October 22, 2008

Queueing up the AQs

More news about: Wilkes

Wilkes still has hopes of climbing the MAC ladder and getting the automatic bid.

Photo by Matt Milless for D3sports.com

So here we are again. The typically crazy IIAC has a three-team tie at the top. Of course, that's child's play compared to the Empire 8, which has four solid contenders running neck and neck. The MIAC, meanwhile, might only have two current leaders, but there are five teams waiting for them both to stumble so they can seize their chance at the postseason.

Has there ever been a better time for the automatic qualifier system?

The nation's most intriguing race for a conference title and the playoff bid that accompanies it is probably in the Middle Atlantic Conference, where five of the eight teams (Albright, Delaware Valley, Lebanon Valley, Lycoming and Wilkes) are tied atop the conference at 2-1, with defending champion Widener a game back, tied with FDU-Florham, which just sprung a 19-14 upset on the Aggies, who were ranked 14th at the time.

These races sure look good from afar, but Around the Nation decided to ask if anyone on the inside was enjoying them as much as the rest of us.

"Anytime you're heading into the last month of your season playing meaningful games, at any level, that's exciting," Wilkes coach Frank Sheptock said.

OK, so Around the Nation cheated a little bit. We asked a coach whose team lost its first four games yet finds himself in the thick of a title chase if he's getting a kick out of it. Of course he is!

"It's fun for us right now," Sheptock said. "It's a new season for us, it's fresh. Now you're right in the middle of a conference race."

That's precisely why ATN loves the AQ system. A team can go a month without winning and still have something to play for. But better yet, a team can do what Wilkes has done, push itself against the best opposition it can schedule. Isn't the essence of competition, after all, the idea of challenging yourself to be the best you can be?

The Colonels' three non-conference opponents (No. 5 Muhlenberg, plus Montclair State and Christopher Newport, both receiving top 25 votes) are a combined 15-2. What exactly would make a coach want to run his team through such a gauntlet?

After making the playoffs in 2005 and 2006, first as an 8-2 Pool C team, then as a 10-0 No. 1 seed, three teams left the MAC to join other conferences. Instead of nine conference games a year, Wilkes was left with seven, and some decisions to make."I definitely think when everything occurred with the league and losing some teams, it was our belief that for our program to move forward, we had to play the toughest opponents we possibly could," Sheptock said. "Hopefully it prepares [us] for some of the situations [we] encounter in later in the MAC schedule."

In 2007, Wilkes played three NJAC teams, including Rowan and Montclair State. Widener also played Rowan last season, along with North Carolina Wesleyan and Wesley. Sheptock cited the Pride as "a great example" of the schedule-strong theory at work.

"They were 1-2 out of the chute before running the table in the MAC," he recalled. "[The AQ system] allows a program to challenge itself without giving up its opportunity to play its way into the playoffs."

Although Sheptock figured his team would get more out of tough games than easy wins, non-conference scheduling has been rougher than planned. Wilkes is 0-6 the past two seasons.

"Our record in non-conference games the last two years is not very good," Sheptock said. "But they've been great games, especially for putting kids in situations they'll encounter later. The atmosphere is great. And when you get to the playoffs and play against a traditional power, you know you have to keep your level of play up because you've experienced it."

The experience might be beginning to pay for the Colonels, who are 2-4 against opponents who are 26-9, and have been outscored by just four points, 123-119. Consecutive wins against FDU-Florham and Lycoming – in which Sheptock said some of the situations that his players had to battle in tight games against Montclair State and Christopher Newport came up again – have Wilkes at 2-1 in MAC play, alongside four teams that are 4-2 overall.

"The parity, I don't know if it's good for [the MAC] on a national level, to have a bunch of 2-1 teams," Sheptock said. However, he referenced Delaware Valley's two top 25 wins, and acknowledged that the non-conference competition probably had a hand in toughening up all the MAC teams.

"A five-way tie is really interesting," he said. "And lot of the teams involved still have to play each other. So it's going to make for a heck of a last month of the season."

For anyone scoring at home, here are the head-to-head games among the top 5 MAC teams in the final four weeks:

Week 8
Delaware Valley at Lycoming
Wilkes at Albright
After this, if Lebanon Valley beats King's, the MAC will be down to a three-way tie up top. And with FDU-Florham and Widener playing, one of the second-place teams will really be reduced to spoiler.

Week 9
Albright at Lebanon Valley

Week 10
Delaware Valley at Wilkes

Week 11
Lebanon Valley at Lycoming
Albright at Delaware Valley

In case you only pay attention to your favorite team's conference, here's a brief look at everything, from a national perspective. ATN, while acknowledging that surprises do occur, breaks the conference races down into three categories:

CLEAR FRONT-RUNNERS
Conferences whose leaders have already played their closest competitors and would have to stumble badly to miss out on the title:
ASC, Mary Hardin-Baylor
CC, Muhlenberg
MWC, Monmouth
NJAC, Cortland State
UMAC, Northwestern (Minn.) (no automatic bid, must face No. 2 team in Dome Day for title)

HEAD-TO-HEAD CLASH SHOULD SETTLE IT
Conferences where the likely champion will emerge from one game between front-runners:
ACFC, Wesley at Salisbury, Week 9 (Nov. 1, no automatic bid)
CCIW, North Central at Wheaton, Week 8 (Oct. 25)
HCAC, Rose-Hulman at Franklin, Week 9
MIAA, Trine at Adrian, Week 10 (Nov. 8)
MIAC, Carleton at Concordia-Moorhead, Week 10
NWC, Willamette at Linfield, Week 8
NEFC, Curry at Plymouth State, Week 8 (winner is the likely favorite in Week 11 NEFC title game)
NESCAC, Amherst at Trinity (Conn.), Week 9 (no playoffs)
ODAC, Catholic at Hampden-Sydney, Week 8
SCAC, Millsaps at Trinity (Texas), Week 9
SLIAC, Huntingdon at LaGrange, Week 11 (Nov. 15, no automatic bid)

WE'VE GOT PROBLEMS
Conferences where three or more teams are still very much in the running:
Empire 8: Alfred, Ithaca, Hartwick and St. John Fisher
IIAC: Wartburg, Buena Vista and Luther
LL: RPI, WPI and Hobart
MAC: Weren't you paying attention earlier?
NATHC: Aurora, Concordia (Wis.), Lakeland, Wisconsin Lutheran
NCAC: Wabash, Wittenberg, Wooster
OAC: Mount Union, Otterbein and John Carroll
PAC: Thomas More, Washington & Jefferson and Waynesburg
SCIAC: Cal Lutheran, Occidental and Redlands
UAA: Conference play takes place in Weeks 9-11 (no automatic bid)
USAC: Christopher Newport, Ferrum and N.C. Wesleyan
WIAC: UW-Whitewater, UW-Stevens Point and UW-River Falls

Poll positions

Four ranked teams lost in Week 7, including three in the top 15, so major movement had to take place. The question was how far to move UW-Eau Claire (No. 7 last week), Capital (No. 9) and Delaware Valley (No. 14), if to continue voting for them at all.

All three remained ranked, coming in between Nos. 17 and 22.

It's a mild surprise. D3football.com voters have traditionally been forgiving when a team loses to another ranked team, especially one ranked higher. Of the eight ranked teams with a loss in the Week 6 poll, all but two of the losses were to other teams in the ranking. Another was to a team ranked at the time of the game (Ithaca, which lost to then-No. 11 St. John Fisher) and the other was against a I-AA team.

But Week 7's poll showed that voters were forgiving to highly ranked teams, even if they picked up their second loss. The three teams in question each lost to unranked teams.

Delaware Valley has wins against No. 11 Wesley and No. 15 Salisbury, and its previous loss was to I-AA Iona. Capital's losses are to No. 1 Mount Union and John Carroll, which is two spots from cracking the poll. UW-Eau Claire's first loss was by two points to No. 2 UW-Whitewater.

Although you can make sense of the poll, not everything in it will make sense. Some things aren't easily reconciled.

For instance, not only is Delaware Valley ranked behind two teams it beat, but Iona (which lost to Wesley) helps form a classic three-team triangle.

One can argue that neither Salisbury or Wesley, both of whom lost in Doylestown, would lose to FDU-Florham. Or a voter can give greater weight to more recent results.
How then to explain Capital's No. 21 and John Carroll's equivalent of 27, though the Blue Streaks just last Saturday forced nine turnovers and beat the Crusaders 13-3?

And don't even attempt to make sense of Ithaca, Hartwick and St. John Fisher's 1-1 record against each other, including a Bombers blowout of the Hawks and a Cardinals smackdown of the Bombers. Because if you were really feeling ambitious, you could use the trio's games against Lycoming, Mount Union and Salisbury to gauge the relative strength of all the teams involved, if only you could make any sense of any of it. Then of course there's conference mate Alfred, which lost 24-19 at Hartwick and hosts Ithaca and St. John Fisher in Weeks 10 and 11.

The bottom line is sometimes the more we know, the less we can tell. Take your trusty D3football.com poll with a grain of salt boys and girls. It is, after all, only 25 people's best estimation of the "best" teams in Division III so far.

Whatever "best" means.

Does this week's top 25 make sense? Got gripes? Join the discussion on the top 25 thread on Post Patterns.

Gagliardi Watch

An envelope arrived this week at ATN headquarters marked Jostens. That can only mean one thing, your Gagliardi Trophy finalists are in!

Well, not quite. I wasn't the only one to foolishly get ahead of myself. I got a message asking which of Mount Union's standouts, quarterback Greg Micheli or running back Nate Kmic, was nominated. The Gagliardi Trophy Committee accepts only one nominee per school.

And since no other player immediately comes to mind as a likely Gagliardi winner, it means that Larry Kehres and Mount Union president Dr. Richard F. Giese more or less have the power to choose this year's winner. Which is both a gift and a curse, come to think of it. Both student-athletes are pretty deserving.

Of course, I'm getting further ahead of myself than when I thought there'd actually be nominees in that envelope. As if I haven't done this before.

Nominations are open until Nov. 19. Ten finalists should be announced about a week later, and that number will be narrowed to four regional finalists in mid-December. The winner is introduced Dec. 18 in Salem, two days before the Stagg Bowl.

Ancient Aztec Bowl

The Daily Dose laments the absence of the Aztec Bowl, at least for 2008.

While the Aztec Bowl was likely a wonderful experience, especially the trip to Mexico, it often got lost in the shadow of the Stagg Bowl, usually played on the same day.

And the idea of a Division III-only all-star game sounds good on the surface, but is it really wise to stage an all-star game after the national championship, and six weeks after the regular season ends? We've seen how well that works for the NFL's Pro Bowl.

Let's be honest, Division III fans, are we really going to pack up and support a game in Orlando? What's the point of flying all that distance and playing in a cavernous stadium that the parents of the all-stars have no chance of filling?

It might make more sense to stage a Division III all-star game in a place with a built-in audience. Say … Collegeville, Minn.? Throw a few Johnnies on the Good guys' team and a few Tommies and Royals on the bad guys, and you've got instantly manufactured drama, plus a crowd. You'll need to pack parkas, and you won't be able to take the kids to Disney, but I hear the Mall of America in Bloomington has a roller coaster!

Maybe Capital could host the game, since publisher Pat Coleman has loosely appointed Columbus, Ohio, as the geographic center of Division III. (Pat also suggests Division III should take on an NAIA all-star team.)

Maybe Coppell, Texas, which applied to host the Stagg Bowl, wants in again. That should cover the warm weather requirement.

But the winning idea is to play the game in Salem in conjunction with the Stagg Bowl, perhaps the day before. Any ticket purchased gets a fan into both games, and it provides a mixed crowd of all-stars and their families the chance to see Division III football (and hospitality) at its very best. The ten Gagliardi Trophy finalists and four regional finalists would all likely be on the all-star teams, and therefore be on hand for the presentation. Media covering the Stagg Bowl would be in the house for the all-star game and vice versa. Surely, too, it would be more cost-effective to stage a game where there already would be one. The game officials, usually from a neutral Division III conference, might even get some practice with the instant replay system, which is currently used at our level for the Stagg Bowl only.

Of course, it's easy to suggest some random somebody fund and stage this game. So put Around the Nation on the record offering to select the teams for the game (they'd look a lot like a pre-playoffs seniors-only version of the D3football.com All-Region and all-American teams) and donating the first $5 to the cause. (What? We're in an economic crisis here!) I'll even offer to set up a mandatory D3football.com Study Hall so NESCAC players can participate.

Think about it. The best of the best, not in some random city with no connection to Division III. If we're going to do the game, let's do it right and put it somewhere where the D3 die-hards can turn it into a big-game atmosphere. Oh yeah, one can only hope there'd be enough hotel rooms in the Roanoke Valley.

Playoff Primer

Before you get all excited about the Division III playoff selection committee's first set of regional rankings, due this week, remind yourself what exactly those rankings are for.

Don't be ashamed. I need the playoff criteria refresher myself each year. Since 23 of the 32 playoff spots are determined automatically by the champions of Pool A conferences, the criteria listed here is used to select the three Pool B (independents and non-AQ conferences) and six Pool C (at-large) teams.

For general questions about the playoffs, try these answers.

Pool B watch

Now that you're up to speed again on what Pool B actually is, a weekly look at the picture would be in order. Except really not much has changed from last week. Case Western Reserve, if it remains unbeaten, and maybe even if it doesn't, looks like a good bet. The Wesley/Salisbury winner could get a bid, but the loser might not. A one-loss SLIAC champion might nab the third bid, which Northwestern (Minn.) perhaps battling for a spot.

To follow the latest speculation on Pool B scenarios, visit the corresponding thread on Post Patterns.

Five games to watch

I count 13 games with significant implications on one conference race or another, and I think I mentioned them all in Monday's podcast. That's part of the reason it's so long (yet super-informative!) Three conferences spotlight clashes for the top spot this week. Winners in the CCIW, NWC and NEFC Boyd will clear a path for a championship.

UW-Stevens Point (5-1, 2-1 WIAC) at No. 2 UW-Whitewater (6-0, 3-0): Four of the Pointers' six games have been decided by six points or less, but there's a good chance this one won't resemble any of those. If UW-SP pulls an upset, suddenly UW-River Falls (beat the Pointers 36-30 in Week 5) has a chance at a three-way tie with Stevens Point and Whitewater (a 52-24 victor against the Falcons in Week 6).

No. 7 North Central (6-0, 3-0 CCIW) at No. 4 Wheaton (6-0, 3-0): A matchup of undefeated top 10 teams, with the Little Brass Bell at stake? Game of the week, easy. The Cardinals boast the nation's No. 8 scoring defense (No. 14 by yards, and No. 9 against the run) and the best net punting average (38.44 yards). Wheaton has balance on offense (195 rushing, 219 passing yards per game) and a dangerous punt returner in Pete Ittersagen.

No. 16 Willamette (7-0, 3-0 NWC) at No. 23 Linfield (4-1, 3-0): With a conference title basically on the line, the Bearcats' fly offense needs to click as it has so far this season. Willamette averages 42 and 378 yards per game, including 264 rushing. So of course the Wildcats feature the nation's No. 3 total defense (224 yards per), and plenty of experience against Williamette's unique offensive look.

No. 19 Otterbein (6-0, 5-0 OAC) at No. 21 Capital (4-2, 3-2) : OAC outsiders must be getting tired of the race-to-finish-second-to-Mount Union, but since it traditionally means a playoff spot, we cover it like it's almost it's own conference. The Cardinals are averaging 41.5 points per game and surrendering 12.8, but the Crusaders begin a very tough four-game stretch: Mount Union and John Carroll are also ahead.

Curry (7-0, 4-0 NEFC Boyd) at Plymouth State (6-1, 4-0): Tom Haley is all over this on in Around the East, but in case you're not a regular reader, it's simple: If the Panthers – the only NEFC team besides Curry with few than three losses – can't stop the Colonels, it's time to pencil the purple into the playoffs yet again.

Also keep an eye on: Wooster at No. 6 Wabash, Catholic at No. 18 Hampden-Sydney, Augsburg at Gustavus Adolphus, Carleton at St. Thomas, Franklin at Mount St. Joseph, Delaware Valley at Lycoming, Wilkes at Albright, Huntingdon at Westminster (Mo.)

Check Friday morning's Daily Dose for Pat, Keith and Gordon Mann's ‘Triple Take' primer on Week 8 games.

Who are those guys?

It's all NAIA this week where non-Division III competition is concerned.

vs. Division I, FCS (0-0 in Week 7, 4-5 in 2008)
None

vs. Division II (1-0 in Week 7, 3-5 in 2008)
None

vs. NAIA (0-1 in Week 7, 24-11 in 2008)
No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor at Southern Oregon
No. 11 Wesley at Webber International
Waldorf at Buena Vista
Minot State-Bottineau at Crown

Trinity Bible at St. Scholastica. A chance for the first-year Saints to get their first win. The Lions are 0-2 against Division III teams this season.

The Press Box

On a personal note, I'll be at Randolph-Macon for a homecoming day grudge match against Frostburg State. It might not be a powerhouse clash, but I'm going for the 10th reunion anyway. Good Lord, I'm old.

Reader feedback on last week's discussion of best Division III stadiums and atmospheres was tremendous. And to add our two cents, a handful of D3football.com staff members share their thoughts.

Also, need readers' help on compiling year-in-review sports moments as you find them. Post on our Post Patterns thread.

General feedback is always welcome.
Around the Nation and keeps a running board on Post Patterns (under general football) to discuss issues raised in the column, and we'll share feedback and answer questions there. E-mail correspondence can be directed to Keith@D3football.com or submitted with our feedback form.

Sports Information Directors: Around the Nation is interested in contacting Division III's all-time and single-season leading rushers and passers to ask them one brief question for a future column. Any help you can provide in reaching them would be appreciated.

Sports Information Directors: To contact Keith McMillan, use Keith@D3football.com, or snail mail to D3football.com, 13055 Carolyn Forest Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

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Keith McMillan

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

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