It's playoff time! This is what it's all about, and this is the way championships should be decided: by putting the teams on the field and letting them sort out who's No. 1.
Since we know you can't possibly follow every team and conference in the nation (unless of course you read the site really extensively), Around the Nation enlisted our writers, plus former players and fans to help you figure out what might happen in these playoffs, aside from Mount Union having a shot at winning a third consecutive title. We organized our thoughts by bracket, but forgive us if we still refer to them by geographic region. We then broke them into surprises, disappointments and champions from each bracket, but first let's meet our panel:
Keith McMillan: That's me, a former Randolph-Macon defensive back who's been covering Division III football and other sports since my last season in 1997. I'll give you thoughts on all four brackets.
Pat Coleman: The D3football.com founder and publisher, knowledgeable about all four brackets as well.
Mark Simon: D3football.com features writer, will take a crack at all four brackets.
Tom Linnemann: Quarterbacked St. John's to the 2000 Stagg Bowl, is currently working in radio in Minnesota and producing the MIAC Magazine show on Fox Sports North. He'll let you know what he thinks about the West Region.
Kelly Leary: A current high school coach who played at Concordia (Wis.) from 1987-89. Will work on the West and South.
Larry Sheedy: Former defensive end at UMass-Amherst. Finds Division III football the most appealing, and watches games all over the northeast. Will venture a few picks for the East and South.
Josiah Novack: Ran track for Lebanon Valley, then covered football for four years for the Lebanon Daily News. Will take on the South.
Ryan Murphy: Grad student at Washington University of St. Louis, did undergrad work at Central (Iowa). Worked in both sports information offices. Provides interesting look at West and South.
Since I'm writing this from the west coast, let's go west to east for once.
(a.k.a. the Linfield Bracket)
Pat: The top seed in this bracket wins a playoff game for the first time since the expansion.
Tom: That once again, the No. 1 seed in the West will hand in their pads early. Is that a surprise? NCAA? Bueller? Bueller?
Kelly: Redlands?!?! With that out of the way ... Casey Urlacher aside, Lake Forest was a bit of surprise. The Foresters play in the usually competitive MWC but you don't often hear a great deal about them. However, they made a bold statement last week against St. Norbert. Look for a strong game against Wartburg, but the Knights win in a close one.
Ryan: I'm not surprised that La Crosse is seeded behind Lake Forest, because of the committee's tendency to look solely at records, but I find it unfair that IIAC "champion" Coe is penalized with what seems to be a much tougher game than "runner-up" Wartburg's. I'm surprised that Lake Forest was able to finally end St. Norbert's stranglehold on the conference.
Mark: Lake Forest. Casey Urlacher will have more postseason wins than big brother Brian by year's end. Heck, he may even win more postseason games than the Bears win regular season games.
Keith: I actually like how Redlands snuck into the field, since no one was calling for it before Week 11. Winning their last seven … I'm glad the committee rewarded a team playing its best at the end of the season. But that's not my surprise. That just might be, to the dismay of at least one homer on our panel, Wisconsin-La Crosse over St. John's in the second round. I wouldn't bet the farm on it, but I wouldn't let the Eagles' record mislead me either. Given the WIAC's dominance against MIAC teams this season (5-1, including an 28-21 Eau Claire win over St. John's. La Crosse beat Eau Claire 26-9), it's a legitimate expectation.
Pat: There are limited choices here. I don't think any of the three lower seeds qualify for a disappointment tag, and I'm not convinced Coe is all that. That leaves Wartburg, which is set up to succeed in the first round, and St. John's, which looked bad in its last game but got a week off to heal. Taking Wartburg as the disappointment by a nose.
Tom: I am disappointed that the NCAA is afraid to go out on a limb and select the best teams, not necessarily those with the best records. There is no question that the WIAC is a much better league than the IIAC, but the IIAC gets two teams and WIAC one. Wisconsin-Stout or Eau Claire would blow out either of the Iowa schools, but they are 9-1, and Eau Claire is 8-2 (with a win over No. 2 St. John's) and Stout is 7-3 (with convincing wins over the MIAC second and third place teams, and a one-point loss to La Crosse)
Kelly: As a resident of the state of Wisconsin and a bit of a homer for the UW-La Crosse Eagles, the biggest downer is the parity (overall strength) of the WIAC. Face it, after a tough and rugged season of slugging it out with that bunch, you may not have much left for the playoffs. The Eagles have enough in the tank for the Kohawks but after that … ?
Ryan: That this Pool B nonsense has allowed a 7-2 Redlands team into these playoffs, while teams like Eau Claire, St. Thomas, Central, and Augustana had no shot once they accumulated two losses. Every two-loss team in the field comes from the substantially weaker Pool B.
Mark: Coe. The Wisconsin teams always seem to find a way to win a game or two. Wartburg may actually have gotten a better draw than Coe.
Keith: The IIAC as a whole may disappoint, given that we're projecting La Crosse to beat the third-seeded IIAC champion, Coe. Wartburg, the runner-up, might win though. And the last time I remember a team getting two teams in and watching only the runner-up win was when Bridgewater zoomed past ODAC mate Emory & Henry in the 2000 playoffs. (Does that make me the homer?)
Pat: Linfield leaves no doubt.
Tom: Sorry Linfield, to you and your nine-game regular season. Instead, the champion will be the winner of the semifinal matchup of SJU and La Crosse. Do you think I would pick La Crosse? Not a chance. John gets another deep run in the playoffs and further validation to his unbelievable coaching career.
Ryan: It's tough to pick against St. John's. It seems every year they have some bad loss early that makes people question their playoff worthiness, and then they make the final four once they're counted out. So, I'll pick them to lose (as I always do) to Linfield because of the Oregon weather, though I expect them to somehow shock me (again).
Kelly: St. John's Johnnies take the bracket. Past experience and confidence carry them past Linfield, maybe.
Mark: Linfield. This half of the bracket is so wide open, it wouldn't be surprising to see them in Salem.
Keith: Regardless of what happens in St. John's vs. La Crosse, I don't think it'll much matter over Linfield's Pacific Northwest powerhouse. There's nothing like a supremely talented team with the intangibles: Great team unity, chip on their shoulders from not making the postseason last year. Plus, I wanted to go against that homer Tom!
(a.k.a. the Mount Union Bracket)
Keith: That Alma quarterback Steve Slowke has thrown for about a million yards, and yet that was the first time I've typed his name. (He's all over the NCAA record book). That and Wheaton could give Mount a game, but then again, the Purple Raiders beat CCIW champion Augustana 35-14 last season.
Mark: Every year, a backup emerges out of the shadows to lead his team to a surprising win (see Ithaca in 2001). We don't know who it will be, but this will be the bracket in which it happens.
Pat: Wittenberg and Wheaton will outperform their seeds in the most stacked bracket in the playoffs.
Keith: That the committee got so rematch-happy, especially since the all the schools in this bracket are within a 500-mile radius of each other, except Mount Union and MacMurray (583). Wheaton and Alma played in September, and NCAC rivals Wabash and Wittenberg could easily meet in the second round. We don't understand. You could have justified flipping Wheaton/Alma and Wittenberg, setting up a possible second-round Wittenberg at Mount Union game. We get the feeling the committee doesn't consider anything past the first week (see South bracket).
Mark: Wabash. The first year in the postseason is always the toughest.
Pat: Hanover. It's mainly a gut feeling, seeing as their biggest wins are against teams that were mere shadows of their 2001 selves.
Keith: We only had three prognosticators in this bracket, but I think that's because no one wanted to be dumb like I was last year and pick Mount Union to lose. Yeah, I chose Hardin-Simmons to pull the upset and they didn't get out of the first round, so what? Although I'd gladly watch two new teams in the Stagg Bowl, I'm not picking a team that's 109-for-its-last-110 to lose again. No siree.
Mark: Mount Union, But it won't be easy.
Pat: Mount Union. Next question.
(a.k.a. the Bridgewater Bracket)
Pat: The penny-pinching of the NCAA.
Ryan: This one's obvious. How do you take two of the top six or so teams in the country and tell them that one of them does not belong in the sweet sixteen? Couldn't they let the two Texas teams play next round?
Josiah: Trinity and Mary-Hardin Baylor is the strongest matchup. The committee did everyone right by pairing up two Texas schools. You have a pair of undefeateds on a crisp Saturday afternoon, and it's the best reason not to sit at home and watch a major college game on television. If only ASC and SCAC schools would play each other more often during the season, then we'd get a better taste of who's the "mouth of the South" before the playoffs. Division III football in Texas is the best alternative in Texas to Friday night high school football.
Kelly: In probably the best game never to be seen (get that D-III Channel on the air), Trinity takes on UMHB. The Tigers will probably upset Bridgewater in the semifinals and who knows? Maybe even the seemingly invincible Purple Raiders may fall. But more than likely not.
Larry: From Division III east representative Springfield, graduate Rich "Squee-lo" Manello will coach King's over Salisbury in a mild upset. Former Steeler John Banaszak's Washington & Jefferson team over Christopher Newport.
Keith: I think the only thing that could surprise me in this bracket is if it isn't a Texas team against Bridgewater in the round of eight. We rag on 6-4 CNU, but three of their losses came to Rowan, Bridgewater and Salisbury, all in the playoffs. Despite that, Washington & Jefferson is probably the only team among the other four that could get out of this bracket.
Mark: W&J goes to Texas and wins a game. Quarterback Brian Dawson overcomes some of his playoff struggles of the past and the Presidents finally put it all together.
Pat: The penny-pinching of the NCAA.
Ryan: That W&J be given such a shockingly easy first round game as a reward for finishing a subpar 8-2. That we're forced to endure a Salisbury/King's matchup. That "Pool B" is allowed to exist.
Josiah: Christopher Newport at Washington & Jefferson. Having interviewed for the sports information director position at W&J two years ago, I know more than most about what W&J has to go through to find quality opponents. However, the Presidents deserve a better matchup. Certainly, Bridgewater deserves a bye, but for many reasons, I would like looking at W&J playing King's and Christopher Newport heading to Salisbury. W&J has a turf field, and King's has played a few schools which have turf, rather than the Captains, which has three downs against them in playing on the turf at W&J. 1) CNU doesn't play on turf; 2) CNU, as a public school with a new program, has a mismatch with the depth and long football history of a private school such as W&J, and 3) late November in western Pennsylvania is always colder than in Virginia.
Larry: A disappointment here is that a team w/ such a poor record gets in while others (Hartwick for one) is left out. In a great early-round game with two teams who deserve to be No. 2 seeds, I will go with Trinity over Mary Hardin-Baylor in a shootout that might go into overtime.
Keith: I too am not happy that the NCAA couldn't have sucked it up and paid for the flight in the first round on the premise of 2 vs. 7 and 3 vs. 6 could net them a second-round game in Texas with no flight. Competition should be the most important thing. I could go on, but I think we're adequately covering our displeasure with that.
Mark: Whoever loses that Trinity-Mary Hardin-Baylor game is going to be pretty disappointed in the NCAA selection committee. Don't know who it's going to be, but I wouldn't want to be around them after their game is over.
Pat: The penny... err, sorry. Bridgewater edges out whichever Texas team advances.
Ryan: I really like Trinity. Assuming they escape UMHB, and assuming the committee doesn't force them to play in a snowstorm at W&J, this offense seems capable of winning it all.
Larry: In the end I will put Trinity in as the final four rep after beating Bridgewater — a surprise to many.
Mark: There was a reason that this writer penned a story on W&J at the start of the season. It was our belief that the Presidents were a final four team, and gosh darn it, we're going to stick with that belief right up to the very end.
Keith: Get in the 'water! Considering that the Eagles lost their biggest offensive stars from last season and haven't lost a game since, who's to say they can't win it all this year? If clock operator and bookstore scandals couldn't stop them, and Mount Union hardly could, then I say 'good luck' to whichever team draws them.
(a.k.a. the Rowan Bracket)
Larry: UMD winning the first NCAA game by a NEFC team but then bowing out against John Carroll.
Keith: That a 9-1 runner-up from the strongest conference (John Carroll of the OAC) drew a seven seed. Not that I'm complaining, because seven seeds have won before and all a team needs to do is get in the field to compete. But it just makes it look like there's no consistent seeding philosophy. Yet seeding determines second round, quarterfinal and semifinal hosts, so there should be. We have MacMurray, a 10-0 league champ, seeded seventh in another bracket, then there's IIAC runner-up Wartburg seeded fourth with three league champions below it. Are we seeding by records, pools or strength of schedule (and ultimately strength of the teams)?
Pat: My real surprise is that the NCAA only selected five teams from this region and pumped up the competitiveness of this bracket. But even more surprising will be when John Carroll wins this bracket. No, seriously.
Mark: The surprise will be if Rowan or John Carroll plays a close game prior to what should be a terrific matchup for the right to go to the final four. These two squads are the class of the bracket, and none of the other five teams are even close.
Keith: It'll be disappointing if we don't see John Carroll at Rowan on Dec. 7. And I think expecting too much from the only 11-0 team in the field in UMass-Dartmouth would end up disappointing me. But there's a big chance for some teams to earn respect here by disappointing a fairly pedestrian Rowan team (by their standards) or John Carroll, which has made a habit of not finishing off Mount Union.
Pat: It's hard to gauge a disappointment here, since I think the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds will probably come into the game as underdogs. That leaves Brockport State going one-and-out for the third time as my disappointment candidate.
Mark: The only disappointments in this bracket would be for Rowan or JCU not to make it to the quarterfinals. UMass-Dartmouth and Hobart have nothing to be ashamed of if they lose in the first round, nor do Springfield or Brockport.
Larry: Rowan to the final four.
Keith: You know, I could envision John Carroll getting past Rowan, and making it two OAC teams in the final four. But Rowan has a great quarterback in Tony Racioppi and a defense that has allowed more than 12 points just three times.
Pat: John Carroll. It's a little out on a limb (not knowing what my fellow pickers have said), but I have a gut on them at Rowan. Should be a great game.
Mark: Rowan. Could you imagine this storyline: K.C. Keeler leaves and the Profs finally win a championship without him? We can.
Stagg Bowl picks
It's a whole lot tougher to pick the Stagg Bowl champion now than it is to guess on that late Saturday in December when you know who's in the game. But we took a shot at it anyway.
Keith: Dang, I thought I'd be a rogue and pick Linfield, but they seem like the hot choice from the west. What about a final four that gets Mount Union and John Carroll in? The brackets are cleverly placed so two OAC teams couldn't meet in the final, but I might like to see Linfield against Bridgewater in the big show. And those two teams are who I like to upset the Purple Raiders in Stagg Bowl XXX, but remember a few lines ago when I promised not to go against Mount Union? Well then, that solves it.
Pat: I like Linfield vs. Mount Union in the title game, as the Purple Raiders finally get to see a Northwest Conference team. But while the ending is not controversial, it's another Mount Union title.
Mark: In the Stagg Bowl, I'll go with Rowan vs. Linfield. How about that for a story line? A tale of two teams robbed of victories in the most bizarre fashions. It ends with Rowan winning when the clock operator comes out of the crowd to block the winning kick, then returns it for a touchdown.
Do we have the best?
Trust me, I'm as big a proponent of the pool system as there is, but this year's playoff field begs the question: What if we had just taken the 28 best teams?
That would negate the fact that the 18 automatic qualifiers allow Pool A teams to schedule out-of-conference games aggressively, because they can only help. A team like UW-La Crosse isn't penalized for a four-point loss to Illinois Wesleyan or a loss to I-AA Drake, because they still went 6-1 in a competitive conference.
I also like that that through the pool system, 156 of the 226 Division III football teams have a clear course to the postseason at the beginning of the year. Seven of the 60 teams in Pool B go, and ten from the NESCAC choose not to participate.
Next year, the seven-team MIAA will get an AQ, leaving six Pool B bids for 53 teams, a 8.3-to-1 ratio. The NCAA likes a playoff spot for every 7.5 eligible teams. But what happens when, like it did this year, the runners-up in AQ conferences (Pool C) are significantly better than the independents and non-AQ conference champions (Pool B)?
Instead of setting apart six bids for Pool B (there were seven this year) and three for Pool C, we should just lump all non-automatic qualifiers into one pool, and judge them on their in-division performance and strength-of-schedule.
This would keep the benefits of automatic qualifiers and not force weaker teams into the field ahead of stronger ones. It would also negate the fact that the Pool B ratio is boosted by the presence of 18 independents, only about four of which play a schedule strong enough to get them in the field without going undefeated. (and by the way, I do believe any team that goes unbeaten should automatically be included in the field regardless, but if the committee comes out and says that, teams may go back to scheduling as many weak opponents as possible).
But even combined Pools B and C might not mean we have the 28 best teams.
If we simply took the 28 best for instance, Widener, one of the strongest teams not in the field, could replace the weakest in it, and that's Christopher Newport. But under the combined Pool B/C proposal, Christopher Newport is unaffected due to its automatic qualifier. And I think we just have to live with it when a team's conference is so weak that it can get in at 6-4. If you eliminate AQs, then we just go back to having a subjective playoff selection like we did in the 16-team system. That puts teams from conferences without a strong reputation at a huge disadvantage.
So Widener could replace Redlands (7-2). That's not a swipe at the SCIAC, I thought Claremont-Mudd-Scripps would have a good case with one loss. But the Bulldogs' blowout losses to Willamette and Linfield said to me that they don't belong in the Top 28. Widener went 9-1, against all MAC opponents. Because this was the year they were required to play 10 conference games in the 11-team MAC, they could not schedule an out-of-conference opponent, but they have played perennial Centennial champ Western Maryland (McDaniel) in the past and have scheduled Rowan in the future.
A combined Pool B and C would force the committee to evaluate all non-AQ teams equally.
Linfield (9-0) and Alma (9-1 with a win over a 9-1 AQ team in Wheaton) are Pool B teams who would stack up in a combined non-AQ pool. So they would stay in. And I agree with the Pool C selections of John Carroll, Wittenberg and Wartburg, all 9-1.
But I'm not so sure about Hobart (8-1), Brockport (8-2), Salisbury (9-1) and W&J (8-2). Especially if you compare Howard Payne (9-1), St. Norbert (9-1), Worcester State (9-1), Baldwin-Wallace (8-2), Hardin-Simmons (8-2), Central (8-2), UW-Eau Claire (8-2), Hampden-Sydney (8-2), Cortland State (8-2), Westfield State (8-2), Wooster (8-2), McDaniel (8-2), Johns Hopkins (8-2), Concordia, Wis. (8-2), Kings Point (8-2), Curry (7-2) and Augustana (7-2).
We'll take the committee's word for it on two- and three-loss Pool B teams like RPI, Hartwick, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Whitworth and Ithaca, but I think it would be smart to consider one- and two-loss Pool B teams equally with one- and two-loss Pool C teams. Especially if getting the 28 best teams in is a priority, and we're not even talking about scheduling them in the fairest manner.
The ten best non-AQ teams might be Linfield, John Carroll, Wittenberg, Alma, Wartburg, Baldwin-Wallace, Howard Payne, Cortland, Central and Hobart. If true, why isn't that who we're taking to the playoffs?
I'll let your imagination, and feedback, decide how the playoff field might look if the committee's job involved considering the 17 one- and two-loss Pool C teams that didn't get in with the same criteria used to select the four Pool B teams that did.
But give the committee and the 28-team system its due. Be glad we don't have Mount Union and Bridgewater in the equivalent Fiesta Bowl, and then Linfield-Trinity, Rowan-John Carroll, Mary Hardin-Baylor-St. John's in three relatively meaningless bowls, with Wabash and a bunch of others on the outside looking in, and hoping for a win in their truly meaningless bowls.
Our playoff surprises, disappointments
It's playoff time! This is what it's all about, and this is the way championships should be decided: by putting the teams on the field and letting them sort out who's No. 1.