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Big schools can learn a few things from their smaller brethren

The FCS emphasis on academics and its 12-team playoff are exemplary

THIS PAST Monday night, I attended the Football Championship Subdivision awards presentation, which was held in Philadelphia. At the dinner, players from the FCS were recognized with awards named after three NFL stars and one college head coach: the Jerry Rice Award for the outstanding freshman; the Buck Buchanan Award for the outstanding defensive player; the Walter Payton Award for the most outstanding player; and the Eddie Robinson Award for the coach of the year.

The mere titles of these awards made me realize what incredibly talented players have come from our smaller colleges. Rice is arguably the best receiver of all time; Payton, the best running back; and Buck Buchanan, one of the best defensive linemen.

I attended because an old friend of mine, the great sports writer and broadcaster Mickey Charles, was being honored by having an award named after him, the recipient being the awarded outstanding student-athlete in the FCS. It was only fitting that they decided to name an award after Mickey because he started the FCS award dinner 28 years ago when the schools were called Division I-AA. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Villanova's great coach, Andy Talley, who had to be especially pleased when the Cats' quarterback, John Robertson, won the Walter Payton Award. As the dinner wore on, I was struck by two thoughts.

First and foremost, FCS players truly are student-athletes unlike many of the players who play in the FBS (Division I-A). By and large, the bigger schools did not recruit the FCS kids, though they are incredibly talented, and each of them is expected to go to every class and is treated by their university communities as normal students. They are great kids and epitomize what the college game ought to be about. For instance, the winner of the Mickey Charles Award was a young man from South Dakota State, Zach Zenner. Zach became the first running back in either Division I-A or I-AA history to rush for over 2,000 yards in three different seasons. While doing so, he achieved a 3.86 GPA as a biology/pre-med major (take that Alabama). Zach spoke when he received his award and he was charming, incredibly intelligent and undoubtedly will make a great doctor one day. He did not need an athletic department to change his grades (take that UNC).

My second thought was that these student-athletes, who really do go to class and study and take tests, participate in a playoff system that includes 12 teams, meaning the final two teams have to play four games. Somehow, these students survived that type of playoff and it does not hinder their studies. So that exposes one of the excuses that the NCAA Division I uses for not having a playoff that includes a larger number of teams. They have said that a larger playoff would be too much of a burden on the players' studies. But Zenner and his teammates make a mockery of that claim.

If you're like me, you considered what happened in the first Division I playoff system to be very unfair. Why did TCU and Baylor, both one-loss teams, not make the playoffs, while Ohio State, a one-loss team from a much weaker conference did?

In an earlier column, I advocated a 12-team playoff system, but I would be content if the best eight were chosen. Consider what that format would look like:

Alabama (1) vs. Michigan State (8)

Ohio State (4) vs. Baylor (5)

Oregon (2) vs. Mississippi State (7)

Florida State (3) vs. TCU (6)

This is obviously a much fairer approach and a much more exciting one, too. TCU and Baylor both get in and get their shot, and Mississippi State, which was No. 1 for most of the season, and Michigan State, which gave Oregon a real battle, are clearly the cream of the two-loss team crop. So come on NCAA, it's time to face the fact that four is too few, and while 12 in the FCS playoff may be too many, eight is just right