Howard University's football team, whose nine-game winning streak is the longest in Division I-AA and whose defense is No. 2 in the nation, was ignored again this week by the panel that ranks teams for the NCAA.

The Bison are 5-0 following last week's 23-7 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference victory over Bethune-Cookman, but did not crack the top 20, which includes only four unbeaten, untied teams. Nine of the top 20 teams have two losses and No. 14 Georgia Southern, the defending national I-AA champion, is 3-3. Eastern Kentucky (5-0) is ranked first. Howard was one of five teams that were unranked but received votes.

The poll is a consensus of four regional panels, with the members who head those regions casting the final votes. Committee chairman Walter Reed, the athletic director at Florida A&M and head of the Southern Region to which Howard belongs, says a weak schedule is hurting the Bison.

"One of the main criteria is strength of schedule," he said. "All Howard has to do is keep winning and it will take care of itself."

Two of Howard's five wins came against non-I-AA opponents, but Grambling -- 5-0 and ranked second -- won its last three games against non-I-AA opponents.

"Grambling was already up there in the rankings before it played those teams," Reed said.

Rankings are more of a concern for a I-AA team than a I-A team. Unlike I-A, whose championship is decided by wire service polls and bowl game results, the I-AA champion is decided by a 16-team postseason tournament. Six conferences receive automatic berths for their league champions. The remaining teams are invited based on their finish in the final regular season poll.

"I am not panicking yet," said Howard Coach Steve Wilson. "Maybe it is too early for us to be up there. I don't think so, but I guess some people do. I know if you go out in football and win nine straight games, you must have something in place. But we're like a gnat that won't go away. If we keep winning, they won't be able to ignore us."

The Bison do not figure to gain much prestige even with a victory at Division II Virginia State Saturday. The following week, a victory over North Carolina A&T (5-1) could put the Bison into the top 20, but their next two games are against struggling I-AA opponents Towson State and Morgan State.

Even if Howard is 9-0 after that stretch, with the current leanings of the voters it probably would not be in the top 15. That means a loss to either Florida A&M or Delaware State in the final two weeks likely would drop the Bison out of contention for a playoff spot, even if they finish 10-1.

"If they want us to go 11-0, that's what we may have to give them," said Wilson.

In 1987 the Bison finished with the second-best record in the nation at 9-1, but were left out of the tournament. The school sued the NCAA, citing racial bias against historically black colleges. The request for a temporary restraining order to stop the playoffs unless Howard was included was denied. The suit was dropped before it went to trial when it was discovered Howard used three fifth-year players and had to forfeit its season.

The Howard legal department said it is not planning another suit.

The Howard players say they feel the omission is unjust.

"It is definitely an insult when you see a team that is 2-3 {as Georgia Southern was for last week's poll} in the top 20 and we are not," said cornerback Walter Price. "But we will see what happens at the end of the season."

Quarterback Donald Carr suggested that simply winning is not enough.

"We may have to go out and smash some people if that's what it will take," he said.