Scott Garner, Cult of I-AA columnist
I-AA.org

The question has been posed before, usually on team message boards: Who is the greatest I-AA team of all time?

Inevitably, where the question is posted casts great influence on the answer that was given. Go to the Southern Connection, home of all things Georgia Southern, and the list usually went something like GSU 89, GSU 99, GSU 86, GSU 87, GSU 2000, GSU 90. Post the same question on eGriz, the place where Montana fans go to chew the fat, and the answer was almost always UM 95, UM 96, UM 2001, UM 2000. Sometimes the order changed (can UM 96 really be a better team as I-AA runner-up than UM 2001 was as I-AA champ?), but the dominant school usually remained the same. In other words, you don’t ask Mia Wallace which restaurant makes the best milkshake while she’s sitting at Jackrabbit Slim’s and expect to get an unbiased answer.

So, several weeks ago, I posed the question in my very first column for I-AA.org. Typically, fans of I-AA schools with championship heritage have emailed their alma mater’s top squads. But a few fans of I-AA in general have also called in some more “unbiased” nominations. Overall, we have a consensus of about 15 teams that keep coming up again and again.

Now before anyone gets too excited, I’m not going to crown a top I-AA team of all time in today’s column. Nope. Today I’m just stirring up the schizzle a little bit with a preliminary list. I’m also setting down a couple of rules and clearing up one troubling issue.

First, the ground rules. Since I’m the one writing the column, I’m the one who gets to make the rules. If you don’t like them, you can challenge by writing me at [email protected]-AA.org. Otherwise, can it. FIRST RULE: Dynasty teams get a head start on the list’s top spots. Any team that made multiple championship appearances in a five-year span are considered dynasties. This puts Delaware’s reigning championship team in a hole to begin with, because history has yet to reflect on them. Sorry, Hens, you’ll probably be relegated outside of the top five. Should Delaware win a second I-AA championship (or at least make the finals), then I will immediately revisit the all-time greatest list after the title game in Chattanooga and adjust Delaware’s finish accordingly. The reason dynasty teams get a boost is because they had to sustain a level of excellence over the five-year period–a tough task in I-AA, where scholarships (and thus, depth) are reduced. For Youngstown State to make four straight title game appearances (1991-1994) and win three titles suggests talent from top to bottom unmatched by UMass in 1998, when they won a single title, then were gone altogether from the playoffs by 2000. SECOND RULE: This is not a tournament. We are not asking if the 1983 Southern Illinois team could beat Montana’s 1995 squad. You can’t put teams in a time machine and you can’t impose limitations faced by teams from one era on teams from another. THIRD RULE: Throw out margin of victory in the playoffs. Internet Guys (the ones who live for this kind of thing–and you’ll be the topic of a future column) like to brag how their teams cut through the playoffs like Led Zeppelin through a throng of groupies. Playoff fields have had varying degrees of difficulty and playoff draws have left teams with tougher (or easier) roads to the championship. Oh, yeah, the playoffs enter into the equation, but not always the way you would like.

This list is starting to look like it’ll be a bit arbitrary, huh?

The greatest I-AA team of all time is going to be determined the good, old-fashioned way: by arguing about it. Like fans in a sports bar, we’ll haggle over positioning on the list. I’ll get other writers and experts to weigh in. I’ll scour message boards. I’ll create secondary lists, like “Best team to fail to advance to the I-AA championship game.” And in a few weeks, I’ll start counting down the top five, one per week, until announcing the Grand Pooh-Bah of I-AA teams.

And it won’t be Marshall 1996.

A bone of contention

The 1996 Thundering Herd has gotten plenty of virtual votes from the Internet crowd as the best I-AA team of all time. But the team was I-A the next year, with no transition period in which they were playoff ineligible. Florida Atlantic and Florida International may be great I-AA teams this year, but they won’t muddy up the playoffs since they are on their way to I-A. Also, Marshall was actually stockpiling players for the move to I-A, a practice uncovered by the NCAA. Although the infraction report only details one I-AA year (1996), head coach Bob Pruitt “reported that employment of nonqualifiers by the athletics representative was an established practice by the time he took over as head football coach in 1996,” meaning Marshall had been able to stockpile players for the move to I-A even before 1996. Puts a tarnish on the 1996 Marshall team, don’t it? I also contend that there have been better I-AA teams than 1996 Marshall anyway. But I digress. With their dynasty points taken away, there’s no way for MU to be Numero Uno.

The qualifiers

Here is the initial list of teams to be considered for the I-AA greatest of all time award. They are in historical order, from most recent to oldest.

2003 Delaware Blue Hens (14-1), 2002 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (12-3), 2001 Montana Grizzlies (14-1), 1999 Georgia Southern Eagles (13-2), 1998 UMass Minutemen (12-3), 1996 Marshall Thundering Herd (15-0), 1996 Montana Grizzlies (14-1), 1995 Montana Grizzlies (13-2), 1994 Youngstown State Penguins (14-0-1), 1991 Youngstown State (12-3), 1989 Georgia Southern (15-0), 1988 Furman (13-2), 1985 Georgia Southern (13-2), 1983 Southern Illinois Salukis (13-1), 1982 Eastern Kentucky Colonels (13-0), 1979 Eastern Kentucky (11-2)

Those are your choices. Fifteen I-AA national champions and one I-AA runner-up. Two repeaters, Eastern Kentucky and Youngstown State. Two three-peaters, Montana and Georgia Southern. In my first column, I asked Cult members to write in with teams they thought belonged on the list. Now I want you to tell me this: who isn’t good enough to rank in the I-AA all-time elite? Again, I need some reasoning. We’ll start voting the unworthy off the island immediately. The address again, for those who don’t want to scroll up, is [email protected].

Harsh beat-downs of the week

Delaware opened its defense of the I-AA crown with a loss to New Hampshire, not exactly the way the Blue Hens wanted to start the season. While it hardly qualifies as a beat-down, per se, the sheer surprise of seeing the No. 1 team in the nation go down in week one, compounded by New Hampshire’s 4-7 record a year ago, makes this a candidate for this section of the column.

Appalachian State, long known for giving I-A teams fits, received the I-A beat-down of the week from Wyoming, 53-7. Ouch. If you want to see the subtext behind this score, look no further than the Mountaineers’ shiny new offense, a one-back, no-huddle affair. Any team that runs such an offense in today’s college football, particularly at the I-AA level, should seriously think about checking their head coach /offensive coordinator into a rehabilitation facility. Rather than a run-and-shoot, this is a chuck-and-duck. It gives teams no opportunity to control the clock, which is desperately important when playing a team with 22 more scholarships. Wyoming held the ball for 16 more minutes than Appalachian–that’s more than a full quarter that App State didn’t get to even touch the ball. The Mountaineers should stick to the formula that has served them so well: smash-mouth football on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Give ’em a Parcells

A little while back I talked about Bill Parcells as the model all football coaches should look to when devising game strategy. This week, I hand out my first series of Parcells–awards to coaches who got it right!

This week, give a Parcells to Montana head coach Bobby Hauck. The Grizzlies broke a 13-13 tie with an 11-play, 70 yard drive, the kind that would warm Bill Parcells’ heart, as it does mine. Despite getting pushed around in the first half, Maine eventually won the battle of possession time, sticking with the running game (38 attempts) and making those two stats add up to a win over Maine.

Give the week’s biggest Parcells to New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell. The Wildcats knocked off the defending I-AA champions by dominating time of possession and playing great defense. New Hampshire had the ball for almost 12 minutes longer than Delaware and fed running back R.J. Harvey the ball 32 times in the game. If this was the Bills-Giants Super Bowl, then Harvey was Otis Anderson.

Scott’s Top 25

After a tumultuous week of I-AA football, I pondered the new rankings with a couple of questions in mind. 1) Just how far do you drop a defending champion after an opening-week loss to an unranked I-AA opponent? 2) How much is a “moral victory” against a I-A team worth in the polls? The answers turned out to be 1) nine spots, but not out of the top 10 and 2) As many as 11 places for Western Kentucky (27-13 losers to Kansas State) and four spots for Georgia Southern (48-28 losers to Georgia).

Here is my Sports Network I-AA ballot for the first week of the regular season, followed by the team’s record and their position in respect to my preseason poll.

1. Montana (1-0) up 1
2. Furman (1-0) up 1
3. S. Illinois (1-0) up 1
4. Wofford (0-0) up 1
5. McNeese (1-0) up 3
6. Villanova (1-0) up 1
7. Colgate (0-0) down 1
8. Ga. Southern (0-1) up 4
9. Delaware (0-1) down 8
10. N. Arizona (0-1) up 1
11. W. Kentucky (0-1) up 9
12. N. Iowa (0-1) down 3
13. W. Illinois (0-1) unchanged
14. Maine (0-1) unchanged
15. Montana State (0-0) unchanged
16. Lehigh (1-0) up 2
17. Eastern Kentucky (0-0) up 2
18. Jacksonville State (1-0) up 3
19. Northern Colorado (1-0) up 4
20. Penn (0-0) up 3
21. Nwestern State (0-1) down 11
22. UMass (1-0) New
23. Nicholls State (1-0) New
24. Idaho State (0-1) up 1
25. Appalachian State (0-1) down 8

Itinerary

Home sweet home this week for the High Priest of I-AA as Georgia Southern takes on Johnson C. Smith, a Division II opponent. The Golden Bulls have lost their first two games to DII opponents by a combined score of 101-14. Georgia Southern just hung 28 points on the Georgia Bulldogs. Like we used to say on drinking nights in college: “Go ugly early.”

Games I’d like to see: Eastern Kentucky at Appalachian State; Northern Colorado at Maine; Colgate at UMass; Northern Arizona at Stephen F. Austin. Looks like the top matchups are back in the Eastern time zone this week.

Cult Count

Schools with more than one team on the “All time great” list: five
Total win-loss record of the “all-time greatest” nominees: 211-23-1 (.898)
Average change in Scott’s poll ballot: 2.72 places
Quintin Tarantino references (cumulative): two.
Over/under on number of Marshall emails complaining about lockout from “All time greatest”: 22
Time of lost productivity daydreaming about rock groupies: 14 minutes

Until next week, don’t share the secret handshake.