Correction to This Article
ยท An article in the Aug. 26 Sports section incorrectly said the University of Central Florida was an NCAA division I-AA school at the time Daunte Culpepper was its starting quarterback. UCF became a I-A school in 1996.

I-AA Enjoys That Validated Feeling

Tony Robertson, right, and Brad Coley, carry Appalachian State Coach Jerry Moore off the field after last season's upset at Michigan.
Tony Robertson, right, and Brad Coley, carry Appalachian State Coach Jerry Moore off the field after last season's upset at Michigan. (By Duane Burleson -- Associated Press)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Coach Jerry Moore stopped on the edge of the Appalachian State practice field one day this preseason, turned and gazed at what his football program has become. To his right, a new turf practice field rested next to an under-construction, 120,000-square-foot complex the height of a seven-story building. To his left, Moore saw a new upper deck for Kidd Brewer Stadium, packed with 4,400 new seats. In total, the view equated to a nearly $50 million flex of might.

Moore had watched "Monday Night Football" days earlier, and the mention of one of his former players prompted a conversation among the announcers, heard nationwide, about the 16,000-student school in Boone, N.C. The quarterback he followed off the practice field, a whippet-thin charge of energy named Armanti Edwards, has been mentioned as a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender.

"This all wouldn't have happened," Moore said, "without Michigan."

As college football's season nears and the first anniversary of Appalachian State's mind-set-shifting victory at Michigan arrives with it, the rest of division I-AA shares a similar sentiment. At no point, several coaches said, has I-AA football ever enjoyed a higher profile than it does at the moment, owing mainly to two events that bookended last year's season. It opened with Appalachian State appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And it closed with Delaware's Joe Flacco becoming the second quarterback selected in the NFL draft.

That increased notoriety, though, brings with it scheduling difficulties and only a debatable burst in recruiting. It also lessens one of the division I-AA team's greatest advantages in matchups against I-A opponents: the element of surprise. Even the sport's grandest powerhouses understand they can no longer afford to overlook top-shelf I-AA programs. Teams once dismissed as early-season fodder now must be taken seriously, if they're worth playing at all.

"That one pivotal win there has probably made some of the BCS teams look a little closer at who they're scheduling," said Furman Coach Bobby Lamb, whose team plays at Virginia Tech on Sept. 6. "What Appalachian State was able to do in finishing the deal was pretty amazing. Really, in the back of everybody's mind, they're thinking there is a possibility that it can happen."

Said New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell: "One thing it's going to do, it's going to make division I-A teams very wary of I-AA programs. I think every coach at the I-A level can talk to their teams about the possibility of I-AA teams beating a I-A team, and the reality of it."

McDonnell is stunned at how much potential recruits know about I-AA football compared with years past. The publicity momentum will continue to build in anticipation of Appalachian State's Aug. 30 showdown against Louisiana State, an unprecedented meeting of defending national champions.

"People who didn't know about us know about us now," Delaware Coach K.C. Keeler said.

Impact on Recruiting

The attention burst, depending on whom you ask, has led to either a boon in recruiting or scant effect at all. More and more, Lamb and Keeler said, elite I-AA programs are landing recruits who once would have played for teams in lower-tier I-A conferences, such as the Sun Belt and MAC.

"We win those battles all the time now," Keeler said. "This is how we recruit: Bigger is not better. Better is better. Oh by the way, we had a first-round draft choice. It does give validation to our story.

"The ESPN people tell us we're a better atmosphere than a lot of the I-A teams. Eighty-five [scholarships, as opposed to] 63. That's the only difference. When you have an Appalachian State beating Michigan and you have Joe Flacco, you have all the attention that comes with it, there's more validity."

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