January 28, 2008

Year in Review: Where we missed

In 2007, the Division III football world not only grew, but grew interconnected. Around the Nation went coast-to-coast and border state-to-border state, along the way meeting fans who best knew each other through message-board monikers, and others who had taken an interest in each other’s teams or were hanging out on their own time, largely without our help. 

It was a running theme all season, and a natural progression that was perhaps long overdue. 

I tried starting the Year in Review during the playoffs, and I still didn’t get through everything until mid-January, perhaps also documenting the way we grew in 2007. There is a payoff for staying with us this long. The third of three installments is the most fun -- we poke fun at ourselves and others for preseason hits and misses, feature off-the-beaten path memories and insight from staff, readers and coaches, and hand out our always-popular unofficial awards. You're bound to enjoy the never-before-printed insights and humorous moments

If you missed parts 1 and 2, they’re linked below. Once you get your fill, Around the Nation goes into hibernation until Kickoff ’08 and the annual Week 1 preview.

Dec. 25, 2007: Great games, plays and statistics
Jan. 9, 2008: Standout players, coaches and teams
Today: Our awards, In Retrospect (revisiting preseason predictions), The Year in Photos and Miscellaneous
Also: All-Region and All-American teams

Our memorable award-winners

The Glass Ceiling Awards

Might as well start things off with a cheap shot. The NCAA playoff selection committee's shuffling of the bracket was a monumental advance that made 2007 memorable, even though the East Region bracket went through Alliance, Ohio (home of Mount Union, if this is your first visit to the site). The Purple Raiders were the first East Region champion to make it to Salem since 1999, when Rowan lost to Pacific Lutheran, but the Purple Raiders' semi-surprising loss meant the last national champion to come from the East remains Ithaca in 1991. Division III football was quite a different beast then, as evidenced by the Bombers' first-round win against Glassboro State (now Rowan) that year. Mass-Lowell, which has since gone to Division II and dropped football, was in the East bracket. And Ithaca defeated Dayton, now Division I, in the Stagg Bowl, which was held in Bradenton, Fla.

The Crazy Schedule Awards
This award usually goes to a member of the ACFC, since the five-team conference leaves so many open dates to fill, and craziness ensues. Frostburg State, an ACFC member, gets it hands down this year, albeit for the first time. The Bobcats took on seven road games, including five in a row to start the season. Only six opponents were Division III members, and they scrambled late to pick up a game at I-AA Duquesne to fill a ninth date. Although their road trips took them to upstate New York and the Virginia peninsula, there were some bright moments in Frostburg's 2-7 year: The Bobcats dealt 8-2 Randolph-Macon one of its defeats, and they played the Regents Cup rivalry game with Salisbury at Navy's stadium, the first time the game was held in Annapolis.


It's only 1,095 miles from La Crosse, Wis., to Abilene, Texas. No sweat. Wait, it was September in Texas, so sweat there was.

 We always salute aggressive scheduling, whether it be Hardin-Simmons hosting UW-La Crosse then going cross-country to Linfield or Montclair State filling its three pre-NJAC slots with teams that had won their divisions and at least one playoff game in 2006. (The Redhawks scheduled Wilkes, Springfield and Wesley, which turned out to be not as tough as it looked). The MAC going from 11 teams to eight opened up all kinds of power matchups in the mid-Atlantic, and the small-conference teams like Wesley and Salisbury, as well as isolated teams in the Southwest and Pacific Coast, took on all comers as they often do. The non-conference battles early on were great to see, and I love that we can have our cake (a 32-team playoff) and eat it too (with meaningful games each and every week). Division I-A supporters were tripping over themselves saluting the weekly poll shakeups, while we got that and a legitimate national champion. That's directly attributed to the coaches who passed on the free passes and took on the strongest opponents limited budgets could accommodate.

The Crazy Road Trip Award
There are those who must take odd road trips, because of conference alignment (Colorado College joining the SCAC gave the old Sul Ross State-Mississippi College game in the ASC several runs for its money), geographic isolation (Whitworth and UW-Stout) or the difficulty in scheduling opponents, period (UW-La Crosse at Azusa Pacific).

Then there are the teams who seem to just schedule each other because they like it. Kenyon and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps don't have many nearby peers when it comes to schools who recruit the same pool of student-athletes they do, and that appears to be the only rationale for having the Lords (of central Ohio) and Stags (of southern California) -- 2,300 miles apart, which would be nearly a day and a half's drive -- get together. It must've been the highlight of the season for both, as CMS never again left California, and the Lords, who hosted the game, left Ohio once, to go to Earlham, which is about four miles past the Ohio-Indiana border.

Alumni Awards
Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, a John Carroll alum, is the torchbearer when it comes to successful NFL pros from Division III. But Coe's Fred Jackson made strides this season, appearing in eight games for the Bills and finishing as their second-leading rusher. Trinity (Texas) grad Jerheme Urban couldn't stick with his home-state Cowboys, but caught on with the Cardinals and had 22 catches for 329 yards and two TDs in 10 games. 2007 UW-Whitewater grad Derek Stanley was active for the Rams' last three games. Michael Allan, a Chiefs rookie out of Whitworth, was active in Weeks 1, 16 and 17.

K.C. Keeler coached Delaware to the I-AA championship game, his second appearance with his alma mater after going to five Stagg Bowls with Rowan. Though he’s 1-6 in national championship games, his one win coming with the Blue Hens in 2003, seven title games in 15 years as a head coach is pretty darn impressive -- not to mention he should have gone to an eighth after 2001’s infamous "clock game." 

In the pro coaching ranks, some guy named Bill Belichick (Wesleyan) has the Patriots in the Super Bowl again, with a couple of John Carroll grads on his staff. But he still has to answer to some other guy, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (Washington and Jefferson), every now and again.

That's just a sampling of what Division III alums are accomplishing elsewhere in the football world.

The Open Mike Awards
Even after his team got beat 28-0 in a relatively drama-free game at Wesley in Week 5, Huntingdon’s Mike Turk was kind enough to stick around and talk to D3football.com Publisher Pat Coleman and I for nearly 30 minutes while his players showered and loaded the bus that later took them to a chartered flight from Delaware back to Alabama.

Because of their take-on-all-comers schedule as an independent, seeing Huntingdon provided us an invaluable tool in gauging conference strength. Turk pulled no punches in helping us get a feel for the differences.

"The last four teams we played have combined for one loss coming into the day. Oshkosh, good God. I’ll be honest with you -- they are the most disciplined machine. It’s incredible to watch. I made this statement during that game: ‘you know what, it’s not hard to figure out why Whitewater can beat Wesley like they do every year, because they have kids that can run with Wesley’s speed, and they have big kids that can match up physically, but they are so finely tuned it’s unreal.’ "

And yet Turk had a ton of respect for Wesley. Having coached at Division I Troy before Huntingdon, Turk said players like Wesley receiver Michael Clarke, receiver Larry Beavers, defensive end Bryan Robinson and tight end Jon Lanouette would have been scholarship players had they grown up in the South.

"Troy would love to have guys like that," he said.

Turk gave us enough for an item in that week’s Around the Nation and Pat’s column for CSTV.

 There were other instances of coaches being really honest with us, like when I got to put Rowan’s Jay Accorsi and Wesley’s Mike Drass on the spot about why the nearby Eastern powerhouses no longer schedule each other. The answer isn’t here, as I wasn’t asking with intent to print, but I know we ended up speculating on what a super-NJAC might look like. In theory, with Brockport State leaving the ACFC next season for the NJAC, only Wesley, Salisbury, Frostburg State and Newport News Apprentice remain. The three full-time Division III members in that group could go to the NJAC or other conferences if the ACFC were to cease to exist -- and this is me talking here now, not Drass or Accorsi, who was on site at Wesley as an NCAA playoff representative. A four-team conference’s main problem is filling seven open dates, while a super-NJAC might have to go to North and South divisions. Anyway, I don’t know of anything official happening on that front, but Around the Nation loves the ideas conversations with candid football coaches provide. Accorsi also told us on-air that Rowan had Bridgewater State as a non-conference opponent next year.

 Drass has always been a welcoming figure on D3football.com’s trips to Delaware. The Wolverines’ 15th-year coach evokes the word ‘Jolly’ … he always seems to be smiling and often seems to have humorously philosophical takes in press conferences. I don’t think I’d so much as seen him frown up until the point he headed out on the field during a timeout in Wesley’s Week 1 clash with North Carolina Wesleyan. Drass launched into an expletive-laced tirade inspired by offensive linemen who apparently weren’t blocking as well as they were expected to. The dressing-down was clearly audible several rows up in the stands, despite it taking place near midfield. Drass is certainly not the first coach to let loose on a team, and he’s not the first to forget that the crowd size and architecture in Division III stadiums means there are times the entire stadium is in on whatever is said. But juxtaposed with the Drass that is all smiles after wins and composed and reasonable after losses ("you can’t turn it over that many times and win"), it became a comical moment. It reminded ATN that Drass is human. Heck, he’s a head coach in charge of defense -- the leader of the black shirts is supposed to inspire you to want to crack helmets, is he not?

 Across the nation, coaches gave us unprecedented access this season, and that doesn’t include ATN being sorry to see Luther’s Paul Hefty leave coaching before we could take him up on his ‘all-access weekend’ invite. We spent time with John Gagliardi in his office, with Hardin-Simmons’ Jimmie Keeling after his team surrendered 52 and 47 points. We sat in Donny Gray’s office at McMurry for an hour on game morning and talked with Concordia (Wis.)’s Jeff Gabrielsen while his team got ready for a game at Concordia (Ill.). I caught East Texas Baptist’s Mark Sartain coming off the bus, while Trinity (Texas) coach Steve Mohr was the life of the party the night before the Stagg Bowl. To all the coaches who shared insights with us, in person or otherwise, we appreciate everything you do for us and for the athletes and institutions who depend on you.

Miscellaneous memorables

Remember that respect is a decent consolation prize

When they were ranked No. 2 in late October, Mary Hardin-Baylor's turnover trouble cost it big in a 41-14 loss to then-No. 3 UW-Whitewater. The teams met again in the national semifinals with the rankings reversed, and although the same team won, the 16-7 game -- in the snow -- was otherwise much different.


Justin Beaver played against three Mount Union teams and two Mary Hardin-Baylor teams in his career.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, D3sports.com

I thought it wise to ask Beaver after the Stagg Bowl how UMHB compared to Mount Union, and how the three Mount Union teams he faced compared to each other. His responses:

"Defensively, I thought Mary Hardin-Baylor was unbelievable. They got us ready to play. Without playing them, I don’t think we’re ready for today."

Respect. As for the best of the three Purple Raiders teams:

"It’s hard to compare the three. They’re a great team this year."

Beaver thought the what pushed his team over the top in its third try might have been the added dimension under center.

"Justin Jacobs (Whitewater’s quarterback in the first two Stagg Bowl seasons) was unbelievable. But having that run-pass threat [in Danny Jones] made all the difference."

Remember that there are many ways to be a great quarterback
Jones surely demonstrated that there's more than one way to lead a team to victory. That became most apparent to me when I filled out my All-Region ballot for the South. Since offenses vary, I tend to use completion percentage and TD-to-INT ratio as indicators of performance. The problem in the South was there were two QBs with absolutely sick numbers: Washington & Jefferson's Bobby Swallow passed for 46 TDs and just three interceptions. Guilford's Josh Vogelbach passed for 361.8 yards per game, a shade shy of national leader Jason Boltus of Hartwick (East Region, 362.4) and 35 TDs. Mississippi College's Adam Shaffer wasn't far behind Swallow and Vogelbach as far as eye-popping numbers were concerned, with 3,497 yards and a 31-13 TD-to-INT. That made Trinity's Blake Barmore look almost average, with his 3,399 and 24-to-8. But the South Region was so interesting because along with the numbers guys, it featured quarterbacks who just got the job done. N.C. Wesleyan's Cedric Townsend was no slouch as a passer, but his speed and athleticism gave opponents fits, especially on option plays. Millsaps' Juan Joseph also fit that bill, with a 31-to-6 ratio to boot. Then I saw Muhlenberg's Eric Santagato play, and although his numbers didn't wow, he completed 64% of passes with five interceptions and guided his team to 11 wins. And you could see how he controlled the pace of the game for his Mules and took care of the ball. Hardin-Simmons sophomore Justin Feaster didn't earn the job full-time until midway through the Linfield game, the Cowboys' second, and he combined the escapability with the toughness under pressure you like to see in a QB. And his final numbers were comparable despite the stunted start: 30 TDs, 9 INT, 2,946 yards. That's eight very legitimate candidates for three spots, and one could probably argue for others. Six of my eight led his team to eight wins or more, and four of them quarterbacked playoff teams. The point really isn't who voters ended up choosing for All-Region and All-American, although they too were a mix of guys with speed, grit, good arms and good feet, as well as good teams. There are many ways to effectively run an offense, and many ways for a voter (especially since I'd seen Townsend, Feaster, Santagato and Joseph play at various points) to recognize that. I know our voters at times agonize over these choices, and at other times we simply throw our hands up and go 'Who do you go with here?' It's a shame that many of the first responses when are teams are released are regarding who we didn't honor, but we are confident in keeping our teams to 11 a side plus three specialists -- you know, like a real team -- that those honors remain significant when bestowed.

Remember that there’s always next week
Mary Hardin-Baylor went to UW-Whitewater in late October and got ran over, 41-14. Then the Crusaders returned to the business of running opponents over, walloping East Texas Baptist 72-7 the following week. That's a 92-point swing for anyone scoring at home.

Remember the painful playoff score comparisons
With a first round fairly devoid of blowouts, the 'imagine if x had played y' strings didn't play out as they often do. There was one, Whitewater over Mount Union 31-21, Mount Union over St. John Fisher 52-10, Fisher over Curry 38-7 and Curry over Hartwick 42-21, that could have led us down the 'how bad was Hartwick' path. But the Hawks beat two playoff teams -- Ithaca and St. John Fisher -- just not in the playoffs. Following the trail down to Bethel's 28-0 first-round win against Concordia (Wis.) was perhaps the biggest ouch, since Mount Union beat Bethel 62-14 in the semifinals. But did we really need a score string to tell us the Purple Raiders were better than the IBFC champion?

Remember the good postseason conference showings
Curry getting the conference’s first playoff win in the automatic-qualifier era, over the champion of the East's strongest conference no less, was a big step for the NEFC. With the IBFC members going their separate ways next season, it leaves only the MIAA without a playoff win since 1999. (But it can still claim a national champion, Albion in 1994, more recently than all but four conferences). Case Western Reserve getting the four-team UAA a playoff invite and win for the second consecutive year deserves mention, as does the WIAC having two teams combine for six wins. 

Remember the bad postseason conference showings
Three Empire 8 teams made the field, as did two for the Heartland. But with added recognition comes added responsibility, and neither of these conferences delivered. Ithaca and Hartwick lost in the first round, while St. John Fisher's highly anticipated rematch with Mount Union was a total dud. The HCAC sent Franklin and Mount St. Joseph, both 9-1, to the playoffs. While both were competitive, the HCAC hasn't won a playoff game since 2000. The PAC also deserves a strike for having its 10-0 conference champ become the first No. 1 seed to bite the dust in the first round in the expanded era.

Remember the uneven conference races
Mount Union didn't win the national championship, a disappointment in the Purple Raiders' book. But what a season they had up until Salem. MUC has won the past 16 OAC championships, with one conference loss since mid-1994, but at least it’s been an intriguing race some years. The Purple Raiders returned the majority of its national championship '06 team while most of the rest of the OAC was starting youthful lineups. The results were staggering. Seven of the nine teams were shut out, with Otterbein scoring two fourth-quarter TDs after MUC had put up 55, and Heidelberg kicking a field goal in the second quarter. The Purple Raiders won their conference games by an average margin of 50.7-1.8, with three of the conference's best teams staying closer than anyone else: Baldwin-Wallace (35-0), Capital (37-0) and Ohio Northern (44-0). The Purple Raiders cracked 50 on the other six opponents.

Remember the most even conference race
For once it wasn’t the Centennial. The Liberty League was still a four-way race with two weeks to play, with each of the four playing its final two games against teams in the race. After Week 10's results, each team had to win its own game, plus it had a rooting interest in the other matchup, like so:
Hobart: Needed to win at Rochester and have Union beat RPI
Rochester: Needed to beat Hobart and have RPI beat Union
RPI: Needed to beat Union and have Hobart beat Rochester
Union: Needed to beat RPI and have Rochester beat Hobart

Hobart and RPI won and made the playoffs, but each was eliminated in the first round. In the end, the balance in the league was superb, but nobody ever really took charge. Without a dominant team, it was a short stay in the postseason.

Remember the conference storylines
Here's a one-sentence memory from each conference, summing up the most important occurrence this season:
NEFC: Curry got the first AQ-era playoff win.
NESCAC: While Amherst and Williams were on ESPN, Middlebury broke the Little Three stranglehold on the title since a three-way tie in 2000.
E8: First conference to send three teams to playoffs in one season in AQ era.
LL: Four teams had shot at title in Week 11.
NJAC: Rowan fell below .500, Montclair State upset Wesley and TCNJ came out of nowhere to win it.
MAC: It was a bad year to thin to eight teams, as no MAC team was dominant and teams took their licks in non-conference games.
CC: Muhlenberg capped 10-0 year with a playoff win over a strong team (Salisbury).
PAC: Geneva and St. Vincent brought conference to nine, playoff upset brought W&J to its knees.
ACFC: Wesley-Salisbury developing into a pair of rival powers.
ODAC: R-MC vs. H-SC relevant again, while Bridgewater misses out on title for second straight year.
USAC: N.C. Wesleyan as a fourth-year wonder, with rare running of the table.
SCAC: Welcome Colorado College and Birmingham-Southern, and welcome back to the top, Trinity.
ASC: Mary Hardin-Baylor a lot; Everyone else, a little.
SCIAC: After three non-conference losses, Cal Lutheran nearly swept; Redlands still needed Occidental's 67-61 loss to Whittier to earn AQ.
NWC: No playoff team. No, really. AQ kicks in in 2008.
WIAC: UW-Whitewater's third time the charm, but UW-Eau Claire 9-3 the big surprise.
MIAC: Teams were 15-3 regular-season non-conference, and Bethel beat St. John's again.
MWC: Another year, another St. Norbert season ending in the first round of the playoffs.
MIAA: No conference makes each week more interesting; Olivet took automatic bid at 6-4.
IIAC: Central still liked to cut it close, but ran the table for second year in a row.
UAA: Case Western Reserve followed Carnegie Mellon's '06 script.
NCAC: SCAC's DePauw spoils undefeated season for Wabash in Monon Bell comeback.
HCAC: Franklin missed postseason at 9-1 last year; This year, both Franklin and MSJ get in at 9-1.
OAC: Mount Union: Nine games, seven shutouts.
IBFC: Out with a whimper; Champion lost a conference game by 30.
CCIW: IWU joins usual three-way race in Augustana's place; Wheaton collapse lets North Central back in playoffs.

Remember how we did against those guys 
Division III maintained its place in the spectrum of college football this season, going 4-7 against programs from Division I-AA, 3-12 vs. Division II and 21-9 vs. the NAIA.

St. Cloud State, which finished 4-7 in Division II, beat national champion UW-Whitewater (14-1) 26-16 early in the season. Geneva made the transition from NAIA to the PAC and immediately went 8-2. That doesn't include a postseason game in which they were representing for us, the NCCAA Victory Bowl, and got drilled by Malone 45-17. Yet Division III teams are 44-17 against NAIA teams the past two seasons.

Best big-time acknowledgements
 Fox Sports' weekly WIAC broadcasts reached beyond Wisconsin. Working at USA Today this fall, I was used to seeing major-college and pro sports on the flat-screen TVs that line the wall. One Tuesday the UW-Eau Claire vs. UW-Whitewater rebroadcast caught my eye instead. Nice!
 CSTV did a nice bit early in the season called "Broken Coverage," where it sent two reporters to Mount Union to see what it was like covering a Division III receiver. Quarterback Greg Micheli and receiver Brandon Boehm proved to them it's pretty difficult.
 SI.com's Andrew Reed visited Bridgewater's Stone Station during a year-long tour of football tailgates, mostly at the Division I level. Reed also swung back through Virginia for the Stagg Bowl. SI's Frank Deford also wrote about the return of football to Birmingham-Southern. St. Vincent's restart also attracted a lot of attention from major media.
 Oprah Winfrey was reportedly very interested in 59-year-old linebacker Mike Flynt's story and might have considered traveling to Sul Ross State, but it never happened. 
 ESPN broadcasted College GameDay from Amherst-Williams, and host Chris Fowler was struck by the pure joy exhibited on the postgame walk to the barber shop, an Ephs tradition. On any other year, an acknowledgement like this is the division's big-time highlight. (Williams grad Pete McEntegart also blogged about the day if you missed it)
 We’ve discussed the Millsaps-Trinity ending five ways to Sunday, but the fact that a Division III football highlight not only led SportsCenter, but left anchors gawking -- "We’ve been flipping over this all night in the office" -- is an enduring memory. Not to mention the play demonstrated the speed and wide-reaching effect of our blog, The Daily Dose, YouTube and other forms of "new media," as our link to the video got picked up by at least two national media outlets.

Worst big-time acknowledgements
It was a great year for Division III football gaining broad-spectrum respect, but there was still at least one writer getting it dead wrong. And although it probably does little good to repeat misinformation, ATN ought to balance the props given to others with a big 'WTF?' for Gregg Easterbrook, author of TMQ on ESPN.com. His clueless anti-Mount Union rants this year included his opinion that the Purple Raiders purposely schedule schools that can't compete with them in football (Nine of Mount Union's 10 opponents each season are its fellow OAC members, and the Purple Raiders win with players who fit the Division III profile), that having six home games is "a sure sign of a manipulated schedule" (Mount Union scheduled six away games in 2006) and the theory that since Mount Union wins a lot of games by a lot of points, they must be the epitome of poor sportsmanship (as though a team can't win by a lot and be good sports. When did we begin defining sportsmanship only by margin of victory?). ATN realizes there is no getting through to Easterbrook on these matters. It is, however, a shame that a graduate of a Division III college would continue to pelt his audience, many of whom are not exposed to Division III sports in any other way, with such blatantly off-base commentary.

In retrospect (a.k.a. Hindsight is tied 20-20 heading into overtime)


Remember the preseason polls and rankings

It would be far too easy to just forget about those preseason rankings, some of which hit newsstands as early as June. We could let them slide, but as long as Around the Nation is here, we’ll be checking credentials.

The goal here is simple: ATN looks back at the first (and in several cases, only) appearance of the ranking and then compares it to how things turned out, and highlights hits and misses.

To the best of our knowledge, as many as seven entities took a crack at publishing rankings this season, ranging from a top 10 (game-program insert Touchdown Illustrated) to a top 40 (Don Hansen's Weekly Football Gazette). I couldn’t find either of their preseason polls, however -- and believe me, I looked -- so we’ll analyze these five: D3football.com's Top 25 poll, the American Football Coaches Association poll, and preseason rankings by Lindy'sStreet & Smith's and USA Today Sports Weekly (whose ranking, in the interest of full disclosure, was put together by yours truly) 

During the season, there are two polls, ours and the American Football Coaches Association's, and one ranking, the Football Gazette's. The AFCA does not take a preseason poll, so we use their first vote (Sept. 18) for our purposes here. 

 D3football.com
Best preseason ranking(s): No. 2 UW-Whitewater, No. 12 Capital, No. 18 North Central
Worst preseason ranking(s): No. 14 Linfield, No. 20 Augustana, No. 24 Bethel
Number of Top 25 teams in the 32-team field: 13
Where semifinalist Bethel began the season: No. 24
Whitewater’s progression: Began the season ranked No. 2, fell to No. 3 after St. Cloud State loss, where they remained until beating UMHB in Week 9, and Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl. They, of course, finished with all 25 first-place votes.
Overall: No other ranking gave Whitewater this much respect at the beginning or throughout the course of the season, so the D3football.com panel gets big respect there. And everybody whiffed on preseason No. 7 UW-La Crosse, No. 9 Springfield, No. 10 Rowan, No. 11 Hardin-Simmons and No. 15 Wilkes, so those mistakes are forgivable. Good insight on having playoff participants North Central, Trinity (Texas) and Wabash ranked, though none won its conference in 2006. Bethel was way too low, especially since it beat preseason No. 3 St. John’s in ’06.

 AFCA
Best ranking(s): No. 2 UMHB (1 first-place vote), No. 18 Salisbury
Worst ranking(s): No. 9 UW-Whitewater, No. 16 Bridgewater (Va.)
Number of Top 25 teams in the 32-team field: 14
Where semifinalist Bethel began the season: No. 33 (also receiving 22 votes)
Whitewater’s progression: Began at No. 9 in mid-Sept., rose to No. 3 after UMHB win, but didn’t get to No. 2 until St. John’s lost in Week 11.
Overall: Pat’s A Fairly Confounding Analysis post from the Daily Dose Sept. 18 speaks for itself, but to summarize: Sixty-five teams got votes three weeks into the season, including five Pat notes as rather absurd, at least at the time. Given the AFCA’s head start (two or three games are played), there aren’t many top 25 flubs, and the ones that are there are passable given what we knew at the time, except for UW-La Crosse being ranked fourth and Whitewater ninth. Even at the most uncertain times for the Warhawks there weren’t eight Division III teams better than them, but the AFCA tends to get hung up solely on wins and losses, and UW-W was coming off a defeat against Division II St. Cloud State. Also, with a three-week lag period, the AFCA poll should have had a stronger advantage in number of playoff teams ranked. Many of the voters on the board of coaches are among ATN’s favorites, so let’s stop there.

 USA Today Sports Weekly
Best ranking(s): No. 2 UMHB, No. 17 Capital, No. 25 Franklin
Worst ranking(s): No. 6 UW-La Crosse, No. 12 Baldwin-Wallace, No. 23 Carnegie Mellon
Number of Top 25 teams in the 32-team field: 12
Where semifinalist Bethel began the season: No. 13 
Whitewater’s preseason ranking: No. 5
Overall: So we’re clear, I did this ranking for USA Today, in June, after consulting with a few staff members and doing preseason research. I thought the No. 5 ranking for Whitewater was appropriate given that their losses were greater than Mount Union, UMHB, Wesley and St. John Fisher’s, yet it allowed for the possibility of them proving their way to the top, which is eventually what happened. But UW-La Crosse and Baldwin-Wallace were reaches based on their performances against UW-W and Mount Union last season. Of course, that Eagles pick looked good after they gave the Warhawks all they could handle, and Millsaps at 22 was a couple miraculous comebacks away from being prescient. I had less faith in Rowan (No. 15) than anyone, but overranked Wilkes (No. 10) harder too.

 Lindy's
Best rankings: No. 10 Bethel, No. 12 North Central, No. 23 Hobart
Worst rankings: No. 4 Trinity (Texas), No. 20 Cal Lutheran
Number of Top 25 teams in the 32-team field: 14
Where semifinalist Bethel began the season: No. 10
Whitewater’s preseason ranking: No. 3
Overall: It was a strangely successful poll for Lindy’s, which had 11 of its top 13 make the playoffs, but 9 misses in the next 12. It was the only poll to rank Hobart (though one spot behind Alfred), and although three Texas teams were in their top six, Trinity’s play at Millsaps and subsequent playoff loss to UMHB, which it ranked second, make Lindy’s reach on Trinity defensible. That seemed like a name-recognition ranking, and putting Cal Lutheran in the top 20 made it seem like Lindy’s didn’t know quarterback Danny Jones had transferred and the coaching staff had turned over. The Kingsmen actually made a run toward the playoffs, so the Lindy’s ranking looked good there. So did the avoidance of the NWC (No. 24 Whitworth, unranked Linfield), which missed the playoffs entirely. Lindy’s also ranked North Central ahead of Wheaton, which is how things ultimately finished. It was easy to let such a low ranking of UW-La Crosse (No. 25) pass.

 Street & Smith's
Best ranking: No. 7 Wabash
Worst rankings: No. 2 St. John’s, No. 12 Occidental, No. 16 Central, No. 19 Hope, No. 24 Coast Guard, No. 25 Washington & Lee
Number of Top 25 teams in the 32-team field: 9
Where semifinalist Bethel began the season: No. 11
Whitewater’s preseason ranking: No. 4
Overall: Outside nailing seven playoff teams in its top eight (No. 6 Rowan was the one that missed), there isn’t a lot to like here. St. John’s was way overranked, and everyone else seemed to know Central was a top 10 team. W&L wasn’t a top 25 team even when it made the 32-team playoff field at 7-3 in '06, and two ranked teams from the ODAC (No. 17 Bridgewater) is a stretch. Until the MIAA makes some playoff progress, Hope has no business in the top 20. If they were going to take a chance on a NEFC team, Curry, not Coast Guard, should have been the one.

Remember the best (and worst) preseason predictions 
Among the features in Kickoff ’07 was the "Predict This!" grid, where six semi-professional D3football.com observers (the title of ‘expert’ is earned, as you’ll see below) were lined up while 12 questions of varying difficulty were thrown at them like so many spirals.

Pat Coleman, Gordon Mann, John McGraw, Ryan Tipps (Around the Mid-Atlantic), Adam Samrov (Around the East) and I made up the panel. Now that everything has played out, here are our predictions again, with an "expert point" awarded for each correct answer. 

 Who will win the national championship?
Only Samrov was brave enough to stray from the crowd and go with UW-Whitewater instead of Mount Union. Some foreshadowing, perhaps.

 Winner of each bracket?
As the bracket shuffling left no one's predictions on-point, we'll award quarter-points, with the footnote that at least myself, McGraw and Samrov went with four playoff winners -- Mount Union, UW-W, UMHB and St. John Fisher. Tipps and Mann backed St. John’s and Rowan as national semifinalists, while Coleman liked Linfield and Springfield. Mann also had Wesley over UMHB in the south, leaving him with a measly quarter-point. We all got the Mount Union gimme, five of us got UMHB, four got UW-W and no one called Bethel’s final four appearance.

 Which opponent gets closest to Mount Union in the regular season? 
It was more like "least far" than "closest," but McMillan, Mann, Coleman and Tipps are going to give themselves credit for Baldwin-Wallace's 35-0 loss anyway. The Purple Raiders were that good, and so what if some of us had the audacity to think the margin would be between 11 and 17. That’s a doggone point! (The others liked Ohio Northern between 7 and 10).

 Which 2006 playoff team has the worst falloff, recordwise? 
Pay close attention to the wording of the question, because even though Concordia (Wis.) made the field again, they were four wins shy of last year's total. Chalk up a point for Coleman, McGraw and Tipps. Mann was close on Capital, which made the field but finished three wins from last season’s 11. Millsaps (Samrov) actually won one game more than last season despite making the playoffs then and missing them in ’07. Hobart (McMillan) held steady at eight wins.

 Which team will be the most surprising playoff entry?
Only Coleman nailed a team (Franklin) that actually made the field, although we should dock him half a point for taking a team that was 9-1 last year under 'surprising.' How cheap is that? 

 Record of the last team chosen in Pool C, and who? 
Samrov is heating up. Ithaca (8-2) was probably the last team in if you follow the theory about how the committee puts one at-large team from each region on the board at any time during selection. Message-board complaints were loudest about the omission of Whitworth, perhaps in favor of UW-Eau Claire at 8-2. Tipps was close there, picking 8-2 UW-La Crosse. Half point? Naaaah. Mann picked Hobart, 8-2, and although he hit the playoff-participant Statesmen’s record on the head, they were far from the last team chosen. That was almost my pick, Millsaps at 9-1. The 8-2 Majors were (sixty)two seconds or one tackle (take your pick) from making me look smart.

 Who will be the D3football.com Offensive Player of the Year? 
Only Coleman took Beaver. Four others took Mount Union’s Nate Kmic, and I took his quarterback, Greg Micheli. Those were probably the among the top 3 all season. But, only Coleman scores a point.

 Who will be the D3football.com Defensive Player of the Year? 
Seriously, this Samrov guy predicted Mary Hardin-Baylor linebacker Jerrell Freeman, while some of us were picking Wesley’s Bryan Robinson, Wilkes linebacker Kyle Follweiler or Wheaton’s Andy Studebaker. All Freeman did was make 112 tackles for the No. 3 team in the nation, including 18.5 for losses. He added six sacks, seven pass break-ups, three forced fumbles and he blocked a punt that he also returned for a touchdown. His defense had 55 sacks and forced 54 turnovers in 14 games, not to mention it earned the ultimate respect of the national champions.

 How many regular-season touchdowns will Chris Sharpe rush for? 
After rushing for 35 last season, including seven in a single win against St. John Fisher, the panelists figured that’d be too tough a number to repeat. Sharpe finished 2007 with a very respectable 21 rushing TDs (he also passed for five in Springfield’s triple-option offense), and remember, the Pride played two playoff games last season but none this year. Still, 21 was fewer than anyone on the panel predicted, but since Coleman’s projection of 23 was close, we’ll give him the point.

 Which player will have the best season in his new situation? 
Danny Jones won a championship, so give McGraw the expert point. But half a point goes to the four who took Wesley receiver Larry Beavers, who returned to Wesley after missing a year for academic reasons. Beavers had 692 yards and seven TDs receiving, plus another four scores on kickoff returns and two rushing. He was the most dynamic offensive threat on a team that had six players score six or more TDs, and he even took snaps in an offensive package designed to throw a whole new look at defenses. My pick, Neil Suckow, who made the move from Coe to Wartburg, remained a multi-talented threat, scoring 13 TDs but totaling just 985 all-purpose yards. Beavers' all-purpose total of 1,649 included 702 kick-return yards.

 Which former MAC member will have more wins in its new conference: Susquehanna (Liberty) or Juniata (Centennial)? 
It was a close one, as the Crusaders went 2-8, 1-6 in the LL, while the Eagles went 1-9, 0-8 in the CC. A last-second two-point conversion against WPI was the difference in an 8-7 Susquehanna win, and it was the difference in Coleman, Samrov and myself each picking up another expert point.

 Who will win the CCIW?
Wheaton was the popular pick (four panelists) and Mann thought it would be Augustana. Only Tipps put his chips on North Central, and it looked rough for the Cardinals after a 17-point collapse against the Thunder in Week 6 dropped them to 3-2. But North Central didn’t lose again until the second-round playoff exit against the eventual national champions.

 How many wins will St. Vincent, Gallaudet, Birmingham-Southern combine for? 
Gallaudet kicked in two wins, including a 32-13 victory against SVU in Week 1, and B-SC added one, against Sewanee. Gallaudet also beat second-year SUNY-Maritime. Tipps and Coleman called it (three) and were awarded expert points.

The expert-point tally left a pretty clear winner:
Mann: 1.75 points
McMillan: 2.75
McGraw: 2.75


We missed on Kean.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3sports.com

Tipps: 5
Samrov: 5.25
Coleman: 8

Remember how hard it is to go beyond the Top 25
In Kickoff '07, one of my assignments is to attempt to take readers beyond the top 25. Teams’ fortunes change each season, and the idea is to get ahead of some of those changes so readers have an idea they’re coming. I expanded what I looked ahead at this year. I’ve had some success at this in the past, but this year I didn’t do so hot.

 Non-top 25, non-playoff teams who’ll make the 32-team NCAA field in '07
My predictions: Franklin, Kean, Moravian, Rochester
My Score: 1 for 4
Franklin was a good call, partially because they had Mount St. Joseph standing in the way. The other three teams combined for a record of 17-14, and hardly resembled playoff teams.

 Teams who should return to the playoffs after missing a year
My predictions: Bridgewater, Linfield, Trinity (Texas), Wabash
My Score: 2 for 4
The latter two teams got back in the field with AQs.

 Teams who made the playoffs in '06 but won't in '07
My predictions: Concordia (Wis.), Capital, Hobart and Union, Rowan and Wittenberg
My Score: 3 of 6
Predicting Rowan to miss took some guts, but the first three teams listed made the field of 32.

 Playoff-worthy teams who could get squeezed in tight conference races
My predictions: DePauw, Dickinson, Hope, Ithaca, Washington & Lee
My Score: 4 of 5
Here’s where I could have really looked smart, since Ithaca did technically finish third in the Empire 8, a scenario which almost always results in a team getting squeezed. Except this season we somehow had room for three E8s but no one from the Northwest Conference.

 Five picks I didn’t have the guts to make
My predictions: Alfred, Sul Ross State and Widener to make the playoffs, St. John’s and Hardin-Simmons to miss the playoffs.
My Score: 3 of 5
Widener did make the playoffs, and Hardin-Simmons did miss out, so I should have manned up and made those picks. But passing on the other three proved wise.

 Trendy picks I’m not so sure about
My predictions: Huntingdon to make the playoffs, North Carolina Wesleyan to win the USA South, Whitworth to plummet, UW-La Crosse to challenge UW-Whitewater:
My Score: 2 of 4
Again, since NCWC won its conference and La Crosse challenged Whitewater, at least in their head to head meeting, I missed. I could give myself a point for not being sure about La Crosse since they didn't challenge the Warhawks in the standings, but if they finish that win off, perhaps they finish the season differently as well. Huntingdon didn't make the playoffs and Whitworth didn't plummet, so I was correct in avoiding those.

 Spoilers
My predictions: Dubuque, Salisbury and Lebanon Valley
My Score: 1 of 3
Salisbury was much more than a spoiler, and Lebanon Valley came up short. Only the Spartans played a true spoilers' role. And honestly, they were an IIAC contender.

Teams who outperformed/fell short of their 1-238 ranking in Kickoff '07
As snow and cold rain marks January’s dreary days, summer-lovers will find it hard to believe that Pat Coleman and I spent two mid-summer Saturdays in a booth at Panera, the semi-healthy chain restaurant, with laptops open and data galore in front of our eyes. We were ranking every team in Division III, from top to bottom.

Looking back at those rankings after the season can remind us of surprise teams beyond the ones that got the most shine this year (No. 201 Randolph-Macon, No. 199 Heidelberg, No. 179 Albright, No. 132 Illinois Wesleyan, No. 113 Case Western Reserve, No. 112 Middlebury and No. 79 Waynesburg) and the high-profile disappointments (No. 7 UW-La Crosse, No. 9 Springfield, No. 10 Rowan, No. 11 Hardin-Simmons, No. 15 Wilkes and No. 20 Augustana)

Here are some other teams we underestimated:
 No. 108 Muhlenberg (11-1 record came out of nowhere, Mules were a tough out at Wesley.)
 No. 151 Ferrum (Bounced back nicely from 2-7 year, finished 5-5)
 No. 156 Hartwick (Ranking looked right after Week 1 loss, then came Empire 8 title)
 No. 207 Tri-State (6-4 was the first winning season in the program’s short Division III history.)
 No. 237 Crown (Won four of first five, averaged 37.6 points per game through season)

Here are some teams we, and our Top 25 voters, overestimated:
 No. 32 Kean (Cougars failed to break out, following 7-4 year with 5-5 2007)
 No. 59 Thiel (Went 3-7, two years removed from 11-win season)
 No. 70 Johns Hopkins (After beating Hampden-Sydney in opener, lost six of nine)
 No. 95 King's (The Monarchs finished 1-9; We had them a spot ahead of 7-2 Pacific Lutheran)
 No. 101 Averett (Losing 20 starters, we didn't see 7-3 again, but 0-10?)

Remember the hot and cold starts and finishes
Hottest start, coldest finish: UW-Stevens Point, which started 6-0 and rose to No. 22 before losing their last four games. Rowan, which beat Widener 41-0 in Week 3 then won at Western Connecticut 40-18, then lost five of its last six, also belongs here.

Coldest start, hottest finish: Luther lost its first three against teams that combined to go 28-5, then it went 5-2 the rest of the way with its losses by a TD and a field goal.

Remember the season's turning point
UW-La Crosse was more or less dominating UW-Whitewater into the fourth quarter in Week 5, leading 28-10 with 11 minutes left. Warhawks star Justin Beaver went out with an injury midway through the third quarter. It was 28-13 inside the 7-minute mark, before Whitewater capped a 7-play, 76-yard drive with a 29-yard TD pass from Danny Jones to Matt Gifford in the corner of the end zone. La Crosse is still in great shape, up by eight with the ball, before Eric Donoval fumbles at the end of a short run. Although it appeared Donoval could have been down before the ball came loose, Whitewater's Andy Murray recovered at the 25-yard line after the Eagles had the ball for just 14 seconds. Jones hit Gifford with a 14-yard strike and a two-point conversion to tie the game.

La Crosse is still in position to engineer a game-winning drive in front of its home fans until Griffin Moe scrambles out of the pocket on first down. Near the sideline, as Mike Dufrane brings down Moe from behind, Whitewater linebacker A.J. Raebel lifts the Eagles quarterback off his feet with a hit that knocks him woozy and out of the game. On third down, backup Gus Almonroder throws an interception to Ben Farley that sets up Jake Andersen's winning TD run with 1:01 left. Almonroeder is sacked and fumbled on a last-gasp fourth-down attempt and Whitewater completes the stunning comeback.

La Crosse never recovers, losing three of the next four -- all games the Eagles had chances to win -- and go on to finish 5-4. UW-Whitewater wins its next 11 games and the national championship, frequently referring to the rally at La Crosse as the point in which their confidence in their new system, new quarterback and each other was solidified.

Remember that greatness is shown by more than just victories
We have to acknowledge Larry Kehres for the way his coaching tree has continued to branch out. The Purple Raiders were beaten by one of their own, as former Lakeland head coach Jim Zebrowski (MUC '91) coordinated the UW-Whitewater offense. Coe's Erik Raeburn, Ohio Northern's Dean Paul, Washington and Jefferson's Mike Sirianni, Heidelberg's Mike Hallett and Emory and Henry's Don Montgomery also spent time at Mount Union. By the Alliance Review's count in September, 39 college coaches, including eight Purple Raiders assistants, were Mount Union graduates. And that doesn't even begin to address the numbers in high school. Ohio newspapers said eight Mount Union alums had coached their teams into the playoffs, and one reporter counted 22 head or assistant coaches with Purple Raider ties. In the playoffs.

Remember when one door closes, another opens
Wabash's 35-33 win in its Week 2 opener against Franklin proved to be a key win over a playoff team that helped its playoff seeding, but at the time it seemed the Little Giants would be hurt by the day's events more than anything. Starting quarterback Dustin Huff, who had passed for 477 yards in the game, was injured covering an onside kick for the hands team, forcing Wabash to turn to sophomore Matt Hudson under center. Hudson filled in admirably, completing 67% of his passes, with 25 TDs and 12 INTs. He led the Little Giants to the second round of the playoffs against UW-Whitewater, where Huff, a fifth-year senior, returned to start. He completed one pass in three series before Hudson took over, with the team down 21-0.

Worst moments
A March accident that killed five Bluffton baseball players plus the bus driver and his wife still resonated during football season. In Week 1, Around the Midwest’s Clyde Hughes caught up with A.J. Ramthun, one of two football players who were on the bus and survived. Ramthun, who spoke to media after the accident, his battered face at the time a vivid indicator of how serious the accident was even for the 28 survivors, changed his jersey number to 5 to honor his lost friends. The season was a struggle, as there was but one happy endings. The Beavers lost their first nine games, including five by a touchdown or less, and appeared headed for 0-10 against Defiance. Bluffton scored TDs twice in 2:55 early in the fourth quarter and held for the last 10:15 to win 22-21.

Ramthun, a sophomore, carried 32 times for 96 yards. While it might seem trite to say just playing again was a victory, Tim Berta, a former receiver and baseball student coach who was also on the bus, was still recovering from his injuries when football season rolled around.

 Shortly after the season ended, on Nov. 19, first-year secondary coach Cody Bowers crashed his truck into two trees on the Maryville campus and died. Bowers, 25, had played for coach Tony Ierulli and was fondly remembered by those he played alongside and coached. His first season with the secondary had been a success, as the Scots intercepted 19 passes, 14 more than in 2006.

 St. John's running back Craig Luberts was arrested July 26 on charges he had sex with a minor. Luberts withdrew from school, while Mike Patnode and Aaron Blackmore handled the majority of the Johnnies' carries. Luberts' case had not been resolved at the time of publication. When the news broke in the preseason, it definitely sent shockwaves through the Johnnies' faithful.

Remember the most overblown controversies
Ray Bentley, calling the Stagg Bowl for ESPN, was grandstanding late in the came when he said Mount Union defensive coordinator Vince Kehres had forgotten how to lose gracefully because the Purple Raiders were so accustomed to winning. Kehres, whose team had just fallen behind 31-21 on a 1-yard TD run by Whitewater's Danny Jones, was caught by TV cameras yelling and pointing at officials. While he looked pretty fired up, and I admit I didn't nail the analysis either on first take during D3football.com's webcast, it was fairly evident on the video replay that Kehres had a fair gripe. Jones' TD run appeared to be aided by a Whitewater blocker -- a maneuver you might have heard referred to as "the Bush push" -- which is illegal. The game-winning TD was not overruled nor was it eligible to be reviewed in that case, I believe.

Remember the great speeches
Stirring oratories are part of football history. But sometimes the best talks aren't delivered by coaches during pregame, Pat Coleman reminds us:

"Every year one of the highlights of the trip to Salem is the team luncheon on Friday afternoon. Although this year's was the longest in our recollection, it was still memorable for one reason: Brady Pittz's speech. Each year a player from each team gives a short talk that isn't typically very newsworthy or very long, but this was neither. Pittz, aka Justin Beaver's backup, gave a long, entertaining, self-deprecating speech that had both sides in stitches. The ultimate respect was when Mount Union coach Larry Kehres pulled him aside on his way off the stage, then came to the podium later and called it the best student-athlete speech he'd seen at a Stagg Bowl.

"Kehres has seen a couple more than we have."

Remember the weird speeches
Though our normal meeting time and place for recording the Around the Nation podcast this year was in front of the USA Today building in McLean, Va. right before my Sunday shift on the copy desk began (yes, we have real jobs), it didn’t always make sense for Pat and I to plan a recording session. When we traveled together, we often figured we might as well record our podcast before we went our separate ways. Since technology allowed us to record into a handheld digital mini-recorder and upload it to the site and to iTunes, it didn’t always have to be a grand production. We recorded sitting on an unused baggage carousel at Washington Dulles Airport and also at an unused Southwest gate at Chicago Midway. We recorded another from the comfort of Pat’s parents’ upstairs TV room, where the Trinity-Millsaps clip played on ESPN in the background. We met once at a Metro (subway) station as we returned from separate trips, and although the heat was blazing, we turned the car off so the running engine wouldn’t ruin the sound. But that wasn’t only time we recorded a podcast in the car, as my personal favorite might be the one we did while I was driving back from Bethel at Mount Union, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And just to bring the whole thing full circle, we piped in Gordon Mann by phone on that one from a Chicago airport, where he was waiting to return from UMHB’s semifinal at UW-Whitewater.

The podcast was a decent innovation for D3football.com this season, as it was both well-received and respected. The first one we tried, Pat and I nailed in a single 11-minute take. Never again would it be so easy. Some we scripted out massive portions of, sometimes we tried talking points and still other times we winged it completely, and no matter which model we tried, we’d still flub words and ask for do-overs. Due to Pat’s creative editing, we never got the sense that listeners noticed (or cared) which method we were using, so long as they got a dose of D3 info that hadn’t been provided in the past. Most of our podcasts stayed between 10 and 15 minutes, but we set a record of 26:49 on Dec. 3, talking about the final four. And fans still listened. Thank you!

Remember to always write while awake
I spent my weekdays this season with my two children, both active toddlers, and my nights working a full-time job on USA Today’s copy desk. That meant I had to be more creative than ever to find time to work on Around the Nation. Often, that meant writing deep into the night until I dozed off in front of the computer screen.

The last few sentences before I fell asleep always needed careful rewriting the next day. Sometimes, I had no idea where those sentences were going. I found this in one of my columns one morning: "The defense generated five turnovers and withstood the Crusaders’ we shop for your head."

 On most Saturday afternoons, Pat is plenty awake, but the mad rush of games ending at the same time and information pouring in makes for an interesting cascade of rewrites through the end of the West Coast evening games. Sometimes, in the furious rush to get scores to the Web as quickly as possible, we aren’t as careful as we could be. That’s how Pat wrote this photo caption during the first week of the playoffs: "Franklin did’t made many stops today but got a big one on the goal line in the third quarter"

Remember the weird gifts
A journalist must never get too close to his subjects or accept gifts, lest he lose his main asset, his credibility. Yet that doesn’t stop fans of D3football.com from offering, or us occasionally making an exception to the rules. This season, the Gagliardi Trophy committee sent St. John's bread mix in an envelope, which was a historical lesson, if not the first time I'd received unbaked bread as a gift by mail. But then again, in the odd department, I also ended up with a $2 pair of old McMurry sweatpants when Ralph Turner (message board Hall of Famer and my personal campus tour guide) and I wandered through the baseball team's old gear sale.

That said, the odd gift of the year winner is probably the sign Pat and I encountered on the streets of McMinnville, Ore., where a fellow who goes by Tuxguy on our message boards left us this on the marquee of his tuxedo rental shop:

Remember the good/bad travel moments 
Traveling in the playoffs is always a bit of a mixed bag. It's great to be able to go out and see different teams and take long trips, whenever possible, but the weather is almost always an issue. Whether it's like 2003, where snow postponed the Bridgewater/Lycoming game for a day and kept our crew and many others from traveling to the Ithaca/RPI game, winter is in full force by the time the quarterfinals and semifinals roll around. Pat Coleman, Ryan Coleman and Adam Johnson faced the brunt of winter in traveling from Minneapolis to Pella, Iowa.

The trip to Iowa was relatively uneventful, but Pat said he knew they were in trouble Saturday morning when he was woken up before 7 by the sound of someone scraping ice off their windshield. The 50-mile trip to Pella took nearly two hours. But that was the easy part.


There was no telling how far ahead the backup went. Our crew didn't stick around to find out.
Photo by Ryan Coleman

The game itself was delayed 90 minutes before it started and an extra 20 minutes at the half. After one of the shortest postgame shows on record, the return trip began.

And nearly nine hours and 309 miles, they pulled into Minneapolis. While most of Iowa was clear, after crossing into Minnesota on I-35, the highway turned into a sheet of ice. Two miles into the state, the group hit a backup that had the interstate at a standstill, caused by an accident miles ahead. Eventually they worked the vehicle up about 100 yards to a U-turn, headed back into Iowa and crawled west to U.S. 65, just to crawl about 9 miles north to get back to the interstate.

Despite all that, it was faster to take the detour than to wait ... as the group was leaving a rest area, the first person through the roadblock arrived, after waiting for hours. -- Pat Coleman

Off-the-beaten path things I will remember about this season
A season is filled with moments that don’t always have a lot to do with football, but somehow seem compelling enough to share. You be the judge.

 At the tail end of our whirlwind tour of the Chicago area, I am at the Wheaton-Augustana game standing in line to use the rest room. As happens from time to time, only on D3 campuses, a man recognizes me. He is wearing and Augustana hat and appears to be with his son. He says he's a fan of the site and everything we do to keep Division III connected. As I ask a bit about him, I find he's not just a fan, but an ex-Vikings player. "What years?" I ask. "1983-86," is the non-chalant reply. At this point, I wonder if I should be more excited to meet him than he is to meet me. Augustana won four Stagg Bowls and started a 60-game unbeaten streak in those years. To meet a player from one of the great dynasties in college football history stands out even among someone who's experienced as much football as I have.

 Sometimes, as the "D3football.com guys," we'll get recognized in a not-so-typical exchange. Taking a commercial break during a webcast of a regular-season Wesley game, Pat leaned out of the press box window to adjust a crowd microphone. A fan recognizes him and exclaims: "Look out, Pat Coleman’s spying on you." Pat says he hadn't said a word to these people before and had no idea who they were.

(Pat notes: I was adjusting the mic because they were talking too loudly and I wanted listeners to hear less of them!)

 Sometimes us D3football.com guys don't get recognized at all. Although we'd met Mike Swider and talked with him for at least a half-hour on a previous trip to Wheaton, the Thunder coach stood near us and talked to fans after his team's exhilarating 28-24 win against Augustana. The fan, clearly an acquaintance, was excited to have us in the house and was relaying as much to Swider. "Oh, I never read that stuff," the coach said.

 From the 'Awesome D3 fans' file: Salem, the site of the Stagg Bowl, is a decent day trip from Mount Union, about six hours or so. That leaves a handful of travel options, but perhaps none beat the Purple Raiders-themed RV spotted at the Stagg Bowl this year: Dubbled the Kehres-mobile, it was adorned with a sign: Merry X-Mas, with the X highlighted as a Roman numeral. Come to think of it, since Mount Union didn't win their 10th title, we might see that RV again.

 Also from the 'Awesome D3 fans' file: Pat and I flew into Chicago from the D.C. area, where we're based, on the morning of Oct. 13 with time to kill. We read The Onion and have pastry at a shop on the University of Chicago campus, and check out Amos Alonzo Stagg Field to kill time. We swing by Comiskey Park and make our way to North Park, where it's still so early no one but maintenance is at the Holmgren (yes, that Holmgren) Athletic Complex. Pat and I do our D3 nerd thing, checking the facility out, and as we get back in the car to leave, we see a small group of Carthage fans set up on the residential street that borders the game field. There is food on the grill and beer in hand if I recall correctly, and it's got to be at least three hours until kickoff. Who says Wisconsin folks don't know how to tailgate?

 This too, from the 'Awesome D3 fans' file: Friday night in Salem, preparing to play color analyst on the air the next day, I went in search of some color. This led me to the hotel bars (no, really). In actuality, Mount Union had a full-on banquet prepared, with door prizes, name tags and room full of purple-clad Purple Raiders fans who appeared to be having a whale of a time. Although their team didn't win the next day, as those fans are accustomed to seeing in their trips to Salem, they had to ride home thinking about what a good time they had Friday night. And on the other side of the coin, UW-Whitewater fans had their plans change a couple times at the last minute, but still managed to fill the bar area of the Holiday Inn. There I got to meet several Warhawk families, just as I had spent time in the hall talking to a Mount Union fan. The insight and the sheer joy both teams' fans shared gave me a good feeling about the Stagg Bowl as an enjoyable event in people's lives, rather than just a game. But Whitewater's fans took the cake when the team filed into the hotel and headed back to their rooms for the night. As if on cue, the Warhawks fans in the bar area, an open atrium visible from the front door and check-in desk, erupted in a cheering ovation that continued until the last Warhawk had passed through the lobby. 

 So yeah, sometimes when D3 staff can't quite make it to games, we at least try to give ourselves a frame of reference by seeing the campus and its fields (and in Pat's case, the basketball gym). We couldn't resist a side-jaunt to Lewis & Clark as we headed toward Linfield the night before the Hardin-Simmons game. It was a strange scene however, as we walked on to the fully lit, old-style turf field and encountered only two guys tossing a frisbee. We wandered through the athletic buildings and basketball gym, not once encountering anyone asking us to move it along or to stop taking pictures. What a welcoming campus!

 Half the fun of all the travel, besides the football, is getting a taste of local culture, especially the culinary kind. On my visit to Abilene, Texas, Ralph Turner is kind enough to take me to breakfast at a spot called The Dixie Pig. And if you thought that was my 'you're in Texas now,' story, that's only the half. Austin College employee, Hardin-Simmons grad and D3sports.com photographer Josh Bowerman decides I need another true taste of Abilene. Joe Allen's Steakhouse, where the owner really wears his Cowboy hat and comes to your table to ask if your steak was done right, is the choice. And although the backstory doesn't beat the restaurateur from Alliance, Ohio that migrated to Temple, Texas (not far from Mary Hardin-Baylor) where we ate on last year's Texas trip, ask why Joe Allen's ex-wife runs a rival steakhouse in Abilene should you ever happen to be passing through town.

 D3football.com has yet to secure an official airline, so Around the Nation's four flights this year were with four different airlines. And there's no complaint here, as the days before we could afford to fly aren't in the too distant past. Some of the outposts we're trying to reach for D3 games aren't the type of airports served by 737s, to put it nicely. Regional airports are great for ultra-short waits in the security line, but "security" isn't always the word that comes to mind on some of the tiny planes used to get there. If you live somewhere where there are mountains, bodies of water or trees, erase all those things, and there you have West Texas. It's completely flat, and you can practically see your destination when you take off. Although I am thoroughly fascinated by flight, I am less fascinated by small-plane pilots who find vertical descents to be effective and/or amusing.

 Some things are just inevitable. We had gracious hosts, The Carlsons, on our trip to Oregon. The Linfield grads were glad to put me and Pat up, and anytime we can get a true feel for a trip by staying with a friend of the site instead of in a hotel, we'll consider. The problem with our trip was after a nice dinner and conversation, Kelly, the woman of the house, knew a moment would approach when her husband Ryan (of CatdomeAlumni.com fame), Pat and I would fire up the laptops and immerse ourselves in Division III minutiae. In a moment we've since referred to as "Three geeks at a table," that inevitable moment took place at the dinner table not long after the plate were cleared. Thanks for the hospitality Kelly, but there are Friday night TCNJ/FDU-Florham scores to be located!

 OK, so you longtime readers might remember embarrassing tales of radio dedications from previous drives to Mount Union playoff games. The Alliance trip has become an annual tradition for Pat and I, as has our sonic revisiting of the 1980s. (Hey, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike it's either that or Allegheny Valley JV wrestling. Seriously). I've joined the iPod revolution, although roughly 93% percent of the 3,000 or so songs I carry with me are hip-hop. Pat, as you may have noticed, is not very hip-hop. (He does, however, do a mean "Weird Al" Yankovic.) So the musical moments seared into my memory from this trip involve classic Prince and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. The two of us trying to remember the words to ‘All Cried Out’ and ‘Lost in Emotion’ ... well, that has nothing to do with football, but the faithful ATN readers deserve some visuals to laugh at.

 It's always good to see Division III players staying close to the game, so the image of current Wesley quarterback Jason Schatz and former Bridgewater quarterback Brandon Wakefield having a passing competition in the Stagg Bowl parking lot is a good one. So was having former Mount Union defensive end Justen Stickley on the air from the D3football.com Stagg Bowl pregame show, sharing insight on how to beat the Purple Raiders (summarized, not psyching yourself out would be a good start). And it was also good to have former St. John Fisher running back Mark Robinson on the air for playoff broadcasts. 

 Pat and I spotted some strange things along the way this season, like a Capital shirt at the Hardin-Simmons/Linfield game in Oregon, reminding us that Division III influences are everywhere. That was best brought together at the Stagg Bowl tailgate, when Division III fans from everywhere came together for the annual posse shot. I did spot an Albion shirt in the parking lot, and that didn't make the photo, but having an idea it might take place this year, I came prepared to represent my own alma mater. Yes, the fool in the background holding the shirt would be me.


The final PAT of the Cornell/Northwestern (Minn.) game was delayed for 15 minutes while the field's automated sprinkler system went off. After the delay, Cornell blocked the PAT attempt and won 31-30.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, D3sports.com

Remember the great photos
D3sports.com improved its photography operation this year, sending shooters to 103 games (including 22 in the playoffs) and covering 104 Division III teams, then making the best photos available for purchase via PicturePrints.net. Given that there are no full-time photographers on the payroll, D3photography cast a decent net, shooting at least one team from every conference but the PAC and NESCAC, plus getting 11 independents. Teams closer to where we had photographers based tended to get covered more often, so if your team wasn't one of the 103 we were able to photograph in action this year, have your local photographer get in contact with Ryan Coleman at editor@d3photography.com.

Next year, this should be brought back
ATN noticed two things it would like to see repeated following perhaps the most well-run year in memory. First, the playoff selection committee's method of establishing No. 1 seeds first, then building the four regional brackets around them is something advocated in this spot in the past. ATN isn't taking credit for the change, but rather applauding the committee for stepping out there this year and pushing for it to continue. Second, the use of instant replay in the Stagg Bowl is a big plus. Although I generally favor the Stagg Bowl replicating a normal Division III game as closely as possible, the national championship should absolutely be decided by the play on the field, not a missed or misinterpreted call. That the NCAA springs for a video board and a three-man replay staff for the Stagg Bowl should be evidence that our national championship is considered as important as any other championship the NCAA runs (excluding perhaps the cash cows that are the Division I men’s basketball tournaments). Indeed, in the third year of replay at the Stagg Bowl, the first call ever overturned was a Mount Union 1-yard TD run-turned-Whitewater goal-line stand, which ended up being a key play in a tight game.

Next year, this should be changed
If the value of the automatic qualifier system hadn't been made completely clear in the past, NWC conference Whitworth missing the playoffs (at 8-2) this year drove home the need for smaller leagues to get with the program. The NWC, which didn't have seven football-playing members when Division III went to the AQ system, has figured it out and will get a bid next year following its two-year waiting period. The PAC expanded from six to nine members and also has a bid now, leaving perhaps two Pool B bids for teams from the ACFC, UAA and independents. This season, it became completely clear that relying on selection in Pool B is a tightrope walk that a team with playoff plans would rather avoid. Champions of AQ conferences can rest easy on selection Sunday knowing they've done exactly what was required of them to earn a playoff bid.

 Selfishly speaking, we weren't pleased that the NCAA videocasts of the semifinals were linked with local audio. Perhaps we're biased, but we think D3football.com's staff would call a more balanced game for the official NCAA broadcast than the home broadcasters from one of the participating teams. That would seem to be more relevant as well, since fans of the local team would likely be either at the game or tuned into the local broadcasters already.

Best moment no one else saw
Tom Pattison, the man behind fan site Warhawkfootball.com, and a longtime supporter of the UW-Whitewater program, in both an official and unofficial capacity, suffered serious health problems in 2006. He regained his strength enough this season to follow the team again, and make it down to Salem for the Stagg Bowl. After the national championship had been won, fireworks had gone off and fans had filed out of Salem Stadium, former UW-Whitewater coach Bob Berezowitz walked past Pattison, seated near an open window in the press box, gazing onto the field. "Take it all in," said Berezowitz, who played for the Warhawks and coached them for 22 years, including twice to runner-up finishes before retiring last season. The two looked out the window at the purple Roanoke Valley sky, letting a reality set in: The program they both loved so much for so long had finally reached the apex.

And on a final note ... 
Wouldn't ATN be remiss if it didn't crank up this debate? Mount Union loses 16 seniors who started. The heart of the UW-Whitewater, UMHB, St. John Fisher, Bethel and Central teams -- arguably -- are all graduating. The highest-ranked team that returns much of its starting lineup, including most of the key cogs? Wesley, which ranked fifth in the final poll. Dare I say preseason No. 1?

Discuss the year-in-review column on the Around the Nation thread of Post Patterns, on the D3sports.com message board, or on The Daily Dose.

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Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and begins as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011; has worked on all but one of the preseason Kickoff publications; has done game-day writing and photography and the pregame broadcast at the championship Stagg Bowl in Salem for almost a decade; and has taken photos at the Final Four for D3hoops.com. He's also on the selection staff for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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