Every year, when the NCAA Division II football playoffs reach the semifinal round, the questions start again: How bad will the Super Region One champion lose this time? Should teams from SR1 even be in the playoffs?
It’s an annual debate that has a large part of the Division II football world taking sides.
Since 2004, when the tournament was expanded from 16 to 24 teams and “Super Regions” were created, the champion of Super Region One has gone a combined 2-16 in the semifinals. SR1 is made up of schools from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, Mountain East Conference, Northeast-10 Conference, Great Midwest Athletic Conference (2017-present) and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (2004-16).
The debate is this: On one hand, when a region’s champion keeps getting blown out year after year, why are they even in the tournament? On the other hand, the NCAA designed the tournament to emphasize regional play, so what’s the big deal?
Not only has the SR1 champ struggled to get past the semifinals and into the national championship game, it has usually had a hard time even keeping the game close: The average score in those 16 semifinal losses is 40-16.
“It is perceived, by fans and teams, that if you get matched up with an SR1 team in the semifinals, you can probably make your reservations for the national championship game,” said Chuck Bitner, the national columnist for D2football.com. “It’s perception, but it’s also reality.”
THE LATEST ugly regional result came Dec. 10, when SR1 champion Shepherd (W.Va.) — which beat IUP by 35 points the week before — got stomped in the semifinals by Colorado School of Mines, 44-13. What makes that look worse is that Colorado Mines lost to Ferris State, 41-14, on Dec. 17 in the national championship game. Shepherd’s 31-point loss in the semifinals was an improvement from 2021, when the Rams got hammered 55-7 by Ferris State. That 48-point margin is the largest in the national semifinals since 1980.
“Shepherd was pretty good the last two years,” said IUP coach Paul Tortorella, “and they had the best player in the country and yet they had no chance in either of those games.”
West Chester coach Bill Zwaan, whose team has been in the semifinals twice (2004 and 2013) and lost by a combined score of 87-35, was surprised by Shepherd’s lopsided losses.
“To be honest, I’m surprised they didn’t show better,” Zwaan said. “I thought they’d hang in there longer.”
Instead, the Rams followed what has become a pattern in the semifinals (see chart). Since the string of misery began in 2004, SR1 teams have taken it on the chin several times: Slippery Rock lost 58-15 to Minnesota State in 2019, while Concord (W.Va.) lost to the Mavericks, 47-13, in 2014. Three years in a row, from 2007 to 2009, California advanced to the semifinals, and after losing in 2007 to Valdosta State (Ga.) by just points, the Vulcans dropped the next two, to Minnesota-Duluth and Northwest Missouri State, by 38 and 25 points, respectively.
The only two times the SR1 champion has won in the semifinals came when Shepherd edged Grand Valley State (Mich.), 34-32 in 2015, and when Winston-Salem State (N.C.) trounced West Texas A&M, 41-18, in 2012. But both teams were blown out the following week in the title game by a combined score of 69-14.
“If you’re in Super Region One, your realistic goal should be to win the region,” said Tortorella, whose team lost 27-17 to West Florida in the 2017 semifinals. “For anything to happen after that, the stars better align because so much is going against you.”
THE SCORES look lopsided, but Zwaan said there could be a logical explanation.
“When you get to that point in the playoffs, there is a possibility of losing by big numbers because you’re not holding back,” he said. “You say, ‘This is it; we have to do something big here,’ and as you fall a little bit behind, you might open up the game a bit more and if you make a mistake, it can make a two-touchdown game a four-touchdown game pretty quickly and all of a sudden, the game is out of reach.”
Tortorella pointed out an example in the 2017 semifinals that backs up Zwaan’s belief. Trailing 10-0 late in the second quarter, IUP fumbled the ball away, giving the Argonauts possession at the West Florida 24. After two running plays, West Florida faced a third-and-2, and the Crimson Hawks went with a run blitz, hoping to make a stop and get the ball back with enough time to score before halftime.
But the week before, all-America safety Max Redfield suffered a season-ending injury, and without its best run-stopper on the field vs. West Florida, IUP gave up a 37-yard run. Five plays later, the Argonauts scored with 26 seconds left to make it 17-0. They added another touchdown on their first possession of the third quarter, and what had been a close game was now a 24-point hole IUP couldn’t dig out of.
“When you’re the underdog,” Tortorella said, “if you don’t get off to a good start, you’re in trouble. You’ll become a heavy underdog. You have to take advantage of every opportunity you get, and you have no room for error.”
One mistake cost Shepherd dearly in its semifinal loss to Colorado Mines. The Rams trailed 10-3 late in the second quarter when they faced third-and-5 on their own 24. Quarterback Tyson Bagent got sacked and fumbled, and the Orediggers’ Logan Rayburn picked it up and went 11 yards for a touchdown and a 17-3 lead. Like West Florida did against IUP, Colorado Mines scored the first time it had the ball in the third quarter, and what had been a tight game became a rout.
THE LOPSIDED scores in the national semifinals have raised the issue of whether teams in this region even belong in the playoffs. Some say playoffs should be for contenders, and contenders only. Others say the playoffs should be a reward for a good regular season, no matter what conference or region you’re in.
The NCAA adopted the regional format for Division II in the 1990s, which created equal opportunities for teams to reach the playoffs. Before that, the tournament had been a national model, where the perceived best teams — regardless of location — were selected for the tournament.
Some have called for a return to that format, but that seems unlikely. According to talking points from the NCAA, “Regionalization does not guarantee the best programs in the country will compete for a national championship but does guarantee the different regions of the country will be represented at the championship by each region’s best team.”
The bottom line here is the bottom line. Having a national tournament without regions would be expensive because of the travel costs, which the NCAA covers in the playoffs.
“If you were to take the top 28, and rate us 20th, we’d have to play the ninth seed,” Tortorella said. What if that’s Angelo State? Is the NCAA going to fly us to Texas for a first-round game? I don’t think so.”
A national tournament where teams are picked regardless of conference or region would force teams to play teams outside their region in the regular season to boost their playoff résumé. Steve Murray, commissioner of the PSAC, said that would make things even more expensive.
“If you started selecting nationally like Division I does, you put pressure on schools to go play nationally and there aren’t the resources to do that,” Murray said. “Money is a huge factor.”
It also contradicts the NCAA’s Division II philosophy.
“Due to the regional nature of most Division II schools, sport committees should evaluate and select championships participants based on regional results, as opposed to a national evaluation,” the NCAA said.
Additionally, each conference kicks in money to finance the tournament, and some leagues — particularly the ones that have little historical playoff success — would balk at paying for a tournament that their teams have no chance of playing in.
SO WHAT GIVES? Why do Super Region One teams have such a hard time in the national semifinals? According to people who know, there are three main reasons: scholarships, support and competition.
In Division I-FBS football, each team has 85 full scholarships to hand out to its players. In Division I-FCS teams are capped at 63. But in Division II, the cap is 36 scholarship equivalencies, which means teams can split scholarship money among many players, leaving the vast majority to pay for some of their college education.
While 36 is the maximum, there is no minimum. Tortorella said IUP handed out “about 24” scholarship equivalencies this season, which is near the top among the 47 teams in Super Region One but far below many teams in other regions.
“It’s like FCS playing FBS when you look at it,” Tortorella said. “We probably have 66 to 70 percent of the scholarships that teams from other regions have, and that’s exactly the difference between FCS and FBS. That’s the reality of the situation. Now, you can get lucky because it’s a one-shot deal, but when you’re playing a team that’s fully funded, it’s an uphill climb.”
The disparity in scholarships shows in cases like IUP’s, in 2017. When Redfield went down, the Crimson Hawks didn’t have an experienced backup to fill in, and it cost them.
“One of the things that I have always said about our teams that have done well,” Murray said, “is that their 22 starters are as good as any 22 in the country — on Day One. The question is how many players were lost during the season because of injuries because that’s a disadvantage our teams play with.”
IN PENNSYLVANIA, public universities cannot use taxpayer funding for scholarships, so each one must raise the money itself. But in some other states, taxpayer money can be, and is, used for athletic scholarships, and the teams that do that tend to be among the handful that compete for national championships.
“Division II is not unlike Division I in that you only have a handful of programs that are true national championship contenders,” Bitner said. “A lot of schools are just happy to compete. They’re there to give student-athletes a great experience. They like having home games on Saturdays and having people on campus. But you only get what you put in.”
Scholarships have been a touchy subject for several years, particularly at IUP. In the golden era of IUP football, under hall-of-fame coach Frank Cignetti, the Indians were a perennial national power that ruled the PSAC, going a combined 79-7-1 in league games from 1985 to 1995. At the time, IUP was not fully funded, but seemingly close to it. The other PSAC schools realized they couldn’t compete with IUP, and they convinced the league to do something about it, and in the mid-1990s, football scholarships in the PSAC were capped at 24 per team.
The change, which brought IUP back to the pack rather than elevating the pack, was lifted in 2008, but IUP has not regained its status among the nation’s elite in Division II. Bitner said the “IUP rule” showed a lot about priorities in the PSAC.
“Instead of asking ‘How can we compete with IUP?’ they asked, ‘How can we bring them down to our level?’” said Bitner, a graduate of Bloomsburg. “They just wanted to level the playing field. The problem is that when you keep lowering the bar for yourself just to compete with that one program in your conference, you don’t stand a chance when you get outside the region.”
Increasing scholarship money would help, Bitner said, but it takes more than that to build a national championship contender.
“The overall thing,” he said, “is a commitment to winning a national championship.”
WHAT EXACTLY does that mean?
“For the most part, around Division II there’s an attitude of ‘We just want to compete,’ Bitner said. “‘We want to win our conference and go to the playoffs.’ What we need to change, is we need to have some programs say, ‘We want to win a national championship’ and then go all-in to do it. You need the scholarships, the facilities, and the salaries for coaches and assistants, and you have to maximize the support staff. It takes all of that to get to that level.”
Tortorella said he talked to former IUP assistant Tyler Haines after Shepherd lost to Colorado Mines about this subject. Haines, who was hired this week as the head coach at Catawba (SR2) was Shepherd’s offensive coordinator this season and said it was clear what the Rams were up against when they played in the semifinals.
“He said he’d never seen anything like their operation there, the whole thing,” Tortorella said. “The facilities, everything. The emphasis on football is way over the top compared to teams in our region.”
That’s the way it is at places like Ferris State and Grand Valley State in Michigan, Valdosta State in Georgia, and Northwest Missouri State. Those schools have top-tier facilities and enough scholarship money to attract good coaches and great players. Because of that, those four have combined to win 14 of the past 20 national championships.
But Murray said football programs like those are outliers. He said most schools in Division II are similar to IUP, which follows the NCAA philosophy of creating a great environment for student-athletes to be successful in the classroom, the community and on the playing field.
“In the PSAC, we are all fairly typical Division II institutions,” Murray said. “There are a few out there that are doing some wild things, and more power to them. Does everyone wish they were Grand Valley? They probably do, but that’s not where our people have landed.”
Zwaan said he doesn’t envision any PSAC school adopting a plan to emphasize football on a national level.
“You’re hoping for that,” he said, “but I don’t really know how many universities look at things that way. You could probably list 10 to 15 D2s around the country whose administration is thinking that way, but I think 90 percent are the same as ours in that we think about the PSAC title and the playoffs as our goals.”
THE THIRD ISSUE working against SR1 teams is one that probably cannot be fixed.
Because of population density in the northeast United States, there are a lot of colleges and universities in states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Most of them field football teams, and when the declining number of players in Pennsylvania is added to the equation, the competition has made it hard for one team to load up on the talent needed to win a national championship.
“To me, one of the biggest issues that confront our institutions is the number of colleges,” Murray said. “I often say you can’t drive 50 miles in Pennsylvania without coming to a college.”
The Keystone State has more college football teams (54 in 2022) than any other, and it isn’t even close. Ohio is second, with 39 teams, and Texas is third, with 37. Of the 54 college football programs in Pennsylvania, 16 are in Division II, which is also the most by any state.
For comparison, Grand Valley and Ferris State are two of only 21 college football programs in Michigan. Valdosta State is one of 16 teams in Georgia, and Colorado Mines is one of only 10 in the Centennial State.
Zwaan said the issue of a state being overly saturated with football programs is that even if the schools were allowed to use government funding for scholarships, the recruiting battle would hinge on things like facilities and coaching, which doesn’t change the overall picture that much.
“If we were all equal,” Zwaan said, “we still would probably not have the level of talent that the other schools like West Florida and Colorado Mines have because we’re competing with each other for the same players, which could diminish the level of talent that one particular school could have.”
COMING UP with a feasible solution to make SR1 teams more competitive nationally is the hard part. Public universities in Pennsylvania will probably always need to raise their own scholarship money, and the number of college football programs in the region is not likely to get smaller — it will grow next fall to 55 when Philadelphia-based Eastern University begins play with its Division III football program.
So that leaves it up to the individual schools to commit to having a nationally strong football program. Some, including IUP, are already regional powers, but it would take quite an effort to be more than that.
“The regional model isn’t going to change,” Bitner said. “That means the SR1 champion is going to continue to go into the semifinals and not be competitive unless there’s an attitude change in the region, where a lot of schools decide they want to punch higher than where they are — and go after the national championship. Think about how you can beat Grand Valley. Think about how you can beat Valdosta State. Raise the bar and make the commitment to doing it.”
Nice as that sounds, Zwaan said he doesn’t see it happening.
“I think it’s probably unrealistic for most schools in our region,” he said. “For most of us, getting into the playoffs is the goal. You try to win your conference, get into the playoffs and see what happens from there. “
That’s the reality Tortorella lives in every day of every season.
“People probably don’t want to hear this, but winning the region is probably the most realistic goal for us,” he said. “If you can win the region, anything else after that is icing on the cake.”