A few seasons of playoff-level success create healthy
expectations in a program. But those runs can also lull players
into a false sense of entitlement.
Or so says Wartburg coach Eric Koehler.
The Knights' 7-3 season in 2005 equaled the program's worst record in more than a decade. But their awakening wasn't nearly as rude as Springfield's, which fell to 4-6 after consecutive playoff berths from 2002-04, including a regional top seed.
Wheaton, Hardin-Simmons and Christopher Newport each missed the playoffs last season after finishing recent seasons in the playoffs.
Last season could have sparked a downward trend at all five schools. But by rebuilding the players' confidence, first in the offseason, then in early wins, all could be headed back to the playoffs in 2006.
Wartburg, which beat sentimental rival Luther last week 28-17, has its best opportunity to take control of the IIAC race when it plays at competitive rival Central on Saturday.
By this time last season, they'd already lost twice, including the first defeat against Luther since 1991.
"Maybe once in a while you go 10-2, 11-1 and 8-3 and you think it comes automatically, and it doesn't," says Koehler, offensive coordinator in those seasons and the 7-3 effort before taking over as head coach this year.
Whether it was a rash of injuries, a cycle of youth, a difficult schedule or some combination that led to the off years, Koehler and longtime Springfield coach Mike DeLong said one thing helps a team get back on its perch.
"When you take a look at the teams that have been able to sustain success," says DeLong, "they've all been able to play with great confidence."
Rebuilding it starts as soon as the previous season ends.
"You bring your players in, and hopefully talk about what their goals are," DeLong says. "All the players pretty much wanted to bounce back. I think a lot of it is their attitude."
Koehler said Wartburg strength coach Joel Dettwiler noticed that immediately.
"He thought we had a great attitude," Koehler said. "The upperclassmen took it upon themselves. They didn't want to have a year like we did last year. A lot of guys on our team have been on some very good teams."
"The makeup of your team, the leadership ... can be a big factor," DeLong said.
But results may speak even louder, a dangerous truth when it comes to a team's collective confidence.
"It's fragile," Koehler said. "The time it takes to build that confidence vs. the time it takes to destroy it is a big difference."
DeLong knows full well.
"We lost a couple of 1-point games early last year, which rattles a team's confidence," he said. "They're both conference games, and then we made a quarterback change."
This season, the Pride started off with an eight-point win against then-No. 11 ranked Union, and has followed by defeating Montclair State and Empire 8 rival Alfred.
"One big win can carry you," DeLong says. "If you believe you can play with one of the stronger teams, you believe you can play with anyone."
Koehler agrees, saying it's not even necessarily about winning.
"Regardless of the outcome, if we play well, play physical, play fast, all those clichés," he says, "it doesn't guarantee we're going to win. But how you lose (the confidence) is when you don't play to your ability level."
Although its just a start and doesn't guarantee them anything, here's how the five teams we mentioned regained their confidence:
After losing at Millikin and Luther and to Central last season, the Knights began the year with a 20-0 win against Monmouth and a 31-7 win at Simpson. With as many as 12 sophomores holding key roles, this week's visit to Central will give one team something to build on as it battles Coe for the top IIAC spot. "We know this game isn't going to determine the conference champion, we have no way of knowing that right now," Koehler says. "But if you look at history, this game will probably factor into it."
After beating Union, the Pride followed by defeating Montclair State and Empire 8 rival Alfred. Saturday they host Utica, their fourth consecutive home game and second against a team that beat it by one last season. "I didn't get the feeling that the bottom had fallen out," DeLong says of last season. "We just weren't playing that well, and I recognized that." His team will likely determine its playoff fate in the second half of October against Brockport State and on visits to St. John Fisher and Ithaca.
The Cowboys were 6-0 before a 38-7 home loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor last season. Still in line for a Pool C playoff spot, they lost 32-27 at Texas Lutheran to end the year. The 2006 schedule was crafted so that Mary Hardin-Baylor wouldn't be the first big-time opponent on the slate. The 21-6 win against visiting Linfield may more impressive in the Cowboys' psyche than it was on the field, if the Wildcats aren't the championship-level team they were. But at 2-0, with a suspended game against Louisiana College they were leading 28-12 near halftime and with 3-0 Mississippi College ahead, the Cowboys will be well-prepared to go to Mary Hardin-Baylor on Oct. 7.
The Thunder stumbled at North Central and Illinois Wesleyan on the way to 7-3 last season, leaving it one of the odd teams out when the CCIW got two playoff bids. Albion, Washington U. and Hope felt the Thunder first-hand so far, with the Flying Dutchmen's 35-21 loss Saturday the closest margin. Wheaton will define itself in the next three weeks, however, visiting Millikin, hosting North Central and going to Augustana, which ended Wheaton's season 28-7 last year.
The Captains quite obviously got their confidence together by beating then-No. 6 Mary Hardin-Baylor, an amazing feat considering then-No. 3 Rowan beat them 32-8 in the opener. After beating the Crusaders, the Captains won at Salisbury, who had won convincingly at Washington & Jefferson in their opener. With two wins since their 6-4 season and 0-1 start, the Captains -- once dangerously close to losing their swagger -- are probably the favorite for the USAC title.
The two major polls -- that of the American Football Coaches Association's 40 voters and ours, which mixes media, sports information directors and coaches -- look the similar for much of the top 10 before the major discrepancies begin.
AFCA tenth-ranked Cortland State is 19th in D3football.com. That's 12 spots behind Rowan, which was penalized in both polls for losing 21-0 to Division I-AA Robert Morris. D3football.com dropped the Profs from third to seventh, while the coaches slid them to 12th, two spots behind the Red Dragons.
AFCA No. 11 Wheaton held steady at 21 in the D3football.com poll.
Mary Hardin-Baylor (No. 12 D3football.com, No. 17 AFCA) remained well ahead of Christopher Newport (Nos. 24 and 26) even though it's only been three weeks since the Captains beat the Crusaders 15-10.
Ithaca remained in both polls, at No. 22, following a 34-10 loss to St. John Fisher. The Bombers were ranked eighth (AFCA) and 11th.
The coaches ranked Mt. St. Joseph (20), Wartburg (21) and Trinity (Texas) (24), while D3football.com voters stuck with Linfield (20), Delaware Valley (23) and CNU. The two polls did agree on Springfield entering at No. 25.
Howard Payne, the third team receiving votes in D3 got the fewest of anyone getting votes (2) among the coaches.
Don Hansen's Football Gazette's Top 40 ranking didn't settle many of the AFCA-D3 disputes. It ranked Cortland 14th and Wheaton 16th. The only surprises in that ranking (besides St. John "Fosher" and Mary "Hardon" Baylor) were Central at No. 8, Brockport State -- unacknowledged in the polls -- at 26 and Mississippi College at 33.
As always, be reminded that a Division III top 25 is the most exclusive ranking in football. With 234 schools, 209 teams go unranked each week. We have fewer spots in our poll than we do conferences (26) and playoff spots (32).
That said, there are always unranked teams that deserve consideration. Generally those teams are among our others receiving votes -- there were 31 of those teams this week -- but here's where I acknowledge their possible Top 25 worthiness.
Around the Nation resumes its weekly trip inside the mind of a D3football.com Top 25 voter. Take it in stride, however, as the other 24 voters clearly don't care what I think, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Only three of my top 25 lost last week, and I didn't think Rowan's loss to Robert Morris hurt its standing in Division III. I drop Ithaca and RPI out of my top 25. I filled my two open spots with St. John Fisher and Cortland State, leaving Wartburg 26th -- kind of an artificial barrier against ranking a third IIAC team, I admit, as I already have Coe and Central in the top 13. The Knights, as mentioned above, get a chance to prove themselves this Saturday.
Many key teams I was watching but not ranking -- from UW-Oshkosh to Alfred to Bethel -- lost last week, so the new group is a more tentative one. Reasons to believe and not believe in many of these teams. From 27 on, in a kind-of thought-out order, I'm watching Springfield, Union, RPI and Ithaca still, and in the New York area, they'll play each other enough to sort things out. Count Alfred in that group too, although Rochester appears to be a spoiler at best. Elsewhere, UW-Stout matched up with Whitworth but lost; the overtime road win probably helped legitimize the Pirates more than it affected the Blue Devils though. Concordia-Moorhead, however, probably strengthened its case with a 14-12 loss to St. John's. Later in the year, if that, a 3-point loss to Bethel and an out-of-division loss are their three blemishes, they might still be a MIAC playoff rep, especially after the Royals turned around and lost to Carleton.
The official 30-plus group, then, still needs to include Oshkosh, Stout and other WIAC teams. UW-Platteville's win against Augustana could be helpful if the Vikings rebound in CCIW play. St. Olaf, Carthage, Concordia (Wis.), Mount St. Joseph, and St. Norbert are all in the mix. Salisbury, Washington & Jefferson, North Central and Monmouth each have losses to teams mentioned here.
Last week's My 26-35 is posted on the Post Patterns Around the Nation thread. On Thursdays and Fridays, I'll answer your direct questions about my votes there, and about the top 25 on the General Football Top 25 thread.
Around the Nation keeps an eye out for unique takes on Division III football, beyond your standard game stories and features.
This week we offer a little bit of heavy reading, as former St. Olaf assistant coach Gordon Marino tackled the use of football to attract students to Division III schools (and he's not heaping praise on the practice). The essay by Fay Vincent (yes, that one) doesn't touch on football and is a few months old, but goes together with the scholarship issue and mentions several football-playing Division III schools.
The third selection for the ATN readers club this week is from details what Louisiana College gets out of its canceled game with Hardin-Simmons.
Using football as bait, Inside Higher Ed
No merit in these scholarships, The Washington Post
The game that wasn't could help LC, The Town Talk Alexandria/Pineville, Louisiana
Something's got to give when Trinity (Conn.) and Williams meet this week. Each team not only represents its last loss (see below), but they also mark two of the tougher challenges on the NESCAC slate. After the Bantams dealt with Colby in their opener, proving they can win without coach Chuck Priore, who left after last season to coach Division I-AA Stony Brook, they'll try to save Division III's longest winning streak.
Elsewhere, Lycoming's one-point loss knocks them off the winners side. Lewis & Clark, I realized, should have been on the winless side.
Division III's longest win streaks
Trinity (Conn.) (31 consecutive wins, last loss at Williams, 30-13, Sept. 28, 2002; 1-0 in 2006)
Mount Union (11 consecutive wins, last loss vs. Ohio Northern, 21-14, Oct. 22, 2005; 3-0 in 2006)
St. Norbert (11 consecutive wins, last loss vs. Monmouth, 28-20, Sept. 17, 2005; 3-0 in 2006)
Cal Lutheran (10 consecutive wins, last loss at Occidental, 41-9, Sept. 24, 2005; 3-0 in 2006)
Howard Payne (9 consecutive wins, last loss at Hardin-Simmons, 45-20, Oct. 1, 2005; 3-0 in 2006)
Williams (7 consecutive wins, last loss at Trinity, Conn. 34-6, Oct. 1, 2005; 1-0 in 2006)
The longest active losing streaks
Heidelberg (29 consecutive losses, last win vs. Marietta on Oct. 4, 2003; 0-4 in 2006)
Juniata (16 consecutive losses, last win at Lycoming, 14-7, Oct. 30, 2004; 0-4 in 2006)
Tri-State (13 consecutive losses, last win vs. Kalamazoo, 21-14, Nov. 13, 2004, 0-3 in 2006)
Lewis & Clark (12 consecutive losses, last win vs. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Oct. 9, 2004, 0-3 in 2006)
Wesleyan (11 consecutive losses, last win vs. Bowdoin, 25-21, Oct. 30, 2004; 0-1 in 2006)
Discuss other streaks (regular season, conference, home/road) on Post Patterns' Around the Nation board.
As the season progresses, we'll highlight the last of the teams without losses heading into the playoffs. Right now, we've got 34 of the 234 Division III teams still undefeated this year -- 39 if you include the five 1-0 NESCAC teams. Four conferences (The ASC, IIAC, MIAC and OAC) feature three unbeaten teams each.
Thirty-seven non-NESCAC teams are without a win through Week 4. Independents are again at the bottom of the barrel, sporting not one unbeaten and six winless teams, including four that are 0-4.
Five games to watch
This isn't the most thrilling week of games. There are no matchups of top 25 teams and at most two games featuring conference co-favorites who are also playoff hopefuls. The best game is in Iowa, although the only Division III game in Alabama might also be worth watching. Our five best:
No. 6 Wesley at Huntingdon
The Hawks' first foray into ranked-team territory didn't end so well, in a 31-12 loss to Ithaca. But traveling to New York is a lot different than staying in Alabama, as the Wolverines get to do the class-skipping this time, for a 900-mile jaunt from Dover, Del. to Montgomery. The Hawks have the nation's 19th-best passing offense while the Wolverines are the No. 23 pass efficiency defense. Wesley has also scored 42 points per game in its 3-0 start.
Wartburg at No. 13 Central
The unquestioned top game of the week features the just-outside-the-rankings Knights and the defending IIAC champion Dutch. Both teams have played well defensively, with Central allowing 7.7 points per game in its 3-0 start and Wartburg allowing eight.
No. 22 Ithaca at Brockport State
Each coming off big in-state losses (the Bombers to St. John Fisher and the Golden Eagles to Cortland State), this is not yet an elimination game as far as playoff berths are concerned. But a win helps either's case, especially with so much schedule left to be play. Brockport, without a conference automatic bid to chase, might need it more.
Elmhurst at Carthage
A pair of 3-0 teams meet in the CCIW, but we can't tell if they're quiet contenders or just off to a good start against mediocre competition. The Red Men have twice held their opponents to single digits, while the Bluejays have a shutout and a 10-point game on their defensive ledger. Establishing a ground game would be key, as neither team averages 90 yards rushing.
SUNY-Maritime at Morrisville State
One of Division III's three first-year teams will get its first win here, and some much-needed -- you got it -- confidence. The Mustangs, 0-4 and outscored by an average of 39-10, get the home game, hosting the 0-2 Privateers, who have been decent on defense (187.5 yards per game).
Trinity (Conn.) at Williams. Now that my upset record is no longer perfect, I can take big risks. I'm going with Williams on gut feeling here. Good things can't last forever, and it's time for Trinity to lose focus, play poorly or catch some bad breaks just once, isn't it? It's also the D3football.com Game of the Week.
Upset results: 2-2 after Delaware Valley beat Lycoming by a point last week.
Surprisingly good game
I could go with Hampden-Sydney against Bridgewater, or Mississippi College against Hardin-Simmons, but they've both been featured here before. How about Western Connecticut holding its own against a No. 7 Rowan squad likely smarting from a shutout last week? The Colonials have beaten two I-AAs in their 3-0 start. While the Profs have the nation's No. 1 total defense so far, Western Connecticut has also been strong on that side of the ball, allowing just 262 yards per game. I may not be ready to predict a win, but I could see them making Rowan work for theirs.
Surprisingly good results: 2-2 after Hampden-Sydney got its first win, knocking off Guilford 46-43.
Also keep an eye on -- No. 2 UW-Whitewater at UW-Eau Claire, Carleton at No. 4 St. John's, Mississippi College at No. 5 Hardin-Simmons, Hampden-Sydney at No. 9 Bridgewater (Va.), Otterbein at No. 10 Ohio Northern, DePauw at Chicago, Ferrum at Averett.
Who are those guys?
The NAIA's Azusa Pacific is back for a third consecutive crack at a tough Division III opponent, but otherwise the schedules have dried up as many teams are beginning conference play.
vs. Division I-AA (1-1 in Week 4, 6-5 in 2006)
vs. Division II (No games in Week 4, 3-8 in 2006)
Lincoln (Mo.) at Millsaps
vs. NAIA (5-1 in Week 4, 16-7 in 2006)
Azusa Pacific at Whitworth
UW-Stevens Point at Trinity International
But don't quote me
Quick observations from Week 4 and thoughts to get you ready for Week 5:
There are 13 night kickoffs this week.
Conference play gets underway in the Centennial, CCIW and MIAA. In the NCAC, NJAC and MWC, it's generally the same, as all but one game (not one week) has been non-conference. It's been all but two in the OAC and WIAC.
All seven teams in the Liberty League have either two or three wins. At 2-2, Rochester has the worst overall record.
Washington U. has the same problem in the four-team UAA, where teams are 11-4 with conference games yet to begin.
Tri-State has the toughest luck. The team that lost 73-0 last Oct. 8 has now lost its past four games by a TD or less. Last season's finale was a one-point defeat, and this season they've lost by four, seven and three.
Rowan is giving up minus-18 yards per game rushing, making Mary Hardin-Baylor (6.3 yards per game) and Mount Union (15 yards per game) look like they're getting gashed. Well, not really. In fact, these three at the top sure shows a relationship between stopping the run and winning.
Hot: Sul Ross State, 2-1. Not: Augustana, 1-2. The Lobos, however, by virtue of a 45-2 loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor, have been outscored while the Vikings, with a 53-7 win at MacMurray in the books, are outscoring their opposition.
Wilkes is already alone at the top of the MAC. Without a stumble, they'll stay, as they've already knocked off top contender Delaware Valley.
Hampden-Sydney and Guilford scored 92 points last year in a 47-45 game, and came back with 89 this time around, going 46-43.
Last week's upset of the week: Had to be Carleton over Bethel, but there were a couple other eye-opening results. I thought North Carolina Wesleyan beating Methodist 15-9 was one.
Carleton has been great on offense so far, but let's see how the Knights do against St. John's before we crown them contenders.
UW-Platteville (2-1), King's and Ripon (both 3-1) are among the mildly surprising starts.
For print, radio and Internet journalists
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Confidence key to regaining success
A few seasons of playoff-level success create healthy
expectations in a program. But those runs can also lull players
into a false sense of entitlement.