December 17, 2008

Bowden: Lower divisions prove value of playoff

Here is a question to ponder as we get ready for bowl season: Where could a team that went 4-6 in 2007, from a school that never in its history had won a postseason football game, from a conference that never had won a football championship, beat a national powerhouse in the title game?

That's right: It could only happen in a playoff.

In the Football Bowl Subdivision, could Utah or Boise State win the national championship if given the chance to play for it? Well, Cinderella was at the dance or David came to fight; insert your own big guy vs. little guy or fairy-tale analogy here this past weekend in Florence, Ala., in the Division II national championship game. The favorite was perennial power Northwest Missouri State, a conference champ or co-champ in 10 of the past 13 seasons and making its fourth consecutive trip to the final. (You know, an Oklahoma/Florida /Texas /USC kind of team.) The opponent was lightly regarded Minnesota Duluth. (You know, the team that didn't have a chance.)

Minnesota Duluth was the only Division II unbeaten this season but that's only because the Bulldogs played a "weak schedule." Their conference, the Northern Sun, had won just one Division II playoff game before this season. Minnesota Duluth gives only 24 full-ride scholarships instead of the permissible 36. In short, this is a kind of "Ball State/Utah/Boise State made it to the BCS Championship Game and won" kind of story.

Duluth's coach is Bob Nielson. He was the Bulldogs' coach from 1999-2003, when he gave up coaching to become the school's athletic director. But when his successor left to take another position, Nielson stepped back into his old role this season. On the other sideline was Northwest Missouri State's Mel Tjeerdsma who has more Division II playoff wins than anyone else.

The game was played on the beautiful campus of the University of North Alabama the only Division II school ever to win back-to-back-to-back national titles. While I was down in Auburn winning 20 consecutive games in '93-94, I wasn't even the winningest coach in the football-crazy state of Alabama. The great coach at UNA, Bobby Wallace, was up the road in Florence winning two straight national championships during those years and oh yeah, he tacked on that third straight one in '95.

Nielson and Minnesota Duluth did not get to the title game because they played the right schedule or because they had the right pedigree. They won it because they went undefeated in the regular season and qualified for the Division II playoffs. They won it because in the quarterfinal round, they went on the road to play powerhouse Grand Valley State (Mich.) which was 51-2 over the past four seasons and won 19-13 in two overtimes. They won it because they were allowed to earn their way into the championship game on the field. And when they got there, the Bulldogs beat the Division II equivalent of Oklahoma (or insert your favorite Goliath team here).

The Division II final was what you would expect from a championship game a defensive struggle. With no score and 1:03 left in the first half, Minnesota Duluth took over at its 25. Quarterback Ted Schlafke then drove the team 75 yards in six plays, capped off by a 38-yard touchdown pass to Tony Doherty with 14 seconds left in the half on a pass route the Bulldogs hadn't thrown all season.

The Bulldogs tacked on two more touchdowns and led 21-0 early in the fourth quarter before Northwest Missouri rallied. The Bearcats cut the lead to 21-14 with 1:39 left on a 1-yard pass from Joel Osborn to Raphael Robinson. An onside kick was next; it looked as if the Bearcats recovered, but the officials ruled that Luke Schalekamp came up with the ball for Minnesota Duluth and the call was not reviewed.

In the playoffs, Minnesota Duluth the team that played a weak schedule, the unbeaten team that was ranked sixth in the final Division II regular-season poll faced four top-12 teams and allowed just four touchdowns total.

The world may not have been watching, or even knew that the game was being played. But the hundreds of young men who had the opportunity to play in a playoff game this season probably didn't care. There were heartbreaking losses and unexpected victories. There were great calls, great plays, great players and great coaches. And the national championship was decided on the field.

Thank goodness for playoffs.

Terry Bowden is college football analyst. For more information about Terry, visit his official web site.

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