October 9, 2008

A week so good, it could have a name

In the first month of the season, a team's inconsistency can be excused, its lack of identity explained away by unfamiliarity with teammates or a new system. By October, though, teams pointed toward the playoffs must start to establish who they are and how they're going to win consistently.

With that in mind, and with at least a dozen key games on the Week 6 slate, 
Around the Nation introduces what, if we had to run TV promos all weekend, would dub with ominous music and call "The Turning Point."

In the 28 Division III conferences, there's a game with title implications on tap in no fewer than half of them. Add that to a key ACFC/Empire 8 non-conference clash out East and two between the UAA and NCAC leaders, and we've got what's shaping up to be the most important Saturday so far this season.

We're halfway through the 11 regular season weeks, and the identities of certain teams and signs of clarity in their conference races must soon become apparent. Here are the Week 6 games that are going to provide the insight we need:


Cecil Shorts averages 137.0 receiving yards per game and has nine touchdowns in four outings for Mount Union.
Photo by David Rich for D3sports.com

No. 4 Capital (4-0, 3-0 OAC) at No. 1 Mount Union (4-0, 3-0): The Purple Raiders' incessant kicking of butts takes the air out of a matchup of top-five teams. UW-Whitewater aside, Mount Union's made the past several ranked teams it's faced look like JV squads -- It beat the playoff-bound Crusaders 37-0 last season. Capital has a trip to 3-1 John Carroll the following week, followed by a game at Otterbein, so if they can't stay competitive, they'd better at least stay healthy. Otterbein has a record identical to both of these teams, and hosts 2-2, 2-1 Baldwin-Wallace on Saturday, so even with a Mount Union win, the No. 2 spot in the conference (and generally one in the playoffs) could be on the line in two weeks.

No. 6 Wheaton (4-0, 1-0 CCIW) at Augustana (3-1, 1-0): The Thunder hadn't let a team score into the double-digits until Saturday, and three-fourths of North Park's 28 points came after Wheaton had scored 49. Thirteen points is the most anyone's scored on the Vikings, the nation's best scoring defense at 6.25 per game. The teams are tied for 19th nationally in total defense, each allowing 240.75 yards per game. So defense should be the day's focus in Rock Island, but keep an eye on the offenses too. Augustana quarterback Tim Podluka has improved his total offense output each game as the Vikings begin to master their version of the spread. Wheaton's been able to rush for 218.25 yards per game without abandoning the passing game -- quarterback Sean Norris has passed for three TDs in each of the past three games. In the CCIW, North Central and Carthage are also unbeaten and meet next weekend, so a little clarity in this race is coming soon.

No. 7 Wabash (4-0) at Washington U. (3-1): The Little Giants' first four opponents have four victories between them, and the past three haven't been able to stay within 40 points of them. The Bears, however, have already knocked off Wittenberg, traditionally Wabash's toughest rival in the NCAC. In its second of three crossover games with the NCAC's top three teams, Wash. U. has a chance to break from it's good-but-not-good-enough mold (six wins each year from 2001-06, and seven last year) and stay alive in the Pool B playoff picture. Wooster next week and Case Western Reserve in Week 11 provide opportunities for the Bears to make that leap, but first they must shake off a loss to Rhodes. The Little Giants look rather invincible so far, behind and offense that ranks fifth nationally in total offense (496 yards per game) and second in scoring offense (48.25 points per game).

Montclair State (4-0, 3-0 NJAC) at No. 14 Cortland State (4-0, 4-0): The Red Hawks have managed to stay unbeaten despite not scoring more than 16 points or winning by more than a touchdown. The Red Dragons have two one-score wins as well. Cortland will put the nation's fourth-ranked rusher in Andrew Guiliano (162.5 yards per game) against the Montclair's ninth-ranked defense (227.25 total yards per game). With both teams experienced in grind-it-out wins, expect another, as the winner becomes the frontrunner for the NJAC's automatic bid. An at-large (Pool C) chance remains for the loser, and Cortland might be helped by playing its lone non-conference game against rival Ithaca in Week 11.

Wooster (4-0) at No. 15 Case Western Reserve (4-0): The NCAC-UAA partnerships gives us its second big game of the week, although it's the first team on the host Spartans' schedule who currently has more than one win. A win is crucial for CWRU in the playoff chase, since their next three opponents have combined for two wins. The schedule leaves almost no margin for error. Likewise, Wooster's four opponents so far have combined for just three wins, part of the reason why the defense (8 points per game) looks so good. The Scots play Wash. U. and Wabash next, so the rise in competition isn't just a one-week deal. This game will be the best indication so far of how legitimate either team is.

No. 17 Salisbury (4-1) at No. 20 St. John Fisher (3-2) This looked like the ultimate midseason non-conference test by two programs who won't back down from a challenge, but with suddenly blemished records, it's not looking like such a bright idea anymore. Though it's in a four-way fight, St. John Fisher has the automatic qualifier to fall back on. Salisbury needs all the help it can get if the number of playoff spots allotted to Pool B (non-AQ conferences) remains at two. With Wesley still ahead too, another loss might put them at the end of the at-large line. The Sea Gulls coaching staff would much rather be breaking down Cardinals video film than answering questions about the five players who were arrested and kicked off the team following a bar fight over the weekend. Those weren't just any five players, either: ‘Dog' safety Tom Fontaine, free safety Justin Sykes and linebacker Marcel McCain were the team's third, fourth and fifth-leading tacklers, while cornerback Justin Acker was a starter and Reggie Gooch played significant snaps at the position. A sixth key defender, end Jarrell Chandler, the team's second-leading tackler, was injured against Delaware Valley and didn't play last weekend, though he says he's not done for the year. Salisbury still has top tackler Matt Barnes, a Draddy Trophy semifinalist, and defensive lineman Paul Cynewski, but it will lean on quarterback Ronnie Curley and the nation's top-ranked rushing offense (351 yards per game) more than ever. Salisbury would be wise to control the clock and limit the number of snaps such a re-organized defense must play against Fisher, which has gained 406 yards per game while playing three teams that made the playoffs last season. Coming off a homecoming loss to Hartwick, the Cardinals will be humbled and eager to finish this Saturday with a better memory than last.

Occidental (3-0, 1-0 SCIAC) at No. 18 Redlands (3-0, 1-0): While Cal Lutheran might again make it a three-way race, the Tigers-Bulldogs game is again the SCIAC's marquee matchup. Redlands has the nation's eighth-ranked offense so far (460 yards, 40.33 points per game) and its second-ranked defense (182 yards, 7.67 points), including the No. 1 rushing defense. And the Bulldogs haven't been playing pushovers either, two of their opponents won at least seven games last season, and neither stayed closer than 30 points. Both teams feature virtually the same lineup from the Tigers' 28-21 home win last season, but Redlands is missing a key cog. Quarterback Dan Selway has a broken foot, and Steve Smith was "hot and cold" in his first start last week, according to coach Mike Maynard in the San Bernardino Sun. Occidental has shut out two of its opponents, but Redlands, playing their third home game, should be far superior to what it's seen so far. Coaches Dale Widolff (27th season) and Maynard (21st) know each other well, so there might not be much in the way of surprises, just a game still in doubt in the fourth quarter. The loser is a Pool C candidate but must root for its non-conference opponents to do well, since the nine-game schedules leave SCIAC teams one less opportunity to impress the selection committee.

No. 22 Augsburg (4-0, 2-0 MIAC) at Carleton (4-0, 2-0): Coupled with No. 23 Concordia-Moorhead (3-1, 2-0) at St. Thomas (3-1, 2-1), all four MIAC teams with fewer than two conference losses meet head-to-head, which means by Saturday evening we should be able to finally identify two front-runners and the date of the showdown game (next week if it's Auggies/Cobbers). If St. Thomas wins, the Augsburg/Carleton winner will be alone atop the conference standings, which would a striking turn of events for longtime MIAC observers. Auggies-Knights could be an air show, as it features the sixth- and 16th-ranked passing offenses in the country. Then again, if banged-up receivers Royce Winford of Augsburg and Matt Frank of Carleton are out, maybe it won't be. No matter what happens, we'll have a little more MIAC clarity, and at least a couple teams pointed toward Pool C after Saturday.

Monmouth (5-0, 4-0 MWC) at St. Norbert (4-1, 4-0): Perhaps it's just an illustration of how far above their MWC brethren the Scots and Green Knights are, but this game features the nation's No. 1 scoring offense vs. its No. 1 defense. And Monmouth, at fourth nationally in scoring, isn't far behind, nor would St. Norbert be defensively if Wartburg hadn't been its first opponent. In any case, this appears to be a de facto title game as usual, as the MWC has never sent an at-large team to the postseason. Ripon (4-0, 4-1), which hosts both the Scots and Green Knights by the end of the month, could figure into the title mix as well. 

Buena Vista (3-1, 3-0 IIAC) at Loras (3-1, 2-0): Maybe those of us outside Iowa perceive the conference as down because it's not the usual suspects up top. Honestly, I didn't originally list this game as one to watch. I was just running a quick check by conference to see if I'd missed any key showdowns, and wouldn't you know it? The Beavers are in Dubuque this week. After these two meet, perhaps the unlikeliest showdown on this list to produce a conference frontrunner, the winner will control its IIAC destiny. The Duhawks have trips to Wartburg and Central ahead, but Buena Vista has beaten Wartburg and has a trip to Coe, but plays Central at home.

Alfred (4-1, 2-0 E8) at Hartwick (2-1, 1-1): It'll be a while before we get to the true turning point in the Empire 8, but at least the Saxons finally playing the first of the conference's three playoff teams last season is a start. Alfred has the nation's No. 1 pass efficiency defense and the No. 2 pass defense by yardage. As you might imagine, Hartwick -- led by quarterback Jason Boltus and wide receivers Noah Koreman and Jack Phelan -- has the nation's No. 2 pass offense, No. 3 total offense and No. 5 scoring offense. So it isn't too hard to tell where the key matchup is on Saturday. Sometimes in games where two prime units are matched up, games can turn on the performance of the less-heralded groups -- in this case the Alfred offense vs. the Hartwick defense -- and special teams. St. John Fisher and Ithaca will be keeping an eye on this score, and with those two and the Hawks having gone 1-1 against each other so far, Alfred can be the key to the Empire 8 race, and however many playoff berths it ends up with this season.

Albright (3-1, 1-0 MAC) at Lycoming (3-1, 1-0): In a week filled with so many big games, this one might be missed. But the records here are a little deceiving. Lycoming is a one-point loss at Ithaca from being unbeaten, while Albright's lone defeat was a two-point defeat against Salisbury. The Lions aren't overwhelming statistically in any area, but the Warriors are back to their traditional selves: smothering defensively. Despite surrendering 17, 16, 17 and 17 points, they're the nation's sixth-best total defense at 224.75 yards per game. If QB Tanner Kelly can get Albright rolling against the Lycoming defense, the Lions could be on course for a Week 11 matchup at Delaware Valley with the playoffs on the line. The 3-1, 1-0 Aggies host Lebanon Valley and their identical record on Saturday, which means the best the MAC can do in Week 6 is narrow from four front-runners to two.

And that (cue ominous music) is our Turning Point Saturday, in a rather large nutshell.
 Also keep an eye on: East Texas Baptist (3-1, 3-0 ASC) at No. 16 Hardin-Simmons (4-1, 4-1), Maryville (3-2, 2-0 USAC) at Ferrum (4-1, 2-0), Linfield (2-1, 1-0 NWC) at Whitworth (2-2, 0-1).

 Check Friday morning's Daily Dose for Pat, Keith and a special guest's ‘Triple Take' primer on Week 6 games.

First and Ten

Around the Nation spreads the field, then dinks and dunks its way through a list of quick thoughts that popped up concerning Weeks 5 and 6:

1. The SLIAC is looking pretty genius now for scheduling Huntingdon (4-0) and LaGrange (4-1) to play in Week 11. Not only are they geographic rivals, but a conference title and perhaps a playoff berth or two could be on the line when they meet. The Panthers' loss is to NAIA Shorter, as well, which is bad news for other teams who will be pushing for playoff spots.

2. Since replacing Jason Schatz as Wesley's quarterback, all Shane McSweeny has done is assume the national lead in passer efficiency rating. In just 45 attempts, the exact minimum needed to qualify for the rating, he's got 35 completions, seven TDs and no interceptions. And the competition figures to get easier from here. Schatz, meanwhile, has made himself useful again at wide receiver, where he led the team in receptions in 2006 with 61, hauling in a 43-yard catch on Saturday.

3. The NESCAC, with five 2-1 teams behind 3-0 Trinity (Conn.), gets to participate in Turning Point Saturday, if not the postseason. All six conference leaders are playing head-to-head, with Tufts going to Trinity, Middlebury visiting Williams and Colby at Amherst.

4. UW-La Crosse keeps getting mentioned for all the wrong reasons, but a team that had designs on a playoff spot is now staring at a possible 0-5. They are a nominee for the crazy schedule award though. The first five opponents are I-AA North Dakota, traditional NAIA contender Azusa Pacific and three ranked teams from Division III: No. 16 Hardin-Simmons, No. 8 UW-Eau Claire (this week's opponent) and No. 2 UW-Whitewater, the defending national champion.

5. Washington & Lee, winners of four in a row since a season-opening shutout at Franklin & Marshall, looks poised to be the ODAC's top challenge to Hampden-Sydney. The Generals host the Tigers in Week 7.

6. I got a chance to watch three streaming videocasts over the weekend. It seems no two are the same. The option to pause, rewind or replay parts of the Millsaps game was appreciated, while Wabash has the slickest, most TV-like production. Wheaton, who tends to do most everything top-notch, had a broadcast that stood out for the mellowest pair of on-air personalities imaginable. There's no right way to do a game, whatever works!

7. Ten unbeaten teams lost last weekend, bringing the number of undefeateds among our 239 teams down to 28. Two of the CCIW's four unbeatens lost, allowing the OAC and its three (Mount Union, Capital and Otterbein) to edge into the lead.

8. Nine of the 36 teams who hadn't won a game got their first victory on Saturday, and there were some surprises. Utica defeating Springfield stood out, as did Gallaudet finally getting over the hump against future conference rival Becker. Gettysburg and Juniata each broke four-game skids to start the season, while Ohio Northern, Hope, UW-La Crosse and Wilkes -- teams not far removed from their most recent playoff season -- remain winless.

9. Menlo, though 1-4, is perhaps a bit better than its record would indicate. The losses have included UW-Stout in overtime, SCIAC contender Occidental, 38-28, and NWC contender Linfield, 9-0.

10. Among independents, 2-1 Chapman is the only outside contender for a playoff bid. The Panthers' only defeat is a 6-point loss against defending NWC champion Whitworth. Their wins are impressive. But with Occidental, Redlands and Cal Lutheran still ahead, don't count on the playoffs.

Poll positions

Insight on the ballot of a D3football.com top 25 voter, and the teams who are on the fringe:

Quite the opposite of last week, when I recommended that voters tear their ballots down and reassess everything they'd learned since the season began, Week 5 was very much a bump-'em-up-a-couple-spots-and-move-on week.

The only team I had making a major move up in the top 25 was UW-Eau Claire, who benefited not only from its own dominant shutout win, but also that of UW-Whitewater. Remember the Blugolds' loss is a 16-14 defeat against the defending champions, and they've done nothing otherwise to indicate they should be too far from the No. 2 Warhawks in the poll.

The other team that got a small spike on my ballot was Hardin-Simmons, which actually in my mind helped itself in a 20-18 loss to No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor. Only in the weird world of polling can a loss make you look better, but given that the Cowboys hung tough against by far their strongest opponent to date, again a voter has to ask, is UMHB's two points worth 20 spots on your ballot? To each his own, but other voters seemed to agree with me, as Hardin-Simmons improved five spots to No. 16 in the poll.

Millsaps looked dominant against DePauw, but I had them so high there was hardly any room to bump them up. They surged past Muhlenberg for me, after the Mules beat Johns Hopkins 28-23, but I think the difference between the two now with so much season left is probably inconsequential. 

I did not drop St. John Fisher out of the top 25, but either the Cardinals or Salisbury might suffer that fate this week when the two play head to head. Hartwick must be a little frustrated with just a single 25th-place vote while the team it just beat comes in at No. 20.

My only other new vote of consequence was moving impressive Otterbein onto the bottom of my ballot in place of Augsburg, which squeaked by Hamline and now holds the top spot on my not-quite top 25 watch list. Actually, right now it's really the only spot. 

What do you think about this week's top 25? Discuss the Top 25 on Post Patterns.

Who are those guys?

Tracking Division III's performance against teams from other classifications:

The four-team ACFC accounts for three-fourths of the non-Division III games this week, another sign that larger conferences rule our level. Scheduling is half the reason (the AQs are the other). In any case, while most eyes nationally will be on Salisbury's trip to New York, Wesley, Frostburg State and NNA had to find games. Perhaps the UAA, which already has a partnership with the NCAC, could agree to a brains vs. brawn four-on-four challenge for a couple weeks to ease the ACFC's scheduling woes. 

 vs. Division I, FCS (0-0 in Week 5, 3-5 in 2008)
Wesley at Iona

 vs. Division II (0-0 in Week 5, 2-4 in 2008)
Newport News Apprentice at Lake Erie

 vs. NAIA (1-0 in Week 5, 22-10 in 2008)
Frostburg State at Southern Virginia
Luther at Waldorf

The Press Box

 Around the Nation thrives on reader feedback, 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.

 Keith McMillan is available to discuss Division III football with print, radio and Internet journalists. To set up an appointment, e-mail Keith.

 Sports Information Directors: As always, Around the Nation appreciates help in covering your school or conference this season. For more information, contact Keith McMillan at Keith@D3football.com, or snail mail to D3football.com, 13055 Carolyn Forest Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

Links to online media guides are preferred over mail. In addition, please do not add my e-mail address to your regular release lists, but instead use our news release capabilities to have your information posted on D3football.com's front page and your team's page. For more information on how that works and how we can help each other, contact publisher Pat Coleman at info@d3football.com. Thank you.

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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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