September 2, 2009

It's OK to play for No. 3

Let’s just come to grips with it now.

Mount Union vs. UW-Whitewater, Stagg Bowl XXXVII, Dec. 19. Get used to how that sounds.

Barring multiple regular-season upsets, or a shocking set of brackets from the playoff selection committee, it’s all but a foregone conclusion. Last year’s championship game participants have 17 and 21 starters back, respectively.

For the 99.2 percent of us who aren’t Purple Raiders or Warhawks, a fifth consecutive Stagg Bowl featuring the same teams sounds about as exciting as washing players’ socks after practice.

I’m not out to crush your dreams, or those of your favorite program. A surprise would be nice. And in reality, each Division III season is full of surprises, if we just peel back a layer.

Those who would find themselves complaining by Stagg Bowl week about the sameness of it all have perhaps been focused on the wrong thing. So as we look at 2009, why aren’t we asking who’ll finish Nos. 3 and 4?

It sounds like total heresy to everyone trained in the win-or-it-was-a-failure ways. And certainly even Mount Union and UW-Whitewater don’t want to just assume they’ll be in Salem, lest we fail to recognize how hard it is to get there. But as they’ve made chopping through four rounds of playoff contenders while also finishing up the fall semester look routine, looking at the other national semifinalists are the easiest way to tell the seasons apart.

Mary Hardin-Baylor has done the No. 3 honors the past two seasons, with South Region rival Wesley handling the role the two seasons prior. With regard to the fourth team in the mix, we can almost refer to them as The Rowan Year, The St. John Fisher Year, the Bethel Year and the Wheaton Year.

Phrased like that, it brings back memories of the way all four of those teams went out against Mount Union, while the South Region champion gets stuck with the Warhawks. (Even in ’05 when Mount Union lost a regular season game and ’07 and ’08 when UW-Whitewater did, the purple powerhouses have not ended up in a bracket that would have them meet in the semifinals.)

The Profs were one of the highlights of the ’05 playoffs, beating Union 28-24 and Delaware Valley 27-21 before losing 19-7 at Mount Union. The Profs kept on winning close ones into the ’06 playoffs, until an unceremonious 31-0 ousting at the hands of St. John Fisher. The Cardinals captured everyone’s attention with a 26-14 loss at Mount Union in the ’06 semifinals, a game that was 17-14 just prior to the fourth quarter before Nate Kmic rushed for the last of his 371 yards to put the game away.

Bethel beat Central in the Iowa snow in ’07 for the right to go to Alliance, Ohio. In ’08, Wheaton beat the tournament’s other darlings, Franklin, for the same privilege.

Here’s what this brief history lesson is getting at: People do remember more than just who finished first. Especially if you were there for dramatic finishes spurred on by seniors out to extend their careers another week and buy fans a bonus week of travel and tailgating.

Even if the last two standing are same ol’ same ol’, there’s plenty to play for in Division III. Games in front of their home crowd or yours beat going to a one-and-done bowl in some outpost where nobody follows your team. And players’ competitive cravings are met by knowing exactly where they stack up against the best.

With such a variance in athletic department budgets (see the feature story in Kickoff ’09), institutional commitment to football, number of full-time coaching positions and proximity to Division III opponents, it’s a wonder we’ve got as competitive a postseason as we do.

Sustained dominance, as you’ll see below, is quite rare. Instead, a lot of the really fun-to-follow playoff runs come from teams who have hovered around the playoffs for years, but had never really made their marks. Occasionally, we’ll get a Franklin – defeated in 2007 on a last-second TD pass against North Central – making an unprecedented foray.

Across Division III, skim a handful of the best teams off the top and a few handfuls of the least-competitive off the bottom, and what we’re left with is several dozen teams who aren’t all that different. A deep and experienced group of upperclassmen, one or two special talents and good fortune when it comes to injuries might be just the recipe for a Franklin-like breeze through a bracket.

In other words, there’s not much reason why the team you follow can’t be this year’s Franklin, if not St. John Fisher, Bethel or Wheaton.

So kick back and enjoy the season. Even if it turns out that all we’re competing for is a chance to be mentioned alongside Purple Raiders and Warhawks, it should still be a blast. Don’t forget to enjoy every minute of it.

Ten Best

Although Thursday’s kickoffs signify the start of our 11th season covering Division III football, D3football.com celebrated its 10th anniversary in July. In recognition of that, Around the Nation will feature a top 10 list in each column this season.

ATN has brainstormed everything from the standard (memorable moments, upsets, plays) to the outside-the-box (low points, improvements in the game and rivalries measured by significance).

Still, there’s room for you to chime in. ATN’s lists aren’t necessarily meant to be the final word on any of the topics. ATN will open the floor for discussion both before and after a Ten Best is published (and as you can see, they won’t all be ten “best”), and we can discuss each one as long as it has legs. React to this week’s list, make submissions for the coming week’s list or come up with new categories altogether, for use in a future ATN.

Next week: Ten Guys We Didn’t Envy. (Coaches & players who were put in tough spots)

Share your feedback on our message board, Post Patterns, on the Around the Nation thread under general football. You can also send e-mail to Keith@D3football.com or use our feedback form.

Here’s this week’s Ten Best:
Ten Most Successful Teams of the D3football.com Era
We’re celebrating a stretch of time that’s run concurrent with playoff expansion -- from 16 to 28 teams in 1999, and adding four more for the 2005 postseason – so it seems prudent to heavily figure success in the playoffs (as opposed to just conference-based, regular-season success) into the equation.

10. Trinity (Conn.)
Record since 1999: 65-15 (.813)
Stagg Bowls/wins: n/a
The Bantams’ winning percentage fits in among the group here. But if you subtract the 13-11 record from 1999 to 2001, it’s downright Mount Union-esque. At 52-4 (.929) since the start of the 2002 season, with four undefeated seasons to its credit, Trinity can claim to be the second-most dominant program in Division III. The problem ranking their run is the NESCAC’s eight-game schedule and prohibition on non-conference or playoff games. We’ll never know how the Bantams would have stacked up against the nation’s best at the height of their run, so the numbers must speak for themselves. Those numbers, unfortunately, include zero postseason wins and Stagg Bowl appearances.

9. Wheaton
Record since 1999: 89-23 (.795)
Stagg Bowls/wins: Zero
The Thunder haven’t been to Salem, but they’ve sustained success in the CCIW, which features 76-win Augustana and 68-win North Central among its members. Wheaton has five seasons of at least 10 wins, plus one final four and one final eight appearance to its credit. But its trump card is its 9-6 all-time playoff record. Finally put in a bracket without Mount Union last season, Wheaton won the regional championship and still ended up losing in the semifinals to the Purple Raiders, who have ended all of Wheaton’s treks into the playoffs, including five in the D3.com era. The Thunder is unbeaten in the playoffs against anyone else.

8. Pacific Lutheran
Record since 1999: 64-35 (.647)
Stagg Bowls/wins: One/One
Despite having fallen on hard times since legendary coach Frosty Westering retired, the Lutes still make our list for one reason: Championship. In an era when Mount Union has hogged them, anyone who’s won it should be on here. PLU was more than a one-season wonder, pushing St. John’s to overtime during its 2000 Stagg Bowl run and beating Whitworth and Central in overtime before a loss to St. John’s in 2001. The Lutes gave way to Linfield in 2002 and haven’t been back to the playoffs since. Teams who missed the top 10 by a lot, like Occidental (71-28, .717) and Hobart (77-26, .748), have more wins over the past decade, not just ones who barely missed, like Trinity, Texas (96-19, .835) and Washington & Jefferson (108-19, .850). So which should be valued more, sustained excellence over the full 10 years, or one season of true magic and a couple of decent ones on the slide down?

7. Bridgewater (Va.)
Record since 1999: 87-27 (.763)
Stagg Bowls/wins: One/Zero
Before the South Region became the sole territory of Wesley and Mary Hardin-Baylor, it was a three-team race almost every season. Games between W&J, Trinity and Bridgewater came down to the wire, and were among the playoffs’ most entertaining. In the era, the Presidents have two appearances in the final eight, while the Tigers and Eagles have each gone to two final fours and a Stagg Bowl. The Eagles bowed out in the final eight in two other seasons, compared to one for Trinity, and were much more competitive (30-27) in their Stagg Bowl loss to Mount Union in 2001 than Trinity was in 2002 (48-7). Plus, between 2000 and ’07, the Eagles were 78-16 (.830).

6. Rowan
Record since 1999: 89-26 (.774)
Stagg Bowls/wins: One/Zero
If we were considering the entire Salem era, we could add four more Stagg Bowls and a final four to the Profs’ tally. But even as they’ve given way to other national powerhouses, they haven’t exactly fallen on hard times – a 4-6 2007 aside. Rowan won a regional championship and made the accompanying final four appearance four times between 1999 and 2005. They haven’t been back to Salem since the 1999 PLU rout, though they were a clock operator’s error from going in 2001. But they had deep runs in ’04 and ’05 stopped by the eventual champion. The Profs’ overall record over the 10 years is a bit misleading, considering both the six-loss season and the fact that prior to the NJAC being big enough to fill out a 10-game schedule, Rowan would take games against scholarship-providing teams (Albany, Millersville, S. Conn. State) from other divisions.

5. Mary Hardin-Baylor
Record since 1999: 97-21 (.822)
Stagg Bowls/wins: One/Zero
The Crusaders captured the attention of Division III observers in 2004 by going to Mount Union, sticking to its ground-based attack while facing a double-digit fourth quarter deficit, and winning. The Cru lost the Stagg Bowl the following week, but have won at least a game in every playoffs since. For a former women’s college that debuted football in 1998, Texas-based UMHB has quickly become a national power. They boast five 10-or-more-win seasons since 2002 and consecutive semifinal appearances. While they currently look like the country’s third most-dominant program, their resume would be a lot stronger with a Salem victory on it.

4. Linfield
Record since 1999: 84-18 (.824)
Stagg Bowls/wins: One/One
The Wildcats last played a playoff game in 2005 against then-upstart UW-Whitewater and are coming off of three consecutive 6-3 seasons. Yet they were at least a round of eight team from ’02 to ’05, their overall winning percentage still stands out and they have one of the era’s championships that Mount Union doesn’t. Linfield didn’t have to beat the Purple Raiders for their title, but they’ve defeated both Rowan and UMHB deep in the postseason. Brett Elliott, a Utah transfer who once started over the 49ers’ Alex Smith, led the way in 2004 with a 61-touchdown pass season. He helped, but the Wildcats – a No. 1 seed in the 2000 playoffs -- were good before Elliott got there. You might have heard. Their last losing season came 43 years before there was a D3football.com. Or any .com. Or D-III football.

3. UW-Whitewater
Record since 1999: 87-33 (.725)
Stagg Bowls/wins: Four/One
Even though the overall 10-season record doesn’t match others on the list, and their previous playoff appearance before the 2005 Stagg Bowl run was 1997, few would argue with where the Warhawks are now. The program’s been built to where the coach changes and star players graduate, and the team returns to the championship game anyway. They’ve made more appearances in Salem over four years than anyone but Mount Union has in all 10, and they’ve gone toe-to-toe with the giant each time, slaying it once. With 21 starters back, it doesn’t look like the Warhawks will fall back in ’09 either.

2. St. John’s
Record since 1999: 108-20 (.844)
Stagg Bowls/wins: Two/One
Like Whitewater, the Johnnies have had the misfortune of playing Mount Union in both trips to Salem, but with a 24-6 win in ’03 and a 10-7 loss in ’00, that ends up proving the Johnnies’ strength. Nobody but the Purple Raiders has won more games over this stretch, and the big difference between 108 wins over this period by St. John’s and the same number by Washington and Jefferson is what the Johnnies were able to do in the postseason. Making the field in all but ‘04, St. John’s won at least one game in each postseason trip, except in ’08, when they drew Whitewater in the first round. They’ve been among the final eight six times in the era, and were at least a regional champion/final four team from ’00 to 03. (W&J, by contrast, has not been among the final four since 1995). The Johnnies also play in one of the nation’s better conferences, and have lost nine MIAC games in 10 seasons.

1. Mount Union
Record since 1999 (including postseason): 137-5 (.965)
Stagg Bowls/wins: 8/6
A no-brainer, sure. The details are preposterous. The Purple Raiders have gone 89-1 in a conference that is anything but a pushover, winning all 10 OAC titles. They’ve been in every final four since we started, so consistent that we stopped going to Alliance to cover regular season games, knowing there’d be opportunities later. But perhaps what puts the crown on the whole thing is that we can count their losses on one hand. There have been more Walnut-and-Bronze hoistings than there have been defeats. We can name the teams that beat them, off the top of our heads: Rowan at Alliance, ’99. St. John’s in the Stagg Bowl in ’03. Mary Hardin-Baylor at Alliance in ’04. Ohio Northern in the regular season at Alliance in ’05. UW-Whitewater in the Stagg Bowl in ’07. Not much, but just enough to keep things interesting.

Honorable mention, with records if not mentioned above: W&J; Trinity (Texas); Hardin-Simmons (89-19, .824); Curry (91-22, .805); Central (87-24, .784); Wittenberg (85-26, .766); Wabash (84-26, .764); Wesley (85-27, .759); Ithaca (83-28, .748).

What’s new

Our preseason preview, Kickoff ’09, has been out a little over a week now, but if you’re just joining us, here are a few things that look different since last season ended:

Colorado College, Blackburn and Principia dropped (or suspended) their programs.

Castleton State and Anna Maria will put teams on the field for the first time this season. Presentation (S.D.), Stevenson (Md.), Pacific (Ore.) and perhaps Hendrix (Ark.) are not far behind.

Future moves to keep tabs on: Salisbury and Frostburg State to the Empire 8 in 2010, Huntingdon and LaGrange moving from the SLIAC to independent this season, and Earlham discussing a move from the NCAC.

The conference you were preparing to get to know as the North Atlantic/NAC joins the fray as the ECFC (East Coast Football Conference). Its eight members are Anna Maria, Becker, Castleton State, Gallaudet, Husson, Mount Ida, Norwich and SUNY-Maritime. The name change puts it in line for an automatic bid in 2011.

The SLIAC closed up shop one season after bringing football back, thanks to Blackburn and Principia’s decisions. The UMAC, which had dropped to five teams last year, takes on some of the ex-SLIAC members, three of which were members of the now-defunct IBFC in 2007. Second-year St. Scholastica, Crown, Martin Luther, Northwestern (Minn.) and Minn.-Morris are joined by Eureka, Greenville, MacMurray and Westminster (Mo.).

All the movement leaves us with 237 football-playing Division III schools, though the number is still more than 420 for basketball. You’ll occasionally see us use the number 238, which includes Newport News Apprentice, a non-Division III member that plays in the ACFC, a conference we cover. Teams whose programs are in transition from another division or have just started, and the NESCAC, are not playoff eligible.

Gordon Mann handled this all in Kickoff, in a much more in-depth fashion. Look, we understand the economy’s tight and everything, but we’re still doing what we do best. There’s enough in Kickoff ’09 to keep you reading well into the season.

And if you’ve already had your fill of Kickoff and still can’t wait for your team to kick off this weekend, you can always revisit ATN’s ’08-in-review columns, here and here, so you can pick up exactly where we left off.

Who are those guys?

It’s hard enough getting to know your own team and its 237 brethren here at D3football.com. So what to do when you see something unfamiliar – a Southwest Assemblies of God, an Azusa Pacific or Haskell Indian Nations on your team’s schedule? What if you just need to know the difference between Dakota State and North Dakota State? (big one, by the way)

ATN keeps you abreast of all the out-of-classification action throughout the year, which is especially prevalent in the Midwest and South before conference play begins. As a bonus, ATN keeps track of how Division III does against Division I-FCS (still better known as I-AA), Division II and NAIA.

vs. Division I, FCS (4-5 in 2008)
Albion at Butler (non-scholarship Pioneer League)
Methodist at Campbell (non-scholarship Pioneer League)

vs. Division II (4-6 in 2008)
Curry at Bentley (Northeast-10)
Assumption (Northeast-10) at Worcester State
Plymouth State at St. Anselm (Northeast-10)
Pace (Northeast-10) at Salisbury
Sul Ross State at Western New Mexico (Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference)

vs. NAIA (30-14 in 2008)
No. 2 UW-Whitewater at Dickinson State (Dakota Athletic Conference)
Bethel, Tenn. (Mid-South Conference) at UW-Eau Claire
Anderson at Taylor (Mid-States Football Association)
Newport News at Malone (Mid-States Football Association)
Southwestern Assemblies (independent) at Austin
Bacone (Mid-South Conference) at Louisiana College

Also:
Minn. Morris at Trinity Bible (S.D.)

Games of the week

The Around the Region columns took a look at big games coming up this season. We’ll take a brief look at the ones with national implications in Week 1:

No. 20 Christopher Newport at No. 9 Wesley: A tropical storm wiped out last year’s planned clash. This year it resurfaces as Week 1’s only matchup of top 25 teams.

No. 1 Mount Union at St. John Fisher: Could the mighty Purple Raiders stumble in the opener? Since their much-talked-about playoff clash in 2006, Mount Union has beaten the Cardinals 52-10 and 33-3.

No. 4 North Central at Ohio Northern: We’ll find out quickly if the Cardinals deserve such a lofty ranking. A loss here sent last year’s Polar Bears to an 0-4 start, before a strong finish got them to .500.

Whitworth at No. 5 Hardin-Simmons: Being on Division III’s Northwest and Texas islands (This map and post get outdated, but never old) force coaches to do some crazy things, like schedule a team that could knock yours silly in the opener. Probably the most talent on any Division III field this weekend.

No. 8 Willamette at Concordia-Moorhead: See above note about islands. Oregon to Minnesota is a fun little road trip, but then again, it’s a haul from anywhere to Moorhead. This could go by quickly, as it matches up two of Division III’s most creative (and effective) ground attacks.

No. 19 Franklin at Baldwin-Wallace: It could be a short stay in the top 25 for the Grizzlies, who begin the post-Chad Rupp era with a team expected to nip at Mount Union’s heels in the OAC. The turf might no longer be a nightmare, but Finnie Stadium in Berea still doesn’t seem like an inviting venue for visitors.

Thomas More at John Carroll: Blue Streaks are fourth OAC team to face a 2008 playoff team in their opener. OAC could go 4-0, especially with all but Mount Union hosting.

Millsaps at Mississippi College: Backyard Brawl QBs will be the focus, as Majors’ Chris Graves steps in for graduated Juan Joseph, and Choctaws’ Adam Shaffer returns from injury.

UW-Oshkosh at Ripon: Red Hawks nearly scored a big upset for the MWC last season, but Titans’ Nick Craft stopped Tygh Walters on a two-point conversion run with 44 seconds left to preserve the victory. If Ripon came that close on the road, will playing at home make a difference?

UW-La Crosse at East Texas Baptist: Looks good on the surface, but last time Eagles went to Texas, in the ’07 opener, they whooped Hardin-Simmons, 47-21. Tigers are doing a nice job expanding their national presence, but would like to fare better than they did in a 29-15 loss at St. John’s in last season’s first game.

Johns Hopkins at Delaware Valley: A lot of talk about the Blue Jays winning the Centennial and the Aggies the MAC, and a solid non-conference win would be a confidence-booster for either.

Guilford at Greensboro: Soup Bowl won’t be under the lights this year, but could still shine a little as Week 1’s second rivalry game. With six wins between the Quakers and Pride last season and prospects again dim, each side needs this one badly.

Anna Maria at Castleton State: One New England school will start its program off on the right foot. That’s pretty convenient.

For more on this week’s games, see Friday morning’s Triple Take, featuring three D3football.com staffers’ thoughts, on our blog, The Daily Dose.

About Around the Nation

Although today marks the season’s first three kickoffs (and if I understand the latest on the Indiana Time Zone, Trine at Manchester and Anderson at Taylor kick at the same 7 p.m. as Mass. Maritime at SUNY-Maritime), some of you will still wait until Saturday, or even Week 2, to see your team play.

Before the first kickoff, most of the good stuff is still inside Kickoff, our still-available preview edition. If you're a first-time reader, welcome. ATN's function is important to Division III; without national television broadcasts in the regular season, this is where we'll take everything happening between New England and Southern California, from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South and make sense of it.

First-timers and long-timers should each find plenty to enjoy in this season's columns, which are posted weekly, on Thursdays, through the 11-week regular season and appearing in a couple of installments after the Stagg Bowl to revisit and wrap things up.

ATN highlights issues of national significance: occurrences, trends, specific teams, streaks, polls and the like. Another aim is to start a dialogue, something not easy to do in such a giant, geographically-fragmented division. The 238 teams we cover are an interesting lot, from larger state schools to highly respected small privates, coast to coast. We all play football, for the love of the game, but sometimes it seems that's all we have in common. With so many to keep an eye on, we'll spend the season traveling, watching games, talking to players and coaches, crunching numbers and sparking conversation about Division III football. The national discussion involves you and your favorite team, so please join in.

Five Ways to Saturday

Follow Around the Nation …
When the column publishes on Thursdays
When ATN travels on Saturdays, trip highlights are blogged on The Daily Dose.
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.
Throughout the week on Twitter. This is ATN’s first season tweeting. Follow @D3Keith.
Further discussions raised here on Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board.

The press box

Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the column, the top 25, moments to remember for the year-in-review (yes, already) and whatever else crosses your mind. 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.

Already this season, we’re seeking your feedback on Ten Best (top 10 of the past 10 seasons), best 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) and suggestions for Division III T-shirt designs.

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

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