Our playoff surprises, disappointments

Concordia-Moorhead is the relative playoff newbie this time around.

By Keith McMillan

Keeping in line with our yearly tradition, three of D3football.com’s staffers (we really don’t want to use the word “experts”) provide our surprises, disappointments and champions from each of the four playoff brackets.

I’d love to add some of our regular categories and color to this week’s Around the Nation, but I’m on the world’s slowest dial-up in a hotel in Pomona, Calif., that I think is charging me by the minute for being online. So if you’re still dedicated enough to be around next week, following the playoffs even if your team has long since turned the equipment in, I’ll make sure the reading is a treat.

In the meantime, we’ve done this each of the last three years, so enjoy our playoff picks. Keith is pretty self-explanatory, Pat is D3football.com publisher Pat Coleman, and Gordon is Gordon Mann, a D3football.com broadcaster and one of our best bracketologists, who traditionally participates in our playoff projections discussions the night before Selection Sunday.

We go bracket by bracket, starting in the:

 Occidental appeared to have a good mix of size and team speed, not to mention a quarterback who is a gamer, when I saw them this past week, so perhaps a win wouldn’t be a shock. What would surprise is if Linfield and Concordia-Moorhead didn’t meet in the bracket final. UW-La Crosse is no easy win, but we’re expecting two of the consensus top four in the nation to make the West final a dogfight, as usual.
Pat: Would we consider it a surprise if Occidental wins its first-round game? That might have to suffice as a surprise in this bracket; I think higher seeds win out.
Gordon: I think the Wartburg/Concordia-Moorhead match-up will be closer than some predict. The Cobbers may have some first-quarter jitters and Wartburg has been here before. I still think Concordia wins, but don’t be stunned if the game isn’t decided until the final 15 minutes.

 There’s a real opportunity for St. Norbert to get out from under the shadow of the Week 1 41-9 loss to UW-Whitewater when the Green Knights play UW-La Crosse this week. St. Norbert won nine consecutive games after the loss to the Warhawks, and is a much better team than they were that day. They’re even going up against a team with three losses. Still, the power of comparative scores here is too strong: The Green Knights lost by 32 to a team that UW-La Crosse beat by 25. That adds up to a disappointment.
Pat: The biggest potential disappointment is Concordia-Moorhead, if the Cobbers don't get their playoff legs under them quickly.
Gordon: Dear WIAC – I know you are good. Really, really good. We picked you as the top conference for a reason. And I’m trying not to harbor any bitterness just because all your upsets destroy my Top 25 ballot every week. But I’m only human so my faith falters. At some point I need you to win your bracket. I know it seems like you play Mount Union or St. John's every year, but if you’re the best conference in the country at some point you’re going to have to beat these teams. The beat team in the best conference has to be the best team in its playoff region occasionally, right? Your conference mates at UW-Stevens Point played Linfield close and you beat the Pointers by a comfortable margin. I know comparisons like that are dangerous, but I’m hoping for a close game in the second round. If you lose to the eventual champion again, I can look the other way. But at some point I need you to win your region. 
– Sincerely, Me

 The potential for upset is most certainly there, but Linfield is head and shoulders above all but one team in the nation, let alone this region.
Pat: The winner of the UW-La Crosse/Linfield game leaves no doubt (hint, hint) over the other half of the bracket.
Gordon: Linfield over the Cobbers in a great game.

 This bracket full of surprises is also surprisingly weak. It features no more than three teams we expected to make the playoffs at the start of the season, just one of the nine unbeatens in the field and one of the nation’s top 10. I could see Curry winning and St. John Fisher or Delaware Valley skating into the final four, but the real surprise is the bracket as a whole.
Pat: Muhlenberg or St. John Fisher -- whoever wins that game should play Rowan in the regional final.
Gordon: In a region stocked with playoff newbies (St. John Fisher, Delaware Valley, Shenandoah), the Muhlenberg Mules bring valuable playoff experience to the table. Oh yeah, that top-ranked defense doesn’t hurt either. I watched a Brockport State team with a fantastic defense and an adequate offense fight through injuries and rumble to the East region finals in 2002. The Mules could do the same here.

 I applaud the selection committee for ignoring Rowan’s two losses to Division II teams, but I still have a hard time with the Profs as a top seed because of their close results against teams that other playoff teams did better against, or teams they should have beaten handily. Sure, a win is a win, except when seeding teams. Salisbury or Washington and Jefferson could have easily been the one seed here, with road trips kept manageable with a little shuffling of the seeds. So just like last year, I’m disappointed that more emphasis isn’t placed on creating four brackets of the most equal strength possible within the system, to emerge with the truest champion.
Pat: The most disappointing thing will be the champion's result in the national semifinals, after flying at least halfway, if not all the way across the country.
Gordon: The flip side of having a bunch of first time playoff participants is it’s tough to pick potential disappointments. Schools who’ve made the big show for the first time can’t be too disappointed, even if their playoff run is short. So I’m left with Rowan. The NCAA has shown a lot of faith in this football team by making them the top seed with a favorable opponent in the second round despite two losses to Division II teams, including a 27-7 defeat at Virginia State (5-5).

 St. John Fisher has the running game to win in November, but maybe not the defense. We don’t quite know which Rowan team we’ll see, but their road to the final four is paved. Delaware Valley might have the perfect mix of scheme, talent and hunger — remember, no one’s won here in years — to represent the East in the national semis. Gimme the Aggies in three narrow victories.
Pat: Out on a limb I take Muhlenberg. Call me crazy, but defense is a good thing, right? 
Gordon: I like Rowan in a close game in the regional final. Since I’m picking against the team I’ve followed closely all year (Delaware Valley), I’m risking someone slipping me some tainted chicken in the Doylestown press box here. Therefore I’m reserving the right to refer to Rowan as the ‘Artist Formerly Known as the Beast of the East’ if the Profs don’t win this bracket.

 This bracket is surprisingly even, so much so that all seven teams could conceivably win it. I would look for the first-round road teams to provide at least one surprise, because each regular-season loss in this bracket came against a strong opponent.
Pat: Christopher Newport, I suppose. It's a tough bracket because none of the teams expects to disappoint, so who can surprise? Perhaps the team that Salisbury dropped just as they were getting good.
Gordon: Given the topsy-turvy nature of the Mid-Atlantic Division III landscape, it’s conceivable that any of the non-Lone Star State teams could advance to the regional final. But I like Salisbury’s chances, even if they have to go on the road in the second round.

 This bracket will be filled with disappointment because the teams are so evenly matched. In what I expect to be close games all of the way through, a cornerback’s slip-and-fall, a block or a freak fumble could lead to an offseason’s worth of what-ifs.
Pat: Washington and Jefferson has trailed for less than five minutes all season. What happens when one of the playoff teams strings a couple scores together?
Gordon: I know Washington and Jefferson has soundly beaten almost everyone on their schedule. I know they are No. 5 in the country. And having coach Mike Sirianni on the sidelines makes me feel a little better. But I don’t see a single team on their schedule that’s better than anyone in this bracket, so I have to go with W&J here.

 Forced to choose, I like Bridgewater’s playoff experience and the fact that they were tested early in the season and perhaps worked out the kinks since then. Talented Hardin-Simmons is probably a smarter bet, but let me reiterate, I can see all seven teams winning the bracket or losing the first game it plays.
Pat: Even though one D-III assistant coach thinks Salisbury will run all over Hardin-Simmons, I disagree. Hardin-Simmons.
Gordon: I’ve had Hardin-Simmons in my top 5 since the preseason poll. No reason to change now.

 I’d be surprised if Tony Sutton doesn’t set a playoff record of some sort for Wooster in the first round. Okay, seriously, there’s potential for Mt. St. Joseph to stun Wheaton, though the prospect of playing that other Mount team next is enough to make a team want to go ahead and get it over with in the first week. Well, almost.
Pat: Carthage. Tough break to get sent on the road in the first round but they could easily win two games.
Gordon: If any team visiting Mount Union Stadium still has a chance to win in the fourth quarter. The Purple Raiders don’t just beat teams at home in the playoffs — they pulverize them. Average margin of victory at home in the playoffs last season? 45.6 points. Drive home safely.

 I don’t see any team that should be any more disappointed than usual when it loses. The committee balanced this bracket perfectly, and we can easily predict how it should go. That doesn’t mean it will though. I guess I get to use the cheap cop-out here, that anything less than a national championship is a disappointment in Alliance, so certainly an early loss for the Purple Raiders would qualify.
Pat: I guess it would have to be Wooster, but losing to Carthage wouldn't necessarily be disappointing.
Gordon: That Carthage can’t host a playoff game. I feel for the guys who put in a lot of effort to win a tough conference but won’t be able to reap the home field advantage that should come with it.

 If I were getting paid by the pick, this one would be stealing. It would be interesting to see how Wooster would fare in the East or the South, but in the North it’s a fuhgeddaboutit … Mount Union.
Pat: The Purple Powerhouse.
Gordon: Mount Union.

Editor’s note
SCIAC fans will be glad to know Keith McMillan will be seeing Occidental for the second consecutive week this Saturday, so among other things, we’ll get his thoughts and observations on SCIAC football next week.

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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