November 4, 2010

Picking the top seeds

Mount Union
For three years now, East Region teams have been staring up at Mount Union at the top of their bracket on the road to the national semifinals. And this year might not be any different.

It happens each October. At first, many are alive along each branch. Then, one by one, they drop.

These aren’t autumn’s leaves. They’re undefeated East Region teams.

With St. John Fisher losing to Empire 8 rival Alfred, 42-31, in Week 8 and Montclair State coughing up a 9-0 lead in the fourth quarter against Cortland Statero in Week 9, the teams of the E8, NJAC, Liberty League, NEFC and MAC find themselves in a familiar predicament: None of them is unbeaten. And while each of these automatic-qualifier conferences will still send its champion to the playoff field of 32, the fall of the final unbeaten team has meant one thing the past three seasons: The Road to Salem, for Division III’s East Region teams, goes through Alliance, Ohio, home of 10-time champion, 13-time finalist Mount Union.

That’s no way for a region which last won a championship before freshmen on the current rosters were born (Ithaca in 1991) to get back on top. As Around the Nation detailed last week, an East Region team hasn’t played in a Stagg Bowl since 1999, much less won one.

In the selection committee’s second set of regional rankings, released Wednesday, there remained 14 unbeaten teams. One, SUNY-Maritime, from the Pool B-eligible ECFC, hails from the East Region. And it was ranked behind five one-loss teams, mostly because of strength of schedule.

And if we’ve learned anything over the 11-year history of 28- and 32-team playoff brackets, it’s that the overwhelming number of top seeds are unbeaten. Forty of the 44 top seeds entered the playoffs without a loss, and two that did not (Rowan in 2004 and UW-Whitewater in 2007) lost to Division II teams.

In short, when St. John Fisher and Montclair State lost, the East’s last shot at a homegrown No. 1 seed went out the window.

That’s not necessarily news. But is it fair? How come it bothers some East Region faithful so? And is there a better way?

It’s helpful, before deconstructing the process, to first understand it. In Division III, the playoff selection committee is no group of NCAA appointees in an Indianapolis office. It’s an eight-member panel of experienced D-III folks. In 2010, Joy Solomen, Rowan AD, chairs the committee. Norwich coach Shawn McIntyre also represents the East on the national selection committee. Manchester coach Shannon Griffith and OAC commissioner Tim Gleason represent the North; ODAC commissioner Brad Bankston and Grove City coach Chris Smith are from the South; and Knox AD Chad Eisele and Concordia-Moorhead coach Terry Moran make up the West pair.

Wilkes
The last "homegrown" No. 1 seed in the East was Wilkes in 2006, which lost at home in the second round to Rowan.
D3sports.com file photo by Pat Coleman

Each of those twosomes also participates on an eight- or nine-person regional advisory committee. Every conference with more than four members, plus independents, is represented. According to the championship handbook, the committee began weekly conference calls on Sept. 22. Following Week 8, each regional advisory committee ranks 10 teams, using the same criteria the national committee will use to select the nine teams that fill out the playoff field after the 23 automatic bids are earned.

For the national committee members, it’s a serious time commitment in addition to their regular job.

“The closer and closer you get to the playoffs, the longer and longer those calls get,” says Springfield coach Mike DeLong, who just finished four years on the national committee.

The selection committee, which meets well into the wee hours of Sunday morning after Week 11’s games to seed the teams after the 32 are chosen, follows guidelines set primarily by the D-III membership. But one order does come down from on high in Indianapolis: Since D-III championships don’t earn enough revenue to pay for themselves, and because all sports depend on a small slice of the NCAA’s TV deal for its Division I March Madness basketball tournament, there is a financial constraint. NCAA playoff rules permit bus trips up to 500 miles; after that, a team must fly. Since the NCAA, not individual schools, picks up the tab for 52 players and 10 team personnel, the playoff brackets are to include as few flights as possible.

The search for cost-effectiveness has meant that the playoffs, which technically abandoned the four-region model it used up until 1998, still largely shakes down into eight-team brackets made up mostly of North, South, East and West Region teams. But it does not have to be that way.

And this is where some in the East Region have a bone to pick with the selection committee.

Nowhere in the handbook either does it say the committee must choose its strongest seeds and make them the four No. 1s. Yet it’s common sense to approach it that way, and Solomen, who ATN talked to by phone last Wednesday, says choosing No. 1s is the first thing the committee does after selecting the last of the 32.

“We look for the top four in the country, and put them in specific regions if it works that way,” Solomen said.

Problem is, it often doesn’t. The current six teams ATN believes to be in the running for top seeds hail from the North (Mount Union, Wheaton/North Central winner), West (UW-Whitewater, St. Thomas) and South (Wesley, Mary Hardin-Baylor). None of these teams is ranked lower than third in the regional rankings. And Mount Union, the only one at No. 3, will move up a spot after the CCIW rivals play each other on Saturday and one loses.

None of the six are Eastern teams.

No. 1 with a blemish

Top seeds from any region since 1999 which have entered the playoffs with a loss:

2001: Central (West), 9-1
2003: Lycoming (South), 8-1
2004: Rowan (East), 8-2*
2007: UW-Whitewater (West), 9-1*

* -- undefeated against Division III teams.

Then again, no strong Eastern teams are undefeated. And while 40 – really 42 – of the 44 No. 1 seeds since 1999 have gone into the postseason without a loss, one-loss teams can be considered. Both cases where it’s happened – Central in 2001 and Lycoming in 2003 – teams were among no other undefeateds in their eight-team “bracket.”

But a seventh team, Delaware Valley, which has one loss, to highly ranked Wesley, 21-17, could be under consideration for a No. 1.

“Absolutely” Solomen said when asked if the committee would consider the Aggies for a No. 1 if they finished 9-1. “I think we have to. “

But chances are the Aggies will get passed over for one of the undefeated teams within 500 miles of most East Region schools: Mount Union or Wesley. Delaware Valley was passed over in a similar situation last season, in fact. Which raises a simple question: Why would Delaware Valley and Wesley risk being undefeated by playing each other? Couldn’t they just schedule someone they’re more likely to beat?

Perhaps. But they’re also more concerned about being well tested when they get to the postseason rather than just being seeded No. 1. And, whether it’s in search of a Pool B bid like Wesley or a Pool C were Delaware Valley not an automatic qualifier, having played a team likely to win several games is a boost in strength of schedule, a key playoff criterion.

But while there are several criteria, the committee’s decisions often seem to come down to just one thing: Number of losses.

So while common sense might indicate that Salisbury, with a four-point loss to Hampden-Sydney and a three-point defeat against Wesley -- both unbeaten and top three in the regional rankings – is better than a team who’s got one loss but hasn’t played anyone nearly as tough, it’s quite the risk for a program to schedule the competition it needs to be ready to win in the playoffs at the expense of costing itself a chance to get there.

“If the program really wants to contend for a national title – if it wants to get to the point where it can beat Mount Union or Whitewater, it has to give itself challenges during the season that show how it measures up against that elite level of competition,” says Gordon Mann, the D3sports.com Managing Editor who is also Delaware Valley’s football broadcaster.

After relative success in the 2006 playoffs at Mount Union (a 26-12 national semifinal loss), St. John Fisher lost to the Purple Raiders 52-10 in the 2007 quarterfinals and then lost two regular-season games to them in the following two seasons.

St. John Fisher tried that in 2008 and 2009, opening with non-conference losses to Mount Union. Each year they also lost to Salisbury, and to an Empire 8 opponent, and they weren’t in the playoff discussion at all. But even if they’d only lost one other game each season, the two-loss Cardinals would have struggled to get in. In 2009, the last at-large team in was 9-1; in ’08, 8-2 Wheaton made it after a wave of Week 11 losses.

“Your loss to a powerhouse,” emails Frank Rossi, an alum of a Liberty League institution, co-host of the weekly show In the HuddLLe and Stagg Bowl sideline reporter for D3football.com, “will come at the price of placing you at a disadvantage during selection and/or seeding.”

Rossi says that basically leaves East Region teams with this conundrum: Needing to schedule elite teams to determine what it takes to beat one, but not having the freedom to do so because of the potential cost to playoff chances. Because, in Rossi’s view, that good teams from the E8, LL and MAC, and to a lesser degree, the NJAC, already need to play each other to fill out schedules, they’re at a disadvantage if win-loss record is the main way at-large playoff participants are determined.

Rossi points not just to Delaware Valley playing Wesley, but to Cortland State/Ithaca, St. John Fisher/Hobart, Union/Ithaca, Rowan/Lycoming and Alfred/RPI as non-conference games that someone has to lose.

“The East teams, based on their lack of spread across conferences, played each other to such a degree that the win-loss column is not a fair assessment under the current setup,” says Rossi. “There’s a reason there are more ‘X-and-0’ teams in the other conferences. These teams aren’t scheduling each other in the regular season.”

And while there certainly is interconference play between the MIAC and WIAC, ASC and NWC and the CCIW and IIAC, there isn’t as much as in other sports, and the selection committee knows it.

“When you’re only playing nine or 10 games, you don’t have the crossover, you don’t have the head-to-head to go with when comparing teams,” Solomen said. “In baseball and basketball, there are 25 to 40 games. There’s a little more information for the committee to make their selections. With football, sometimes you have to have a little subjectivity, or hard decisions have to be made.”

Those choices are made by the regional and national committees, who say they pore over every bit of available hard data, such as statistics. And because the members fan out to every corner of the Division III world, committees take advantage of individual insights as well.

DeLong, who as a coach of an East team has been on both sides of the process, says every variable is considered and discussed.

“I don’t know of any better way of doing it,” he said. “Because of the way regional committees are set up, there really isn’t any way to compare everyone to everyone, so you just have to use the system in place.”

Rossi is among many who believe it’s the selection committee’s role to reward teams who play the strongest competition. (full disclosure: I’m strongly in that camp). If they don’t, there’s diminished incentive for teams to do so, and both fans (because we see fewer elite-on-elite matchups) and the game (because teams raise their level of play by going against the best) lose out.

But Rossi takes it a step further, saying the selection committee should honor D-III’s focus on in-season in-region competition by rewarding the top teams with top seeds, regardless of how they compare to top teams from other regions.

“They've earned the right to play at the top of their region by playing the best football in their region all season,” he writes. “The only teams that should be rotated between brackets should be No. 7 and No. 8 seeds.”

A road less traveled

A look at the easternmost bracket’s top seed, since automatic bids were introduced in 1999:

1999: Western Conn. St., 10-0
2000: Brockport State, 8-0
2001: RPI, 8-0
2002: Rowan, 10-0
2003: Springfield, 10-0
2004: Rowan, 8-2
2005: Delaware Valley, 10-0
2006: Wilkes, 10-0
2007: Mount Union, 10-0
2008: Mount Union, 10-0
2009: Mount Union, 10-0

Undefeated lower seeds: Bridgewater State, 10-0 and RPI, 9-0, 1999; Westfield State, 10-0, 2001; Mass.-Dartmouth, 11-0, 2002; Curry, 11-0, 2003; Delaware Valley, 10-0, 2004; Union, 10-0, 2005; Curry, 11-0, 2006; Curry, 11-0, 2007.

Potentially, this season, that would mean Delaware Valley (No. 1 in the regional rankings) has a bracket built around it, and a team like potential four-loss Liberty League champion St. Lawrence is shipped to Mount Union in the first round. That way, the Aggies are rewarded for performing well against a schedule that includes Wesley and Washington & Jefferson, while the team in the playoffs with the most losses gets the honor of visiting the mighty Machine.

But Mann points out something that has long troubled D-III observers.

“The regional distinctions are kind of arbitrary. A significant part of the South region is comprised of east coast teams. I don’t know anyone who thinks of Allentown, Pa. (Muhlenberg), Dover, Del. (Wesley) or Pittsburgh (Washington & Jefferson) as being in the south, but that’s where they fall for Division III football.”

And so there opens a door where teams in the “east” but not the “East Region” are potential top seeds.

There’s also another major issue.

“This topic makes people in the East region (coaches, fans, message board folks) bristle because it presupposes weakness based on the failure to put a team in the Stagg Bowl,” Mann writes.  “Over the last five years we’ve had the same two teams play for a national championship.  At this point there’s a clear stratification.  Mount Union and Whitewater are at their own level.”

DeLong agrees.

“I didn’t see anybody other than Mount Union or UW-Whitewater in Salem my four years on the committee. Those two programs have dominated regardless of wherever they’re from. So I don’t know if it’s so much regional.”

So if, as Rossi said in a separate interview, only the East’s strongest teams get measured against Mount Union, then “sure, the East is awful. But aside from UW-W and Wesley, no team from any region challenges [UMU]. So we have to appraise the East beyond performance in the playoffs, or grade the North, South and West using the same rationale.”

In that case, maybe the playoff record of Wheaton, from the North Region’s CCIW, summarizes things best. The Thunder are 9-6 in six playoff appearances, including five since 2002. They have never been eliminated by anyone other than Mount Union, while going 9-0 against everyone else.

In the North Region or the East, any team with championship dreams has to beat the best to be the best.

“Whether you play one of the purple monsters in the national quarterfinals or national semifinals, you have to beat them to win the championship.  And whether you play them one Saturday or seven days later doesn’t matter much to me at that point,” says Mann. “If the top team in the East was getting paired with Mount Union or Whitewater in the first or second round every year for geographic reasons (as happens with the ASC or the SCIAC-NWC pairings), then I’d understand the frustration.”

“It’s a national tournament. It’s not really, for lack of a better term, four regional tournaments.”

- Springfield coach Mike DeLong, former national committee member

Rossi says extra weeks of practice and preparation would make a difference. But there are other ways he suggests D-III could level its playing field: By using human national polls as part of the criteria for playoff selection, and by creating a fund to subsidize regular-season travel, establishing a way for there to be more inter-region play during the non-conference portion of the season.

In a little more than a week, with things as they are now, the committee will begin a conference call knowing 23 teams are in. It will then need to select three Pool B teams (from non-AQ conferences) and six at-larges.

“It’s tough,” says Solomen. “When you have 236-plus, and you have to pick six that are left, that’s not a lot.”

“Sooner or later, you have to choose,” says DeLong. “That’s not easy when there are only a certain number of spots. [But] having been through the process, I think the judgement of teams is as fair as it can be.”

And if the eight-team brackets that make up the 32 are selected, and Mount Union is No. 1 seed and no East Region team holds a similar distinction, keep this in mind:

“It’s a national tournament,” DeLong says. “It’s not really, for lack of a better term, four regional tournaments.”

Discuss this further, and get additional viewpoints from Rossi and Mann, on the Daily Dose. Plus, it’s a hot topic on Post Patterns, on East Region Playoff Discussion and on the Around the Nation thread.

Stay tuned
Since this is the last week of the season for a handful of programs around the country, and there’s a tendency to tune out after your favorite player or team hangs ’em up for the season, here’s ATN’s reminder that D-III football remains eventful right up through the start of the new year.

And just because the team you follow doesn’t have any regular-season games left on the schedule doesn’t mean there won’t be something for you to celebrate: Our all-region teams, the all-star games and the ATN year-in-review affect teams who didn’t win many games just as they affect the playoff teams.

So while we still have your ear, here’s what there is to look forward to:

Sat. Nov. 6: Week 10 games.

Following week: Last week of regular D3football.com features, including Around the Region and Around the Nation. Also, regional rankings on Wednesday.

Sat. Nov. 13: Week 11 games.

Sun. Nov. 14: Selection Sunday (show between 3-3:30 p.m. on ESPNews)
Following week: Playoff features, team capsules
Thu. Nov. 18: ATN’s annual playoff surprises/disappointments column
Sat. Nov. 20: 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. 27: Playoffs, Round 2
Following week: Gagliardi trophy finalists named, D3football.com Road to Salem features, ATN podcast
Sat. Dec. 4: 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. 11: National semifinals (four teams), live webcast
Thu. Dec. 16: Gagliardi Trophy presentation
Fri. Dec. 17: Stagg Bowl luncheon, pregame festivities in Salem/Roanoke
Sat. Dec. 18: Stagg Bowl XXXVIII, 3:30 p.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.

Going Stagg
Again let me reiterate what a good time the Stagg Bowl turns out to be every year. Even if you have no connection to the teams who make it, you’ll have a connection with everyone who tailgates and attends because you’ve fallen in love with the game in this private little niche that not that many people know about. And that forms a strong bond.

From the Gagliardi Trophy presentation on Thursday through the postgame, it’s an event. And I’d like ATN to take it up two notches.

I want to crown our tailgating national champion. That means any group of fans who go hard in the pregame just as your team does during the game, ATN wants to know. And then we want to get you set up to come to Salem and get down for your crown.

Also, there should be an unofficial D-III alumni game. We might be old and out of shape, but we still got a few moves left. Why not show it alongside your fellow brethren? I’ve got former players interested already, but I’ll organize along with anyone who’s interested in a little non-tackle game the morning before this year’s kickoff (slated for 3:30 p.m.), regardless of if you were a D-III player.

If you’re on the fence, shouldn’t the opportunity to play some and eat some more make you want to book your trip to Salem?

Playoff primer
Keep these links handy as we discuss the playoffs and more.

If this is your first season following the playoff selection process closely, here’s a breakdown of how Division III selects its 32-team field. Knowing why there are 23 teams in Pool A, three in B and six in C will help you understand a lot of what we write about.

In that handbook, are these criteria, which will be used to select the at-large teams:

Win-loss percentage against regional opponents.
Strength-of-schedule (only contests versus regional competition). SOS is weighted 2/3s Opponents' Average Winning Percentage (OWP) and 1/3 Opponents' Opponents' Average Winning Percentage (OOWP).
In-region head-to-head competition.
In-region results versus common regional opponents.
In-region results versus regionally ranked teams.

There are secondary critieria involving all games, not just regional contests, and more, but I'll let you visit the FAQ page or the handbook for those.

This is important to know because as we debate who should be in and out, or who should be seeded where and why, it's good for us to be discussing the same things the committee is discussing.

Pool A watch
Last season, we had five teams clinch in Week 9. This year, just DePauw (SCAC, Week 8) and St. Thomas (MIAC, Week 9) are in. Twenty-one more teams can clinch, and here are some of the races to watch this Saturday.

ASC – Mary Hardin-Baylor clinches with a win at Sul Ross State.

CC – Ursinus (6-1, 7-1) goes to Muhlenberg (6-1, 6-2) in a matchup of the leaders, but Franklin & Marshall (5-2, 6-2) and Johns Hopkins (5-2, 5-3) also meet, and those teams aren’t necessarily eliminated.

CCIW – Winner of the Little Brass Bell game, North Central at Wheaton, clinches.

E8 – Alfred despite two bad losses to Liberty League teams, would clinch with a home win against Ithaca. If the Bombers win, a three-way tie scenario with St. John Fisher emerges heading into Week 11.

LL – St. Lawrence has already beaten Hobart and needs one more win to clinch.

MIAA – Trine and Albion are headed for a Week 11 showdown.

MAC – Delaware Valley clinches with a win at Albright on Saturday.

NCAC – Wabash clinches with a win at Wittenberg. The Tigers need to win and beat Wooster in Week 11.

NEFC – Endicott and Maine Maritime appear headed to the Week 11 conference title game.

NWC – Linfield is in the driver’s seat, but either needs to beat Whitworth in Week 10 and Lewis & Clark in Week 11, or have both of those teams lose a conference game before it can clinch. PLU and Willamette would need the Wildcats to lose twice.

OAC – Mount Union can clinch at Baldwin-Wallace.

ODAC – Washington & Lee hosts Hampden-Sydney in Week 10, and will clinch with a win. A Tigers win puts the focus on its game with Randolph-Macon in Week 11.

PAC – Thomas More can clinch by beating Waynesburg.

SCIAC – Cal Lutheran is in control, but might have to beat Occidental in Week 11 to make it official.

WIAC – UW-Whitewater clinches with a win.

Pool B watch
Wesley and SUNY-Maritime’s wins, and Case Western Reserve’s loss, throws the third spot up for grabs. Could Salisbury or another two-loss team grab it?

Further the Pool B discussion on Post Patterns.

Five Ways to Saturday
Follow Around the Nation …

Throughout the week on Twitter. Follow @D3Keith. It’s a sporadic stream of short-form minutiae, most of it D-III related.

On Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board. That’s the best place to ask a question about a topic raised in the column or continue a discussion unrelated to this week’s ATN.

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.

When the column publishes on Thursdays.

In Friday morning’s Triple Take, on The Daily Dose.

On Saturdays, the The Daily Dose features a running game day thread, for real-time reactions from across the country. When ATN travels, find bonus observations there or on Twitter.

The press box
Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the column, the top 25, moments to remember for the year-in-review, insight on rivalry and trophy games, road trip suggestions (Non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time work especially well) 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 email to keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com or use our feedback form.

Sports Information Directors: Both the e-mail address and street address are new this season. To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 3836 Appaloosa Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

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Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and begins as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011; has worked on all but one of the preseason Kickoff publications; has done game-day writing and photography and the pregame broadcast at the championship Stagg Bowl in Salem for almost a decade; and has taken photos at the Final Four for D3hoops.com. He's also on the selection staff for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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September 22, 2013
Snap judgments: Week 3
The Tommie-Johnnie rivalry is back, UMHB's defensive line is pretty darn good, the MIAA has a better...
September 19, 2013
History lesson: Wesley vs. Mary Hardin-Baylor
Now that longtime rivals Wabash and DePauw are both in the North Coast, and Mount Union and...
September 18, 2013
Poll positions: There's some movement coming
The top of the poll didn't change much last week but Saturday's games could have a significant...
September 17, 2013
Off the beaten path
Just because a team isn't in the Top 25 running or mentioned in the podcast or doesn't have a Play...
September 11, 2013
Poll positions: Why teams shuffle
In Around the Nation, Keith McMillan discusses a nonstandard way of assembling the ballot after Week...
September 8, 2013
Snap judgments
Keith McMillan's Around the Nation column returns. You'll see ATN several times a week, including on...

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