Almost 200 of the teams that kicked off in September are done.
But Division III finally got its 32-team bracket, which means no
more first-round byes, as there were in the 28-team system from
1999-2004, among other things.
Yet, we were reminded that this is still Division III. The NCAA wants to ensure fair access to the playoffs, not necessarily a fair playoff. So before we get to our staff’s surprises, disappointments and winners in each of the four eight-team brackets, allow a columnist to rant, and enlist Pat Coleman’s help in analyzing the playoff field from every angle.
Joy at Wilkes and Cortland State has been met with doubt (of their worthiness) and despair (at Alfred, Cal Lutheran and the like). The initial public reaction showed a clear displeasure with the Occidental-at-Linfield first round matchup, and the overall strength of the “West” bracket. The top four teams in the nation on my ballot — Linfield, UW-Whitewater, Occidental and St. John’s — all landed in the same bracket, sending two unbeaten teams — Oxy and Monmouth — on the road in the first round. The North bracket also has a very strong top five, while the South and East combined feature just two of the top 15 teams on my Week 11 ballot (No. 5 Mary Hardin Baylor and No. 7 Delaware Valley).
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3football.com
Of course, the No. 2 thing we should keep in mind (the first
being that the NCAA’s definition of “fair
playoffs” means access for everyone, not balanced brackets)
is that the Top 25 is in no way related to how the brackets are
selected. The Division III system really is the best thing going at
any level — it beats bowl games sponsored by lawn care
products and the four-from-each-region model formerly used in
Division III and still in place in some form at Division II. But I
get the feeling a lot of people still really don’t understand
it. So again we plead, read our playoff FAQ before you decide that
your team got jobbed and start mouthing off about it.
Bottom line, there are (about) 220 playoff-eligible teams, and 32 get in. That’s better than 7:1, where the NCAA’s recommended ratio is 6.5:1.
Next among the “couple of things we should keep in mind before we trash the committee-made bracket” is that four teams are lucky to even be here.
Before you complain about Wilkes and Cortland State getting in and Alfred and Cal Lutheran staying home, be reminded that last year, none of them would have been in the discussion. The same 21 automatic bid teams and four Pool B teams would have been selected, with three Pool C teams instead of the seven taken this season.
Out of North Central, Central, Hobart and Concordia-Moorhead, a deserving one-looss team would have been shafted in a 28-team bracket. That would have been worth complaining about, as all four lost close games to their league champions. Later in the column, we’ll rate the last teams in, the best left out and review how the teams that squeaked in have performed over the years.
When the bubble burst
With the extra bids opening the door to two-loss teams, as many as 15 considered themselves on the bubble. Looking at everything Saturday night before the brackets were released, I considered them all too.
Each team that got in had a game that did the trick for them, except for Wilkes, which had a couple. Each team left out had a loss that did it too. While some of my opinions skirt the official criteria, here are the games the made the difference for bubble teams:
Wilkes: Might as well start with the team widely regarded as the 32nd in, since the Colonels’ worthiness has been questioned. So let’s take a look at it: Their two losses were by a total of seven points, while their schedule featured only three teams with a losing record. (in the 11-team/nine-game MAC rotation, Wilkes did not play 0-10 Juniata). The Colonels shut out 7-3 Widener, lost by a field goal to 10-0 Delaware Valley and lost to a team that beat the team it will face in the playoffs. In other words, the game that essentially got Wilkes in was William Patterson’s 20-19 upset of Rowan.
Cortland State: The loss to 27-20 Buffalo State on Sept. 24 looked to be the one that would keep them out of the field, especially since the Bengals finished 3-6. But by staying within one score of Rowan, beating Ithaca and playing in an NJAC that had a 16-8 non-conference record this season, the Red Dragons schedule was stronger than other bubble teams. The win that got them in was the Cortaca Jug game, of course, but the season-opening 20-10 win over Brockport, which beat a playoff team (Wesley) 47-0, didn’t hurt either.
Capital: The 17-15 loss to Otterbein could have done in the team that ended up being the 30th in, in our opinion. But a good year in the top half of the OAC helped the Crusaders. The Cardinals finished 7-3, and Capital’s other loss was also on the road, 42-24 to 9-1 Mount Union. The late-season wins at 8-2 Ohio Northern, and against 7-3 John Carroll the following week got Capital in.
Here’s whose bubbles burst when, in hindsight:
Alfred: The St. John Fisher win in Week 11 got them into the discussion, but a Week 1 loss at Washington and Lee ended up being the killer. If the Generals, who finished 7-3, were two touchdowns better, why not just take them?
Cal Lutheran: You want to argue that the Kingsmen should be in with just one loss? Then name me their most impressive win. Beating 5-4 Redlands at home? A 35-7 romp over 5-4 LaVerne? I realize the schedule was unforgiving, with four straight road games, but the 41-9 loss to Occidental put Cal Lutheran in a different class than a one-loss team like Hobart, which lost by 10 to conference champion Union and helped itself with an early-season three-overtime win over RPI, which finished 7-2. Pool C is for those teams, not ones that suffered a 32-point blowout and beat a bunch of teams having down years.
Hardin-Simmons: Perhaps the most disappointing of the bubble teams, since the Cowboys blew a Pool A berth in Week 11 against Texas Lutheran. Mary Hardin-Baylor, which lost to the ASC’s Howard Payne but beat the Cowboys earlier in the year, grabbed the automatic qualifier.
Hampden-Sydney: Romp against playoff-bound Johns Hopkins would have been a convincing argument for an invite, if not for the requisite close loss to Bridgewater (Va.) and a surprising 38-34 W&L loss.
RPI: Both losses were killers, because the Engineers could have won either. Hobart’s playoff bid is partially a result of the Statesmen’s 56-48 triple-overtime win, while a 49-42 loss to 10-0 Union also pushed RPI to the side.
St. Olaf: Losing 63-9 to St. John’s and 49-35 to Concordia-Moorhead made the Oles the third choice from the MIAC in their best season in years. In a weaker West, a third team from a single conference could have a chance, but not this season. Cal Lutheran was in line ahead of the Oles, and had the same blowout loss to conference champion on its résumé.
DePauw: The Monon Bell loss was a double gut punch, as the Tigers would have been a Pool C shoo-in at 8-1, given Week 11’s results. DePauw needed to beat one of the three playoff teams on its schedule, but instead lost 31-26 to 9-1 Wesley, 17-14 to 10-0 Wabash and had its game against 9-0 Trinity — which was won by a point in the final 10 seconds in 2004 — cancelled by one of this year’s Gulf Coast hurricanes and not rescheduled.
Ohio Northern: The Polar Bears made it easy on the NCAA, who didn’t have to rule on whether or not to uphold their playoff ban given the losses to Capital and John Carroll. But the Mount Union win was one of the year’s big eye-openers.
John Carroll: After a 70-0 loss to the Purple Raiders, it looked like the Blue Streaks were done as a contender. But they beat then-No. 5 Ohio Northern 50-25, and away they went … until Capital and Baldwin-Wallace ended their playoff hopes in the final weeks.
St. John Fisher: Projected in until the final-week loss to Alfred — especially since the only other loss was in overtime to AQ-taker Ithaca — the Cardinals get a seat next to Hardin-Simmons at the ‘you blew it’ table.
Wheaton: Augustana ended up being its third loss, but the failure against Illinois Wesleyan knocked the Thunder out of the discussion. Given that they were just a two-point conversion from leading North Central in the closing minutes, they would have had a chance to play themselves into the field if not for the stumble against the Titans.
Thanks ... and no thanks
What a thankless job it is to be on the playoff selection committee. Like being a football official, no one ever wants to congratulate you on the things you get right the majority of the time. They just want hone in on a few things — maybe times when you followed the rules and they still didn’t like the outcome, or perhaps a judgement call of yours they disagree with — and criticize, second-guess and berate.
Well Around the Nation thinks you deserve better. But, um, now that we’ve thanked you and dispensed with the pleasantries, let ‘er rip.
Occidental at Linfield in the first round is an absolute outrage. That’s horrendous. We understand that staying under budget is the name of the game, and that access to the playoffs constitutes fairness in Division III, but come on ... bend the rules a little bit.
I realize the West was a tough bracket, not just with four of the top teams in the country and five unbeatens in it, but also because Coe-Central and St. John’s-Concordia-Moorhead rematches needed to be avoided. And the committee did a fine job there, splitting each on opposite sides of the bracket.
The problem is that Occidental has won its past 20 games, except for playoff loss to Linfield in last year’s round of eight. And the Tigers led that game 17-7 before the Wildcats exploded. So even though the committee did right by its guidelines — in effect eliminating one second round flight by getting rid of a West Coast “island” team immediately, it’s a major disservice to the legitimacy of the playoff system as a whole.
Add in the case of keeping UMHB at Trinity — making Occidental to Linfield the first round’s only flight whereas splitting them would have meant at least two — and the NCAA is flying teams to McMinnville, Ore., and San Antonio so long as the top seeds win, which could be a while. And if the lower seeds win, they’re a flight whether at home or on the road.
A more fair bracket could have had both pairings set up for the second round without increasing the number of flights paid for by the NCAA. But that would depend on a number of factors, since splitting Occidental and Linfield, and Trinity and Mary Hardin-Baylor, immediately brings four flights into the picture, instead of one (unless one of the Texas teams was sent West, which was totally unneccessary in the already-loaded bracket).
As I’ve noted several times elsewhere, I’m pretty sure the Division I-A basketball TV contracts pay for the playoffs in every sport, so we should be glad to get a share we didn’t necessarily earn. And we’re definitely glad the costs of playoff travel aren’t passed on to the schools, like in the NAIA or Division I basketball’s NIT. That might even keep some schools from accepting certain playoff bids at all.
I guess what we’re saying is: We understand how things work, but we don’t have to like it.
A solution for the top-heavy
I always thought the 28-team system, with its four seven-team brackets and top-seed bye in each, needed one tweak. And that was selecting the four teams that deserved the bye first, then seeding everyone else normally, with proximity a factor.
Had that “fairness measure” been in place and carried over to the 32-team system, where a No. 1 gets nothing but home field advantage throughout the playoffs, here’s who would have been the one seeds.
Linfield, obviously, in the West. St. John’s would have to get a one, and a bracket named after it, but not before UW-Whitewater. That means the fourth could have gone to any unbeaten team, but for argument’s sake, let’s say Delaware Valley.
Then we’d create brackets under each top seed, probably using four-team regional pods to limit the number of flights down the road. First- and second-round matchups would be grouped geographically, before fanning out toward their possible one seeds in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
Perhaps, of course, the brackets are confusing enough for everyone as they already are.
Before we let our Around the Region writers and other D3football.com staff take a crack at the surprises, disappointments and winners in each of the four brackets, here are Around the Nation’s first reactions upon seeing the pairings in/and the 32-team field:
Toughest first-round draw
Coleman: UMHB/Trinity, partially because the favored team is sent on the road.
McMillan: Definitely Occidental, which deserved better than a trip to the defending national champion after an undefeated season. However, Linfield could be ticked off at their “reward” for winning 21 in a row too.
Easiest opening game
Coleman: Delaware Valley/Curry
McMillan: Too easy to pick on Lakeland or Curry. I’d like to be in Wesley’s shoes, hosting a Ferrum team that lost 44-7 last week. The blowout could have been an eye-opener that will get the Panthers focused in practice this week, but it could also resurface and create doubt if the Wolverines score early and get their crowd into it.
Biggest first-/second-round matchup disparity
Coleman: Linfield or Occidental will definitely have an easier time with the Coe/Concordia-Moorhead winner than they will with each other.
McMillan: Augustana’s reward for beating Lakeland? The mighty Mount Union. Trinity/UMHB, Linfield/Occidental and Bridgewater/W&J also figure to have easier second-round games than first.
Toughest path to Salem
McMillan: Occidental, Concordia-Moorhead, St. John’s or UW-Whitewater then Mary Hardin-Baylor? Good luck repeating, Linfield. If you do, you’ll be champ for sure.
Longest road to Salem
Coleman: Also Occidental, oddly enough
McMillan: Coe, which could leave Iowa for Minnesota, Oregon/California, Minnesota/Wisconsin, Texas and Virginia ... and wouldn’t be favored once, either.
Easiest path to Salem (Book now)
McMillan: I would say Delaware Valley, but the North Region champ should end the Aggies’ season. Mary Hardin-Baylor or the South champ would have to deal with a West team, so actually, this is a pretty balanced playoff once the field gets down to 16 or eight.
The committee nailed
Coleman: Cortland State. They played their way in, in a game most Ithaca fans were predicting would be over by halftime. It nearly was, with Cortland leading 23-6.
McMillan: There will be no second round rematch of Coe-Central, Concordia-St. John’s, North Central-Augustana, Capital-Mount Union, Delaware Valley-Wilkes, Cortland-Ithaca, Union-Hobart, plus Lakeland and Whitewater and Central and Augustana are in different brackets entirely. Nice work. The only possible rematch in Round 2 is Washington and Jefferson against Thiel, and the Tomcats would host this one.
The committee blew
Coleman: Wilkes. Doesn't matter that Rowan also lost to William Paterson — how much of Rowan's team actually played in that game?
McMillan: The West Coast and Texas matchups, but we’ll give them that because it’s what they’re told to do. Also, I don’t believe moving UW-Whitewater to the North bracket would have made that any less stacked than the West is now. I don’t have a problem with the 31st and 32nd teams in, although Hardin-Simmons would beat them both, and they even wisely balanced the South bracket at the expense of a possible Thiel-W&J second round rematch. All in all, nice work.
Road team most deserving of a home game:
Coleman: Mary Hardin-Baylor. I am sure that someday UMHB will be permitted to play a home game in the postseason.
McMillan: Occidental and Monmouth are unbeaten and on the road while 9-1 Concordia-Moorhead is the second MIAC host. What else can these teams do, besides revamp their out-of-conference schedule?
Home team least deserving of a home game:
Coleman: Bridgewater, I guess.
McMillan: We could argue with Hobart and Concordia not winning their leagues but hosting, but there’s often more to it than there seems.
We would have liked to see
Coleman: Some usage of jet fuel.
McMillan: Whitewater, St. John’s, Occidental and Linfield split up. In the realm of ‘things that might actually happen,’ I would have liked to see Monmouth host even if it was 10-0 in a weak conference, and I would have liked to see Rowan in the playoffs at full strength.
Played their way in during Week 11
Coleman: Cortland State, Curry.
McMillan: Cortland, Wilkes … and Alfred tried to.
Played their way out during Week 11
McMillan: Hardin-Simmons, St. John Fisher, RPI
Best first round matchup besides Oxy-Linfield
Coleman: Capital/North Central.
McMillan: Capital-North Central could spawn a national semifinalist. I like Linfield-Oxy, Ithaca-Union and Bridgewater/W&J as the best games in the other brackets.
The thanks for playing award
McMillan: Curry, Mt. St. Joseph, Lakeland … maybe next year.
If this is 2004, we’re sitting home
Coleman: Capital, Cortland, Wilkes, Hobart
McMillan: Wilkes, Cortland, Capital are the obvious last three. Central, North Central and Concordia each lost by three or four points to their conference champion and had a win over another team in the playoff hunt. So Hobart, despite being 9-1, is my pick for 29th team in.
The 33rd team award:
McMillan: The committee may have said Cal Lutheran or Alfred, but the best teams not going are Hardin-Simmons and Ohio Northern.
The 32 best awards
If this year’s playoffs matched the top 32 teams regardless of conference affiliation, here’s who we’d kick out and invite:
McMillan: Wow. This is kind of mean. But I’d rather see Hardin-Simmons, Ohio Northern, John Carroll, DePauw and even Hampden-Sydney than Curry, Lakeland, Albion, Ferrum and Johns Hopkins. Wheaton could probably beat Wilkes. I’d keep Monmouth, Mt. St. Joseph, Cortland, Ithaca and Hobart though, even though UW-La Crosse would probably beat all of them.
The sorry for the false hopes award
When D3football.com tells you it’s hit on 27 of 28 teams just about every year, and hit on 31 of 32 this year, that means one team out there read our projections and got their hopes up. Here’s this year’s ‘one we missed’ and past winners:
2005: We projected Alfred; the committee preferred Wilkes.
2004: We got them all.
2003: We projected UMHB; the committee took Simpson, who promptly gave the MWC its only NCAA playoff win since expansion.
2002: We projected Hartwick; the committee took W&J, which squeaked past second-year CNU and got routed at Trinity.
2001: We picked Menlo and Linfield in Pool B, the committee took Whitworth (0-1) and Ithaca (advanced to regional final). In Pool C, we chose UW-Eau Claire, the NCAA took Montclair State (0-1).
Surprises, disappointments and champions
An Around the Nation tradition since 2001, we dig a little deeper into each region without telling you how to fill out your bracket (hey, we wouldn’t want to stomp on your chance to win our Pick ’Em contest). With the help of D3football.com experts in the regions they cover, here are surprises, disappointments and final four teams:
Delaware Valley bracket (East)
Pat Coleman: At least two road teams win first-round games.
Gordon Mann: Two of the three visiting teams who aren't in the NEFC win their first-round game. I'd be more specific but that just increases my chances of being wrong.
Mark Simon: That the Liberty League (the one I am most familiar with) sneaks two teams through to the national quarterfinals.
Pat Cummings: Wilkes. Watching the selection show and seeing Wilkes' name on the screen made me think, “I wonder if anyone from Wilkes is actually watching this today.” That being said, the Colonels could relish their chance in the postseason. A young squad led by a veteran coach, they minimize their mistakes. Wilkes holds a plus-16 advantage in turnovers this year and will do all it can to force backup quarterback Joe Rankin into making mistakes. I could see the Colonels winning at least one, and possibly two games.
Keith McMillan: Except for the NEFC getting its first playoff win against Delaware Valley, I wouldn’t be surprised by much of anything in this bracket. According to the injury report, Rowan is a much different team than it was midway through the season, so even a Wilkes win wouldn’t be that much of a stunner. My official surprise pick, though, just to go all the way out on a limb, is four two-loss teams in this bracket’s second round. With Cortland, Wilkes, Ithaca and Curry, it could happen.
Coleman: Well, obviously the home teams. But specifically, I think Hobart for sure. Rowan, Union? Certainly conceivable to see one of them lose too.
Mann: Delaware Valley has been talking about getting to the East region finals or further all year. I think they'll be disappointed with anything less.
Simon: My above pick means heartbreaking finishes for the likes of Rowan and Delaware Valley.
Tom Wilson: Alfred … if you knock a playoff team out of contention (St. John Fisher), you deserve to go. Of Wilkes’ two losses, it didn't beat a playoff contender.
McMillan: The NEFC would love to shed the winless-in-the-playoffs label, and there are five beatable teams in this bracket. It will happen sooner or later, but not this Curry team against this Delaware Valley team.
Coleman: Delaware Valley. Or Union.
Mann: As the saying goes, "you have to beat the man to be the man." Until someone (other than William Paterson) does that, I'll stick with the Profs through this bracket.
Simon: Union over Hobart. Union's had one of those magical seasons. It easily could have lost to basement-dwellers Coast Guard and Kings Point, but found ways to win, as it did against everybody. The dream season will end against Mount Union, but the Dutchmen will long remember 2005.
Wilson: Very balanced bracket. I think flip a coin between Cortland, Ithaca, and Rowan taking the East region. I don't think the MAC teams can make it past two top ranked NJAC defenses. Ditto for the Liberty League teams.
Cummings: Delaware Valley. The Aggies get the traditional walkover in the NEFC champ. Curry shouldn't get closer than 17 points. Del Val has playoff experience in the form of two nailbiting wins last season and I think they are a better team in 2005. Considering Rowan is weaker sans Mike Orihel, G.A. Mangus’ Aggies get over the top in the East this year.
McMillan: Wow, what a bunch of homers and wafflers. I don’t think Rowan, or anybody really, will be an easy out in a pretty balanced, if not powerful, bracket. But in the end, I like Delaware Valley over Union in the 42-28 range.
Trinity bracket (South)
Coleman: Johns Hopkins keeps things surprisingly close at Thiel.
Mann: Washington and Jefferson. With quarterback Chris Edwards and receiver Aaron Krepps, the Presidents have the offense to make another run to the regional finals.
Simon: The Johns Hopkins defense, flawless other than a hiccup against Hampden-Sydney will find a way to secure the biggest upset, seed-wise, of the postseason.
Ron Boerger: Trinity, which almost paved the way for independent Huntingdon to get into the playoffs, turning into a ball control team after nearly a decade of aerial acrobatics. And playing defense, too.
McMillan: Based on the word out of San Antonio these days, it wouldn’t be a surprise for the Tigers to exit without much of a fight. Especially after what UMHB did to Hardin-Simmons. Hopkins has the defense to upset Thiel, and Wesley should be two-and-done. If Trinity takes its state, the surprise is seeing Eagles or Presidents as the last team standing in a Texas-sized upset. Anything can happen when two of these three South region standbys go at it.
Coleman: This cash-strapped bracket actually doesn't bother me too much. I'm not convinced Trinity is the best team in this bracket or is worth protecting from UMHB. It's just unfortunate this game is at Trinity ... again.
Mann: Thiel seems like a shaky No. 2 seed. Will they beat JHU? Probably. But I don't think they beat Bridgewater (Va.) or W&J again in round two.
Simon: The Bridgewater-Washington and Jefferson game won't be as exciting as their last two meetings.
Boerger: The NCAA once again played “Texas Hold ‘Em” with the brackets, yet again costing Mary Hardin-Baylor a home playoff game in Round 1. And Trinity, instead of getting what should have been a fairly easy opener against unranked Johns Hopkins, ends up having to face the No. 4 Crusaders.
McMillan: Ferrum should be disappointed about blowing a first-round home game, which would be a significant advantage. Trinity will disappoint, as will Thiel if the Tomcats are expecting a quarterfinal appearance or more.
Coleman: Mary Hardin-Baylor, in games that get progressively easier.
Mann: Mary-Hardin Baylor. After this Saturday, they'll even get to play a playoff game or two at home.
Simon: Bridgewater, which will score on Hopkins, over Trinity, but then falls to Linfield.
Cummings: I can easily look past Bridgewater's lone loss on the season, by one point to McDaniel. The Green Terror finished 5-5, but were at their best in Week 1, against BC's first-time starter Jacob Lewis, before injuries. The Eagles are 5-1 at Jopson Field in the postseason. Regardless, whoever takes the BC/W&J game wins the bracket, and I think that will be Bridgewater.
Boerger: The winner of UMHB-Trinity will win the bracket. Too bad they meet in Round 1.
McMillan: Based on what UMHB did to W&J last season (52-16) and Hardin-Simmons this season (38-7), I don’t see how I can eagerly pick anyone else.
Wabash bracket (North)
Coleman: I'm tempted to pick Albion, which is on a roll, over Wabash. But I won't. Will take Capital instead.
Mann: I'm surprised this bracket is set up so that Mount Union can still get three home games, even with a regular season loss.
Simon: That there are no surprises, until the last game. The seeds will hold to that point.
McMillan: I like the Capital/North Central winner to win in Crawfordsville, despite a raucous red crowd and a defensive front seven that really gets after it. After the first round, this bracket is a crapshoot … but I would not be surprised to see North Central in the national semifinals if it faces a defense that hasn’t seen that offense before.
Coleman: Gotta say Wabash, much to the disappointment of the Always Fighters. They're just set up for disappointment with too many other teams in the same general range talentwise as they are.
Mann: Wabash. Not to be inflammatory, but I think the Little Giants are the fourth-weakest team in this bracket, in front of Albion, Mt. St. Joseph and Lakeland.
Simon: Disappointment: Wabash will come up just short of surviving the region, but will fall in the deciding game
McMillan: Anything less than a championship is a disappointment at Mount Union, and since a loss makes them a non-chic pick this season, they just might make it back to Salem. The true disappointment will be the first-round exit for Capital or North Central, since both know they can compete with the power teams in the bottom half of the North bracket.
Coleman: The Mount Union/Augustana winner.
Mann: Mount Union, though I think Augustana will be tough in Round 2.
Simon: Mount Union, as already stated.
McMillan: This is really a five-team race, from top seeded Wabash to No. 5 Capital, but the safe money is always on Mount Union.
Linfield Bracket (West)
Coleman: There's not much potential for surprise here. Where do we turn? Would it be a surprise if UW-Whitewater or St. John's knocked off Linfield? No, they're the two next-best teams in Division III. Would it be a surprise if Occidental or Monmouth won? Sure. But also not going to happen. And Central doesn't seem to match up with Whitewater (but even then, who would be shocked to see a WIAC team lose early?). So that leaves Coe. Good luck, guys.
Mann: None. The higher seed wins every game. Being underrated is overrated.
Simon: Occidental will keep its game with Linfield within single digits, the first time that has happened for Linfield all season
Adam Johnson: Central. Never count out a team with potent special teams and that is just what the Dutch have. A solid running back, a smart QB and a coach who will go for the win over the tie all make the Dutch an opponent to avoid in the first round.
McMillan: An Occidental first-round win would bust the championship race wide open. But barring that shocker, the surprise would be having a West team emerge from this slugfest of a bracket with enough left to win in Salem.
Coleman: In a phrase I may have used in previous years, the penny-pinching of the NCAA.
Mann: UW-Whitewater if they don't at least get to McMinnville. The WIAC finally has its champ emerge from the regular season relatively unscathed. Yes, they would still have to play the national title favorite to get through their bracket, like every other year. But if the WIAC is the best conference, then the Warhawks will at least get past SJU in round two.
Simon: None, other than fans being miffed that five unbeatens are going to beat each other up until only one remains.
Johnson: Monmouth. For the sixth time in seventh tries the MWC will lose, and lose handiliy, in its first-round matchup. The MWC is just not at the level of the rest of the West. Monmouth quarterback Mitch Tanney hasn't faced a defense like St. John's which will make him look like anything but the nation's most proficient passer.
McMillan: Occidental and Monmouth not getting to host games after going unbeaten, and St. John’s or UW-Whitewater exiting in the second round when there are other brackets either would be favored in.
Coleman: Linfield, but by a nose.
Mann: Unless USC is suddenly added, Linfield.
Simon: Linfield over St. John's, because it'll be a neat story for the Wildcats to beat teams coached by the two Division III legends, John Gagliardi and Larry Kehres, en route to a national title.
Johnson: Linfield. Offense is as strong as last season and the defense has improved. A year of experience and the home field throughout will be just what the Cats need to repeat. Two solid kickers in Wales and Dailey could be the X-factor.
McMillan: You can’t pick against Linfield, but the road is so stacked against them. Plus, they are one quarterback injury away from coming back to the pack. UW-Whitewater has the beef up front and the offensive firepower to hang with red-hot St. John’s and white-hot Linfield, so I’ll take the Warhawks just to be different, although all three are Stagg Bowl-worthy.