August 30, 2007

At long last, let's play ball


There isn't much else we at can say to those of you have been waiting, whether you're parents of a freshman eager for your son's first Division III game, or you're a die-hard who's been salivating since last December (or November, for those who tune out the playoffs) to see your team crack helmets again.

Meaningful football is again upon us. On a grand scale too, as 158 of the 238 teams we'll be covering this season are in action in 87 games Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.

Kickoff '07 should still be quenching your thirst for preseason knowledge (thanks to everyone who helped our preview edition reach an all-time high in sales earlier this week; we'll be rolling out some new features soon, partly thanks to your support). But we thought a brief Around the Nation would still be in order, to get you focused on things we'll be looking for as we take stock of opening weekend action from Curry to Willamette, and everywhere in between.

If this is your first time with us, welcome. We'll tell you a little bit more about what to expect from Around the Nation this season deeper in the column. If you're a regular back for another year, you know how it goes.

Fifteen of the Top 25 are in action, including a pair of games that shake up the poll off the bat, since they match ranked teams. 

Joe Rankin got the call in the second half of 2005 when then-junior Mike Orihel got hurt. He's starting again in 2007. photo by Tom Wilson

No. 10 Rowan visits No. 23 Christopher Newport, continuing a series that the Profs have dominated, though not always on the scoreboard. But the better clash might be in Texas, where new quarterback Griffin Moe will lead No. 7 UW-La Crosse, an '06 playoff team, into the heart of Texas to face No. 11 Hardin-Simmons, which has a new quarterback of its own. Clint Bricker, a sophomore transfer from Stephen F. Austin, gets the call behind center.

Defending champion Mount Union also kicks off its season by hosting Averett, but it's the team the Purple Raiders beat in the past two Stagg Bowls who will command the most attention in the season's early going.

UW-Whitewater probably won't have much trouble with Lakeland, a team it has hung 73 and 75 points on in the past two meetings. But the Warhawks will be breaking in a new quarterback, California Lutheran transfer Danny Jones (In three seasons with the Kingsmen, Jones won 20 of 27 games and completed 60% of his passes for 6,017 yards and 51 TDs with only 20 interceptions).

The Warhawks are also breaking in a new coach, Lance Leipold, amid massive losses from their Stagg Bowl teams. But running back Justin Beaver (2,420 rushing yards in '05 before missing five games last season with a broken collarbone) and four offensive linemen are back on offense. Jones appears to be the wildcard that can make it all work, although he was just named the starter this week and is going back under center after running the spread in California.

"Sometimes when kids go from an open spread to go under center it takes a bit of an adjustment," said Jim Zebrowski, who became Whitewater's offensive coordinator after serving as head coach at Lakeland. "I'm not sure it's easier than going the other way. He's got the running and mechanics and play-action will take a little more time. He's coming back to something he's run earlier in his career, however."

The Warhawks were ranked second to start the season, despite losing receiver Derek Stanley, an NFL draft pick of the Rams, tight end Pete Schmitt, who was cut by the Redskins this week, Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kleppe, a defensive tackle, and WIAC Male Athlete of the Year Justin Jacobs, last year's quarterback.

Saturday's kickoff is an opportunity for the Warhawks who are back, including preseason all-Americans Beaver, linebacker A.J. Raebel and kicker Jeff Schebler, to put to rest the talk of who is no longer in Whitewater.

Like Jones, two other old faces have turned up in new places and will get underway Saturday. Neil Suckow, a hybrid back/receiver at Coe, made his way to IIAC rival Wartburg over the summer, possibly giving the Knights the firepower to overtake Central. The Dutch and Dubuque's Spartans beat Wartburg in overtime last season, leaving the Knights two plays away from an undefeated season. Suckow is expected to play strictly receiver in Waverly, while his old mates in Cedar Rapids aren't exactly finished. Quarterback Andy TeKippe will have to get some offensive help, but the Kohawks might just have enough defense to carry them in most games.

Bob Colbert is the other old face who's resurfaced, and pardon the "old." Colbert coached the team he faces opening weekend, Gallaudet, as a 23-year-old in 1971, just nine years after his new school, St. Vincent, last fielded a team. But you don't start a new program unless you're feeling spry and planning to be in it for the long haul. Colbert's experience includes stops in the NFL, the Ivy League and the OAC, but he's revered by Bridgewater fans for what he did for the Eagles' offense from 1998-2005. He pitched in on five consecutive ODAC titles and a Stagg Bowl appearance

New and revived programs have stumbled out of the gate in recent years, but in Saturday's game at St. Vincent, someone will get its first win in years. Gallaudet, which had been competing as a club team for five years, last played a varsity game in 2002 and last won one in 1991, beating St. John Fisher, a varsity newcomer at the time. St. Vincent hasn't played since 1962.

A third team new to Division III this year will be in action not far to the north of St. Vincent. Geneva (Pa.) moves to the division from NAIA, joining the PAC and opening up at Thiel, which won the conference championship in 2005.

Other teams looking for the rare Division III win: Crown (3-6 last season) travels to Principia (0-9) in a battle of the teams ranked No. 237 and No. 238 in Kickoff ‘07's full-scale ranking. Beloit (1-9) goes to independent Macalester (2-7) and Knox (2-8) plays at Eureka (0-10) in two more games where teams will try to capitalize on rare opportunities.

Nine of the top 10 are in action -- only No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor waits until Week 2 to kick off.

What to watch for in some of opening weekend's other games:

Moravian at Susquehanna: The Greyhounds and Crusaders each left the MAC this season but kept each other as opponents. If Moravian is going to be in the mix in the Centennial, they'll need to start off strong against the new member of the Liberty League.

Adam Shaffer returns for Mississippi College after suffering a season-ending injury in last year's opener against Millsaps.

Millsaps at Mississippi College: The Backyard Brawl features the Mike DuBose-coached Majors, a playoff team and SCAC champion last season, taking on the ASC's Choctaws, whose 5-5 2006 included a 52-28 win over Millsaps.

Menlo at UW-Stout: In probably the weekend's longest road trip, the Oaks travel from the Bay Area to Northwest Wisconsin. Eyes will be on the Blue Devils, who are making their debut under Duey Naatz. Stout administrators removed his predecessor after an off-campus arrest late last year of Stout linebacker and leading tackler Luke Steffen, involving steroids and street drugs.

SUNY-Maritime at Mass. Maritime: The academies get together in Buzzards Bay with SUNY's Privateers, a first-year program in 2006, looking for their second win.

Merchant Marine at Kean: Before the Cougars can compete in the NJAC, they need to build off last year's 7-4 season with a win in the opener. Quarterback A.J. Roque is among 21 starters returning.

Carnegie Mellon at Rochester: The Tartans look to keep a good thing going after an 11-1 year, while the Yellowjackets, a trendy pick to win the Liberty League, get a stiff non-conference test.

Wooster at John Carroll: Mount Unionites often complain about not being able to schedule the nearby Scots, but if the NCAC's record against OAC teams (see Wittenberg and Capital, another opening-weekend matchup) is any indicator, scheduling the Blue Streaks might not be much safer.

No. 5 St. John Fisher at King's: Last year's surprise semifinalists take the field in Wilkes-Barre without all-Americans at RB (Mark Robinson) and LB (Gene Lang).

North Carolina Wesleyan at No. 6 Wesley: The Battling Bishops return 20 starters. Wesley returns four fewer from a two-time semifinalist. Jason Schatz makes the move from starting receiver to quarterback.

Who are those guys?

Following Division III teams in interdivisional play.

vs. Division I, FCS (formerly I-AA, 7-8 in 2006) 
Ursinus at La Salle (Thurs.)
Wagner at Western Connecticut (Fri.)
Albion at Butler
Delaware Valley at Iona

vs. Division II (5-10 in 2006)
UW-Eau Claire at Southwest Minnesota State (Thurs.)
Pace at Husson (Fri.)
Fairmont State at Newport News Apprentice
Loras at Upper Iowa
Moorhead State at Concordia-Moorhead
Western Oregon at Willamette

vs. NAIA (23-8 in 2006)
Guilford at Southern Virginia
Anderson at Taylor
Olivet Nazarene at St. Norbert
UW-Stevens Point at Webber International
Southern Nazarene at Howard Payne
Southwest Assemblies of God at Austin

Recommended reading

Breezed through Kickoff already? Devoured the Around the Region columns? writers were published recently, previewing the season, with stories on and in USA Today. While CSTV isn't broadcasting any Division III games, it is beefing up its online coverage.

About the column

First-time visitors and longtime die-hards alike should each find plenty to enjoy in this season's Around the Nation columns, which appear weekly on Wednesdays and Thursdays through the regular season and often continuing along the way to the Stagg Bowl.

The main focus is to highlight issues of national significance, be they occurrences, trends, specific teams, streaks, polls or what have you. Around The Nation aims to start a dialogue, something often impossible in such a giant, geographically fragmented division. The 238 teams we cover are an interesting lot, covering the gamut of larger state schools to highly respected small privates, coast-to-coast. We all play football, for the love of the game, but sometimes it seems that's all we have in common. With so many to keep an eye on, we'll spend the season traveling, watching games, talking to players and coaches, crunching numbers and sparking conversation about Division III football.

Beginning next week, we'll start featuring regular departments like My 26-35, designed to provide insight into the mind of a pollster, Streak Watch, which will include conference streaks this year, and more. Around the Nation will point you toward the best articles, message board topics and engage readers in conversation.

We also plan to highlight Gordon Mann this year, on Five Games to Watch, a look ahead to the top clashes each week, and feature myself and Pat Coleman on a weekly podcast, downloadable for your listening enjoyment.

As always, thanks for your patronage and enjoy the weekend's games. Finally.

Contributing: Pat Coleman

Ryan Tipps

Ryan is's Senior Editor and began as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011, has worked on the preseason Kickoff publication since 2006 and has covered the Stagg Bowl in Salem for more than a decade. Ryan, a Wabash graduate, worked in newspapers as a writer and editor for 15 years before his current full-time job as editor of a magazine in Virginia.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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