September 21, 2006

Big week in the Empire State

If you’ll allow me to kick aside the whole “Empire State” thing for a moment and borrow from Missouri, I’ve got a fresh state motto for New York, for Saturday only.

The Showdown State.

It might not end up on a license plate, but it’s fitting for a Saturday afternoon sure to have an impact on the D3football.com Top 25. Six New York teams are ranked, including Nos. 22-25.

Four Upstate games — two Liberty League and two Empire 8 clashes — impact the national landscape:

No. 11 Ithaca at No. 25 St. John Fisher
No. 19 Hobart at No. 24 RPI
Rochester at No. 23 Union
Alfred at Springfield (both are receiving a similar number of votes in the poll)

And that’s a week after Cortland State of the New Jersey Athletic Conference moved up to No. 22 by knocking off Brockport State of the Atlantic Central Football Conference 17-10.

“It’s tough to say (if we’ve ever had a Saturday like this before),” says Empire 8 commissioner Chuck Mitrano. “This year our region is more on the radar than it has been. In the past, there have been a number of big weekends.”


RPI tight end Jon Branche has six catches and a touchdown through two games.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3football.com

There were also three-way races in the Liberty and Empire 8 that stretched into November. But we may not get that far this season, with so many contenders meeting this early.

While certain Division III fans scoff at the East Region, last year’s playoff performances put the Liberty’s Hobart and Union in Rowan’s class, and Cortland had hung with their conference rivals during the season. In the national semifinals, the Profs went to Mount Union and played the eventual champions well.

Perhaps then this weekend’s games could be more than the first strikes at conference titles and automatic bids.

The weekend definitely brings together a state Division III scene that was previously jumbled, despite having more programs (now 17) than all but five states. As recently as 2003, teams were scattered across several conferences, with five in the Upstate Collegiate Athletic Association, five in the Empire 8 and others independent.

In 2004, the Empire 8 accepted Springfield and Norwich from the folding Freedom Football Conference and became a full-fledged automatic qualifier conference, although it still had (and has) one football team fewer than its name suggests. The UCAA became the Liberty League, adding Coast Guard, Merchant Marine (formerly Kings Point) and Worcester Polytech from the Freedom Football Conference, and Brockport State joined the ACFC. Rochester, a member of the UAA in other sports, preserves local football rivalries by playing in the Liberty League.

If that’s enough to thoroughly confuse you, here’s all you need to know. The Empire 8 and Liberty are each looking at four contenders right now, and they’re all going head-to-head.

Ithaca and St. John Fisher have played overtime games the past two seasons and were separated by a point in 2003. The Cardinals have outscored opponents 115-10 in their 3-0 start, including a 30-10 Courage Bowl win over Rochester. The Bombers are averaging 40 points and surrendering 11 in three wins, including a 31-12 win over South Region challenger Huntingdon, but make their first road trip this weekend.

This doesn’t appear to be the de facto Empire 8 title game though.

Springfield, with a 38-30 win against then-No. 11 Union, and Alfred, in a 14-0 defeat of Thiel, which started the season ranked 25th, each opened eyes in a season-opening upset. The Pride followed with a two-touchdown victory against Montclair State and Alfred, after a 17-14 win against St. Lawrence, is also 2-0. Their clash at Springfield, the first of four home games to start the Pride’s year, and technically a game not in New York, will send a second team to the top of the E8.

“It’s clearly very exciting,” Mitrano said of the prospect of having four or more contenders. “Every week is going to present one or two competitive games, even outside the perceived top four.”

“It's hard to tell (how good the E8 will be this year),” Bombers coach Mike Welch told the Ithaca Journal. “But Springfield beating Union tells you something … With Alfred beating Thiel, who was a playoff team, and Fisher’s racking up wins, shutting people out and scoring a lot of points, so yeah, it's as good as it’s been.”

With a win Saturday, Alfred should like its chances. It closes with three home games, a non-conference clash with Hobart and Empire 8 games against Ithaca (Nov. 4) and St. John Fisher (Nov. 11). Other key dates, should the four contenders remain the same, are Springfield at St. John Fisher Oct. 21 and Springfield at Ithaca Oct. 28.

The Liberty League, considered not as strong as the Empire 8 until Hobart and Union each lost by a touchdown in last year’s playoff second round while the E8 got only Ithaca (a 55-41 first-round loser to Union) in, is back behind the Empire 8 again after the Rochester and Union losses. But on Saturday it does match two unbeaten contenders, Hobart and RPI, who combined for 17 wins last season.

The Engineers of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (for those interested in lengthy official titles) were a chic preseason pick because they brought back 18 starters, including all 11 on offense. They scored 27 and 34 in their first two wins, but will need more if the Hobart game follows the 2005 path. RPI rallied from down 24-0 to force overtimes, but lost 56-48 in the third, as the game featured more than 1,000 yards of offense and two quarterbacks who threw five TD passes.

Rochester is coming off a 10 TD-pass, 1,000-yards-combined game with Gettysburg. The 54-42 victory is not the Yellowjackets’ only win; they also beat 2005 playoff team Johns Hopkins in their opener. Rochester’s visit to Union could be key as Liberty League conference play begins, but five of the league’s seven teams have winning records and all are .500 or better out of the gate.

It’s early still, but the chase for playoff berths — perhaps more than one per league — is on.

“If you can get two teams in, that’s great,” Mitrano said. “But the more important thing is that the teams represent the conference appropriately, both on and off the field.” 

> The Empire 8 is encouraging the support of Alfred running back Julio Fuentes, who suffered a serious neck injury blocking on a kickoff return against Thiel. Alfred University has set up a trust fund for Fuentes’ recovery. For more information, visit the Empire 8 Web site or the D3football.com Notables page.

Poll positions 
The American Football Coaches Association released its first poll this week, and it looked similar to the D3football.com poll. Twenty-one teams are ranked in both polls.

The major differences were No. 22 Cortland State ranked 12th by the AFCA, No. 21 Wheaton ranked 13th and No. 25 St. John Fisher ranked 18th. Linfield, 0-2 but still D3football.com’s 18th-ranked team, was unranked and the seventh team receiving votes, or the equivalent of No. 32, by the AFCA. 

The AFCA ranked Mt. St. Joseph (No. 20), Wartburg (No. 22), Trinity (Texas) (No. 24) and Christopher Newport (No. 25), all of whom were receiving votes in the D3football.com poll. AFCA unranked Delaware Valley, Union and RPI were ranked by D3football.com Nos. 20, 23 and 24.

Oddly, IIAC conference foes Central and Coe are ranked 14th and 15th by D3football.com, and were reversed but in the same spots by the AFCA.

Wildcats worthy? 
There’s been some discussion in the Daily Dose about dropping 0-2 Linfield out of the Top 25. There is justification for the Wildcats to stay ranked, based on who their two losses this season have come against, which makes them different than a good-but-still-0-2 team like Ferrum.

Linfield’s loss to Western Oregon tells us next to nothing about how they match up against Division III. The loss to Hardin-Simmons, now ranked sixth, doesn’t tell us much about how they stack up against the other 227 teams seventh and below.

Voters must use other factors, like starters returning from a team that went deep into the playoffs, traditional conference strength and performance within that conference, early in the season when other more current data is missing.

I have Linfield in the top 25 still; I’m not foolish enough to think a team that has beaten two or three teams that haven’t played anyone close to Hardin-Simmons’ strength is automatically better than Linfield. 

However, they are in the 20s. I am ranking them off what they have done so far. By the same token, I have Whitworth several spots ahead of Linfield, which bugs me, because last time they played, it’s wasn’t a very close game. Whitworth has beaten two good opponents, but neither the strength of either that Linfield has played. 

It could turn out that Linfield is not a top 25 team at all, but it would take more information than we know now to ascertain that.

Comparing the Wildcats to Ferrum: If staying close to No. 8 Bridgewater was their only result, then we could say Ferrum is about the same strength. I often use close losses (which generally could have gone either way) as a measuring stick. Many teams help themselves by how they perform in losses, in my mind.

But Ferrum’s two-TD loss to Guilford kind of nullifies whatever the Bridgewater game tells us about them; in fact, it might say more about Bridgewater not being the country’s eighth-best team.

Others have wondered why No. 13 Mary Hardin-Baylor is ranked ahead of a team it lost to in Christopher Newport. I don’t have it that way on my ballot.

The Captains have a bad loss to No. 3 Rowan, but then came back and beat then-No. 6 UMHB. Even though it was probably just as close as the Ferrum-Bridgewater game, since it was decided on the goal line in the final minute, we voters tend to give extra credit for actually winning. CNU’s third result vs. Salisbury, another close win, also helps.

I had CNU 25th to start the year, dropped them after the Rowan loss, and have had them back in on my ballot, ahead of UMHB, logically, for the past two weeks.

As for teams like St. Olaf and Cal Lutheran, getting blown out by the playoff team(s) on the schedule but winning the rest of their games kind of leaves them in that good-but-not-great grey area. They really only get a chance to get into the top 25 when they play those top teams again.

Another thing top 25 watchers must remember is that results don’t necessarily follow a steady pattern. Sometimes things just don’t add up, and a voter has to decide what he thinks is real and what isn’t.

It is, by definition, an educated guess. As we get more information, the polls are supposed to change. That’s good news. It gives us plenty to argue about leading up the playoffs. If the starting top 25 was the final top 25, we’d look real smart but have just spent four months bored out of our gourds.

Streak watch
Trinity (Conn.) puts its 30-game streak on the line this week against Colby (more on that in Five Games to Watch), while other win streaks build toward double digits.

Division III’s longest win streaks: 
Trinity (Conn.) (30 consecutive wins, last loss at Williams, 30-13, Sept. 28, 2002; 0-0 in 2006)
Mount Union (10 consecutive wins, last loss vs. Ohio Northern, 21-14, Oct. 22, 2005; 2-0 in 2006)
St. Norbert (10 consecutive wins, last loss vs. Monmouth, 28-20, Sept. 17, 2005; 2-0 in 2006)
Cal Lutheran (9 consecutive wins, last loss at Occidental, 41-9, Sept. 24, 2005; 2-0 in 2006)
Howard Payne (8 consecutive wins, last loss at Hardin-Simmons, 45-20, Oct. 1, 2005; 2-0 in 2006)
Lycoming (7 consecutive wins, last loss vs. Wilkes, Oct. 8, 2005; 2-0 in 2006)
Williams (6 consecutive wins, last loss at Trinity, Conn. 34-6, Oct. 1, 2005; 0-0 in 2006)

Chicago, Guilford, Mass-Dartmouth and Washington U. had winning streaks stopped at six. 

The longest active losing streaks:
Heidelberg (28 consecutive losses, last win vs. Marietta on Oct. 4, 2003; 0-3 in 2006)
Juniata (15 consecutive losses, last win at Lycoming, 14-7, Oct. 30, 2004; 0-3 in 2006)
Tri-State (12 consecutive losses, last win vs. Kalamazoo, 21-14, Nov. 13, 2004, 0-2 in 2006)
Wesleyan (10 consecutive losses, last win vs. Bowdoin, 25-21, Oct. 30, 2004; 0-0 in 2006)

> Discuss other streaks (regular season, conference, home/road) on Post Patterns’ Around the Nation board.

Five games to watch
Covered above: No. 11 Ithaca at No. 25 St. John Fisher, No. 19 Hobart at No. 24 RPI, Rochester at No. 23 Union, Alfred at Springfield.

No. 2 UW-Whitewater at UW-Oshkosh — In Kickoff ’06, Titans linebacker Eric Steinbroten said “I feel we have a good chance to win the WIAC.” Oshkosh’s chance to do that starts with a visit from the reigning conference champion and Stagg Bowl runner-up, unbeaten in three games. Oshkosh’s lone loss came against a Division II scholarship team. An upset would knock the Warhawks off their perch, but as most upset-filled seasons go in the WIAC, there’d still be plenty of time to get back into the championship race.

No. 4 St. John's at Concordia-Moorhead — The way the Johnnies stole the win last year has to stick in the Cobbers’ craw, if Cobbers have craws. Anyway, it was an Alex Kofoed-to-Kyle Gearman 74-yard TD pass in the final minute — last year’s Around the Nation most memorable play — that changed the course of both teams’ seasons, as the Johnnies won 20-16. This time around, in the second consecutive meeting in Moorhead, Concordia comes in off a 21-7 loss to Bethel. A win over St. John’s is crucial in pursuit of a third consecutive playoff berth, and would make the MIAC title race interesting. Plus, revenge is sweet.

Texas Lutheran at No. 13 Mary Hardin-Baylor — After the surprising losses each suffered, this could almost be wiped off the key game board. But the losses are precisely why it’s still one. The winner stays in the American Southwest automatic qualifier hunt, with Howard Payne and Hardin-Simmons also figuring to be in the mix. The loser must play flawless football the rest of the way to preserve Pool C playoff hopes. Can you believe it? Week 4 and we’re already dashing playoff plans.

Colby at Trinity (Conn.) — As NESCAC play gets underway, the best two conference teams from a year ago (combined 15-1) meet right off the bat. While the Bantams debut new coach Jeff Devanney and pursue their fifth conference title in a row, only one of their 30 consecutive wins have come against the White Mules. The teams haven’t met since the 2003 opener, a 30-6 Trinity win, but Colby has a better record than any other NESCAC team in the two seasons they didn’t play Trinity (though Amherst beat the White Mules both years). Trinity and Colby each return 13 starters.

DePauw at Trinity (Texas) — The big story here is how Hurricane Rita wiped out the 2005 clash of SCAC titans. The game was never rescheduled. Trinity took the conference’s automatic bid on overall winning percentage, as DePauw didn’t lose an SCAC game but fell to Wesley and archrival Wabash. Adding to the recent history: Trinity’s final-seconds TD pass to win 29-28 in the 2004 game. With yet another new DePauw head coach at the controls, there’s no telling if the Tigers from Indiana are a match for the ones from Texas.

> Upset special (2-1 after Montclair State lost to Springfield 27-14) — Lycoming at No. 20 Delaware Valley. There are at least two other D3football.com staffers who have questions about this year’s Aggies and see a possible return to prominence for the Warriors, longtime MAC, um, daddies. Neither team has scored more than 20 or allowed more than 15, so expect another low-scoring game. Although the Aggies need this one to stay in the MAC hunt after the Wilkes loss, ATN is taking Lycoming in the upset.

> Surprisingly good game (1-2 after Mississippi College beat then-No. 21 Texas Lutheran 28-21) — Guilford at Hampden-Sydney. The Tigers are the ODAC’s only winless team, while the Quakers are the hot pick to challenge Bridgewater, or they were until Averett hung 54 on them last Saturday. With two weeks to prepare, and a year removed from having one of the top offenses in the nation, the Tigers could put up similar numbers. The Tigers won 47-45 in ’05, and it could be a nip/tuck game again, although Guilford enters as the favorite this time.

> Also keep an eye on — No. 6 Hardin-Simmons at Louisiana College, No. 12 Ohio Northern at John Carroll, No. 17 Whitworth at UW-Stout, No. 21 Wheaton at Hope, Carroll at Monmouth, Franklin & Marshall at Carnegie Mellon, Luther at Wartburg. 

Who are those guys? 
No. 2 UW-Whitewater scored a significant win last week against NAIA No. 9 Azusa Pacific, 27-7. The Cougars could have saved a few seats for this Saturday’s opponent, No. 9 UW-La Crosse, on their plane ride back to Southern California. APU has a chance to prove itself against another of Division III’s top teams, while La Crosse heads west for a test most of the small private schools in and around Wisconsin couldn’t give it. Same goes for UW-River Falls this week, a middle-of-the-pack WIAC team taking on St. Francis (Ind.), a team ranked second on CSTV.com and by Victory Sports Network.

Also last week, The Sports Network mid-major No. 7 Drake beat UW-Platteville 35-7. Ursinus’ 6-2 win over Division I-AA La Salle was fodder for Saturday score jokes.

After losing its first eight games against Division II competition, Wesley (49-13 vs. Seton Hill), Methodist (31-7 vs. Chowan) and UW-Stout (36-34 vs. Upper Iowa) provided a Week 3 sweep for Division III.

In Tuesday’s USA Today, the three lowest ranked Division I teams in the Sagarin College Football ratings (No. 239 La Salle, No. 240 St. Peter’s and No. 241 Butler) have lost to Division III teams. Butler has played two, losing its opener 31-10 to Albion and beating Hanover 30-20.

The Week 4 out-of-division lineup:

vs. Division I-AA (1-1 in Week 3, 5-4 in 2006)
No. 3 Rowan at Robert Morris
Western Connecticut at Iona

vs. Division II (3-0 in Week 2, 3-8 in 2006)
None

vs. NAIA (1-2 in Week 2, 11-6 in 2006)
UW-River Falls at VSN No. 2 St. Francis (Ind.)
UW-La Crosse at VSN No. 14 Azusa Pacific
UW-Stevens Point at Waldorf
Southern Virginia at Greensboro
Austin at Southwest Assemblies of God
Howard Payne at Paul Quinn

Press coverage
Gordon Mann shares two links, one from Wisconsin’s Appleton Post Crescent and another from theBirmingham News, which have interesting Division III football content.

http://www.al.com/sports/birminghamnews/mperrin.ssf?/base/sports/11586574344680.xml&coll=2

http://www.postcrescent.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060916/APC02/60916021/1892

On the other hand, Post Patterns vet Enginegro found ESPN.com’s TMQ again bashing Mount Union and other Division III schools for running up scores. Mount Union is referred to as “year-in, year-out home of the worst sportsmanship in Division III.”

I won’t address this at length, as I’ve done it once before (ATN, Dec. 17, 2004) and it is also addressed on the Post Patterns Around the Nation thread. The link to the full article is there too.

However, I do think that using margin of victory as the sole definition of sportsmanship is flawed, and I let TMQ’s writer, Gregg Easterbrook, know in an e-mail yesterday. But I was a really big, uh, jerk about it, so I might not hear back.

But don’t quote me …
Quick observations from Week 3 and thoughts for Week 4:

> Last week’s No. 1 stunner: Alma 33, UW-Eau Claire 30 in overtime.

> Bethany, which won its second in a row, celebrated the joy of the comeback while showing Ohio Wesleyan the agony of the collapse. Which I, as a Philadelphia Eagles fan, witnessed first-hand on Sunday. Gave me sick thoughts of Emory and Henry/Randolph-Macon ’96. But I digress. More on Bethany on our Post Patterns thread.

> Haven’t we about covered it all? Nope. Believe it or not, the regular department My 26-35 is stuck on my laptop as ATN hits its Thursday morning deadline. I’ll post that on the Post Patterns thread and/or update the column Thursday afternoon or early Friday.

TV time
Reader Kinney Mitchell writes:
“What are the chances of selling (giving?) some D3 games to ESPN to use on their ESPN College? I think it would be a lot more interesting to watch a D3 game I had not seen before than a replay of a D1 game I saw a long time ago.”

ATN responds:
Kinney, I agree, although to my knowledge ESPN has never shown any interest in televising any D3 game besides the championship, although I think there were some rumblings about someone doing the semifinals this year. We do have an ESPN employee on staff, and he has been able to help get the network to follow the occasional D3 story.

A better bet, though, might be CSTV, since they recently picked up a Division II package (three live games, 40 on the internet). CSTV.com also cares enough to try to run a D3 column, and ESPN.com does not, to my knowledge, on its vast college football section. I think their interest is limited. I really liked Hidden Video back in the day, where on their Thursday night games they showed crazy clips from small schools. I think they could also have a D3 or small-school minute on their regular college show, with a few highlights and a top 25 rundown, and it would garner lots of interest from people like us, they may find it to be more work than possible or necessary. As an audience, we may not be that big or influential.

Internet video broadcasts have been explored and are a future possibility for D3football.com.

ESPN cares about ratings and probably gets a better rating on a Big Ten replay than a brand-new D3 game. Plus, it would be a lot of extra work. Replaying something they’ve already done must be easier.

But I think TV, even though it would be our competition, really brings another dimension to being able to follow different teams from around the country and gauge their strength, so I would be in favor of anything any channel could do.

Question for next week
Does Division III matter?

With this crowd, we sort of know the answer. But should it get more mainstream coverage? Or would that ruin what people like about it, the for-the-love-of-the-game, true sportsman, actual student-athlete nature of it all? Is there a happy medium?

Send feedback to be shared next week. Or, you can post it on Post Patterns’ Around the Nation board and I’ll reprint it from there. I’m confident there’s a wide range of creative answers to this one.

Attention SIDs
As always, Around the Nation requests media guides and any other aids in helping us cover your school or conference this season. We are also interested in seeing gam e tapes from schools we aren't able to see in person. For more information, contact Keith McMillan at keith@d3football.com, or snail mail to D3football.com, 13055 Carolyn Forest Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

Links to online media guides are now preferred over mail. In addition, please do not add my e-mail address to your regular release lists, but instead use our news release capabilities to have your information posted on our front page and your team's page. For more information on how that works and how we can help each other, contact publisher and editor Pat Coleman at info@d3football.com. Thank you.

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Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and begins as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011; has worked on all but one of the preseason Kickoff publications; has done game-day writing and photography and the pregame broadcast at the championship Stagg Bowl in Salem for almost a decade; and has taken photos at the Final Four for D3hoops.com. He's also on the selection staff for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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