November 17, 2009

Playoff picks, surprises, disappointments

It should have been simple, really.

Week 11 featured a handful of minor upsets in showdown games, but other than that it was as straightforward as a 22 Dive. None of the four three- and four-way tie scenarios came to pass, nobody that was expected to clinch in Pool A played its way into Pool C, and only one team with strong at-large hopes (Dickinson) played its way out of the potential field.

Pool B required almost no deliberation to settle on three teams, and including the automatics, the first 26 teams in clustered fairly neatly around the potential No. 1 seeds. The qualifying teams offered enough geographic flexibility to respect the emphasis on pairing teams within 500 miles of each other to avoid flying. And the normal problem areas, like having highly ranked conference rivals in Texas being forced to play in the first round, were absent.

Yet the selection committee – which includes several members who deserve great respect for their years of service to the game – managed to throw us this wounded duck:

A seedless playoff bracket.

Say what?

Officially, NCAA assistant director of championships Shonna Brown is replying to e-mail inquiries regarding the lack of seeds like so:

“This has always been the case with Division III, as you can look at any official bracket from the past and you will not see seeds. This was not an oversight or mistake, however [it] is the division’s philosophy.”

Maybe so. But as Pat Coleman explains on The Daily Dose, since 1999, seeds have been provided to us by the committee. So while technically the official brackets did not list seeds, they weren’t just magically appearing on unofficial brackets either.

Pat also has an email from a past committee chair listing seed numbers for teams that were used to determine who hosted a semifinal game. In addition, one year the seed numbers were given to ESPN for use in the selection show.

Hosting scenarios for Round 2 have been provided by Brown and the committee (scroll to Pat’s Nov. 17, 4:52 p.m. comment on the link above), so on one hand, the lack of seeds is much ado about nothing. For next week, we can infer who is seeded where from those scenarios.

Yet, furnishing scenarios instead of seeds to D3football.com means we can’t yet determine potential sites for quarterfinal and semifinal matchups (rounds 3 and 4). Based on information from a source with knowledge of how the selection committee works, there does appear to be a reason for this.

Not all schools bid to host playoff games, as we've known from the past, and not all flights are created equal. In other words, the 500-mile limit for bus trips, after which the NCAA picks up the tab for a team’s air travel, is not the only concern. The costs of a charter flight can increase significantly the longer it is. Sending UMHB to Central, let’s say, at less than 900 miles, is preferred to sending them to Maine Maritime, more than 2,100 miles away.

What I think this all means is that a pecking order exists, whether it’s called seeding or not. That pecking order might not be the same order the teams would be in based solely on football-related factors. It also might mean that someone prominent did not file the paperwork to host, either accidentally or on purpose, and they do not want make an issue of it if the team doesn’t advance anyway.

The strangest thing about this all might be that this year’s selection committee -- Rowan AD Joy Solomen, Springfield coach Mike DeLong, Illinois Wesleyan coach Norm Eash, OAC Commissioner Tim Gleason, ODAC Commissioner Brad Bankston, Grove City coach Chris Smith, Knox AD Chad Eisele and Redlands coach Mike Maynard – is virtually the same as last year’s. Defiance AD Dick Kaiser was the chair; he and Trinity (Texas) coach Steve Mohr were on the committee in place of Gleason and Bankston.

It seems odd that a Kaiser-led committee of virtually the same makeup would provide seeds, and a Solomen-led committee would hold fast to what Brown says is Division III’s habit. But then again, the two committees seem to disagree on the playoff worthiness of two-loss teams from strong conferences as well, so maybe it’s not all that odd.

In any case, committee participation is 100% volunteer work. It’s a thankless job performed by men and women who must anticipate, and be able to handle, a certain level of criticism.

Which brings me to my second point.

The other major surprise on selection Sunday was the inclusion of Washington & Jefferson in the playoff field. While there are disagreeing factions on who would have been more deserving than the Presidents, they appeared after Saturday’s games to be last among seven one-loss teams going by the NCAA’s published criteria, and perhaps even behind some of the two-loss teams in the race for the six at-large bids.

In the interest of getting the best teams in the field, judging by the post-Week 11 poll, the committee seems to have done a good job with the Presidents. The six Pool C selections, all teams who went 9-1 with a loss to their automatic-qualifying conference champion, were No. 7 Mary Hardin-Baylor, No. 10 St. Thomas, No. 15 Wabash, No. 20 W&J, No. 25 Coe and Albright, third among teams receiving votes, or 28th. St. Norbert did not receive a vote.

Yet the Green Knights had a .491 strength of schedule number, which is obtained by taking two-thirds opponents winning percentage (OWP) and one-third opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage (OOWP). SoS is among the official selection committee criteria, while top 25 ranking is not. St. Norbert’s SoS far outshined W&J’s .433, which was worst among the Pool Cs. St. Thomas (.528), Wabash and Albright (.527 each), Coe (.513) and Mary Hardin-Baylor (.463) compared favorably.

Remarkably, only Albright had a win against a team that was likely in the final regional rankings (also official criteria), though Wabash’s win against DePauw might also qualify. Each of the seven one-loss Pool C candidates lost to a regionally-ranked automatic qualifier.

In layman’s terms, this means no more than two of the seven 9-1 teams in the front of the line for the six at-large bids actually beat anyone of consequence.

Going one step further than SoS numbers, compare the seven teams’ records against winning teams:

Albright, 3-1: Beat 8-2 Lebanon Valley, 6-4 Wilkes, 6-4 Ursinus; Lost to 10-0 Delaware Valley
St. Norbert, 3-1: Beat 7-3 Ripon, 6-4 Beloit, 6-4 Wartburg; Lost to 10-0 Monmouth
Wabash, 2-1: Beat 8-2 Allegheny, 7-2 DePauw; Lost to 10-0 Wittenberg
Coe, 2-1: Beat 6-4 Augustana, 6-4 Wartburg; Lost to 10-0 Central
UMHB, 2-1: Beat 7-3 Louisiana College, 6-4 Hardin-Simmons; Lost to 8-2 Mississippi College (Also beat two NAIA teams who did not have winning records)
St. Thomas, 1-1: Beat 7-3 Bethel; Lost to 10-0 St. John’s
W&J, 1-1: Beat 7-3 Geneva; Lost to 10-0 Thomas More

Of the five primary criteria, in addition to win pct. and SoS, results of head-to-head games, against common opponents and against regionally ranked teams are considered, all with an in-region focus.

Long story short, there’s a pretty strong case that on the criteria, among the 9-1 teams, W&J -- which has the worst SoS and no advantage on the other four criteria -- is the least impressive.

So how did the Presidents get in?

Officially, as relayed to us by committee chair Joy Solomen, the committee more strongly weighed the one-third (OOWP) than the two-thirds (OWP), which put W&J (.499) ahead of St. Norbert (.473), and factored in the Presidents’ loss to Thomas More, No. 2 in the South Region rankings, and the Green Knights’ loss to Monmouth, No. 5 in the West Region.

But that’s straying from the criteria, or at least interpreting the handbook differently than the public has. Then again, there are those who believe selection committees should be afforded such latitude, in order to get the right teams in the field when the criteria doesn’t necessarily accomplish that.

Here are three non-criteria ways to favor W&J over St. Norbert:
1. Conference strength. The PAC came in 13th in the Kickoff '09 ranking of 27 conferences, while the MWC was 19th. And the gap has been wider in previous seasons. Given that SoS is such a big factor and yet so little of the schedule is left to the teams’ choice, perhaps the committee should be able to adjust.
2. Margin of victory. The Presidents were 7 points from being a 10-0 automatic qualifier, losing to Thomas More 14-7. In 2006, I was totally in the tank for 9-1 Cortland State, a 14-7 overtime loser to AQ winner Rowan, and 9-1 Franklin, a 21-14 loser to Mt. St. Joseph, when both were left out of the field. So don’t the Presidents deserve to be in on this basis, especially when St. Norbert (52-24 loser to Monmouth), Albright (45-16 loser to Del Val) and Coe (24-6 loser to Central) don’t measure up? (St. Thomas, UMHB and Wabash each lost by a field goal, the Tommies in overtime)
3. Respect for past achievements. Both the Presidents and Green Knights have been hugely successful in their conferences, but only one team won two playoff games and went to the national quarterfinals last season. Coupled with the No. 20 ranking vs. not-even-receiving a vote, did the committee do the right thing in taking W&J over St. Norbert?

The most significant concern regarding the Pool C selections is not really that W&J got in over St. Norbert and the gang, but that only one-loss teams were selected this year.

The committee has indicated to the rest of Division III that all wins are equal. If a team can get nine of them, it is insured against failing to earn its automatic bid, no matter who those nine wins are against. Or, if a team can limit itself to only one loss, it

There really should be more outrage(better word?) about this. The fallout should be early-season mismatches and a lack of high-profile teams willing to face each other in non-conference play. There is very little incentive for a team to risk losing a game when there is no reward for winning it.

In a year when at least four powerful two-loss teams compared favorably on the playoff criteria beyond winning percentage, the fact that none of them made the field is disconcerting.

Remember above where we listed the Pool C selections’ rankings? 7-10-15-20-25-28?

No. 13 Ohio Northern, No. 17 North Central, No. 21 Willamette and No. 23 Otterbein stack up rather well. Kean (3 poll votes) could have been considered too.

Witness; the record-vs.-winning teams chart above, re-created:
North Central, 5-2: Beat 7-3 Wheaton, 7-3 Carthage, 6-4 Augustana, 6-4 Millikin, 6-4 Benedictine; Lost to 9-1 Illinois Wesleyan, 8-2 Ohio Northern.
Otterbein, 2-1: Beat 8-2 Ohio Northern, 7-3 Capital; Lost to 10-0 Mount Union
Ohio Northern, 2-2: Beat 8-2 North Central, 7-3 Capital; Lost to 10-0 Mount Union, 8-2 Otterbein
Kean, 2-2: Beat 7-3 Cortland State, 7-3 Rowan; Lost to 10-0 Delaware Valley, 9-1 Montclair State
Willamette, 1-1: Beat 8-1 Cal Lutheran; Lost to 9-0 Linfield

If wins were being counted by quality as well as quantity, these five 8-2 teams could make cases against the 9-1 teams that got in. Ohio Northern and Cal Lutheran were likely in the regional rankings, helping the teams who had poor SoS numbers (Otterbein, .466; Willamette, .473). The teams here without wins over regionally ranked opponents had strong SoS numbers (North Central, .573; ONU, .538; Kean .518). Springfield (7-2 in-region, .568) and St. John Fisher (6-1; .595) did too.

Yet it appears W&J had it figured out the whole time. Why expose yourself to a potential nonconference loss when you can schedule Oberlin (2-8) and Frostburg State (1-9) instead?

If Kean had found someone it could beat instead of playing 10-0 Delaware Valley in Week 1, seems like it would have been in. If North Central hadn’t bothered with Ohio Northern, they’d have been a lock. Conversely, if W&J had opened up with Mount Union and lost, they’d have been in the two-loss, no-chance group.

Although there will always be teams on the bubble, and those with two losses only have themselves to blame (Otterbein is a lock if not for stumbling against 3-7 Marietta in Week 9, as is Willamette if it doesn’t begin the year with a 24-17 loss at 5-5 Concordia-Moorhead) it’s also true that a two-loss team that doesn’t win its AQ puts itself at the mercy of the entire division.

In years where the Pool C field is weak or there’s a Week 11 collapse by several teams in line for at-large bids, one of the five two-loss teams above is in good shape. In 2009, seven 9-1 teams in 23 AQ conferences angled for six spots. You have to go all the way back to 2000, when 8-2 ONU edged 9-1 Ripon, for the last time ATN remembers a committee putting a team with two overall losses in while a one-loss team was on the board.

In any case, W&J gets no great reward for being the perceived last team in. Though it’s got great backstory because of the ties between the two programs, playing at Mount Union in the first round is as close to a sure loss as one can find. The last time the Purple Raiders lost a playoff opener was 1990 against eventual champion Allegheny.

By noon Saturday, all will be forgotten. The equipment at St. Norbert will be packed away, Kean will be hosting Ursinus in an ECAC bowl and the rest of us will be focused on the 16 playoff games set to get underway.

Before we bring in Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and Frank Rossi, from our Stagg Bowl broadcast crew, to look at what might surprise and disappoint us in each of the four playoff brackets, let’s continue an annual ATN tradition.

Bracket reactions
Going beyond the bracket itself to break down what these matchups really mean and what route we'll take on the five-week trip to Salem, ATN presents its fifth annual set of pre-playoff observations. Pat, Ryan Tipps and I will also provide game-by-game score predictions Friday morning in the Triple Take on our blog, The Daily Dose.

Toughest first-round draw
Central. The teams ranked No. 1 through No. 5 in our poll each were rewarded for their undefeated season by hosting the champion of a conference ranked 20th or lower in Kickoff ‘09, or a conference runner up. The opponents for UW-Whitewater and Wesley are unranked, while the opponents for Mount Union, Linfield and St. John’s check in at Nos. 20, 22 and 25. The 10-0 Dutch, meanwhile, drew No. 7 Mary Hardin-Baylor, the consensus third most dominant team in the country the past few seasons. Yikes.

Easiest opening game
UW-Whitewater. Among Lakeland’s four losses are a pair of 23-point defeats to playoff teams in Week 1 (Central, 40-17) and Week 2 (Mount St. Joseph, 42-19). The Muskies would be fortunate to keep it that close; in a home-and-home series in 2006-07, the Warhawks won 75-14 and 41-7.

Toughest path to Salem
Everyone in the St. John’s bracket has a difficult path. And because I can’t stop making charts, here’s one comparing the strength of the four brackets:

Mount Union/East: One undefeated team, two with multiple losses, aggregate record 71-8.
Wesley/South: Three undefeated teams, five with multiple losses, aggregate record 69-10.
UW-W/North: Three undefeated teams, one with multiple losses, aggregate record 72-8.
St. John’s/West: Three undefeated teams, one with multiple losses, aggregate record 75-4.

The most difficult path? UMHB would have to beat No. 6 Central, No. 5 Linfield, No. 4 St, John’s, No. 2 UWW and either No. 3 Wesley or No. 1 Mount Union, all without once playing at home (we think), to win it. Wow.

Longest road to Salem
Mary Hardin-Baylor, whose Texas-to-Iowa jaunt is one of the big trips of the first round, would find itself in California or Oregon with a win. And then perhaps Minnesota, Wisconsin and Virginia. Maine Maritime, with a win at Montclair State on Saturday, could be 900 miles from its second-round opponent.

Easiest path to Salem (Book now)
Mount Union. Not only does it get to face East Region teams for the third year in a row, but it avoids the powerful side of the bracket in a potential semifinal matchup. No. 3 Wesley and No. 11 Thomas More are the only top 15-ranked teams on the Purple Raiders’ side of the draw, and No. 16 Delaware Valley and No. 24 Montclair State are the only top 25 teams in its group of eight.

The committee nailed
The four number one seeds. Building brackets around UW-Whitewater and St. John’s continues the wise tradition of not punishing the field’s four best teams for their regional affiliation. Could you imagine if the Warhawks were also in the bracket with the Johnnies, Linfield, Central, UMHB, et. al.?

The committee blew
Please refer to the opening 75 paragraphs of this column.

Road team most deserving of a home game
Wabash, three points from being the 10-0 team in Wittenberg’s spot, and coming off a Week 11 win over another playoff team, not only doesn’t play at home, but goes to visit the champion of the CCIW, one of the nation’s power conferences.

Home team least deserving of a home game
Huntingdon. On the selection committee’s criteria, the Hawks had a 5-0 regional record and a powerful .595 SoS number. But Huntingdon’s 8-2 record, which included a 31-13 loss at 4-6 UW-Oshkosh, is worse than any host team. Actually, ten one-loss teams are in the road in the first round. The Hawks got paired with Mississippi College because it was the only opponent that didn’t require a flight; they’re at home because of marginally better wins against common opponents Millsaps and Louisana College, among other things.

We would have liked to see
Some seeds.

Played themselves in during Week 11
Susquehanna, Montclair State, N.C. Wesleyan and Maine Maritime each earned its AQ with a final-game victory. So did Hampden-Sydney, though it might have been in anyway with a loss. It was Albright, with a 44-43, come-from-23-down overtime victory against Lebanon Valley, which did the most to get itself into the field.

Played themselves out during Week 11
Last season, we listed RPI, Montclair State, Hampden-Sydney, Catholic and St. John Fisher and Redlands in this spot. This year, only Dickinson lost in Week 11 when it seemed to have a very good shot at an at-large bid in hand with a victory.

Best first-round matchup
UMHB at Central is sort of a no-brainer, but I’d love to be in town for St. Thomas at Monmouth, Wabash at Illinois Wesleyan and Cal Lutheran at Linfield.

The 'sorry for the false hopes' award
Our dearest apologies to the Polar Bears. This is not an award anyone really enjoys winning.

Each year, D3football.com projects the playoff field the night before Selection Sunday, looking at basically the same data the committee is privy to, except their final regional ranking. Here's how we've done projecting the field since we began giving it a try, and how the teams we missed on have fared:

2009: 31 of 32: We projected Ohio Northern; the committee took Washington & Jefferson.

2008: 30 of 32: We projected DePauw and Montclair State; the committee took Curry, which upset Empire 8 champion Ithaca in the first round, and Wheaton, which won three games and the North Central bracket, before losing to Mount Union in a semifinal.

2007: 31 of 32: We projected Whitworth; the committee preferred UW-Eau Claire, which beat St. Norbert and lost to Bethel.

2006: 32 of 32.

2005: 31 of 32: We projected Alfred; the committee preferred Wilkes, which lost to Rowan, 42-3.

2004: 28 of 28.

2003: 27 of 28: We projected UMHB; the committee took Simpson, which lost in the first round to St. Norbert.

2002: 27 of 28: We projected Hartwick; the committee took Washington and Jefferson, which beat second-year Christopher Newport, 24-10, and lost, 45-10, at Trinity (Texas).

2001: 25 of 28: We picked Menlo and Linfield in Pool B; the committee took Whitworth (0-1) and Ithaca (advanced to regional final). In Pool C, we chose UW-Eau Claire; the committee took Montclair State (0-1).

Surprises and Disappointments
It's an ATN annual tradition (take a look at what we thought would happen in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008) to examine each eight-team bracket within the overall bracket and offer our takes on who will rise up, who will fall back and who will be the last of the four standing. Pat, Ryan, Frank and I each make our contributions separately, without consulting with each other or seeing the others’ opinions before the column goes live.

Identified by their bracket names, here goes:

MOUNT UNION BRACKET

Surprises
Keith: Montclair State. The Red Hawks gave up more than half of their 150 points allowed in two September games against Wilkes and Brockport State. They’ve cleaned up their act since the start of October, surrendering just 74 points in seven games, including 7, 7 and 6 to Cortland State, Rowan and Kean. Maine Maritime might not get to 130 rushing yards against these guys, much less 730, and they could make it surprisingly hard for Mount Union to score in the second round.

Ryan: The MAC. For just the second time in the D3football.com era, the perennially tough conference has landed two teams in the NCAA playoffs. Both, too, are in a clear position to log a win before going head-to-head in Round 2.

Frank: The Raiders by less than 30. It's tough to pick a surprise in a region that includes "Purple Power." That being said, it will be a surprise to most if this No. 1 seed (I'm guessing on that seed, of course) does not beat every opponent in the first three rounds by 30-plus points per game. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, in fact, the Pride of Alliance will not win EVERY regional round game by 30 or more, with the likes of Albright, Del Val and Montclair having a chance to at least stick with the Raiders early.


Pat: Maine Maritime. I'm not sure that a team that gave up 26 points in the fourth quarter to Becker is going to get a lot of respect nationally but I think conditions are good to suspect something might happen in the first round at Montclair State. It's a specialized offense (triple option) that Montclair State isn't going to see every day and Montclair hasn't shown a lot of offensive explosiveness in the latter half of the season. Maine Maritime could well control the clock, keep it close and come out on top in the end.

Disappointments
Keith: Alfred. I had high hopes for this team after seeing it play in September, but the 31-10 loss to Ithaca sapped my faith. If defense is the Saxons’ weakness (61 points allowed in the final two games), then Albright, coming off a 44-point second half, is not a good matchup.

Ryan: Maine Maritime. For all the talk surrounding its emotional dethroning of Curry to get into the playoffs, the team’s season will end on a decidedly sour note against Montclair State. The Red Hawks aren’t known for putting up a lot of points, but that could change this weekend.  

Frank: New York. For all of its historical strength this time of year over the past three decades, New York State is represented by just one team in the East this year -- Alfred. New York contains about 7 percent of playoff-eligible Division III teams, and yet represents just 3 percent of the field this year. It is very possible that there will be zero New York teams left after the First Round if Albright puts together its "A" game.

Pat: Alfred. Tough call to pick a disappointment in a bracket where all roads end in Alliance, but I wonder about the Saxons. Albright has to be going in there riding pretty high, playing its way into the playoffs behind their No. 2 quarterback. If Tanner Kelly is healthy, Albright is the best team Alfred has faced all season. If Patrick Suber plays quarterback, Albright is still better than anyone Alfred played out of conference.

Champion
Keith: Mount Union. No disrespect to the quality teams in this bracket, but the Purple Raiders have at least reached the semifinals 14 consecutive seasons.

Ryan: Let’s Mount up and move on.

Frank: Easy. Washington & Jefferson ... 's opponent in the first round. Their name escapes me. My mind becomes MUC-ky this time of year.

Pat: Champion: I can't find a new way to say Mount Union. So, Mount Union.

WESLEY BRACKET

Surprises
Keith: Mississippi College. The Choctaws can win their playoff opener on the road and play the role of ‘ASC team that gives Wesley trouble’ usually occupied by UMHB.

Ryan: DePauw. Maybe the committee expects Indiana-based DePauw to be a one-and-done team, but it’s surprising to see the Tigers lumped in with the South Region teams. Administratively, sure, DPU is South. But geographically? Two wins, though unlikely, are not out of the question, and that means taking to the skies. I suppose I figured a home could be found for them in the North.

Frank: Johns Hopkins. Even with a two-game disparity in the loss column, expect an upset in the first round in the Johns Hopkins/Hampden-Sydney matchup. H-SC pretty much rolled through its opposition -- but there are two problems. First, their strength of schedule was weak. Second, H-SC struggled against a team that JHU beat badly -- Gettysburg. This should be a quality game, either way.

Pat: How good the Huntingdon/Mississippi College game will be. That should be a fun one and I wish I could see it.

Disappointments
Keith: Thomas More. The opener against DePauw is no gimme, and if the Saints win that, they’re set up to ride an 11-0 record into a game with a Hampden-Sydney team that could end a promising season with its all-out offensive assault.

Ryan: Huntingdon and Misssissippi College. Huntingdon is coming off a 35-0 loss to a first-year football program, and Mississippi College needed some fourth-quarter points to seal up their last game against a squad that is 0-10. I’m disappointed with the momentum these teams lost coming into the playoffs, but I will be optimistic that Saturday’s winner will get a little bit of their mojo back.  

Frank: Mississippi College. Would the REAL Mississippi College please step forward? After the shocking victory over Mary Hardin-Baylor in Game 6, the team has struggled with a loss to mediocre Howard Payne and a closer-than-expected game vs. winless Texas Lutheran. Huntingdon has something to prove and will make the late-season disappointments of Mississippi College continue.

Pat: Thomas More. I hate to pick here, but looking at the offenses that line up against them in the first round and potential second round makes me wonder. I know the Saints' defense has come up big so far this season, but DePauw presents a strong quarterback challenge, and Hampden-Sydney would as well.

Champion
Keith: Wesley. I’m willing to bet no one in the nation has more skill-position talent or team speed than the Wolverines. It might not have the offensive interior to bring a title back from Salem, but Wesley is capable of overwhelming anyone it sees before then.

Ryan: Most fans and observers I’ve talked to have told me this Wesley team is faster, stronger and more skilled than last year’s team. The 410 yards per game bear that out somewhat, but what may tell a better story is the total dominance of every Division III team they have faced. This is the year the Wolverines bite back against any and all naysayers.

Frank: Wesley. Even though it only played six games against Division III opposition this year, Wesley is where it's at. The Wolverines beat their nemesis, Salisbury, by the largest margin yet (18 points) in its four-game winning streak over the Gulls. And 18 points was the lowest margin of victory for the team this year. The South looks weak overall, so I can't find another team to ride here.

Pat: Wesley. I like playoff experience here, and the Wolverines have it in spades. Wesley will get pushed a little bit by North Carolina Wesleyan and will definitely face a potent offense in the second week, regardless of who advances. The other half of the bracket could bring a diverse offense or a strong defensive challenge.

UW-WHITEWATER BRACKET

Surprises
Keith: That somebody from the MIAA, UAA, HCAC or NCAC is guaranteed an appearance in the round of eight. Trine, Case Western Reserve, Mount St. Joseph or Wittenberg is going to take a big step forward for its program, something it can take on the recruiting trail and beat all but seven other teams with. Yet I’m fairly confident that the CCIW champion would be favored to come out of this end of the bracket if had been placed over there against these teams.

Ryan: Wittenberg. With this bracket setup, it’s possible we’ll still be talking about Wittenberg three weekends from now. And perhaps the Tigers deserve that. Their defense, which has only once given up more than a single score in a game, should be able to carve Mount St. Joseph and the Round 2 opponent like butter. But like other North Coast teams that have made it deep into the postseason against some of the weaker teams in the playoff field, that signature win, that “wow” factor, will remain elusive.  

Frank: Trine. How can't you be impressed with Trine's level of success the last two seasons? The bottom half of the bracket should be prepared for lots of Thunder, as the experience from last year's 14-0 loss to Wheaton will not be forgotten. The first two rounds in this part of the bracket are very closely matched, giving Trine the slight advantage, in my opinion.

Pat: Trine. Perhaps the Thunder will do better now that they are out of the spotlight, not playing at home against a CCIW team. In fact, there were some thoughts that the Trine defense as a unit might be better after Courtney Pearson's graduation. Whether that has materialized may not be readily apparent against the schedule Trine has played to date, but that group will certainly be tested by Case Western Reserve in the first round. Case hasn't played anyone of Trine's caliber either, so if the Spartans struggle in the first round, it bodes poorly the rest of the way.

Disappointments
Keith: Illinois Wesleyan. As mentioned above, the Titans are set up to fail in the second round against UW-Whitewater, which received six of the 25 first-place votes in the last several D3football.com polls. CCIW teams fare extremely well in the postseason except when running up against Stagg Bowl contenders. We might not be able to judge how good the Titans are this season by the round they were eliminated.

Ryan: Illinois Wesleyan. It’s well documented that Illinois Wesleyan had some massive hurdles to overcome to get here. Beating North Central and Wheaton in back-to-back weeks was a near unthinkable feat. But I’ve always believed in defense, and the Titans have both a run and pass defense that stood out in a tough conference. IWU is the second-best team in this bracket, but with UW-Whitewater just a game away, the Titans won’t get to showcase their full worth.  

Frank: Case Western Reserve. Congratulations to Case Western Reserve on the team's big 10-0 season. Yet, please work on that schedule strength in the future. A .402 opponents' win percentage will not serve you well in scenarios like this Saturday. Dan Whalen is a good quarterback, no doubt, but he is not infallible and will be tested mightily against Trine's defense. Net result: a CWRU loss early.

Pat: Case Western Reserve. If not in the first round, then further along. And how to judge the potential second-round matchup between two untested teams in Case and Wittenberg?

Champion
Keith: UW-Whitewater. I’m going to ride this train until the wheels fall off. Or at least until we get to the semis.

Ryan: UW-Whitewater. I’ve had the Warhawks No. 1 since the preseason. Why mess with a good thing?

Frank: U-Dub-Dub. Apparently the initials "LL" are following me around. Yes, "LL" stands for "Liberty League," the conference for which I do a weekly Internet radio show. However, since I've covered the sidelines of the Stagg Bowl, "LL" has stood for "Lance Leipold," Wisconsin-Whitewater's head coach. It won't be changing anytime soon, either. Whitewater is better than ever and will not be caught by surprise by anyone in this region.

Pat: UW-Whitewater. Lurking over there at the other end of the bracket from all of my intrigue is Division III's other purple powerhouse.

ST. JOHN’S BRACKET

Surprises
Keith: Monmouth. With all the firepower in this bracket – some of the most successful Division III programs of all time, including three teams who have been to the Stagg Bowl this decade and two champions -- the Scots are the forgotten ones. With the nation’s No. 2 offense behind Huntingdon (in yards, with 542 a game) and North Central (in points, with 47.7 a game), Alex Tanney and the gang is going to be quite a problem. No one’s stayed within 20 points since the opener, and although there are no easy wins in this bracket, the MWC champions could get a few.

Ryan: St. Thomas. Two years removed from a 2-8 season, the Tommies were four points away from having a bracket named after them. I bought into some of the preseason hype about this team, but it did take a while for me to fully accept that St. Thomas was in the midst of a Cinderella season. And with the kind of pass defense the Tommies have, Monmouth, with Alex Tanney under center, will have a tough go of it come Saturday.  

Frank: Mary Hardin-Baylor. It will certainly be a "Wild, Wild West" this year -- and adding to that will be a team not even from the West Region. Enter Mary Hardin-Baylor. It seems that one loss has pushed the country's confidence in this team underwater. Yet, why? The loss to Mississippi College occurred during a change at starting quarterback. Since losing his first start, freshman LiDarral Bailey has not looked back. You learn more from losses than wins, I believe, and a team with great playoff experience historically and some good lessons in 2009 will find their way to the quarterfinals.

Pat: Mary Hardin-Baylor. Not that there's a player on this team that played during the team's 2004 run to the Stagg Bowl, all against ranked teams, all on the road, but it's tempting to think they could catch lightning in a bottle again. Looking down the road, I could see St. John's being prepared well enough defensively for the Crusader attack, but that requires the Johnnie offense to score enough to get them there.

Disappointments
Keith: One of the 10-0 home teams. I don’t know who among St. John’s, Monmouth, Central and Linfield will lose Saturday, but their opponents are too good for them all to advance. Somebody is going to have its dream season come to an abrupt end.

Ryan: Mary Hardin-Baylor. Seeing the Crusaders shipped into this bracket. I do understand the logistics of why things like this are done, but it’s unfortunate to stack the toughest overall bracket with yet another top 10 team. And with the kind of schedule Central plays, the 10-0 Dutch deserve a much easier first round draw. This situation is reminiscent of last year’s St. John’s team, which in Round 1 had to face a one-loss UW-W squad hell bent on returning to Salem.

Frank: Seedings?! This is the one region in which it would be helpful to know what the seeds of the teams really are. When in one bracket you have: 1) a team ranked in the mid-pack of the South Region fly into the bracket (UMHB); and 2) teams that are potentially forced to match up to avoid future flights (Cal Lutheran/Linfield), it would be helpful for everyone to know what the Selection Committee viewed as the relative strengths of such a diverse and potent bracket. Why does it matter? Well, who will host a semi-final if the top of the brackets don't win? Or for that matter, who hosts in ANY subsequent round? There was no need for this lack of transparency, and the disappointment is epitomized inside this bracket.

Pat: Monmouth. In a first-round game between two teams that have not really been prepared by their non-conference schedule, St. Thomas at least did play at St. John's in midseason. The Tommies found out where they was weak and have made changes. I'm not sure Monmouth has played a game that can deliver that kind of result, so they will have to make their changes on the fly. And manage the clock better than against Wartburg last season.

Champion
Keith: Linfield. St. John’s is so banged up, and all four No. 1 seeds (sorry, I keep saying that out of habit) never advance anyway. That leaves trips to Oregon and the Catdome for everyone else. All else being equal, having to fly two time zones to play an unbeaten team in front of a boisterous crowd seems less than ideal.

Ryan: Central. A tough schedule is nothing new to this Iowa team, but after playing Mary Hardin-Baylor, Linfield and St. John’s to win the region, the Dutch may be too banged up to do much damage in the semis.

Frank: St. John's. There are two ways to look at St. John's right now. One way is to look at the team as a collection of guys who must be downright exhausted by now because of the grueling and close games they've faced. I choose to look at the team as experienced from top to bottom with a schedule strength that is very respectable. The winner of this bracket will have earned their keep with the potentcy present, so give the nod to Division III's "Ol' Ball Coach," John Gagliardi, and his Johnnies in such a scenario.

Pat: Mary Hardin-Baylor or Linfield. Sorry to waffle.

Around the Nation begins its yearly playoff hiatus following this column, but be sure to check back around the time of the Stagg Bowl and shortly thereafter for the annual ATN year-in-review. Plus, stay tuned to the Daily Dose for Triple Take on Fridays and the ATN Podcast on Mondays.

Stay tuned
Before you drift off into the offseason, especially for those fans whose seasons end this week, ATN would like to remind you that we’ll be honoring, highlighting and otherwise mentioning your teams right up until the beginning of January. So don’t tune out completely once your team has turned the equipment in. The remainder of the calendar:


Sat. Nov. 21: Playoffs, Round 1 (32 teams), ECAC bowl games (12 teams)
Following week: ATN podcast on Mondays, D3football.com regional wrap-ups and playoff features Tues.-Wed.
Sat. Nov. 28: Playoffs, Round 2
Following week: Gagliardi trophy finalists named, D3football.com playoff features, ATN podcast
Sat. Dec. 5: Playoffs, Round 3 (eight teams); D-III Senior Classic all-star game in Salem
Following week: D3football.com All-Region teams announced, Gagliardi Trophy regional finalists (four) announced, Liberty Mutual coach of the year fan voting ends, D3football.com playoff features midweek, ATN podcast
Sat. Dec. 12: National semifinals (four teams), live webcast
Thu. Dec. 17: Gagliardi Trophy presentation
Fri. Dec. 18: Stagg Bowl luncheon, pregame festivities in Salem/Roanoke
Sat. Dec. 19: Stagg Bowl XXXVII, 11 a.m., D3football.com all-Americans announced during pregame broadcast, wall-to-wall coverage of the championship, First installment of ATN’s year-in-review
Last week Dec./First week Jan.: Final installment of ATN’s year-in-review, Liberty Mutual coach of the year award winner announced.

The press box


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