November 13, 2007

Our playoff picks, surprises, disappointments

We realize the public banter has mostly been about how Mount Union will fare in the much-maligned East region, but there are 32 teams in the mix and many more angles

By the way, we really did have the committee figured out. D3football.com editor and publisher Pat Coleman and deputy managing editor Gordon Mann not only predicted all 32 teams before the bracket was released last year, they nailed the seed on 23 of them. Even the matchups had become fairly easy to figure out. Variations have been built into the selection process from Day 1, but very rarely had a committee put them to use. This committee took full advantage, and outside of Spokane, Wash., it’s a bracket that’s been met with mostly positive reaction. Mount Union lording over the East (or perhaps not) while leaving its North Region brethren in UW-Whitewater’s capable hands, while the committee finally took the ‘select the four No. 1 seeds, then build around them’ idea to heart, should make for five weeks of fanatical football fun. 

I mean, seriously, even if we all have a pretty good idea who’s going to hoist the Walnut and Bronze, who says we can’t enjoy the ride? And isn’t it nice to know? To be certain that if your team doesn’t go all the way, it’s because of something they did or didn’t do on the field?

Eleven weeks of football culminate in a five-week rush to Salem. Without further ado, let’s tackle the third year of the biggest college football playoff known to man.

Bracket reactions

The past two years, Pat and I have taken an expanded look at the bracket beyond our Surprises and Disappointments, which we have done since 2001. Pat, Gordon and I will also bring you game-by-game predictions, with scores, Friday morning on The Daily Dose, our blog. 

Here though, the catgories haven’t changed any, although Pat says I’m on my own this year. Around the Nation’s goal is to provide a fresh look at the bracket and road to Salem:

Toughest first-round draw
UW-Whitewater getting Capital. Sure, the Crusaders are a two-loss 7-seed who was a Baldwin-Wallace two-point conversion attempt from missing the field entirely. But while Central, in UW-Whitewater’s native West Region, gets four-loss Olivet and the other two top seeds get two-loss opponents, the two-time Stagg Bowl runners-up get a program that’s twice been eliminated (in the quarterfinals in 2005 and semfinals in ’06) in three-point losses to eventual champ Mount Union. The personnel on both sides has turned over since, and actually turnovers could be a big factor. Both teams are very strong on defense, so the questions are can Capital drum up some offense and/or will Whitewater finally let loose offensively?

Easiest opening game


Tim Connell has turned himself into Central's all-time leading passer despite the Dutch's run emphasis with Vance Schuring in the backfield.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, D3sports.com

It’s easy to say West No. 1 Central getting a visit from Olivet and No. 2 Bethel hosting Concordia (Wis.), since the road teams are the only four- and three-loss teams in the field. The Comets have won six of seven and the Falcons seven of eight, but each team’s loss in the string came against a team far below the quality of the Dutch or Royals. I hate to slander any playoff team, but these might not be close.

Biggest first-/second-round matchup disparity
There are a bunch that jump out. A Wesley-Salisbury rematch in the second round, Mary Hardin-Baylor possibly going to W&J or the TCNJ/RPI winner getting Mount Union in the second round. But if St. John’s gets past Redlands, the Johnnies – who beat Central in last year’s postseason – will be a much stronger test for the Dutch than Olivet.

Toughest path to Salem
Hobart gets 9-1 St. John Fisher, a semifinalist last year, in Round 1, then could follow with Hartwick, who beat Fisher, then Mount Union, then Central or Bethel or St. J … well, do I really need to go on?

Longest road to Salem
Redlands could find itself doing quite a bit of back-and-forth if it wins. Minnesota, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Virginia would be the likely travel schedule for the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champions.

Easiest path to Salem (Book now)
I debated this one, so it’s not just a cheap shot at the East. But even if Whitewater were to skate through its bracket, they are looking at probably a tougher semifinal matchup than Mount Union would be. So I say Purple Raiders. But seriously, not to placate, these are some of the most balanced brackets we’ve ever seen. You’ve got one dominant team, a few elites and a whole bunch who could make a run. 

The committee nailed
The top seeds. The idea of building four brackets around the top seeds, as opposed to giving one of the West Region teams the shaft, puts this committee in high esteem. Until the next item, anyway.

The committee blew
I just can’t figure out the Whitworth deal. Sure, they lost two games like four Pool C invitees did, and UW-Eau Claire edged them on the SOS criteria, but most of the rest of the primary and secondary selection criteria was a wash. So while there was no overwhelming factor the committee missed in favor of Whitworth, a playoff without the Northwest Conference champ, especially since its only D3 loss was to a playoff team in Redlands, seems sort of wrong. Won’t happen again though, as the NWC’s automatic bid kicks in for ’08.

Road team most deserving of a home game
Redlands probably had a right to host, but since their prayers from the bubble were answered with Whittier’s wild win against Occidental, the sun-loving Bulldogs aren’t complaining about going to Minnesota in mid-November. Salisbury is probably the answer here. Though the middle of their schedule was soft, the Gulls proved their worth in a 20-13 loss to Wesley, a two-seed and the nation’s No. 6 in the D3football.com poll. In a stacked South bracket, however, where national No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor is seeded fourth in its bracket, Salisbury’s home game was shot when Mount Union was moved to fill out the East.

Home team least deserving of a home game
I don’t have a big problem with any of the 16 hosts, although St. John’s and Wabash nearly played themselves onto the road in Week 11. RPI was lucky not to have in Week 10. I do back the undefeated teams from weaker conferences (Curry, St. Norbert and Case Western Reserve) getting to host. They’ve earned it. You can’t ask a team to do anything more than win all of its games, and if any of Division III’s seven undefeated teams didn’t get a home game this year, they never really had a shot.

We would have liked to see
There isn’t much to quibble with. The seeds held in Central’s bracket, and were shuffled in Mount Union’s to avoid RPI-Hobart and St. John Fisher-Hartwick rematches in the first round. We understand that Widener to Whitewater is flying distance, so sending them to Case Western works, especially since they think they should’ve been a seven-seed anyway. Same with UMHB and Trinity, that could very easily be a 3-6 or 4-5 game, so why beef? It doesn’t seem fair the quality of Central’s first-round opponent vs. Whitewater’s, but looking at potential opponents deeper in the playoffs, it still seems like the Warhawks’ move to the North is a reward. So, I guess I would have liked to see Whitworth in UW Eau-Claire or Ithaca’s spot.

Played themselves in during Week 11
The aforementioned Bombers laid a whoopin’ on rival Cortland State and came from off the radar to the playoff epicenter. Bethel couldn’t afford to lose, Redlands had to win to force its Pool A scenario and both RPI and Hobart needed their own win and each other’s to get in.

Played themselves out during Week 11
Wartburg was again an overtime loss to Central from making the field, although their mid-season loss to Augsburg was the real killer. Wheaton had everything in front of it, despite key injuries, but lost their last two. And there was only one scenario in which Cal Lutheran could miss the playoffs, when a win vs. Redlands (they lost 38-17) would have clinched a spot.

Best first-round matchup
There are a bunch to like. The most talent will probably be on the field in Capital at Whitewater. Hobart’s won seven in a row heading to Fisher, having scored 30 or more in each of them. The 4-5 games at Franklin and St. John’s should be good, and Salisbury-Muhlenberg, the game Pat and I are broadcasting, could be a real grind. But for some reason, I like the idea of either Curry (and the NEFC) or Hartwick getting their first playoff win in history. 

The thanks for playing award
Sorry Ithaca, you must be tired of the talk of impending doom by now. But given that Mount Union hasn’t allowed a touchdown since Sept. 15, giving up three points in its final eight games, a couple TDs would be a moral victory.

If this is 2004, we’re sitting home
This is probably the last time I should bring this up, since the 28-team field with only three at-large bids has been old news for three years now. But for the record, in a 28-team field, UW-Eau Claire, Ithaca, Hobart and Capital have turned in the pads.

The 33rd team award
Goes to Whitworth, for reasons mentioned above and on the Daily Dose.

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:
This one is so mean. St. Olaf and Wheaton could replace Olivet and Concordia (Wis.). Whitworth probably beats Case Western in a play-in for a spot. Wartburg in, maybe, Curry out. Oh, who knows? This one is for fans to speculate on. Surely some of you think the third and fourth teams from your conference could knock off the champ from another.

The ‘sorry for the false hopes’ award
Yeah, uh, Whitworth, we’d apologize but the Northwest Conference championship tends to come with playoff hopes attached. So it wasn’t like we alone beefed you up. A wise team once said ‘Leave no doubt.’

Historical performance of the projections
2007: 2005: 31-for-32: We projected Whitworth; the committee preferred UW-Eau Claire. We are still not sure why.
2006: 32-for-32.
2005: 31-for-32: We projected Alfred; the committee preferred Wilkes, which lost to Rowan 42-3.
2004: 28-for-28.
2003: 27-for-28: We projected UMHB; the committee took Simpson, which lost in the first round to St. Norbert, still the Midwest Conference’s only NCAA playoff win since the 1999 expansion.
2002: 27-for-28: We projected Hartwick; the committee took Washington and Jefferson, which beat second-year Christopher Newport and got routed at Trinity (Texas).
2001: 25-for-28: 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 committee took Montclair State (0-1).

Surprises and Disappointments

Pat and I surmised mid-week that this is harder than usual this week, because the pairings were so full of surprises, we forget that we’re probably better off talking about future surprises than past ones.

A yearly tradition (check out 20012002200320042005 and 2006), we look at each eight-team subbracket and offer our take on who will rise up, who will fall back and who will be the last of the four standing. Identified by their bracket names and the region we unofficially associate with each, here goes:

MOUNT UNION (East) BRACKET

Surprises
Coleman: Other than the makeup of the bracket in general, of course. I’d have to go with Hobart as the lower seed most likely to win a couple of road games. I have to think about Hartwick but the Hawks haven’t exactly impressed on the road.
Mann: With its high powered offense, Hartwick has the potential to not only beat higher seeded Curry but also play its second round opponent very tough. Quarterback Jason Boltus and his ridiculous stats (3,949 yards, 42 touchdowns) can cover the Hawks’ defensive shortcomings, at least until they run into Mount Union.
McMillan: The big surprise was the revelation that Mount Union was the No. 1 playing all East teams. I would have liked to see some of the facial expressions on reaction to the bracket. In any case, Hobart has a chance to surprise, especially if its second round opponent isn’t as tough as its first. I also like TCNJ to get to next week and give a defense defensive effort in a low-scoring loss to MUC.

Disappointments
Coleman: Is it cliché to pick the highly seeded yet untested NEFC champ? There isn’t a team in this bracket who would lose a game to anyone on Curry’s schedule. 
Mann: Last year’s semifinal performance against Mount Union gave St. John Fisher fans hopes that they are close to contending for a national championship. And it’s not just the faithful Fisher fans who have seen the Division III landscape through Cardinal colored glasses -- the Top 25 pollsters have kept St. John Fisher in the Top 10 all year, even after losing to Hartwick. Anything less than a close loss to the Purple Raiders in the regional finals would be a disappointment for the Cardinals’ followers.
McMillan: Pat, you mean except Hartwick, who has lost to a team (W. New England) that Curry beat? For my answer, anything less than a rematch with Moun Union is a disappointment for St. John Fisher. The Cardinals want a trip to Alliance to avenge last year’s 26-14 semifinal loss, and that’s before these teams open up ’08 with each other. Anyway, since no one else in this bracket comes in with quite those expectations, Fisher is really the only one besides Mount Union who can disappoint.
Coleman: I mean right now, Keith, not in Week 1.

Champion
Coleman: Mount Union. Easiest question of the day.
Mann: I’ve run out of clever ways to say Mount Union.
McMillan: Mount Union. We are possibly looking one of great teams in Division III history. Any loss before Salem is a stunner.

CENTRAL (West) BRACKET

Surprises
Coleman: UW-Eau Claire has had its trouble this year but is certainly set up to succeed with its first two potential opponents having combined for one NCAA playoff victory. 
Mann: Gordon in preseason: “Bethel looks pretty good. I’ll pick them as the 12th best team in the country.” Gordon one week later: “Bethel lost to Buena Vista? What was I thinking?” Gordon 10 weeks later: “Bethel looks pretty good. I’ll pick them as the surprise of this bracket.”
McMillan: St. John’s is probably aware Redlands is no gimme, but St. Norbert has the biggest chance to make moves here. The Green Knights have had little success in recent years vs. the WIAC, but Eau Claire is the rare playoff team who was outgained.

Disappointments
Coleman: At the risk of enraging the sea of red, St. John’s has the most chances to disappoint. Redlands might be a stretch to surprise St. John’s on the road but Bethel has proven it can beat the Johnnies two years running and Central has made a habit of winning games in a dramatic fashion.
Mann: In the first Matrix movie there’s a scene where one of the freedom fighters gets betrayed by a comrade, realizes she’s come so far only to die and says, “Not like this. Not like this.” There’s no dramatic standoff, just an anticlimactic ending. That’s how it felt when Delaware Valley had its incredible run of dramatic wins end at the hands of Rowan 56-7 in 2004. While the margin of victory won’t be as lopsided, there could be a similarly disappointing end for Central, who also enters the playoffs with a string of dramatic wins.
McMillan: The Central/St. John’s loser will be disappointed, and -ing, by the evening hour Nov. 24.

Champion
Coleman: Bethel. This is going out on a limb for a team that has never won a playoff game, however.
Mann: This is the toughest call of the four brackets. There’s a nice symmetry to picking Bethel again since I was so high on them before. This way I may be wrong, but at least I’m consistent.
McMillan: With a chance to get creative, I go with No. 1 seed Central. The Dutch didn’t win a playoff game after going unbeaten last year, but they have built confidence with all of their wins in close games and have gotten healthy.

WASHINGTON AND JEFFERSON (South) BRACKET

Surprises
Coleman: Salisbury may be misplaced as a fifth seed here. They can win the first-round game and their performance at Wesley in October suggests they are capable of winning there too. 
Mann: When Salisbury had one quarterback (Ronnie Curley) running the option and another quarterback (Bobby Sheahin) available to throw the ball, the Sea Gulls looked like one of the rare option-oriented teams who could make a deep push into the playoffs. Maybe they still can, but it’ll be more of a surprise if Sheahin can’t play and the team is dependent on its running attack.
McMillan: Speedy N.C. Wesleyan could cause Washington and Jefferson some trouble. The Battling Bishops are tested (Wesley, Widener) and won’t be an easy out. They would be the first No. 8 seed (of only 12 total) to advance. Heck, most haven’t even kept close.

Disappointments
Coleman: It was suggested to me earlier in the week that I would probably pick Washington and Jefferson, again. Then I look back and see I haven’t picked them as a disappointment since 2004. Since they’re on the same side of the bracket as Mary Hardin-Baylor, it’s a natural.
Mann: I don’t think it’ll happen (see below), but it would be a big disappointment if Mary Hardin-Baylor fails to get past Wesley again this year. All year we’ve treated the Crusaders as option 1A or option 1B in the “who has a chance against Mount Union” debate. But they have to find a way to win in Dover, Del., first or we’re going to look kind of silly for ranking UMHB ahead of the Wesley team who has ended their season twice in a row.
McMillan: Wesley's past two teams have set the bar almost impossibly for this year's team. After consecutive national semifinals, the hope is to go further -- to Salem -- even though there are some stiff challenges (Salisbury, UMHB, W&J) within the region.

Champion
Coleman: I think Mary Hardin-Baylor beats the Rte. 13 champ. 
Mann: Washington & Jefferson is untested. Wesley’s offense has struggled on occasion. At some point Salisbury is going to have to throw the ball, at least a little, to win. Muhlenberg has a nice defense but it’s not a lock they’ll even get out of the first round. So Mary Hardin-Baylor is the pick.
McMillan: I like UMHB too -- they were dominant before the Whitewater game -- and I have not yet learned my lesson from Wesley’s consecutive playoff wins against the Cru.

UW-WHITEWATER (North) BRACKET

Surprises
Coleman: Hmm. I can see North Central winning a first-round game on the road. I can see Wabash winning two. Neither overly qualifies as a surprise. Capital is out there begging to be picked but unless they found another year of eligibility for Rocky Pentello or Marty Assmann has a magic recovery I don’t think they can score enough points to beat Whitewater. If they protect the ball I think they need 21, but score 13.
Mann: As a top-seed UW-Whitewater theoretically shouldn’t play its closest game in the first round of its bracket. But don’t be surprised if the Capital defense gives the Warhawks their toughest fight until the national semifinals.
McMillan: There’s an opening on Wabash’s half of the bracket for someone unknown to make a run. Case Western is playing with confidence not having lost this year. The opposition might be looking past them, since the UAA isn't one of the might conferences, but that could be a mistake. Tom Brew, top 10 in Gagliardi Trophy voting last season, leads a defense allowing 14.1 points per game.

Disappointments
Coleman: Case Western Reserve is seeded out of place compared to its schedule. Wabash at 9-1 was a better No. 2 seed. 
Mann: Franklin played third-seeded Wabash very close in Week 2 (35-33 loss) and they finally got over the Mt. St. Joseph hump this year to make the playoffs. But it’ll be very tough for them to beat a North Central team that is peaking at the right time. The Cardinals have 20 interceptions and 34 sacks, which should make the Grizzly offense wary. And North Central is coming off back-to-back victories over Carthage (7-3) and Illinois Wesleyan (7-3) by a cumulative score of 79-17.
McMillan: Capital can’t help but disappoint given its matchup, key injuries and recent postseason history.

Champion
Coleman: UW-Whitewater, with a slightly easier time of it than in previous years.
Mann: I was going to pick UW-Whitewater because they have the best individual player (Justin Beaver), home field advantage and the most playoff experience. But instead I’ll pick them because they have a slide show that makes me want to break out my “Techno Dancing for Dummies” book.
McMillan: UW-Whitewater. I see maybe one team that could give the Warhawks some serious problems.

For journalists and broadcasters

Keith McMillan is available on Thursdays and Fridays or by appointment to talk Division III football. For more information, e-mail Keith.

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Keith McMillan

Keith McMilllan, who has been a columnist for D3football.com since 2000, has provided color commentary on D3football.com's national broadcasts of the Stagg Bowls. He played at Randolph-Macon in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference for four years and covered it for two more.

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