DAVID TEEL: With postseasons more bloated than ever, making playoffs or bowls paramount

Mike Smith likes little better than football practice in the dark. Those early-evening sunsets mean we've turned back the clocks, the calendar has hit mid-November and, more than likely, Smith's Hampton High Crabbers are preparing for a playoff game.

Hampton has reached postseason 34 of the last 35 years, all under Smith, so safe to say the King of Queen Street is well-acquainted with darkness falling on the school's dusty practice field.

As at all levels of the sport, making the playoffs, or a bowl, is much easier than it used to be. Postseason has expanded (bloated?) to include most everyone with a winning record. Heck, sometimes .500, or even less, does the trick.

Which makes qualifying for postseason, and winning, more important than ever.

As always, area college and high school teams will author many a subplot as they strive to extend their seasons and hoist trophies.

The most compelling will be Phoebus, aiming for an unprecedented fifth consecutive state championship. The Phantoms lost two regular-season games in 2011, and the Peninsula District title to Woodside, before again asserting their dominance of Division 5.

And poor Woodside. The Wolverines not only dethroned the Phantoms, ending their Virginia High School League-record 52-game winning streak, but also authored a perfect regular season. Alas, enrollment sentences Woodside to the more formidable Division 6, and the Wolverines exited the playoffs in the first round, losing to Virginia Beach's Bayside.

Similarly, York survived the Bay Rivers District unscathed before falling to four-time state champion James Monroe in the second round of the Division 3 playoffs.

Just additional examples of postseason's ruthless attempts to rewrite months of regular-season excellence.

If the young people playing for our high schools and colleges need any solace, they need look no further than recent NFL playoffs. Neither the 16-0 New England Patriots of 2007 nor the 15-1 Green Bay Packers of last year won the Super Bowl.

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers were not satisfied.

Same holds for Virginia Tech last season. The Hokies won the ACC's Coastal Division with an 11-1 overall record, 7-1 in the conference, only to lose the league championship game to Clemson and Sugar Bowl to Michigan.

What could have been a benchmark season — Tech was ranked fifth in the Associated Press poll entering the ACC title contest — ended with the Hokies 21st in the AP poll, their lowest finish in nine years.

Tech does boast a remarkable streak of 19 consecutive bowl seasons, third nationally to Florida State's 30 and Florida's 21. And the run shows no signs of ending.

Three reasons:

•The quality of Frank Beamer's program.

•The glut of bowls — 35, meaning 70 teams, more than half of all FBS (Division I-A) programs, qualify.

•The minimum record for bowl participation is 6-6, and, sadly but not surprisingly, a Big Ten proposal to increase the standard to 7-5 gained little traction. No eligible 6-6 ACC team has ever gone uninvited, and no matter your allegiance, it's difficult to envision Virginia Tech enduring a 5-7, or worse, regular season any time soon.

Some of us are old enough to recall the days of 11-game regular seasons, fewer bowls and — gasp! — winning teams staying home. That was Virginia Tech's fate six times from 1981-90, and Virginia's five times from 1983-97.

Yes, as recently as 1997 the Cavaliers went 7-4 and could not rustle up a bowl invitation.

Virginia last year earned its first postseason bid since 2007, and despite a Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Auburn, coach Mike London considers the experience and extra practices invaluable bricks and mortar in his reclamation project.

The Cavaliers' longest bowl streak is four years, most recently 2002-05 under London's predecessor, Al Groh. Virginia's chore this season is to build upon its 2011 appearance, certainly doable with what should be a productive offense, no matter the quarterback, and a manageable ACC schedule that does not include Clemson or Florida State.

Major college football wades into the playoff waters in 2014 with a four-team field that needs to be at least twice as large. But the NCAA's Championship Subdivision and Division III offer true tournaments of, 20 and 32 teams respectively, that once again figure to include schools from Hampton Roads.

Remarkably, Old Dominion reached the FCS playoffs last season in its first year of eligibility. Not only that, the Monarchs advanced, defeating neighbor Norfolk State before losing at Georgia Southern.

Both teams figure to contend again, ODU on its way out of FCS en route to Conference USA. There the Monarchs' initial ceiling will be break-even regular seasons and backwater bowls.

William and Mary made the playoffs in 2009 and '10, but its quest for the program's first three-peat of bids fell flat. The Tribe was 5-6 last season, a record that should improve markedly if an anemic offense produces and stout defense sustains.

Aside from Virginia Tech, the area's most reliable postseason college fixture has been Christopher Newport. Eight times in 11 years, all under Matt Kelchner, the Captains have qualified for the Division III playoffs.

Figure on CNU winning the USA South Conference and making it 9-for-12. Figure on the Captains practicing under the lights come November.

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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