IT WAS A LATE autumn weekend, and the town braced itself for the big game. At the airport the taxi lines were the longest anyone could remember. Downtown, in the days before kickoff, people spilled out of bars and stumbled back to hotels at sunrise. Their loyalties may have been divided, but everyone seemed eager to celebrate the great sport of college football and the dedicated young athletes who play it. Not a booster—in the sense of a well-heeled alumnus who cares too much about winning and is willing to slip a senior a wad of cash or find a "job" for a coveted recruit—could be seen. Not a BCS official either. In the parking lot outside the stadium on game night, tailgating fans fueled their revelry by passing around moonshine. Inside, a noisy crowd watched an electrifying quarterback throw for three touchdowns and run for 89 yards, leading his team to an unprecedented third straight national title, and putting an exclamation point on another controversy-free season.
What is this, football heaven?
No, actually, it's Chattanooga, which last Friday night hosted the 2007 Football Championship Subdivision Final. The game crowned the king of what used to be known as Division I-AA and, for the record, Appalachian State beat Delaware 49--21. It was the 30th I-AA title game since Division I split into two subdivisions in 1978—and, since it capped a 16-team national playoff, its champion was completely legit, something that won't be widely said of whoever wins that BCS circus in New Orleans in a few weeks. So raise your jars to the Mountaineers' dynasty and, for that matter, all of the horribly named but genuinely inspiring Football Championship Subdivision. For this was the Year of I-AA, when little big-time schools reminded us of what college football ought to be.
The fun started back in September, when these same Mountaineers knocked off No. 5 Michigan and initiated a heated debate over whether I-AA teams should receive votes in the AP poll. (The answer was yes, and Appalachian State received a few in Week 2 and Week 3.) Delaware got in an upset of its own by taking down Navy in October.
It was a superb year for I-AA alumni as well. Perhaps you've heard of the Cowboys' Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois) and Terrell Owens ( Chattanooga), the Patriots' Randy Moss ( Marshall, which was I-AA until Moss's last season) and the Eagles' Brian Westbrook ( Villanova), all of whom are proving that Big Ten and SEC studs aren't the only ones who can dominate in the NFL. "I always root for the I-AA teams," says Romo, who has gone on to acquire a decidedly I-A girlfriend. "That is where I came from. You understand what they had to go through to get to that point."
That road includes hardships unknown to many Division I-A players: long bus rides, modest facilities and, for many participants, what amounts to a pay-to-play policy. (I-AA teams are allowed 63 scholarships, 22 fewer than in I-A.) But perhaps the key thing that the FCS lacks—and the big-time schools have more than enough of—is scandal. Since the start of the 2006 season five I-A football programs have been punished for what the NCAA calls "major violations." During that span, there have been no such incidents in I-AA. And while the NCAA doesn't keep statistics on this, it's unlikely that any I-AA coaches resigned this year because they sold inside information on their websites or generally failed to keep alums happy.
What drives the FCS is hundreds of players who, for one reason or another, slipped through the cracks of the Division I recruiting machine. Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore, who proudly says that other coaches call his players "misfits," insists that height and weight and reputation aren't important to him in recruiting. His best running back, senior Kevin Richardson (1,348 yards this season) is a walk-on. His best safety, All-America Corey Lynch, was ignored by bigger colleges (just as I-AA legends Jerry Rice and Walter Payton once where) when he played at a tiny Florida prep school. And then there's the lefthanded quarterback, Armanti Edwards, a dreadlocked sprite—he's six feet tall in spikes—whose career is a lesson in self-assurance. His biggest scholarship offer out of Greenwood ( S.C.) High was from Clemson, which would only take him if he switched to cornerback or receiver. He thought not. At Appalachian State, Edwards has spent much time roaming secondaries, but it's been as a running quarterback. This season he rushed for 1,588 yards, and in a national semifinal win over Richmond and the final against Delaware he combined for 380 yards passing, 402 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns.
Edwards may not have been the best QB in the FCS Final: Delaware's Joe Flacco, who transferred from Pittsburgh in 2005 after riding the bench for two years, has a howitzer arm and is a potential steal for a pro team. ("He's a top three-round pick. He could get picked ahead of [ Hawaii's] Colt Brennan," says one AFC personnel director.) All of which made last Friday's title game an NFL scout's dream.
A college fan's, too—imagine a championship matchup in which there was no whining about the teams involved, no snubbed squads on the outside angrily looking in, no degraded, poll-driven champion. Appalachian State's fans have known the feeling three years running, but in Chattanooga last week they didn't seem the least bit jaded. With just less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter, what seemed like their entire hometown of Boone, N.C., rushed the field. No one quite knew how to halt the disruption; the game eventually resumed with Mountaineers fans hugging players and dancing on the sideline. Moore, a former coach at Texas Tech who worked as a mortgage banker before taking the App State job in 1989, was later asked what he would miss most if his team ever moved up to the next level. He struggled with the question before finally saying that ultimately it wasn't his decision, but he looked at it this way: How could things be working any better than they are now?
When was the last time you've heard that said of Division I-A?