October 18, 2007

Surprises, disappointments, turning points

Having seven regular-season weeks in the books puts us beyond the midpoint of the regular season, but not quite halfway to the Stagg Bowl.

With the four weeks left before the playoffs in mind, I thought I’d try a new tact for the review. Several hundred games into the season, Around the Nation producing a comprehensive review of everything that’s happened so far is wishful thinking. So let’s highlight some things you might have missed, and point out things you ought not to miss during the stretch run. 

SURPRISES

You might’ve missed: The starts of Randolph-Macon (6-1) and Illinois Wesleyan (4-2). The Yellow Jackets, coming off consecutive 2-8 seasons in which they went 1-11 in ODAC play, sit atop the conference now at 3-0. What’s more remarkable is that no ODAC team, even this far into the season, is without a winning record. IWU, meanwhile, is tied with No. 6 Wheaton atop the CCIW. The Titans, picked in the preseason to finish seventh of eight, are 3-0 in conference play, and working on their first winning season since 2002. Both teams’ schedules are slightly backloaded however, with R-MC having to play Guilford, Bridgewater (Va.) and rival Hampden-Sydney still, while IWU plays Elmhurst, North Central and Wheaton, so neither is a playoff probable just yet.

But don’t miss: Case Western Reserve’s pursuit of a playoff bid, and Muhlenberg’s pursuit of the No. 1 playoff seed in the South. The Spartans have had only one losing season since 2001, but they’ve never been to the playoffs. At 6-0 so far, the Nov. 3 game with 6-1 Washington U. is shaping up to have the UAA title and a possible Pool B playoff bid on the line. That would mark the second consecutive season the four-team conference, not guaranteed a spot, has sent a team to the playoffs after Carnegie Mellon went unbeaten last regular season. The 24th-ranked Mules beat three teams to start the who are currently 4-2 or better, and they’ve shut out three opponents. They close with Dickinson, Ursinus and rival Moravian, all of whom currently have five wins. An unblemished record could be worth a top seed if No. 2 UMHB loses at UW-Whitewater and No. 11 Salisbury (another surprise, considering they weren’t among the 50-plus teams who got preseason top 25 votes) loses to Wesley.

DISAPPOINTMENTS

You might’ve missed: Springfield. Ranked ninth to start the year, the Pride are 3-3, with No. 10 St. John Fisher, Ithaca and surprising Hartwick (4-2) left still … Rochester and Kean were preseason picks to be surprise conference champs, but they are 3-3 and 2-4, respectively … Hardin-Simmons schedule UW-La Crosse and Linfield to get a good test before ASC, but losing them both meant they had to win the conference to make the playoffs. UMHB’s 47-14 win in Week 6 ensured the Cowboys of their first three-loss season since the late 90s.

But don’t miss: The teams on the short end of exciting races. The byproduct of having so many teams battling at the top of the ODAC, NJAC and IIAC is the gut-wrenching ‘shoulda-couldas’ that players will put themselves through after tight games. These three conferences are at least four-way races right now, and games are coming down to late in the fourth quarter and overtime. The disappointment of being one play from winning ripples throughout a team who cares, as most players can go back through a game and figure out a few things they could’ve done to turn the tide.

TURNING POINTS

You might’ve missed: Heidelberg’s turnaround under Mike Hallett. Sure, we wrote about their win against Oberlin, which broke a 36-game losing streak. But the seniors in the program wanted more, and they got it with a shocker against then-No. 17 Baldwin-Wallace, 42-26 in Week 5 That broke a 33-game OAC losing streak. … Becker winning its first game in program history after 21 consecutive losses, 30-6 vs. Gallaudet.

But don’t miss: The rest of UW-La Crosse’s season. They were ranked in the top 10 and were dominating UW-Whitewater 28-10 before the Warhawks started a comeback. The Eagles lost that game and two since to fall from possibly ranked No. 3 to 2-3. A.J. Raebel’s jarring hit on quarterback Griffin Moe is one of the key turning points of the season so far. ... North Park lost its 50th consecutive CCIW game in Week 7, a mark that could stretch to 54 if they don’t pull an upset in the final month.

GAMES

You might’ve missed: Mississippi College’s 20-point fourth quarter rally in a 27-26 Week 1 win against Millsaps … St. John’s hanging on to beat St. Olaf 30-29 … Whitewater’s comeback vs. La Crosse … Wheaton’s defensive stand against Augustana in Week 7, where Jesse Laizure’s sack on fourth down inside the 10-yard line preserved a 28-24 comeback win for the second week in a row … Franklin’s revenge victory against Mount St. Joseph, in which Grizzlies defensive end Dan McManus strips Lions quarterback Vince Palmer and Grizzlies safety Joe White recovers just before the half, a key play in the 28-19 win.

But don’t miss: The three late-season games we’re most looking forward to. Gordon Mann, as he has done all season for ATN, takes a look ahead:

Salisbury at Wesley, Oct. 27: The game will impact the Wolverines and the Sea Gulls, but it’ll also have a bearing on the Pool B (non-automatic bid) chances of teams far away. A Salisbury win here makes the eventual NWC champs much happier about their playoff hopes.

Mary Hardin-Baylor at UW-Whitewater, Oct. 27: Pending this week’s results, the winner would have a pretty good claim to be the top seed in their playoff bracket. South and West teams who also have hosting hopes (St. John’s, Salisbury) will have more than a passing interesting in this one. Of course, forget I said this if UW-Stevens Point and Mississippi College win this weekend.

Central at Wartburg, Nov. 10: Maybe the Dutch stumble at Dubuque before this showdown. Maybe the Knights do the same against Coe or Simpson. But if they both get through unscathed this is an elimination game for Wartburg as well as one for either Central or the Pool C hopeful whose bid they would take (a la St. John’s last year).

PLAYERS

You might’ve missed: Defiance receiver Luke Dillon, whose 66 catches so far for 946 yards and 11 touchdowns have him in six games surpassing his 2006 stats … UW-Whitewater’s Danny Jones, the former Cal Lutheran star who resurfaced as the Warhawks’ quarterback and hasn’t lost vs. a Division III opponent.

But don’t miss: The second-half kickoff. Wesley’s Larry Beavers has proven electric in that department, going to the house against North Carolina Wesleyan and Widener. Beavers missed 2006 because of academics, but showed no rust, jumping back into the Wolverines’ mix at receiver and return man … The finish of 2006 Gagliardi Trophy finalist Tom Brew, who had 21 tackles for Case Western Reserve Saturday. He should be key if the Spartans make the playoffs, but will he be among the final 10 Gagliardi honorees again, especially with the nation’s premier running backs each rambling towards a possible nomination. Speaking of whom …

STATISTICS

You might’ve missed: Justin Beaver becoming the UW-Whitewater and WIAC career rushing leaders. He also passed the 5,000-yard mark last week … Mount Union allowing just 24 points all season, including only three in the first half. … Capital pitching shutouts in three of its first four games, and just 29 points this season … Concordia (Wis.) putting up its fourth consecutive shutout last week … Bridgewater (Va.) scoring on 11 of its first 14 possessions in a 76-28 win against Guilford in Week 7. Yes, we said ‘first’ 14 possessions. Apparently there were some after that. Some say 12 is good for a game.

But don’t miss: Mount Union’s Nate Kmic. He’s not far behind Beaver and could eventually have a shot at Danny Woodhead’s all-divisions rushing record. Woodhead, of Division II Chadron State, is still active and adding to his career mark, but he passed Grove City alum R.J. Bowers’ mark of 7,353 rushing yards earlier this season. Kmic, a junior, has 4,209 rushing yards through six games this season, and it’s possible he’ll play another nine games this year and 15 next year. He’s also got 16 TDs this season, and 60 career -- and those don’t include his receiving stats.

CHANGES

You might’ve missed: The effect of the new kickoff rules on games. I don’t think I’ve seen a touchback this season, and I’ve seen kicks taken at the 18, resulting in tremendous field position for the offense. Kickoffs are from the 30 this year instead of the 35 … the return to the old clock operation procedures, restoring the 12 or so plays coaches felt the ’06 changes lopped off of games.

But don’t miss: The effect of opponents’ winning percentage and opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage as the new strength-of-schedule measurement for the playoff selection committee. Replacing the old Quality of Wins Index, the change will affect seeding and the selection of at-large teams … Keep close watch on the South playoff brackets, which for the first time in a long time could feature just one Texas team. Since we determined last season that Millsaps should be within the 500-mile bus trip limit, does that mean the Majors automatically play Mary Hardin-Baylor in Round 1, or would the NCAA fly a weaker team to Texas?

STORIES

You might’ve missed: Mike Flynt’s story. At least if your sole source of football news is D3football.com. The 59-year-old Sul Ross State linebacker’s story has drawn attention nationally, but not so much among Division III die-hards. Maybe because we’ve seen this movie before (Tom Fox, then in his mid-30s, was a reserve quarterback for Blackburn in 2002-03, and told a similar tale of getting a second chance). Maybe because Flynt barely gets any game action. 

Former Around the South columnist Chris Allman might have said it best: Mainstream outlets sometimes treat Division III like News of the Weird. We’re ignored until something bizarre happens. That’s an accepted part of our reality, and in some sense, not drawing much attention makes us who we are. After all, Division III football players are generally proud to announce that we keep football in its proper perspective.

There is a place for the Mike Flynts and Tom Foxes of the world on Division III teams. These guys came back to football with the right attitudes and for the right reasons. Flynt’s rhetoric about following dreams and being as old as you feel you are is compelling. Jim Rome thought so, and so did Oprah Winfrey, who was reportedly at one point planning to visit Alpine.

But Sul Ross is noteworthy for so many other reasons, like being far closer to Mexico than any of its Division III brethren. The Lobos scoff at what some of the rest of us call road trips. Steve Wright has taken a team that used to be penciled in for 0-10 yearly and turned them into a winner. (They’re 4-2 heading into this week’s game at McMurry).

The mainstream media has told Flynt’s story well. We’ll be following the rest of the stories.

But don’t miss: Bluffton’s first win. The Beavers are 0-6 but are worth watching. In Week 1, Around the Midwest’s Clyde Hughes caught up with A.J. Ramthun, one of two football players who were also on the baseball bus that crashed in Atlanta last spring, killing five teammates Ramthun changed his jersey number to 5 in a heartfelt honor to his friends, and says he appreciates being here. It’s a shame the Beavers, who have lost three games by a touchdown or less, can’t catch a break. 

 Thanks to Mann, Clyde Hughes, Ryan Tipps and Ralph Turner for contributing.

Train of thought

Other observations from this season that don’t really fit:

Pat and I flew into Chicago last Saturday and saw six stadiums and three games, both personal records, we assume. We visited the U. of Chicago, North Park and Concordia (Ill.) fields, then watched Aurora play at Benedictine, North Central play at Elmhurst and Augustana play at Wheaton. Chicago is one of the few places with the kind of Division III presence to pull that off. Minneapolis might be the only other.

(We could also have seen stadiums at Lake Forest, North Central and Aurora, given enough time.)

With video boards installed at Linfield, McMurry and Wheaton, the screens are fast becoming (along with turf and lights) one of the ways to give a small-time facility a big-time feel.

Illni-Badger probably wishes the half we saw at Benedictine wasn’t the one that represented their conference to D3football.com staff. The half was a bit sloppy, punctuated by a badly overthrown pass intercepted in the end zone and a pooch punt whomped into a lineman's backside.

I’m traveling by plane on four trips this year. On four different airlines (United, American, Southwest, Northwest). D3sports.com does not have an official airline … unless you count Orbitz.

On a three-segment jaunt from D.C. to Abilene and on the first of two legs on the way back, I had a female pilot each time. American Airlines is ahead on workplace diversity, I take it.

In Texas, I took in parts of five games in 24 hours or so. Went to two high school games on Friday night, two Division II games and caught the end of Division II Abilene Christian’s game. Small-town football in West Texas is exactly like you stereotype it to be. Wylie’s game with Wimberly had a whole-town-is-here atmosphere, helped by the desolate streets outside the stadium. 

The eventual Stagg Bowl matchup may be looking like two teams of destiny right now, with a handful of others who could shake things up. But no matter the final two, the 32-team playoff beats whatever the alternative is, and should be fun to watch from near and afar when it begins Nov. 17.

Kick in your midseason moments or enjoy more of Keith’s in-depth observations on Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread.

Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com'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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