November 13, 2008

What makes greatness in D-III?

Do you know that point in a game when you stare at the clock, run through the last scenario in your mind where your team can score the points it needs to win, then realize it's impossible and is just not going to happen?

That's where I'm at with this column.

You see, in honor of Guilford's Josh Vogelbach becoming Division III's all-time leading passer and Mount Union's Nate Kmic becoming the most prolific scorer, I had in my mind the idea of tracking down a dozen or so among the most accomplished offensive players in Division III history to pose a simple question:


Josh Vogelbach passed his way into the record books, past Justin Peery.
Guilford athletics photo
"What makes a great Division III quarterback?" or "What makes a great Division III running back?"

It was simple in its genius, and yet, like a team coming up several yards short on fourth-and-long, flawed in its execution.

I did get in contact with a pair of Division III's all-time greats, and their insights are too good to keep to myself. But the grand idea of asking a handful of running backs, including the one whose record Kmic is 641 yards from breaking, about the great traits of Division III rushers.

The more I thought about it anyway, it was preaching to the converted. D3football.com readers are the planet's most experienced watchers of Division III football. You see every Saturday the traits that make players successful at our level – the heart, the intelligence and everything above and beyond physical gifts. Sure, it's no coincidence that it's Week 11, the time Around the Nation features a few paragraphs of pontificating about the final opportunity for many of the nation's seniors to put on pads and a helmet.

Although I came up short this week, a couple of guys who rarely did in their careers did not. Dan Ragsdale, the 1999 Gagliardi Trophy-winning quarterback from Redlands, told me high school players have become so advanced, the former Division II coach probably wouldn't have offered himself a scholarship coming out of high school. Chuck Moore, the Mount Union running back who won the same award in 2001, reminded me via email that "a true love of the game" plus "hard work, determination and the will to succeed" are keys to succeeding in Division III.

It means a lot more coming from them than from me.

Ragsdale said most of the great players he played with or against shared two traits: They had chips on their shoulders and/or were late bloomers.

"The majority of good Division III players I played with felt they had something to prove," said Ragsdale, who is back in Southern California and out of coaching after a stint as offensive coordinator at Division II Minnesota-Mankato. "Who they were proving it to, I don't know, since there were a couple thousand people in the stands, maybe. Certainly not to the national media."

"When it comes right down to it," Moore wrote, "a great D-III running back is someone who has all the talent of a big-time prospect, but for whatever reason was overlooked. If you look at some of the truly great running backs in D-III history you will see what I am talking about. These guys were great H.S. players that were ‘too short, not fast enough, not strong enough, had an injury, or played in a non-competitive division.' These guys thus fell to the D-III ranks."

Ragsdale, who recalled a cursory visit to San Diego State after an all-city season in Los Angeles as his only Division I attention, said he had "a huge chip on his shoulder." At 5-10 and 160 pounds coming out of high school, he fit the late-bloomer criteria as well. He grew two inches and bulked up at least 20 pounds.

"Where I was after playing five seasons of arena football was a far cry from my senior year in high school," Ragsdale said.

And not just physically.

The great players have an innate ability to get the most out of themselves, and it likely stems from that love of the game Division III players talk so much about. It's our calling card, in one sense, since our play is rewarded with little adulation and no scholarship money. It's also why Larry Kehres says one of the most important aspects of his recruiting is asking a player face-to-face if he has a passion for the game.

Kehres, of course, found one who has it in Kmic.

His 5-9, 193-pound senior running back has rushed for 6,723 yards, second in Division III history, 640 short of the 7,353 Grove City's R.J. Bowers piled up from 1997-2000. He set the division scoring mark Saturday against Otterbein, his third touchdown being the 111th of his career.

But Kmic still has the hunger of a freshman scrapping for playing time.

Nate Kmic has the touchdowns record in hand but still has yards to go before he sleeps.
Photo by David Rich for D3sports.com

"He's still the first guy out there every day,"

Kehres told Toledo Blade columnist Dave Hackenberg. "He's our tempo-setter in practice. When a real good player sets the tone it catches everyone's attention. He dictates the energy. So what Nate does for us in games is only half the story."

Vogelbach, who passed Westminster (Mo.)'s Justin Peery's career passing mark of 13,262 yards last weekend against Catholic, has been an all-around success at Guilford. In the Greensboro News & Record, a school administrator praised the quarterback's success in the classroom.

How very Division III of our finest talents to also represent our best in terms of work ethic.

Perhaps the desire to be better than average is truly the tie that binds.

"I had a bad injury in high school," Moore recalled. "I was told I wasn't fast enough, and that I played in the smallest division in Ohio. Not once did anyone look at my determination and heart to be successful. Mount Union gave me that opportunity, and I ran with it. Myself, Nate Kmic, Justin Beaver, Dan Pugh, and R.J. Bowers for that matter, all have a similar story."

Indeed they do. Perhaps if your sterling Around the Nation columnist had a desire to be great that rivaled Chuck Moore, he would have brought you all those similar stories this week.

What do you think makes a great Division III student-athlete? Share your thoughts on Post Patterns' Around the Nation thread.

Kmic recently passed Beaver for second on the list of Division III rushers, all-time. If he stays healthy and Mount Union makes its yearly trip to Salem, Kmic is likely to break Bowers' record but fall short of becoming the leading rusher in college football history. In six games, Kmic would need to average less than 107 yards per game to catch Bowers and 207 per game to pass Chadron State's Danny Woodhead. Even if Mount Union were stunningly eliminated early or Kmic is hurt, Bowers is in his sights: In five games, he needs 128 per, and in four, he needs 160. This season, he's averaging 159.9 yards per game.

Top Career Rushers, NCAA, all divisions
1. Danny Woodhead, Division II Chadron State, 2004-07, 7,962 yards
2. R.J. Bowers, Division III Grove City, 1997-2000, 7,363
3. Germaine Race, Division II Pittsburg State, 2003-06, 6,985
4. Brian Shay, Division II Emporia State, 1995-98, 6,958
5. Josh Ranek, Division II South Dakota State, 1997-2001, 6,794
6. Nate Kmic, Division III Mount Union, 2005-present, 6,723
7. Ian Smart, Division II C.W. Post, 1999-2002, 6,647
8. Justin Beaver, Division III UW-Whitewater, 2004-07, 6,584
9. Adrian Peterson, Division I-AA (FCS) Georgia Southern, 1998-2001, 6,559
10. Charles Roberts, Division I-AA (FCS) Sacramento State, 1997-2000, 6,553
11. Kavin Gailliard, Division II American International, 1996-99, 6,523
12. Ron Dayne, Division I-A (FBS) Wisconsin, 1996-99, 6,397

Playoff primer
ATN is pretty certain you understand the playoff setup by now, but in case you're just joining us, a quick rehash: Twenty-three of the 32 playoff spots are determined automatically by the champions of automatic bid (Pool A) conferences. We often refer to these as automatic qualifiers, or AQs.

The criteria listed here are used to select the three Pool B (independents and non-AQ conferences) and six Pool C (at-large) teams.

After three teams are selected in Pool B, remaining teams from that pool are evaluated as at-large teams, alongside AQ-conference runners-up, in Pool C.

If you're wondering which brackets will be matched up in the semifinals, or find yourself a bit confused about the definition of regional games, educate yourself on our FAQ page 24-7, 365.

Without further ado:

Pool A watch
Five teams -- Cortland State (NJAC), Millsaps (SCAC), Monmouth (MWC), Thomas More (PAC) and Wabash (NCAC) – clinched automatic bids in Week 9.

Nine more – Franklin (HCAC), Mary Hardin-Baylor (ASC), Mount Union (OAC), Muhlenberg (CC), North Central (CCIW), Occidental (SCIAC), Trine (MIAA), Wartburg (IIAC), Willamette (NWC).

That accounts for 14 of the 23 automatic bids. Of the nine remaining to be settled, four will be earned by the winner of a head-to-head matchup:

Plymouth State and NEFC Bogan champion Maine Maritime play Saturday in the NEFC title game, which brings with it an automatic bid.

In the Northern Athletics Conference, the Lakeland at Aurora winner takes the bid.

In the MIAC, the St. John's at Carleton winner takes the bid.

In the USA South, the Ferrum at Christopher Newport winner takes the bid.

And as for the five that are left, here are the scenarios, with help from our own Gordon Mann:

Empire 8
St. John Fisher clinches with a win at Alfred
Ithaca clinches with a St. John Fisher loss at Alfred

Liberty League
Hobart clinches with a win against Rochester OR an RPI loss at Merchant Marine
RPI clinches with a win at Merchant Marine and a Hobart loss against Rochester

MAC
Albright clinches with a win at Delaware Valley
Delaware Valley clinches with a win against Albright and a Lycoming loss against Lebanon Valley
Lycoming clinches with a win against Lebanon Valley and an Albright loss at Delaware Valley

ODAC
Catholic clinches with a win against Bridgewater (Va.)
Hampden-Sydney clinches with a win against Randolph-Macon and a Catholic loss against Bridgewater
If Catholic and Hampden-Sydney lose and Guilford beats Emory and Henry, CUA, H-SC and R-MC would be in a three-way tie at the top of the conference. In a three-way tie, Randolph-Macon would have beaten the other two and would take the automatic bid on a head-to-head basis.
If Catholic and Hampden-Sydney lose but Emory & Henry beats Guilford, the three teams would be in a four-way tie with Randolph-Macon at the top of the conference. In a four-way tie, Randolph-Macon and Catholic hold 2-1 records among the four tied teams, and R-MC defeated Catholic.

WIAC
UW-Stevens Point clinches with a win against UW-La Crosse OR a UW-Whitewater loss at UW-Platteville
UW-Whitewater clinches with a win at UW-Platteville and a UW-Stevens Point loss against UW-La Crosse

Pool B watch
Although we've assumed for weeks the Pool B playoff bids are narrowed down to Case Western Reserve, Wesley and the Huntingdon/LaGrange winner, seven teams can make legitimate claims for being considered: The above four plus Northwestern (Minn.), Salisbury and Husson.

With wins, Case Western Reserve and Wesley appear to have the resumes to get in. The third spot appears more cloudy. Huntingdon lost a chance to improve its credentials in Saturday's 38-34 loss to Hampden-Sydney. LaGrange, 8-1 after losing the first 20 games in program history, doesn't have a loss to anyone in Division III. Northwestern (Minn.) is knocking on the door and could get in a surprise. Husson has no regional losses, though it did drop out of the regional rankings this week.

For more Pool B insight, visit Post Patterns.

Pool C watch
Pool C, which once looked daunting even for one-loss teams, seems narrowed down to a solid 10, plus Pool B overflow. Around the Nation still doesn't believe any of the six at-large bids would go to two-loss teams except if several of the 10 teams we mention lose.

The strongest Pool C candidates are Otterbein, Hardin-Simmons, UW-Whitewater, Ithaca, Montclair State, Hampden-Sydney, Redlands, RPI, and Washington & Jefferson.

Eight of those nine have games this weekend, and all but RPI and UW-Whitewater play teams with winning records. So if your team is on the bubble and you're hoping for help, it's not far-fetched.

Let's recast the list with this week's opponents:
Otterbein (at 5-4 John Carroll)
Hardin-Simmons, 9-1 regular season complete
UW-Whitewater (at 4-5 UW-Platteville)
Ithaca (at 9-0 Cortland State)
Montclair State (at 6-3 Kean)
Hampden-Sydney (vs. 5-4 Randolph-Macon)
Redlands (vs. 6-2 Cal Lutheran)
RPI (at 2-7 Merchant Marine)
Washington & Jefferson (at 5-4 Waynesburg)

We could take it one step further, since the committee evaluates four teams at a time, one from each region. As teams are selected, the next one from its region is put on the board for deliberations, and one is selected. This will continue until six bids are selected, but what it means is that if your team is behind another team in the regional rankings this week and not much changes in Week 11, it would be unlikely for your team to leapfrog another.

For that reason alone, let's set Curry, 10th in the East regional rankings behind RPI, Ithaca and Montclair State, aside for now.

You could also run through each evaluation scenario by taking the top team from each region, let's say Otterbein, UW-Whitewater, Hardin-Simmons and Ithaca, and selecting one, then replacing.

For additional Pool C insight, visit Post Patterns or see our playoff projection.

No. 1 seed watch
Last week, I wrote if I had to choose the four No. 1 seeds that this year's brackets are built around, I'd go with: Mount Union, Millsaps, Cortland State, Willamette.

That hasn't changed, and won't if they all finish 10-0. But given the other possibilities, specifically North Central, Wabash and Muhlenberg, all potentially 10-0, there are options.

Because of the great distance between the teams I have selected – Oregon, Ohio, Mississippi and New York, and because of the NCAA's focus on games between teams less than 500 miles apart, so as to avoid paying to fly teams when it can be avoided, there could be good reason to use different top seeds. North Central and Muhlenberg could both be deserving, and both lie on regional fault lines so to speak – that is, geographically, Chicago-area North Central could host North Region or West Region teams, and Muhlenberg, in Eastern Pa., could host East or South Region teams.

In the end, the No. 1 seeds should be decided on merit, not geography, especially since we were reminded last season that a top seed is no guarantee to get out of the first round, much less host multiple home games. But geography can be a factor in building brackets, and in the case of a Cortland State loss to 8-1 rival Ithaca, the selection committee might well be forced to build a bracket full of East Region teams around North Region power Mount Union for the second consecutive season.

Fans are animatedly discussing Potential Playoff Selections / Seedings, including possible No. 1 seeds, so if you crave more insight than ATN can dish out, visit Post Patterns.

Rivalry watch
Week 11 tends to be the mother of all rivalry weeks, but a lot of the traditional clashes are already in the books. Still, there are four long-term rivalries with big-time conference title and playoff implications to go along with the season-making, alumni-pleasing pride that's always on the line.

No. 17 Ithaca at No. 7 Cortland State: A capacity crowd is likely to be on hand at Cortland to watch one of the better installments of the the Cortaca Jug game in memory; playoff aspirations on both sides will be affected.

DePauw at No. 3 Wabash: D3football.com publisher Pat Coleman will be in Crawfordsville as the Tigers look to upset the Little Giants in the nation's most-even rivalry.

No. 6 Muhlenberg at Moravian: Mules go for their 21st regular-season win in a row and second consecutive unbeaten regular season against their 7-2 Lehigh Valley rivals.

Randolph-Macon at Hampden-Sydney: Tigers need to win at "Death Valley" in 114th playing of "The Game" to keep playoff hopes alive. Red-hot Yellow Jackets hope to snap seven-game losing streak in the series.

Discuss the history of rivalries and jaw about this year's games on Post Patterns' Division III rivalries thread.

Check Friday morning's Daily Dose for Pat, Keith and a guest's 'Triple Take' primer on Week 11's games.

The Press Box
Reader feedback: Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the playoff picture, moments to remember for the year-in-review and other selected topics linked throughout the column. Readers can always get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). E-mail correspondence can be directed to Keith@D3football.com or submitted with our feedback form.

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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