Split national championships were once somewhat routine at the highest level of college football, even after the sport transitioned to a system designed to settle the title on the field. The Football Bowl Subdivision moved to a Playoff in the 2014 season to resolve such disputes, while followers of the Championship Subdivision asked, What took so long?
Since Div. I split into subdivisions in 1978, FCS (or the former Div. I-AA) determined its national champion with a tournament. No disputes, no controversy, a system akin to every other major league in American sports. But with the 2017 FCS Playoffs down to its final four — North Dakota State hosts Sam Houston State on Friday night, and defending champ James Madison plays South Dakota State on Saturday — the possibility for some controversy looms.
Once James Madison and South Dakota State take the field Saturday, the Celebration Bowl will be completed. If MEAC representative North Carolina A&T wins, the Aggies will be 12-0 and have an interesting argument for consideration as a co-national champion alongside whichever team emerges from the FCS Playoffs.
Of the six teams still playing in FCS — the four Playoffs participants, North Carolina A&T, and its Celebration Bowl opponent, Grambling — only NCAT and James Madison have unblemished records. North Carolina A&T is the only one of the six with a win over an FBS opponent, having beaten Charlotte of Conference USA, 35-31, on Sept. 16. That win was also one of just two in which opponents played the Aggies to a single-digit margin.
North Carolina A&T boasts the third-best scoring defense in the nation, behind only FCS Playoffs semifinalists North Dakota State and James Madison. Coincidentally (or not), the Bison and Dukes account for the last six FCS national championships.
The Aggies also feature one of the most productive ball-carriers in the nation, running back Marquell Cartwright. He has 1,080 yards and 13 touchdowns heading into Saturday’s Celebration Bowl. Defensive back Mac McCain III is an FCS All-American.
— Celebration Bowl (@CelebrationBowl) September 18, 2017
A win over SWAC representative and defending Celebration Bowl champion Grambling would be an impressive punctuation mark on an incredible season. The Tigers come in with a winning streak of 11 games, matching that of North Carolina A&T. Grambling’s sole loss came in the season opener against Tulane, making two straight seasons in which the Tigers have gone undefeated against FCS competition.
So is there any chance an undefeated North Carolina A&T might be able to stake a claim to a split championship? I asked national FCS reporter Craig Haley.
“I think the team that weathers the FCS playoffs with four or five wins is the most deserving of finishing No. 1 in the final rankings,” he said in a written correspondence. “An unbeaten N.C. A&T season would make for an outstanding storyline. In fact, the Aggies would probably finish top five in the poll.”
North Carolina A&T closed out the regular season ranked No. 7 in the final FCS STATS Top 25, so a move to the top does indeed seem likely. It would also be landmark for a MEAC program — which speaks to the difficulty North Carolina A&T would have staking a claim to the national championship.
“Don’t forget, MEAC teams have dropped 19 straight playoff games since 2000, including A&T with a 39-10 loss to Richmond in the first round last year,” said Haley.
North Carolina A&T has had an impressive run of late under head coach Rod Broadway, winning the inaugural Celebration Bowl in 2015, and landing an at-large invitation to the FCS Playoffs a season ago after losing out on the MEAC title with North Carolina Central.
Last season’s Tarik Cohen-led Aggies earning a postseason invite after missing out on the Celebration Bowl was a show of respect for all A&T’s accomplished, but it continued the MEAC’s collective Playoffs struggles.
However, respect might be something that North Carolina A&T isn’t getting enough of. National Coach of the Year was announced earlier this week and went to Austin Peay’s Will Healy. Broadway was among the finalists losing out to Healy.
A coach whose team didn’t make the playoffs wins @FCS_STATS national coach of the year. Rod Broadway’s team has a chance to go 12-0 @ a lower resource school @ncatsuaggies and he finishes 5th in the voting. @GramblingFB coach Fobbs is no where 2 be found in the polling. Amazing
— N.C. A&T Athletics (@NCATAGGIES) December 13, 2017
Broadway being passed over for the award prompted an interesting column from HBCU Gameday founder Steven J. Gaither, which includes comments from Broadway on why the Celebration Bowl is a better fit than the Playoffs.
The likelihood of a groundswell for a split national championship surfacing is slim. Nevertheless, this season could be as controversial as a gets for a subdivision that’s always settled it on the field.