Division III just keeps on growing.
The 2006 season kicks off Thursday, Aug. 31, and not long after three schools will make their debuts, bring our total football participation to 234 institutions. That’s 15,210 players if each school averages 65 on the roster, competing in nearly 1,200 games.
Around the Nation is your avenue to a little national perspective on a division that can be plenty fragmented, and with good reason, since it stretches from Maine to California and the Pacific Northwest to the Dirty South (old folks, pardon the slang).
The column specializes in breaking down the big picture, identifying the trends, highlighting some of our outstanding occurrences and providing opinion for you to disagree with (unless of course, I’m writing something favorable about your team).
For first-time visitors and longtime readers, I’ll tell you a bit more about what you can expect from Around the Nation later in the column. But unless you’ve been poking around Post Patterns or have your nose buried in Kickoff ’06, our preseason preview package, you’re visiting us for the first time this season.
In that case, you might want to take a look back at where we left off, in Around the Nation’s three-part Year in Review. You should also check out our brand-new conference rankings, updated for the 2006 preseason. When you’re up to speed, let’s look at four things we can learn from Week 1:
1. We’ll find out which region is the weakest
Generally speaking, the West Region, which stretches from Wisconsin and Minnesota to Washington, Oregon and California, fields several powerful playoff teams per season, while the North, boosted by Mount Union’s presence, is the second-strongest region. The South has made its move, putting a team in three of the past five Stagg Bowls, while the East lags behind with only Rowan as a traditional powerhouse in recent years.
In the first week though, some key inter-region contests will give us an idea if things will hold form. Last year, Delaware Valley, Hobart and Union all played at Rowan’s level in the playoffs, and the Profs carried the East banner into Alliance and played the eventual champion Purple Raiders as tough as anyone.
Christopher Newport visits Rowan in Week 1 as the Captains try to restore their status as a South Region playoff regular. Huntingdon, an independent and Division III’s lone team in Alabama, makes the trek to Ithaca, N.Y. to see how it measures up against the Bombers. Since nearly knocking off perennial power Trinity (Texas) last season, the Division III world has been eager to see the Hawks tested again.
The defending champions hit the road to visit Averett, a team that Kickoff ’06 and our first Around the Mid-Atlantic column have turned the hype machine on for. The Cougars may be favored to surpass Ferrum and CNU in the USA South Conference, but first they take on Mount Union. It’s a game they are brave to take, but just playing it helps the profile of the rising USAC, even if the Purple Raiders smoke the Cougars.
UW-Stevens Point's visit to No. 11 Hardin-Simmons could be a key West-South matchup.
Division III recently redefined regional competition, especially in regards to the playoffs (more on that in our blog, the Daily Dose), so these games will affect the seven at-large bids given out come playoff time. (Just like last year, 21 spots go to winners of automatic-bid conferences and four to teams not in those conferences).
Last season, Wesley beat DePauw 31-26 in Week 1, a game that turned out to be more than an indicator of regional strength. The Wolverines win put pressure on the Tigers to beat rival Wabash in their season finale to earn a playoff spot.
2. We’ll find out how prepared the new programs are
Morrisville State (aka SUNY-Morrisville) is our early pick to excel, compared to SUNY-Maritime (Maritime State?) and LaGrange. Although it’s tempting to look at the success of Huntingdon and tradition of football in the South and like LaGrange, the Panthers are starting from scratch, as are the Privateers. Morrisville brought football back, at the junior college level, in 1997. Although they’ll be changing the type of student-athletes they recruit and retain, having facilities, a coaching staff, a scheme, support and experience may make the transition a little easier.
Morrisville State stays in the SUNY system for its opener Saturday at Buffalo State, and its home opener next week against Cortland State.
LaGrange kicks off its football history at Maryville (Tenn.), with its home opener to follow next Saturday against Rhodes.
SUNY-Maritime gets under way Sept. 9 at Salve Regina.
3. We’ll get a read on some new head coaches
More than 30 teams changed coaches in the offseason, and one of the most intriguing debuts comes when Marietta visits Emory and Henry, whose second-year coach, Don Montgomery, spent two decades as defensive coordinator at Mount Union. Experience from seven championships didn't translate to his head coaching gig in Season One, a 1-9 year that started with a 25-7 loss at Marietta. The Pioneers lost coach Todd Glaser to alma mater UW-Eau Claire over the summer, and Curt Wiese assumed the top spot. Wiese, who quarterbacked UW-Stevens Point to a WIAC championship in 1998, was Marietta's offensive coordinator for three seasons, meaning he's gone against a Montgomery-led defense twice in OAC play and once last year.
Meanwhile, Glaser gets welcomed back to his alma mater with an opener against No. 4 St. John’s and anything-but-new coach John Gagliardi. College football's winningest coach is 432-118-11 in 57 seasons.
Two high-profile teams that made coaching changes, No. 7 Linfield and No. 12 Delaware Valley, don't open up until next week.
4. We'll find out how stars bounce back from injury
We'll be watching three of four prominent seniors to see how they resume after injuries claimed parts of their 2005 seasons. Hardin-Simmons quarterback Jordan Neal (missed eight games, collarbone), Ohio Northern defensive end Jason Trusnik (seven games, broken foot), St. John Fisher running back Mark Robinson (four games, separated shoulder) and Rowan quarterback Mike Orihel (eight games, broken wrist) each return this year with high expectations. Robinson and Orihel are D3football.com preseason All-Americans.
Trusnik doesn't get underway until his Polar Bears visit Millikin next Saturday, but the other three will play openers at home. King's visits Robinson's Cardinals in Pittsford, N.Y.; UW-Stevens Point travels to Abilene, Texas, to face Neal's Cowboys; Christopher Newport visits Orihel's Profs in Glassboro, N.J.
Although polls, rankings and computer ratings thankfully don't play the role in Division III that they do in Division I-A, we can't help but use them to gauge a national scene seemingly too expansive to figure out right off the bat.
Four preseason rankings and one preseason poll dotted the summer landscape. Sports Illustrated apparently gave up at trying to gauge Division III, while the American Football Coaches Association runs its poll alongside the D3football.com poll all season, but does not take a preseason crack at it.
Oddly, there isn't as much variation in the five top 25s as there previously has been. All five entities -- D3football.com, USA Today Sports Weekly, Street & Smith's, Lindy's and Don Hansen's National Weekly Football Gazette rank Mount Union No. 1, followed closely by 2005 runner-up UW-Whitewater, Rowan and St. John's. Only Street & Smith's ranked Rowan second, while Don Hansen bumped St. John's to third and had Rowan fourth.
The surprises are few, but quirks do begin after that. Delaware Valley was 4, 5 and 6 in Street & Smith's, Don Hansen and Lindy's, but 12th in the other two. Wesley, ranked sixth by Street & Smith's and Sports Weekly, seventh by Don Hansen and eighth by D3football.com, finds itself 16th in Lindy's, behind Washington & Jefferson, Central, Augustana, Hobart and Thiel, among others.
Capital ranked fifth in three polls, ninth in Don Hansen and a surprising 25th by Street & Smith's, which also ignored Ohio Northern.
All five polls ranked Union and Hobart, but only Street & Smith's had the Statesmen higher.
W&J, a frequent preseason recipient of high rankings, is 7, 7, 10, 15 and 17. Concordia-Moorhead is 9, 15, 16, 22 and unranked by Street & Smith's.
In fact, Street & Smith's threw the most curveballs, with Wilkes ninth, Cortland State 11th, Adrian 20th and Monmouth 22nd.
Lindy's has Mary Hardin-Baylor 21st and like Don Hansen, makes no mention of Hardin-Simmons.
The first 21 teams ranked by Don Hansen also appear in the D3football.com poll, but only one of the four ranked 22-25 does.
Sports Weekly ranked Union (seventh), Hobart (21st) and RPI (25th) but not Ithaca, St. John Fisher or Alfred. Cortland State was 24th.
D3football.com is the only top 25 in which neither Trinity (Texas) nor Trinity (Conn.) appears.
Who are those guys?
We know, it’s hard enough figuring out who the 234 Division III schools are, let alone following the out-of-division games they schedule. This regular ATN department tracks Division III's performance against teams from the NAIA, Division II and Division I-AA, the latter usually non-scholarship programs like us. With assists from Larry LaStarza of The Laz Index and Post Patterns Hall of Famer Ralph Turner, here’s the Week 1 lineup:
vs. Division I-AA
Montclair State at Iona
UW-La Crosse at South Dakota State
Butler at Albion
Valaparaiso at Wisconsin Lutheran
vs. Division II
Concordia-Moorhead at Moorhead State
Husson at Pace
Mars Hill at Greensboro
Western Oregon at Willamette
Thiel at Geneva
St. Norbert at Olivet Nazarene
Howard Payne at Southern Nazarene
St. Olaf at Valley City State
Taylor at Anderson
Mayville State at Hamline
St. Ambrose at Loras
William Penn at UW-Stout
Central Methodist at Westminster (Mo.)
Five games to watch
No. 1 Mount Union at Averett – The Purple Raiders usually go to Virginia to win championships, but this time they’ll begin defense of their eighth there. It could be one of the sharpest early games, as Mount Union returns 15 starters and Averett returns 20.
Christopher Newport at No. 3 Rowan – As mentioned above, the Captains-Profs tussle will be a regional indicator as well as the return of Orihel from a wrist inury.
UW-Eau Claire at No. 4 St. John’s – The Blugolds and Johnnies are playing for the ninth consecutive season, having split the previous eight games, with four decided by a touchdown or less. In 2004, Eau Claire shocked the 2003 defending champions with a 30-28 victory and last season's 35-28 St. John's victory was the first of 10 in the regular season.
Huntingdon at No. 24 Ithaca – This Alabama-New York clash will tell us a lot about the playoff prospects of both teams, and will no doubt be used to compare the relative strength of playoff hopefuls. The Bombers replace quarterback Josh Felicetti and 10 others starters while the Hawks bring back all but two.
East Texas Baptist at Trinity (Texas) – In Texas, even the opener is key to playoff positioning, as state teams are frequently matched up early to save on flights, regardless of strength. A win for either of these teams, if they make the playoffs later, would go toward home-field advantage.
Each week this season, in addition to our five games to watch, Around the Nation will pick a weekly ‘upset special’ and a ‘surprisingly good’ game, and track the success. This week’s are:
Upset special: Monmouth at Wartburg. The Scots follow up a 10-1 season without star quarterback Mitch Tanney or linebacker Justin Zigler. Under the lights for a 7 p.m. local kickoff, look for Wartburg (7-3 last season) to preface a contending season in the IIAC with a win. It would be an upset for the untrained eye only, however (or one that hasn’t seen Kickoff ’06) as the teams are 30 spots apart in the 1-234 rankings.
Surprisingly good: Waynesburg at No. 8 Wesley. The Wolverines won’t lose, but expect Rick Shepas’ bunch to make it a game for a while. The Yellow Jackets were a lot more competitive last season than their 4-6 record would indicate (each loss was by 11 or fewer) and Shepas was a very successful high school coach at Massillon, so he knows how to win. With Waynesburg following with five consecutive home games, they’ll definitely be interested in stealing a road win to start their season.
Also keep an eye on: Wittenberg at No. 5 Capital, UW-Stevens Point at No. 11 Hardin-Simmons, No. 13 Bridgewater at McDaniel, Salisbury at No. 15 Washington & Jefferson, No. 18 Central at St. Thomas, William Paterson at No. 23 Wilkes, John Carroll at Wooster, Ferrum at Guilford, King’s at St. John Fisher, Otterbein at Defiance, Simpson at Concordia (Wis.)
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It's never too early to learn
Division III just keeps on growing.