Like a dead skunk lying in the middle of a country road, the Division I-AA football playoffs stink to high heaven.

How dare they exclude Howard University?

We're not talking about a close call here. We're not talking about deciding between borderline teams. This is ice cold. At 9-1, Howard has a better record than every single one of the 16 teams in the playoffs -- not to even mention that Howard is, by miles, the country's top I-AA rushing team, and that Harvey Reed is the country's top I-AA rusher.

But obviously records don't mean much to those swell folks who run the I-AA playoff selection committee, since they let in three teams with 7-4 records. So exactly what kept Howard out of the playoffs? Did it fail to sell enough raffle tickets for the Division I-AA cruise to Iraq?

"Strength of schedule," cited Dr. Walter Reed of the I-AA playoff selection committee. Reed and his fellows bounced Howard for playing many woofers.

"If we'd been 10-0, it would have been the same," said a disgusted Willie Jeffries. "They'd have ranked us No. 20 and left us there to rot."

Howard's flirtation with the I-AA top 20 poll is fascinatingly bizarre. First of all, Howard was late entering the list because its athletic director, William Moultrie, failed to mail in the so-called "letter of compliance" that technically makes a school eligible to be ranked. Howard was 4-1 before the oversight was corrected. The next week, at 5-1, the Bison finally hit the charts, tied for No. 20 with five points from the committee. The following week, after winning, 43-3, they remained tied for No. 20, but slipped to four points. One week later, after winning, 54-7, they still remained tied for No. 20, but got only three points. At that rate they could win, 85-0, and drop off the board entirely.

Howard was downgraded for playing four schools below the I-AA level. It was also implicitly downgraded for playing in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. One published report said a member of the playoff selection committee pooh-poohed Howard's 62-0 MEAC victory over Morgan State. But how is it Howard's fault that Morgan State is miserable? I haven't seen the Orange Bowl trying to disinvite Oklahoma for beating Kansas, 71-10.

We're also told that Howard's impressive 12-7 victory over No. 14 Delaware State was devalued by the selection committee, because the week before MEAC member Delaware State lost to an NAIA school. (Mind you, Delaware State was ranked No. 14 after that loss.) As a result, Howard moved marginally up, to No. 18 in the final poll and became the first of the also-rans. Meanwhile, North Texas State, which was tied with Howard at No. 20, leapfrogged over Howard to No. 15 and into the playoffs by beating 3-8 Louisiana Tech, 10-5. What the hell is going on here? Howard beats the No. 14 team at their field and is passed over for a 7-4 team that beats a 3-8 team by five points?

The selection committee was so blinded by schedules that it rewarded North Texas State for having lost to Oklahoma and TCU by 64 points. These I-AA folks have such an inferiority complex that they prefer losing to winning. Obviously, if Howard wants to get in the playoffs next year, all it has to do is put Miami and Penn State on its schedule.

At No. 18, Howard was the fifth-ranked team in the southern region, behind Appalachian State (9-2), Georgia Southern (8-3), Jackson State (8-2-1) and Marshall (7-4). Marshall must be a powerhouse. It beat Western Carolina, 47-16; we know the I-AA selection committee liked Western Carolina because it lost to Clemson and South Carolina by 68 points. And what a fortunate coincidence that Jackson State's AD, Dr. Walter Reed, chairs the I-AA southern region rankings committee.

Worst of all for Howard, its absurdist Catch-22 plight was easily avoided. All the MEAC had to do to get its conference champion an automatic bid to the I-AA playoffs was provide that its members finished their schedules by Nov. 21. That way the MEAC could comply with the I-AA rule insisting that a conference champion can participate in the playoffs. But MEAC officials allowed Bethune-Cookman and returning member Florida A&M to play their annual game on Nov. 28, opening day of the playoffs. The MEAC thus couldn't promise that its champion would be available for the playoffs. The automatic bid was forfeited, and Howard's only chance for the playoffs was through an at-large bid.

In its way, all of this is an indictment of the playoff system, because no matter where the line is drawn on invitations, worthy teams are left out. Somebody was shafted last year. Somebody else will be next year.

But that shouldn't diminish Howard's legitimate outrage at being denied the chance to show its wares to the country. If the folks on the selection commitee didn't think Howard played anybody, they should have found the biggest somebody they had and stuck them up against Howard in the first round. At least then there'd be the satisfaction of seeing Harvey Reed and The Fat Boys measure themselves against the best. All Howard asked was a chance to prove itself. If 9-1 doesn't get you that, what's the point of keeping score?

This is a team that scored 399 points and outscored opponents by 244, a team that gave pursuers a leg to aim at, then showed them their heels. All year long we wondered who can stop the Bison running game? Now we see the I-AA selection committee found a way. By locking Howard off the field.