Championship debate

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ATLANTA -- Albany State's road to its sixth SIAC football title in the past decade will be a little rockier than normal.

Yes, the Rams were named preseason favorites to repeat as conference champions at Wednesday's SIAC Kick-Off Luncheon at Fox Sports Grill in Atlanta.

But there is a new factor in this year's conference -- a championship game.

In the past, the team with the best regular-season conference record was crowned as the SIAC champ. This year, the 10 teams are divided into two five-team divisions -- East and West -- and the winner of each division will face off in the inaugural SIAC Championship game Nov. 12.

Teams will play a seven-game conference slate, including all four divisional opponents and three rotating non-divisional opponents. Every two years, one non-divisional opponent will rotate on, and off, each team's schedule over a 10-year period, and each team will play its non-divisional opponents an equal number of times.

ASU coach Mike White, who was not a fan of the decision when it was unexpectedly announced last September by the SIAC, maintained his displeasure Wednesday.

"I just don't think the conference championship game helps you go forward toward the playoffs," White said. "That means you have another tough ball game before you go into the NCAA (Division II playoffs), which you do not need. You have to play a tough team. It's like playing another playoff game."

The East Division includes Albany State, Fort Valley State University, Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University and Benedict College, while the West Division teams are Tuskegee University, Miles College, Kentucky State University, Stillman College and Lane College.

It's a format that had several SIAC coaches, including White, expressed concern with Wednesday. The issues they had included:

*** An extra game that puts a toll on players' bodies;

*** The sentiment that the East is more talented than the West;

*** And the decision to put teams with rivalries in the same division, thus eliminating a chance they could meet at the end of the year in what would turn out to be a championship game.

And White said the end of the season -- when the players are their weariest and most susceptible to injuries -- is an inopportune time to add an extra game.

Last year, the Rams had two weeks off before facing Wingate University in the NCAA Division II playoffs. Albany State defeated Wingate, 30-28, but lost to Delta State in the NCAA quarterfinals, 28-7.

"The Wingate game would have been a different game if we would have had to turn around and play Tuskegee again (in a conference championship game before that game)," White said. "What was a huge advantage last year playing Wingate was that we had two weeks to rest and get everybody well. When we got guys bumped up in the Wingate game, that hurt us in the Delta State game. Bringing another game in the mix doesn't help."

SIAC Commissioner Gregory Moore attended the SIAC Kick-Off Luncheon but left before the media could interview him. He also didn't respond to emails sent by The Herald on Wednesday evening. Among the questions The Herald hoped to pose to Moore were A) Where the game is going to be held? and B) What the tiebreaker format would be in the event of a tie within a division?

White, however, wasn't the only coach who found the new format unsatisfactory.

Clark Atlanta coach Daryl McNeill said it takes away possible championship games between rival teams, such as Albany State vs. Fort Valley State or Clark Atlanta vs. Morehouse.

The scheduling also means that teams will only play three of the five teams from the opposite division each season. For example, long-time rivals Albany State and Tuskegee don't play during the regular season.

"I really feel it takes away from your best games," McNeill said. "Albany State and Fort Valley have been rivals since the SIAC has been here, but that game will never be a championship game. It's going to always be a game, but it can never be a championship game.

"I know when they talk about these East-West things, it's for budgetary reasons because of travel and things like that. When you are talking about football and what's best for the fans, sometimes you can't think about it like that. You just need to have the two rival teams to have the opportunity to play each other for a championship."

Coaches also seemed to be in agreement that the East Division was far more superior than the West Division. Out of the 26 players on the All-SIAC Preseason First Teams, 23 are from the East Division.

Fort Valley State coach Donald Pittman -- who had seven players on All-SIAC Preseason First Teams -- said it was almost a guarantee that Tuskegee will represent the West in the championship game.

The four other teams in Tuskegee's division had the four worst records in the SIAC last year, combining for a win-loss record of 7-29.

"Tuskegee will more than likely be playing the championship every year," Pittman said. "Without a doubt, the East is more talented right now."

Tuskegee coach Willie Slater agreed that Albany State, Fort Valley and Morehouse are the top three teams in the conference. But Pittman took it a step further, saying that the winner of the Nov. 5 Albany State-Fort Valley game will ultimately produce the SIAC champion.

In his mind, anyway.

"I wonder how much it will take away from our rivalry?" Pittman said. "But I think it will still be there, because that (game) will be the championship game."

Optimists for the split conference were difficult to find Wednesday. Slater, who won't be playing Albany State and Benedict, was one coach who found some positives with the new format.

"I think (the split conference) is good," Slater said. "It's really tough to win a nine-game conference. I guess you have to really be good to do it. Maybe it is an advantage for us."

However, most coaches were content to wait and see how the first season with a championship game plays out.

"I'm the type who just plays the hand that is dealt to you," Miles coach Reginald Ruffin said. "If we are put into a division in the East-West format, then that is what we have to do as a team."