October 8, 2009

A midseason look at the races

All the travel and topic-based writing has made for quite an interesting first five weeks of Around the Nation this season. But that, and the looks back at the 10 years of D3football.com, have left little time for such ATN staples as evaluating conference races and analyzing top 25 polls.

There are more good columns in the works – A look at Division III all-star games, D-III players in the NFL and the fans’ best memories of the past 10 seasons -- so this week, let’s give that and Ten Best a rest and work up a classic nuts-and-bolts ATN.

With Week 6 on the horizon, the halfway point is here, and that’s always a good time to take a look at how conference races and playoff bid chases are shaping up. So, in the order we ranked them in Kickoff ’09, from strongest to weakest, here’s ATN’s look at what to watch for in the second half. There’s a look at contenders, games to watch and a grade on each conference race; ‘Backups are in’ is a race with virtually no suspense, a ‘kneel down’ is one that will get interesting but should be locked up before Week 11, and ‘two-minute drill’ is one that could come down to a game-winning drive and is anybody’s guess.

So from the top:

Kickoff '09 ranking: 1st of 27
Playoff prospects: Pool A automatic bid (AQ); Pool C (at-large) bid likely
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. Five of the eight conference teams right now are 2-2. UW-La Crosse, UW-Stout and UW-Whitewater are 4-0. With the Warhawks garnering No. 1 votes and having outscored their opponents 173-13, ATN will pencil UW-Whitewater in for a playoff spot. We can’t assume a conference title, since just last year UW-Stevens Point edged Whitewater by a point and took the automatic bid. And the Pointers, at 1-0 in-conference, are very much in this year’s AQ race. Most likely though, the WIAC will come down to whether La Crosse, Stout or a secondary team can emerge as a contender. The Eagles and Blue Devils face off in Week 9 (Oct. 31), and La Crosse faces Whitewater in Week 11 (Nov. 14). We’ll find out quickly if Stout is for real, with Stevens Point, Whitewater and UW-Eau Claire the next three on the schedule.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 2nd
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid likely
Intensity of title race: Backups are in. The OAC race is much like the WIAC in that Mount Union will likely get in and so will a second team. We just don’t know who the second team (Capital? Otterbein?) will be. All three are 3-0, 4-0 with at least a game’s lead on the other seven teams in the conference. The big difference in the OAC is that even an untypically flawed Mount Union team is still powerful enough to be considered the favorite to capture its 18th consecutive conference title. With one OAC loss since 1994, it’s just something ATN counts on. If they can hold off Ohio Northern, Baldwin-Wallace and John Carroll, the Week 8 (Oct. 24) Capital at Otterbein game could more or less be for a playoff spot.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 3rd
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. With No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor surrendering just 7 points a game, this is borderline Backups are in. But either way, we’ll know in two weeks. The Crusaders can’t overlook a Louisiana College squad that thumped Hardin-Simmons, but a Week 7 showdown with Mississippi College looks likely. The Choctaws are outscoring opponents 45-38 on average in their 4-1 start, so they might not have the defense to hang with UMHB. And if that’s the case, you can toss out the loss to NAIA Cumberland (Ky.) when it comes to the pursuit of an at-large bid. The Choctaws have already conquered Hardin-Simmons and Louisiana College, and Howard Payne is 3-1 but handed Sul Ross State its only win. So a second playoff bid for the ASC is there for the taking no matter who loses the Crusaders-Choctaws game.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 4th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid likely
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. What looks like potentially a seven-team race (Illinois Wesleyan and No. 4 Wheaton are 4-0, and five others are 3-1) won’t be quite that crowded, but it could be a tight finish. The difficult part is figuring out, based on what we’ve seen so far, who it’s going to involve. Augustana, Illinois Wesleyan and North Central dominated Elmhurst, Carthage and Millikin in the first week of conference play, but that still leaves us a potential four-team race. Augustana goes to Wheaton on Saturday, and hosts Illinois Wesleyan in Week 7. The Little Brass Bell game between North Central and Wheaton in Week 8 could produce a clear-cut CCIW leader, but even then games between the current top four will make every week worth watching. There’s two-bid possibility here, big time,

Kickoff '09 ranking: 5th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. It’s looking like Linfield at Willamette for the NWC title in Week 8. And the Wildcats’ win at Occidental might be enough insurance to guard against a loss to their Oregon rival, which lost in Week 1 at Concordia-Moorhead. If both end up with one loss, with Willamette taking the AQ, it should be a two-bid season in NWC. A second loss puts Willamette very much on the bubble, however.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 6th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. This might be the best race in the country. With Utica’s rise to competitiveness and Hartwick’s foray into the post-Jason Boltus era looking good so far at 4-1 with a 24-20 loss to Ithaca, there are no pushovers. But it’s effectively a three-team chase, and St. John Fisher’s losses to Mount Union and Salisbury mean it has to earn the AQ to make the playoffs. Ithaca’s in a similar spot, with a non-conference loss to Union on the books, though strong finishes by the Dutchmen in the Liberty League, Widener in the MAC and Cortland State in the NJAC could boost the Bombers enough to get in as a two-loss at-large. Alfred has its best playoff chance in recent memory, and could potentially close the door on its conference rivals by taking the AQ. The Saxons go to St. John Fisher in Week 8 and Ithaca in Week 10 (Nov. 7), and don’t have the non-conference schedule to get in with two losses. Hartwick could very well be a factor, starting Saturday at Alfred.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 7th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid likely
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. If St. John’s wins the Week 7 Johnnie-Tommie showdown at home, it’s a runaway contender for a home playoff game, and perhaps another shift of No. 1 seeds to the "North" (UW-Whitewater) and East (Mount Union). St. Thomas has looked every bit as good as the Johnnies – better really, but against not-as-stiff competition – and is likely still smarting from the game it feels it should have won last season against St. John’s. The rivals are running neck and neck for the AQ favorite’s role right now, and if ever there were a two-loss team that should be considered a Pool C threat, it’s Bethel. The Royals lost to No. 4 Wheaton on a last-play touchdown pass and to No. 6 St. John’s on a 49-yard, last-minute field goal. A strong finish that includes a Week 10 home against the Tommies could mean a three-way tie atop the MIAC or three bids (two at-large) for the conference.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 8th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. With five teams at 3-1 overall, this looks at first glance like it could be one heck of a finish. And certainly there’s potential for it to get murky before Kean goes to Montclair State in Week 11; those teams are the only two without an NJAC loss through Week 5. With convincing wins over top-half Cortland State and TCNJ already, Kean would actually appear to be in the driver’s seat. But the Cougars’ non-conference loss to Delaware Valley puts at-large hopes on thin ice. Cortland beat Rowan with quarterback Dan Pitcher, but lost him for the season; he didn’t play against Kean. Montclair’s 37-10 non-conference loss to Wilkes makes ATN wonder if it won’t be eliminated from the crowd of contenders by Cortland on Saturday. TCNJ’s 57-point-a-game offense was held to seven at Kean. Rowan should be in position to play its way into a playoff spot the final three weeks at Kean and against Montclair State and TCNJ. The NJAC’s got a pretty clear hierarchy at this point (Kean, Cortland State, Rowan, Montclair and TCNJ), but it’s the type of grouping that could look totally different six weeks from now and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 9th
Playoff prospects: One Pool B bid likely
Intensity of title race: Backups are in. Salisbury at Wesley is usually the game in the ACFC, and the Week 9 (Oct. 31) game this year has just as much on the line as it always does. The Pool B (non-automatic bid) crowd is thin, and for Wesley, the Salisbury game marks its last against a Division III opponent. With half of its 10 games against teams not eligible for the Division III playoffs, sewing up an unblemished record against D-III teams is imperative. For Salisbury, factoring in its one-touchdown losses at N.C. Wesleyan and Christopher Newport, winning out is its only sure route to the postseason. Wins in remaining games against Union, Wesley and Hampden-Sydney would make a pretty strong case for the Sea Gulls as a two-loss playoff team. A third though, and it would take some unconvincing finishes elsewhere in Pool B, even with strength of schedule on the Sea Gulls’ side. Wesley is still a big favorite to win the conference.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 10th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid unlikely
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. The LL has had a four-team race come down to the final week, and this season, the potential for an even more muddled finish exists. Two weeks into conference play, six teams are 1-1; Union is 2-0 and WPI is 0-2. Nobody’s unbeaten, and even 1-3 Rochester has already caused problems. After a two-point loss to St. John Fisher and a one-score defeat against Union, the Yellowjackets knocked off RPI. Union followed its season-opening upset of Ithaca with a loss to Muhlenberg, which is now 1-3, and it hasn’t been dominating. Hobart will help sort out the picture when it travels to Union Saturday, but the Statesmen’s 20-10 loss to Susquehanna in Week 4 was a slight surprise. The Crusaders turned around and lost, 24-8 to Merchant Marine. Which was coming off a 41-22 loss to St. Lawrence. No team has been consistent enough to be called a favorite at this point, and all we know for sure is that it’ll be quite a battle to see which team earns the one playoff bid the Liberty League will end up with.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 11th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. Here’s another conference that’s made a habit of staging dramatic races. And although ATN has to favor 1-0, 4-0 Albright coming off its 611-yard, 43-21 domination of previously unbeaten Wilkes, as many as five other teams could make this race interesting. Lycoming’s losses to Rowan and Bridgewater (Va.), and Widener’s loss at Ithaca and last-second defeat at Curry give the Pride iffy at-large hopes, but reason to believe they’ll be in the MAC chase. Delaware Valley’s wins against Johns Hopkins and Kean and loss to Wesley might turn out to guard against not winning the AQ. Lebanon Valley’s 28-7 loss to Delaware Valley has ATN believing it won’t contend, but could spoil. A race where Albright’s Week 10 game at Delaware Valley is the decider wouldn’t be a surprise, but neither would a challenge from one of the four other teams we mentioned.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 12th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. Honestly, Central seems to have built confidence off its fourth-and-goal successes against UW-Stevens Point and Dubuque. It is still a ways away, but traditional rival Wartburg looms in Week 10, and the Knights’ non-conference loss to St. Norbert means the AQ is their ticket to the postseason. Coe, which has already lost to Central, could set the stage for a three-way split with a Week 7 (Oct. 17) win at Wartburg. And honestly, crazier things have happened in IIAC races, so it’s best not to get too married to a Central-will-run-the-table or a Wartburg-can-make-this-a-two-bid-conference storyline just yet.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 13th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid likely
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. It’s shaping up as a Week 9 Thomas More at Washington & Jefferson game for the PAC title and AQ. Thomas More has a non-conference win against John Carroll and a 47-24 PAC win over Waynesburg, a potential third challenger. The Saints might need a Bridge Bowl win at Mount St. Joseph for an at-large bid if W&J takes the AQ, and W&J could again be an at-large playoff team at 9-1.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 14th
Playoff prospects: Pool B bid likely
Intensity of title race: Backups are in. There’s a difference between being "low" on Case Western Reserve and not being able to learn much about where they stack up against fellow top 25 teams because of their non-conference schedule. ATN still expects the Spartans to make the playoffs as a Pool B team. Carnegie Mellon would make a case for itself with a win over either Wittenberg or Case and an 8-2 record. The CMU at CWRU game in Week 10 looks like it will decide the UAA title.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 15th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid unlikely
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. Saturday’s Johns Hopkins at Dickinson game will bring this race into focus. A Blue Jays win would make Dickinson a decent Pool C candidate, but Hopkins doesn’t necessarily have that luxury, given the Delaware Valley loss. Franklin and Marshall seems a more likely third contender than Ursinus, given the 45-43 loss to Dickinson, but this might end up being one of the CC’s more cut-and-dried races.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 16th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid unlikely
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. Smells like a four-way scrap, with Centre in control of perennial contenders DePauw, Millsaps and Trinity. The Colonels won at DePauw already, but go to Millsaps Week 9 and Trinity Week 11. In Week 8, Trinity at DePauw should narrow it down to a three-team race. Millsaps has already beaten Trinity and lost to DePauw, yet controls its playoff future when it plays Centre. There’s a lot left to be determined here, and strange scenarios – like say a 9-1 DePauw finishing behind Centre for the AQ but beating rival Wabash to get in – abound.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 17th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race:Kneel down. From 5-0 Hampden-Sydney at 4-0 Emory & Henry on Saturday emerges a clear-cut leader. After that, it’s hasty to overlook Bridgewater, but it’s 2008 playoff representative Randolph-Macon that lurks in the weeds. An H-SC win Saturday, and they’d be rooting for E&H to defeat their rivals in Week 7. Otherwise, the 3-2, 2-0 Yellow Jackets and Tigers would be on a crash course to make The Game in Week 11 decide the conference champion for the third consecutive season. If it did, the Wasps would watch with interest, knowing their 4-0 record vs. USA South teams might help make it a Pool C entrant.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 18th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. Week 8 Franklin vs. Mount St. Joseph seems to be the title-decider. The conference’s other teams each have three losses or more. Pool C potential is there for the Grizzlies-Lions loser, as Franklin’s non-conference wins over Trine and Baldwin-Wallace could help, as would a season-finale victory against Thomas More for MSJ.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 19th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid likely.
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. Monmouth and St. Norbert’s matchup of 4-0, 5-0 perennial title contenders is all the focus on Saturday. What’s unusual is that Ripon at Beloit is a big game too. The easy analysis is to pencil the Scots-Green Knights winner in for the AQ (believable since Monmouth is outscoring MWC opponents 214-6 so far, and St. Norbert is 150-41) and the loser in for a Pool C bid. Trouble could brew if Ripon (which plays 4-1 Beloit, Monmouth and St. Norbert in succession), Beloit or Illinois College contends or spoils. The probable occurrence is Monmouth (which beat Beloit 58-0) finishing 10-0 and St. Norbert’s 42-35 Week 1 OT win against Wartburg helping it make the playoffs in Pool C.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 20th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid unlikely
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. Averett sits atop at 1-0, 3-1, but Maryville (Huntingdon, Centre, LaGrange), North Carolina Wesleyan (Hampden-Sydney, Salisbury, Emory & Henry) and Christopher Newport (Wesley, Salisbury, Wilkes) have earned their 2-2 records against better competition. Not much of what we know so far is any help in handicapping the conference race, not even the knowledge that CNU’s wins both took multiple overtimes and the Captains could easily be 0-4. If ATN had to venture a guess, it would take a long look at NCWC at CNU Week 7, and keep an eye on Maryville.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 21st
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. We’ll get clarity when Redlands goes to Occidental on Saturday. The Tigers also host Cal Lutheran in Week 9, and if the Kingsmen might well be a third cotender. Their loss is by 7 at Willamette, while Oxy’s is by four against Linfield. Redlands could be taking the SCIAC’s longest road trip, to Cal Lutheran, in Week 11 to try to preserve an unbeaten record. If so, the runner-up would not be strong in Pool C; If Oxy or CLU takes the AQ, Redlands might have the résumé to get in as an at-large.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 22nd
<Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. Wabash. Wittenberg. Wooster. For such a big conference, there sure is a lack of change at the top of the NCAC. The No. 11 Little Giants host the Tigers in Week 7 in what’s usually the marquee conference game. Wittenberg has outscored opponents 173-13 in a 4-0 start, but those opponents are 3-14. Wooster may yet make things interesting, but even if it doesn’t, the Wabash-Wittenberg loser has a chance in Pool C if it finishes with one loss.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 23rd
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid possible
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. The NEFC title game makes everything else just a race to get a chance to play your way into the playoffs. This is the year where some thought the Bogan Division champion would have a chance in that game, but its leader, Framingham State, has already lost to the third-best Boyd Division team, Endicott. That means ATN expects the winner of the Week 8 Plymouth State at Curry clash to also win the NEFC title game, while the loser makes a Pool C case. And, after tossing out Division II losses, Plymouth State would have the better backup plan, as Curry’s loss to Widener hurts its at-large chances.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 24th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid unlikely
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. It’s a crowded picture, and one we assume the Week 10 Adrian at Trine game will help develop. Albion (1-3) and Alma (2-2) still control their own AQ destiny, and even Hope, at 0-5 with no loss by more than a touchdown, could still be dangerous enough to derail someone’s perfect MIAA season. Check back in a few weeks for some clarity.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 25th
Playoff prospects: AQ; Pool C bid unlikely
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. The 1-3 records for Concordia (Wis.) and Lakeland are misleading, because they played strong non-conference competition. Wisconsin Lutheran’s game at Lakeland and Benedictine’s at Concordia (Wis.) on Saturday will leave two front runners with 2-0 conference marks. If those teams are Concordia and Lakeland, Pool C is out and the clash isn’t until Week 10.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 26th
Playoff prospects: Pool B bid unlikely
Intensity of title race: Two-minute drill. Norwich, at 2-0, 2-3, actually leads the race for the first ECFC title, but since the inaugural season means no automatic bid yet, it doesn’t mean the Cadets are playoff-bound. Husson and SUNY-Maritime each have a loss to a non-division team and would appear to be able to insert themselves into the playoff discussion by running the table, but the Gulls lost to ECFC member Gallaudet and the Privateers lost to Husson. While the ECFC builds rivalries and its rep, ATN will keep an eye on the title chase. No playoffs is probably best.

Kickoff '09 ranking: 27th
Playoff prospects: Pool B bid possible
Intensity of title race: Kneel down. As we speak, almost everyone’s in the race, even 0-0, 0-4 MacMurray. But ATN thinks the 8 p.m. game on Dome Day (Oct. 30) – Greenville at Northwestern – will be the one that decides the conference champion. And since no automatic bid is on the line, Greenville, which travels to Huntingdon in Week 8, six days before Dome Day, could also be trying to keep playoff hopes alive. The Panthers’ loss is to Augustana (42-20) and LaGrange is on the slate in Week 11.

In the NESCAC, there is no playoff spot to chase, but Trinity (Conn.)’s two-touchdown rally in the final 1:48 to stun Williams, 26-21, means the Ephs will likely have to hope for help from rival Amherst in Week 10 in hopes of forcing a three-way tie in the Week 11 rivalry game.

A chance to tell your story
Longtime readers might notice that since I took over the Around the Nation column in 2001, I’ve missed exactly one week. In 2004, when I got married, Pat Coleman wrote about Wittenberg.

Well, I’ve got a five-year anniversary to celebrate, and since this is the same woman that once stood in the rain with me while I watched Hiram play Gallaudet, I allowed her to let us celebrate during the season. But instead of turning the column over to Pat again -- good Lord, the man has enough stuff to do -- I thought it would be a great opportunity to hear from readers.

So I’d like the Oct. 28 column to feature a handful of short vignettes from ATN followers. The only request is that they involve something that took place in 1999 or more recently. It can be a father’s tale about watching his son, or a player’s description of what it feels like at the bottom of the pile on fourth-and-goal with the game on the line. It can be about a road trip, an on-air moment, a coaching decision … the choice is yours.

Keep them as brief as possible -- I’d rather not set a word count, but 800 is too long -- and I’ll edit and choose the ones I think ATN readers would most enjoy. It’s a great opportunity to share the perspective from your corner of the Division III world with all of us, so I hope you take advantage.

Who are those guys?
Since it’s hard enough to keep track of the 238 teams and 27 conferences we follow, ATN keeps a watchful eye on Division III’s record in out-of-classification competition:

We know we’re in the meat of the conference schedule when there’s just one non-Division III opponent, and it’s not even an NAIA team.

vs. Division I, FCS (0-0 in Week 5; 2-6 in 2009)

vs. Division II (1-0 in Week 4; 6-7 in 2009)
Lake Erie (independent) at Newport News

vs. NAIA (2-0 in Week 5; 22-10 in 2009)

Games of the week
For a breakdown of this week’s games to watch and why, see Friday morning’s Triple Take, featuring a look at what to watch this week by D3football.com’s Ryan Tipps, Pat Coleman and myself, on our blog, The Daily Dose.

The press box
Readers: ATN is looking for particular feedback on best post-D3 careers, famous Division III alumni (players, coaches and entertainers/politicians, etc.). ATN is also interested in talking with former players about their experiences in pay-for-play postseason all-star games.

ATN is also devoting one October column to best Division III memories of the past 10 years. We’ll pick a handful of your best stories, about anything on or off the field, so long as they’re well written in about 500 words or fewer.

Also seeking feedback on Ten Best (top 10 of the past 10 seasons), moments to remember for the year-in-review and road trip suggestions for October and November (ATN especially likes non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time).

Around the Nation always encourages general opinions on the column. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send e-mail to Keith@D3football.com or use our feedback form.

Five Ways to Saturday
Follow Around the Nation …
1. … When the column publishes on Thursdays.
2. … Throughout the week on Twitter. This is ATN’s first season tweeting. Follow @D3Keith.
3. … Mondays, Pat Coleman and I wrap up the week that was in our podcast. Download from iTunes or listen to it in the Daily Dose’s media player.
4. … When ATN travels on Saturdays, trip highlights are blogged on The Daily Dose.
5. … Further discussions raised here on Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board.

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

Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and began as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011, has worked on the preseason Kickoff publication since 2006 and has covered the Stagg Bowl in Salem for more than a decade. Ryan, a Wabash graduate, worked in newspapers as a writer and editor for 15 years before his current full-time job as editor of a magazine in Virginia.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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