Ron Morris

Morris: FCS playoffs should be prize for S.C. State

S.C. State running back William Ford gingerly stays in bounds in spite of a Morgan State defender's attempt.
S.C. State running back William Ford gingerly stays in bounds in spite of a Morgan State defender's attempt.

Worse ideas have come along in college football. It's just difficult to remember one.

The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is contemplating a requirement that its regular-season champion play against the champion from the Southwestern Athletic Conference for the historically black college national championship.

It would be the revival of the Heritage Bowl, which died a slow death in the late 1990s when fans realized the game held little or no significance.

Such a game makes sense for one reason only - money. With a TV deal and a healthy gate at a neutral site, the black national title game could be a financial boom to both leagues.

The problem is that by playing in the game, representatives from the MEAC and SWAC would forfeit any chance of playing in the FCS playoffs, which bring with it much national exposure for the participating team and its league. The SWAC already suffers from an inferiority complex and does not participate in the FCS playoffs.

"We've got to weigh whether we want to give up that national exposure in terms of FCS," said Charlene Johnson, South Carolina State's athletics director, "or whether we want to look at what dollars might be placed on the table."

Johnson said she would not take a side until all the facts are in. Her football coach, Buddy Pough, also wants to consider all options. But there is little doubting where he stands.

"I'm a playoff guy," Pough said.

Pough has been the S.C. State coach for eight seasons. His program is the envy of every other MEAC school. With a MEAC-record 19 consecutive league victories, the Bulldogs are the Alabama of black college football, and Pough is its Bear Bryant.

Pough's program has carried the MEAC flag for the past five seasons, earning a measure of respectability for the league that had been missing for decades.

Pough led the charge a couple of years ago for MEAC schools to begin playing nonconference games against FBS opponents. The league might take a beating on the field, Pough reasoned, but it was worth it to collect sizable paychecks while gaining national exposure.

For example, most fans in the Mountain West region never had heard of S.C. State until the Bulldogs played at Air Force in 2007. Not many fans knew of Delaware State until the Hornets played at Michigan this past season.

By winning back-to-back MEAC titles, Pough also has positioned S.C. State and the MEAC to finally win a game in the FCS playoffs. The Bulldogs lost at Appalachian State 37-21 in 2008, then nearly pulled off the upset this past season before again losing on the same opponent's home field, 20-13.

With the FCS playoff field expanding from 16 to 24 teams in 2010, S.C. State's chances of hosting a first-round game would seem to increase, as would their chances of winning the MEAC's first playoff game since Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T both did it in 1999.

So you can understand why Pough likes the playoffs.

"That's always the goal you can give to your team," Pough said of winning an national championship. "It's something that is pretty clearly defined. That's one of the goals we push to our team every year."

Still, Pough said he understands the arguments for staging a black national title game. There are programs in the nine-team MEAC that realistically never will compete at the same level as FCS playoff opponents.

Also, there are problems inherent with participating in the FCS playoffs. The visiting team seldom receives a large enough ticket allotment to accommodate its fan base. MEAC schools might be destined forever to travel in the first round, which means the playoffs are not a money generator.

"That's the reason sometimes there are frustrations," Pough said. "Sometimes, I might even say, 'I want to get out of (the playoffs).' "

Then Pough comes to his senses. He realizes there are two routes for the MEAC to earn respect nationally, and neither has to do with a black college national title game. First, a MEAC team must defeat an FBS opponent in the regular season. Second, a MEAC team must win an FCS playoff game.

When either or both of those happen, the MEAC will realize how silly it is to consider giving up the FCS playoffs for a black college national title game. Such a move would be short-sighted and for the benefit of the league only in the short term.

Of greater concern to the league and to S.C. State would be whether a move to a black national title game would force Pough to find another job. That would be the biggest loss of all to the MEAC and to S.C. State.