play in one of the current 1A bowl games or in the current 1AA playoff.

The last proposal raises some interesting questions. The perenially high-level 1A programs (the Texases, Michigans, and the Florida States of the country) and the perenially low level programs of 1AA are not likely to switch. But the "marginal programs" - the Middle Tennesee States, the Eastern Michigans, and, heck, maybe even the SMU's and Hofstras of the country are the interesting ones. What will these programs choose? Do programs lock themselves into a division with their initial announcement of intent? If not, how often do programs get to reannounce their intent? What effect will this have on conference allignments in the two divisions? Lastly, what will the divisions be called?

"We just don't want to be called I-AA," said Doug Fullerton, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, one of the top I-AA leagues in the nation. "Even though it only applies to football, I-A schools recruit against us and call our basketball teams and track teams I-AA programs. They're not, but people and recruits might understand that better if we had a new term that was football specific."

A rose by any other name... . It's still not 1A football, and as long as there are separate divsions, recruiters will exploit the separation if it provides a recruiting advantage.