WHEN THE tournament bids were handed out on Sunday for the NCAA's Division I-AA college football playoffs, Howard University found it had been left on the sidelines. The Bison, who won nine games and lost just one this season, were not among the 16 teams selected by the Division I-AA football committee. That seems more than a little unfair.

Howard University President James Cheek has initiated a lawsuit to postpone the I-AA tournament's opening games until a federal court decides whether the Bison should be included in the playoffs. His anger is understandable. Howard had won 16 of its last 17 games, going back to last season. The Bison this year averaged 44 points a game, led the country in rushing yardage and were ranked second in total offense. Their extra-large offensive line, averaging more than 300 pounds per player, even made the CBS Evening News. In the words of one sportswriter, "If the I-AA playoffs have no place for such a team, then something may be rotten in the state of small-college polling."

The knock on Howard University was that it had faced weak competition in compiling its record. In fact, its schedule did include four games against considerably weaker teams that were not in Division I-AA. But this past weekend, in its last game of the season, 20th-ranked Howard took on one of the strongest teams in its division, 14th-ranked Delaware State. Playing on the opposition's home field against a team that had averaged 38 points per game this season, Howard won, 12 to 7. Delaware State had allowed its opponents just 104 yards rushing per game this season; Howard gained 272. In winning, Howard also won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Championship.

In years past, Howard football was something of a joke. If one wanted to watch the Bison win nine games, one usually had to wait about two seasons -- at least two seasons -- for them to do it. That's not the case anymore. The 1987 Bison are good, and they deserved that run at a national championship. The selection committee was wrong to deny it to them.