Playoff or pay-off? MEAC decision a 'win-win'

Norfolk, VA (Sports Network) - There's a difficult decision ahead for Mid- Eastern Athletic Conference football, and there may not be a right or wrong answer considering both of the given options have merit.

"A win-win situation," according to Norfolk State football coach Pete Adrian.

Just as the FCS is expanding its playoff format from 16 to 20 teams this season, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools are weighing in on the idea of giving up the automatic bid afforded its champion, beginning in 2011, to return to a bowl game against the champion of the nation's other Historically Black Colleges and Universities league, the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Talk of the potential Legacy Bowl has gone on for some time. Decision day is nearing.

Ironically, as FCS conferences desperate for an automatic bid like the Pioneer League and Great West circle the waters, there's good reason for the MEAC to considering giving up its bid. ESPN is believed to be offering around $1.5 million to the MEAC and SWAC for the television rights to such a bowl game.

The SWAC already foregoes sending its champion to the playoffs to have its own championship game, which draws huge crowds and revenue that stays within the conference. The FCS playoffs, meanwhile, aren't much of a revenue-generator for schools with small fan bases or those that, like the MEAC, rarely host.

"Hopefully it will be at some point in time in the fall, or before. At the latest in the fall," MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas said today regarding the MEAC's decision during the conference's football media day.

Three Key Games
South Carolina State at Georgia Tech, Sept. 4 - Defending MEAC champion South Carolina State (10-2, 8-0) has little business being in a close game, right? Maybe, just maybe...

Norfolk State at South Carolina State, Oct. 9 - South Carolina State, whose veteran team returns QB Malcolm Long and all five starting offensive linemen, beat all eight MEAC opponents by double digits last season. Norfolk State, which ended last season with a four-game winning streak, has a strong offense, with C William Falakiseni paving the way for RB DeAngelo Branche.

Florida A&M at Norfolk State, Oct. 23 - This basically would be an elimination game if both teams lose to South Carolina State in earlier matchups. That's not, however, how either team has its season drawn up. Florida A&M has veteran QBs in Eddie Battle and Martin Ukpai, while Norfolk State's situation is less settled.

"It's part of my responsibility to identify new revenue streams. And this is one of many revenue streams that I have brought to the table as commissioner. As you know, with the economy these days, every institution in our conference, their states are facing tremendous cutbacks and deficits. This is another proposal to vet with our membership to see whether or not we want to take advantage of a new revenue source."

North Carolina Central and Savannah State will begin participating in MEAC football next year, but Thomas said the proposal would be voted on only by the chancellors and presidents of the nine existing member schools: South Carolina State, which has been named the preseason favorite to win a third straight conference title, along with Bethune-Cookman, Delaware State, Florida A&M, Hampton, Howard, Morgan State, Norfolk State and North Carolina A&T.

A majority vote will determine the MEAC's future direction, Thomas added. If the vote was taken today, it surely would have been close, with South Carolina State, Florida A&M and to a lesser degree Delaware State believed to be the strongest proponents of keeping the status quo and not sacrificing the FCS automatic bid. What direction the other schools are leaning is up for speculation.

"You look at what's going on in college football today in general with the big guys," South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough said. "You know, Texas saved the Big 12, or whatever number they are now; Nebraska left the Big 12 to go to the Big Ten because of money. If those kind of people are making decisions based on fundraising, finances, that kind of stuff, then why in the heck would a little bitty outfit like us who needs a hundred times more money than they do not at least explore the possibilities of what could be?"

"Both ways, it's really a win-win situation, whichever way you want to go," Adrian said. "Obviously, we like being in the playoffs, but if the bowl game is something that's going to be on national TV, as it's supposed to be in front of 30, 40,000 people, that's bigger than any playoff games. It's just a question of which way we go. We don't know yet."

The MEAC and SWAC played a bowl game during the 1990s - the Heritage Bowl, with the conference champions having the option of playing in the game or going to the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) playoffs. If a conference champion chose the playoffs, the No. 2 team would be invited to play in the Heritage Bowl.

In a twist with the Legacy Bowl, the conference champions would square off, and other teams in the conferences could still have the chance to go to the playoffs, though they would have to be strong enough to earn an at-large bid. It seems unlikely for the MEAC, which hasn't won a playoff game since 1999. Florida A&M won the MEAC's only national title in 1978, but it was only a four- team playoff then.

The MEAC has won four playoff games since the field was expanded to 16 teams in 1986.

"South Carolina State (which fell at Appalachian State, 20-13, in last year's first round) showed that this conference has probably made the biggest gains in terms of quality play as a conference," said Florida A&M coach Joe Taylor, who had some playoff near-misses at Hampton before he switched schools. "Certainly the CAA, everybody is chasing them - that's the flagship, they put teams in they've won it. Buddy showed last year that we have somewhat closed that gap with some of these stronger leagues within FCS. That's important, that you compete for the best, for the ultimate prize. I think you're going to see that continue to happen."

Taylor adds that recruiting would suffer if the MEAC surrendered its playoff bid, but Adrian says it's not necessarily true. "You can say that I guess," Adrian said, "but when you look at the big guys, if you're not at a BCS school, you've not playing for the national championship and they still get the good recruits."

Some believe the Legacy Bowl would be a better experience than, say, losing a first-round playoff game. There are few games nationally in early to mid- December, when the Legacy Bowl would take place, so there would be a better chance for gaining national exposure.

"When you talk about going into a bowl game," Morgan State coach Donald Hill- Eley said, "it gives our young men an opportunity to experience that atmosphere of the bowl games, it gives them an opportunity to compete against another conference, to be able to go and spend three or four days away and be representation of your conference."

"The plusses would be a couple-day bowl game and the exposure from that," Delaware State coach Al Lavan added, "and the fact some revenue from those games would be equally distributed between the two teams involved, but also the remaining revenue would be dispersed to the remaining teams. That the plusses for it. I think there's good reason to certainly consider it."

Pough's South Carolina State squad has won 19 straight MEAC games, has a veteran team which won every conference game by at least 12 points last season, and again is led by senior quarterback Malcolm Long, the preseason conference offensive player of the year. Despite SCSU suffering losses in the first round of the playoffs at Appalachian State each of the last two seasons, including the hard-to-swallow defeat last year, Pough still prefers that experience over the MEAC's possible alternative.

"I enjoyed being in the playoffs," he said. "I also have confidence in the fact that the powers-that-be who make these kinds of decisions will make good decisions. They asked us for our input and we tell them what we like. Of course, some of us want to be in, some of us would like to be out. The one thing that I can tell you is that none of us take this lightly as far as how we decide what we're going to do."

(Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors)

1. South Carolina State (15 first-place votes), 315 points;
2. Florida A&M (2), 268;
3. Norfolk State, 190;
4. Hampton (1), 167;
5. Morgan State, 166;
6. North Carolina A&T, 150;
7. Delaware State, 120;
8. Bethune-Cookman, 68;
9. Howard, 32


Offensive Player of the Year - Malcolm Long, QB, South Carolina State

Defensive Player of the Year - Julio Sanchez, LB, Hampton

First-Team Offense

Malcolm Long, South Carolina State.

DeAngelo Branche, Norfolk State;
Philip Sylvester, Florida A&M

Lamont Bryant, Morgan State

Willie Carter, Howard;
Isaac West, Howard

Johnny Culbreath, South Carolina State;
Juavahr Nathan, South Carolina State;
Josh Harrison, South Carolina State;
Kendall Noble, Norfolk State;
Sam Timothy, South Carolina State.

First-Team Defense

Andre Carroll, Delaware State
Kenrick Ellis, Hampton
Josh Turner, Norfolk State
Jayson Ayers, South Carolina State

Alvis Graham, Florida A&M
David Erby, South Carolina State
Julio Sanchez, Hampton

Qier Hall, Florida A&M;
Justin Ferrell, North Carolina A&T
Quay Long, North Carolina A&T
Darren McKahn, Morgan State.

First-Team Specialists

Trevor Scott, Florida A&M

Nicholas Adams, Morgan State

Dwight Fluker-Berry, Norfolk State.

Second-Team Offense

Anthony Glaud, Delaware State

Jaashawn Jones, Delaware State;
Mike Mayhew, North Carolina A&T

Sherron Childress, Norfolk State

Kevin Elliot, Florida A&M
Richard Christie, South Carolina State

Christopher Sands, Florida A&M
Michael Ola Folorian, Hampton
Lawrence Brewer, Morgan State
Calton Ford, Norfolk State
William Falakiseni, Norfolk State.

Second-Team Defense

Ryan Davis, Bethune-Cookman
Brandon Peguese, Hampton
Micah Stanfield, North Carolina A&T
Ronnell Ferguson, South Carolina State

Reginald Sandilands, Bethune-Cookman
Anthony Taylor, Norfolk State
Julius Wilkerson, South Carolina State

Curtis Holcomb, Florida A&M
Semaj Moody, South Carolina State
Devonne Quattlebaum, South Carolina State
Ricardo Silva, Hampton.

Second-Team Specialists

Blake Erickson, South Carolina State

Alex Grubb, North Carolina A&T

Larrone Moore, Delaware State.

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

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