It is the greatest football playoff on earth.
It is not perfect.
So until we can put a collection bucket at all 239 teams' home games to raise money for an extra first-round flight or two so the committee can afford to do right by its seeds, this is the system we have. Texas plays Texas, California plays the Northwest. If your region can't produce an unbeaten top seed, another region will gladly do it for you.
The time for griping is finished. The time to salivate over the matchups provided has begun.
That doesn't mean your trusty Around the Nation columnist has to pretend things are all good, as we give bracket reactions below, and bring Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and Frank Rossi, from our Stagg Bowl broadcast crew, on board later. There are ways we were and still can be surprised. There are things that disappointed us, or teams that will.
Continuing an annual tradition of going beyond the bracket itself and breaking down what these matchups really mean and what route we'll take on the five-week trip to Salem, ATN presents its pre-playoff observations:
For the fourth season, ATN provides an expanded look at the
bracket beyond our Surprises and Disappointments, which we have
done since 2001. Pat, Ryan Tipps and I will also provide
game-by-game score predictions Friday morning on The Daily
You've had all week to kick around who isn't in the field and why. Now let Around the Nation briefly look at the 32-team field and the road to Salem from a few different angles:
Toughest first-round draw
No. 6 seed St. John's should have been on the road at No. 3 Monmouth, a program it beat 62-3 in a playoff game in 2005. Instead, after fighting through perhaps the nation's most competitive conference this season, the MIAC champion Johnnies visit the fifth-seeded defending national champions of UW-Whitewater. Lovely.
Easiest opening game
Mount Union, at No. 1 overall, drew a four-loss team that might have been expected to push a higher seed in its home South Region, but won't in Alliance.
Toughest path to Salem
Hobart hasn't gotten enough attention for what it's done this season, and being mentioned here isn't really for the right reason either. Should the Statesmen get past three-loss Lycoming at home, they would travel to Mount Union. Then even with a stunning upset, they could still have to get through Ithaca or Cortland State and the North Central Bracket champion for a Stagg Bowl appearance. So, yeah, enjoy that home game.
Longest road to Salem
Aurora is just a few miles from North Central, but the Cardinals were a top seed in a different bracket. That means a bus trip across Illinois to Monmouth, and with a victory, either a shot to Iowa or Wisconsin, followed by potential trips to California or Oregon, Ohio and Virginia. The Northern Athletics champion won't get this far, but they'd sure make a cool scrapbook if they did.
Easiest path to Salem (Book now)
If Lycoming upsets Hobart, Mount Union would play the two teams with the most losses (seven combined; you'd have to use a combination of four teams elsewhere in the bracket to reach that total) before facing a team that would give it a serious challenge.
The committee nailed
The No. 1 seeds. The move of Mount Union to a bracket filled with mostly East Region teams was imperative given Cortland State and Muhlenberg's losses in Week 11. North Central, Willamette and Millsaps were all deserving of top seeds. To make one of them a No. 2 to keep the Purple Raiders in their home region doesn't serve any worthwhile purpose.
The committee blew
They didn't have a choice with the Texas rematch and were overruled on using two flights for West Coast teams. But providing the No. 1 Willamette/No. 2 Occidental winner with a potential visit from the defending national champion adds to the indignity. Unless of course you subscribe to the 'you'd have to beat them sooner or later' theory.
Road team most deserving of a home game
No. 2 seed Occidental. Aside from bumping up the budget so they can fly somewhere besides Colorado College for a non-conference game, I'm not sure what more the Tigers could be asked to do to be able to stay home for at least one round.
Home team least deserving of a home game
Washington & Jefferson. The Presidents were on the bubble when Week 11 began and probably wouldn't have gotten in if a couple of teams handled business. I don't have any problem with W&J making the field, but when the team that beat you to win the conference (Thomas More) goes on the road, as do teams like Hardin-Simmons and Wesley, and one of the last teams in plays at home, that isn't right.
We would have liked to see
What the selection committee would have done if Trinity (Texas) or Redlands had been a Pool C entrant. The Tigers probably would have gone to UMHB and sprung Hardin-Simmons from its perennial Lone Star playoff prison, while Occidental almost certainly would have hosted Redlands (or even Cal Lutheran) in the event either made it. That means HSU could have gone to Willamette if they both made it. What if only one did? Then would we have seen a bizarre leftover scenario like when Hardin-Simmons went to Wittenberg in Round 1 in 2001? Certainly not a Round 1 with just a single team headed to the airport.
Played themselves in during Week 11
Washington & Jefferson might not have needed a home game, but they handled business when their playoff chances hung in the balance. Ithaca and Randolph-Macon did it against rivals, and the Yellow Jackets trailed in the fourth quarter.
Played themselves out during Week 11
It might be easier to list who didn't. But certainly RPI, Montclair State, Hampden-Sydney, Catholic and St. John Fisher had to beat teams they were expected to defeat and did not, and Redlands lost a key matchup against Cal Lutheran.
Best first-round matchup
St. John's/UW-Whitewater has the name recognition, and Occidental/Willamette and Hardin-Simmons/UMHB are the matchups of highest seeds. But as far as true toss-ups are concerned, I like the 4/5 games of Lycoming/Hobart and Franklin/Otterbein to provide the most drama. I wouldn't count out Wabash/Case Western Reserve either.
The 'sorry for the false hopes' award
These plaques would be for you, Tigers and RedHawks.
Each year, D3football.com projects the playoff field the night before Selection Sunday, looking at basically the same data the committee is privy to, except their final regional ranking. Here's how we've done projecting the field since we began giving it a try:
2008: 30 of 32: We projected DePauw and Montclair State; the committee took Curry and Wheaton.
2007: 31 of 32: We projected Whitworth; the committee preferred UW-Eau Claire, which won in the first round.
2006: 32 of 32.
2005: 31 of 32: We projected Alfred; the committee preferred Wilkes, which lost to Rowan, 42-3.
2004: 28 of 28.
2003: 27 of 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 of 28: We projected Hartwick; the committee took Washington and Jefferson, which beat second-year Christopher Newport and got routed at Trinity (Texas).
2001: 25 of 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).
It's an ATN yearly tradition (take a look at what we thought
would happen in 2001,
to examine each eight-team sub-bracket and offer our take on who
will rise up, who will fall back and who will be the last of the
Identified by their bracket names and the region we unofficially associate with each, here goes:
Photo by Matt Milless for D3sports.com
Keith: I'm surprised I'm not more excited about
this bracket, what with my alma mater in it, the return of Lycoming
to the postseason and the spectre of a Cortaca Jug rematch. The
shadow of Mount Union looms so large that if not careful, we can
forget to enjoy the experience.
Ryan: Lycoming, which hadn't before been mentioned in the regional rankings, leapt so high in the seeding structure as to almost earn itself a home game. Of course, after going 3-7 last year, the fact that the Warriors even have a game to play in Week 12 is impressive. And a trip to Round 2 isn't out of the question.
Frank: I doubt they will win, but enough "smack talk" has been generated for the NEFC teams (Plymouth State and Curry) to at least remain competitive in their games against Cortland and Ithaca. Will they win? No. But they will keep the games respectable.
Pat: It is really hard to pick a team that lost to Mount Ida, but I'm going to give it a try. I mean, with Mount Union and two NEFC teams in this bracket, it's very difficult to justify some things as being actually possible. Plymouth State does have one thing that tends to translate to playoff success: a running game.
Keith: Cortland State's Week 11 performance. I would have liked to have a team I can get behind as far as providing drama in the regional final. I guess it's better that Ithaca won and got in for the overall strength of this bracket, but I would have liked to see the East produce its own top seed, or at least get one shipped in from the Allentown, Pa. area.
Ryan: Randolph-Macon has been shipped into the bracket and given a pairing that ensures its Cinderella turnaround season will end harshly. It's a tough way for the seniors who built the current version of the program to end their college days.
Frank: Cortland State has been running on fumes through its last three games, culminating in the loss against Ithaca to end the season. Their powerful schedule has taken a toll, making me a doubter that they'll see Mount Union in this bracket's championship.
Pat: Two NEFC teams in this bracket. For a committee which took UW-Eau Claire instead of Whitworth last year to suddenly reverse course on taking two-loss teams from strong conferences and select Curry over Montclair State really dilutes this bracket. I don't know why this bracket was weakened for Mount Union.
Keith: In the preseason, I thought with just eight starters back there might be an opportunity for Mount Union to have an off year. I went out on a limb then, saying they wouldn't get back to the Stagg Bowl, but I haven't seen anything that would make me stick with that line of thinking. Not in this bracket.
Ryan: Mount Union. Next item please.
Frank: Of course, as an East Region guy, I'll try to pick against Mount Union ... OK, I tried. Didn't work. Mount Union it is.
Pat: Next question.
Photo by David Rich for D3sports.com
Keith: Three lower seeds could win in the first round, and the No. 7 looks about as likely to win this bracket as the No. 2 does.
Ryan: Wheaton is in a place, on a weaker half of the bracket, to roll through teams from weaker conferences. Neither Wabash, Case nor Trine has been tested on the level Wheaton has been this season, and the Thunder's experience down that road will show.
Frank: Case Western Reserve's playoff experience from 2007 actually gives the team a fighting chance to go far in this somewhat parity-filled bracket (especially at the top of the bracket). The balanced offense will allow versatility in this most important part of the year.
Pat: That any one of the four teams in the lower half of this bracket have a chance of making the regional finals, while one of the two best teams (North Central or Otterbein) will be eliminated by the end of the second round.
Keith: That we can't get staggered kickoffs. It's a nitpick, but with Otterbein and Case Western Reserve about two hours apart, and North Central and Monmouth about 3 1/2, Noon and 8 p.m. starts would provide the opportunity to watch, scout or cover two games in one day in many places, especially where TV doesn't go. (Mount Union/W&J, Ithaca/Cortland State are other sites where one could do two). Then again, it might just be one more way the Texas and West Coast teams get a raw deal.
Ryan: There are maybe five other teams that Franklin would have rather drawn out of the gate, and the reward for a win in Round 1 could be a trip to the only other team they'd probably rather not face. The Grizzlies have more talent than it'll seem like they do come Saturday.
Frank: Otterbein's lack of experience will make it tough for the Cardinals to weave their way through this bracket. Otterbein's inability to bounce back strongly from the Mount Union loss doesn't give me much to believe in right now.
Pat: I guess I'm already on the record in many places as saying Trine is out of place as the No. 2 seed, so I better go with that. Massey has them rated six spots behind Wheaton, 14 spots behind third-seeded Case and 35 spots behind fourth-seeded Otterbein.
Keith: I was one of the first to back North Central as a top-two team, and they finished out their CCIW schedule with four consecutive victories against teams with six or more wins. The competition continues to get tougher, but the Cardinals keep responding, so I'll stick with them.
Ryan: Otterbein. Without having to go through Mount Union, OAC runners-up have tended to fair very well in brackets. North Central will be the toughest roadblock to the national semifinals.
Frank: North Central might seem like a slam dunk, but if Case Western Reserve can get through to face North Central, I believe their balanced offense will make the North Central's defense vulnerable for most of the game. It will be close, but I'll take Case Western Reserve.
Pat: I don't know until Keith's column comes out if I'm going out on a limb by taking Otterbein or if everyone agrees with me. It'll probably be somewhere in between.
Photo by Larry Radloff, D3sports.com
Keith: That the reward for the St.
John's/UW-Whitewater winner will be a game against either the No. 1
or No. 2 seed. Ouch.
Ryan: The nascent Northern Athletics Conference, represented by Aurora, actually has a chance at winning a playoff game.
Frank: I've never seen so much ill-discussion about a No. 2 seed since the inception of the 32-team bracket. However, it's not normal to see No. 1 host No. 2 in the first round either. Yet in my opinion, Occidental's strength (rush defense) might balance Willamette's strength (rush offense) sufficiently to allow Oxy a chance at the upset.
Pat: The Wartburg/Stevens Point winner, which will beat the Monmouth/Aurora winner.
Keith: That the selection committee actually got it right, by submitting to ESPN a bracket that sent No. 7 Wartburg to No. 2 Occidental and No. 8 Aurora to No. 1 Willamette, before an entity with veto power which remains nameless and faceless to the public put on the brakes and threw the matchups the Bearcats and Tigers earned out the window. With reason, one can often see the basis for the NCAA's actions even when they make little sense. Maybe we're fools for hoping for a different outcome even as each year the 32-team field contains the same misstep.
Ryan: Though it's not in the best interest of the WIAC or the playoffs in general, I was looking forward to seeing the UW schools face off again -- and maybe re-live the tight regular-season matchup. Though it is possible, Whitewater, especially, has a very difficult road to seeing a meeting like that happen.
Frank: Dead horse alert: No. 1 at No. 2?! C'mon! OK, fine. I'll pick St. John's as my disappointment, since they've been a team living on the edge all season long. While I hate picking against Coach Gagliardi, I just think their draw vs. UW-W will force an early exit.
Pat: A penny pinched is a piece of bubble gum earned.
Keith: I think I'm going with No. 1 seeds elsewhere, and the final four matchups rarely play out as expected. So let's chalk one up for playoff experience (even if its roster got most of it not starting) and the mighty WIAC and send UW-Whitewater back to the semis.
Ryan: This is admittedly a stretch, but Wartburg's Round 1 pairing pits two teams that have squeaked by opponents all season, and it's not hard to imagine the Knights coming out on top of that one and then blowing through Round 2. Their biggest challenge will be the regional final in the Pacific Northwest.
Frank: UW-Whitewater needed to lose in order to have a chance to defend their championship this season. So, the one loss to me is actually a benefit. The experience, the schedule, the taste in their mouths and the desire to win right now puts this #5 seed clearly on my radar -- and you know they have to be salivating over a potential Stevens Point rematch.
Pat: I guess Willamette. I tend to like to see some previous playoff experience before I pick a team to go deep but I see a lot of things in Willamette's favor -- everyone has to get on a plane to get there, they present a scheme that's not usually seen and the region's traditional powers are down.
Keith: That this bracket features first-round matchups that will rival the strength of whatever the regional final produces. Underdogs like Hardin-Simmons and Wesley, two and three points from undefeated, respectively, could go out in the first round or make the national semifinals.
Ryan: Washington & Jefferson and the USA South champion have been paired together in Round 1 ... again. That makes three years in a row, folks. Maybe this is the coastal states' way of rivaling the Texas sub-bracket.
Frank: Wesley has played a great schedule all season and merged that with great defensive statistics. That combination will propel them at least past the first round over a wobbly Muhlenberg team.
Pat: I foresee a Wesley/Hardin-Simmons game. And no, not in the regional consolation bracket.
Keith: That No. 7 seed Wesley couldn't earn a home game in the first round despite a one-loss record that didn't look much worse than Muhlenberg's or Washington & Jefferson's and included a win over Salisbury, which beat No. 6 seed Christopher Newport. I realize the Wolverines were short a game and didn't have many in-region Division III opponents, but it still seems like we'd have been better served by CNU at Wesley and W&J at Muhlenberg.
Ryan: Last year's one-loss Wesley team was a No. 2 seed; this year, it's a No. 7. It would have been interesting to have slotted the team up a couple of spots to be able to play out the canceled Week 1 game against Christopher Newport.
Frank: OK, besides No. 2 vs. No. 3 in the first round? Well, I'll leave that dead horse alone and pick on some Mules instead. There was a lot of negativity about the Mules' ranking all season, and they finally fell in the final week against Moravian. Momentum is against them right now, and the Wolverines are hungry.
Pat: What are Mary Hardin-Baylor and Hardin-Simmons paying dues for at this point? If I were them, I'd be asking why I would bother to be in the NCAA and wondering if the NAIA might be a better fit. Why should Texas and the West Coast play under different rules in the postseason than everyone else?
Keith: I still like Millsaps. I was perhaps too mesmerized by a humming offense when I saw them at Trinity (Texas) to remember if their defense is polished enough to stop a powerful ground attack should the Majors run up against one. But whoever wins this bracket will have earned it, for certain.
Ryan: Wesley, but going down a hard-fought path to get there. After replacing the quarterback and tightening their defense, the Wolverines have evolved into the team that they were expected to be when the season started.
Frank: Mary Hardin-Baylor has outgained their opponents on average by about 170 yards per game this season while playing a pretty strong schedule. This is the type of season performance that makes me a believer -- so I'll save my directions to Belton, Texas, for anyone that needs them in the later rounds.
Pat: Barring a miracle, Millsaps.
Around the Nation begins its yearly playoff hiatus following this column, but be sure to check back around the time of the Stagg Bowl and shortly thereafter for the annual ATN year-in-review.