September 2, 2010

Savor the new season as it kicks off

It’s here.

For every player who’s been slogging through two-a-days, and every fan who’s been waiting since November – or for the lucky few, December – for an opposing team to put yours to the test, a new season is finally upon us. Months of waiting have increased the suspense, but there’s only so much fun to be had taking on your teammates with nothing on the line.

It gets real for 11 Division III teams in six Thursday night games, and for another 13 in seven games on Friday. In 88 games on the first Saturday of the season, 167 teams kick 2010 off. That means fully 80 percent of the 238 teams we cover are in action over three days, with the rest starting Sept. 11 and the NESCAC’s ten teams starting Sept. 25.

And whether you’re playing, coaching, watching or tuning in from afar, there’s only one thing you must make sure you do.

Enjoy it.

Football is a special sport. With but one game a week and ten in a season – more for 32 of our best, to a maximum of 16 if a NEFC team makes the Stagg Bowl – the opportunities to do this are rare. The season can be fleeting if you’re not careful. You don’t want to find yourself at Thanksgiving wondering where it all went.

Take it all in, the sights, the sounds, the smells. The beautiful fields, the once-in-a-lifetime plays. The times it all comes together – be it everyone hitting their block and springing a returner for a long touchdown, or everyone showing up to a tailgate with food and drink in hand. If there’s one thing we’ve learned as we head into a 12th season of D3football.com, it’s that the season is a joy in ways obvious and not so obvious.

The website is absolutely here to assist in that journey. If this is your first season with us, welcome. I’ll introduce you to some of Around the Nation’s regular features later in the column. Our preview edition, Kickoff, is available to satisfy preseason cravings. We appreciate your support, and we never ask for money at any other point in the season, not here or on D3hoops.com, D3soccer.com or D3baseball.com. Much like a dime coverage, Kickoff’s got everything covered, and so will D3football.com as the season progresses. And for our longtime readers, we’ve got a pretty big surprise in store for you this season.

Part of the fun of a new season is not knowing how it’ll end. We’ve got a pretty good idea who’ll be playing on the final weekend, if history is our guide. But Mount Union and UW-Whitewater’s run of consecutive Stagg Bowls, currently at five, has to end at some point. Division III history P.P. -- pre-purple -- dates from 1973, but one need only go back to 2004 for a year that neither powerhouse made it; to 2002 for a year when a team outside of D-III’s power conferences (Trinity, Texas) took the field in Salem; and to 2001 to find a team with virtually no prior history of winning (Bridgewater, Va.) making a magical run.

So why not your team?

Brent Donley went over 1,100 yards rushing last season.
Brent Donley went over 1,100 yards rushing last season for Ohio Northern, which kicks off the 2010 season hosting UW-River Falls.
Photo by David Rich, d3photography.com

Go ahead and dream. Unless your team is Newport News (non-NCAA), Birmingham-Southern or Geneva (transitional and ineligible) or flat chooses not to participate in the playoffs (NESCAC), there’s a path for you to get there: Twenty-three of D-III’s 27 conference award an automatic bid to its champion. (We’ll refer to them throughout the year as automatic qualifiers, or Pool A). Three of the 32 playoff spots go to teams from non-AQ conferences (Pool B) and the other six playoff spots are for runners-up. (Pool C).

If that doesn’t inspire dreams of snowdrifts at Salem Stadium, then at least think big when it comes to beating that rival you can’t stand, and maybe finishing above .500. Or, as a coach would undoubtedly tell you, take it one step at a time. Think about starting 1-0.

There are 101 games involving D-III teams this weekend, with 191 of us in action. At least 90 D-III teams are going to start 0-1. Focus on not being one of them. And enjoy!

A look ahead

The seven Around the Region columns are taking a look at big games coming up this season. Triple Take, a Friday morning staple, featuring three D3football.com staffers’ thoughts on games to watch across the country, is out a day early in Week 1, in honor of the season-opening Thursday night kickoffs. Find that and miscellany during the week on our blog, The Daily Dose.

Around the Nation’s aim is to keep the big picture in focus. With that in mind, and acknowledging all the Week 1 previews elsewhere on our site, here are the games of note nationally in Week 1:

Adrian at No. 1 UW-Whitewater: It might not be pretty starting off against the defending Stagg Bowl champs, but the Bulldogs deserve a rub on the belly for not forcing the Warhawks to venture outside of D-III for an opponent. Plus, once Adrian gets a whiff of what it takes to be the team on top, nobody else on the schedule looks quite as daunting.

No. 3 Wesley at Christopher Newport: It’ll be nice if this one even gets played. In what looks like a redux of last time the game was to be played in Hampton Roads, when in 2008 the game was canceled by Tropical Storm Hanna, the Captains are keeping a close eye on the track of Hurricane Earl.

No. 5 St Thomas at St. Norbert; No. 17 Monmouth at Wartburg: The Green Knights or Scots have earned all but one of the Midwest Conference’s automatic bids, but at 2-11 since playoff expansion in 1999, the MWC is one of the nation’s least successful in the postseason. By scheduling rugged opponents from the MIAC and IIAC, St. Norbert and Monmouth will get a test as tougher than anything in their conference except when facing each other.

No. 15 Hardin-Simmons at Whitworth; No. 16 Willamette at No. 18 UW-Stevens Point: Such is life on D-III’s islands in Texas and in the Pacific Northwest; You want a D-III opponent, you’d better pack your bags and plan to play someone tough. While flights might not be ideal for the D-III budget, these types of clashes early in the season whet our appetite for what’s to come down the line. Plus, when upper-middle teams from elite conferences play each other, it’s hard to foresee the outcome.

No. 22 Mississippi College at Millsaps: I love a Week 11 rivalry game, but down in Jackson, they start the season swinging. The Backyard Brawl at the top of the schedule. Can’t imagine the players have much trouble staying focused throughout camp, knowing a rivalry loss can set a season off on the wrong foot.

What’s new


Kickoff ’10 discusses offseason mobility in greater detail, but in case you missed it, here’s what’s different since the end of last season:

Menlo left both the NWC and the NCAA, but the conference maintains its seven members with the addition of Pacific, which revives its program at Puget Sound on Saturday. The NWC keeps its AQ as well.

Liberty League champion Susquehanna is guaranteed not to repeat. The Crusaders become the 10th team in the Centennial Conference, joining former MAC members Juniata and Moravian in the Pennsylvania-centric league.

Earlham joins the HCAC and leaves the NCAC behind. That’ll keep the Quakers, who were 5-5, 3-4 last season, in or near Indiana the entire season.

What’s old


If your mind hasn’t really been on football the past eight months or so, ATN can’t blame you, but it can help. If you’ve already had your fill of Kickoff, try picking up where we left off. Revisit ATN’s ’09-in-review columns, here and here. I learned a lot by re-reading, and I was the one that wrote it!

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 Dickinson and Dickinson State? Alfred and Alfred State?

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 (2-6 in 2009)
Butler (non-scholarship Pioneer League) at Albion

vs. Division II (7-12 in 2009)
Stonehill (Northeast-10) at Curry

vs. NAIA (30-14 in 2009)
No. 12 Coe at Iowa Wesleyan (Mid-States Football Association, Midwest League)
Concordia-Moorhead at No. 18 Dickinson State (Dakota Athletic Conference)
UW-Stout at Black Hills State (Dakota Athletic Conference)
Bethel, Tenn. (Mid-South Conference) at UW-Eau Claire
No. 22 Taylor (Mid-States Football Association, Mideast League) at Anderson
Austin at Southwestern Assemblies (independent)
McMurry at Bacone (Mid-South Conference)
Louisiana College at Belhaven (Mid-South Conference)

(NAIA rankings from NAIA.org coaches poll)

ALSO:
Newport News at Alfred State (NJCAA, Northeast Conference)

About Around the Nation


For those of you just discovering the column, 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, ATN spends 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. 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 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.mcmillan@D3sports.com.

Already this season, ATN is seeking suggestions for road trips in October and November (ATN especially likes non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time).

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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