The winner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular season football championship will not earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Division I-AA postseason tournament this year, a situation that may directly affect current MEAC leader Howard University.

The 16-team postseason tournament will award automatic playoff berths to the winners of the Big Sky, Yankee, Southern, Ohio Valley, Gateway and Southland conferences. But, the NCAA took away the MEAC's automatic berth this season because conference member Bethune-Cookman scheduled a game against Florida A&M on Nov. 28, the day the tournament begins.

"If you can not guarantee your champion will participate, you can not be guaranteed of a playoff berth," said Dennis Poppe, the NCAA director of men's championships. "If Bethune-Cookman won the MEAC championship, we could not give it an automatic berth. If the problem is not rectified when we meet in the spring, they {the MEAC} will continue not to have a guaranteed playoff berth."

Howard is the only active member of the MEAC to have never won a football title since the league was formed in 1971. The Bison (3-0 overall, 2-0 conference) have won 10 straight games and are in sole possession of first place.

The other teams in the I-AA tournament field are selected by a committee, most of whose members also vote for the weekly I-AA rankings. Teams unranked at the end of the regular season usually get little playoff consideration.

Despite leading the nation in several offensive categories, Howard has been unranked all season. It was learned this week that the Bison could not even be considered for ranking because they had failed to file a procedural document with the NCAA. The document has since been forwarded, but Howard will still be left with one less week to climb through the rankings if the document is not processed by Monday morning's conference call of voters.

Howard officials, including Athletic Director William Moultrie, were unaware the MEAC had not retained its automatic playoff bid.

"I hate to put a damper on things because Howard has never won {an} MEAC title," said Coach Willie Jeffries. "But this makes it very tough. It is a bad deal."

Jeffries, however, did not express any animosity toward northern Florida rivals Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, which will rejoin the MEAC in football next year.

"It is hard to say you understand something like this when it could directly affect you like that," he said. "But those two schools need that money. If we can get everything straightened out and get ranked, I think we should be able to get within the top 16 by the end of the season."