November 18, 2010

Playoff picks, surprises, disappointments

Matt McCulloch
Matt McCulloch was one of the few defensive backs with starting experience returning for UW-Whitewater this season. He has three interceptions and five more pass breakups.
Photo by Darryl Tessmann, d3photography.com

I used to think that no matter what a playoff selection committee did, it couldn’t win.

Now I know.

This year’s committee stared at an impossible-to-please-everyone situation and produced a bracket more loaded with intrigue than any in several years. Yet the first few days of reaction to it focused far more on the few legitimate gripes than the myriad reasons to be pleased.

Rowan, Pacific Lutheran and Redlands have a right to be hostile. Or at least disappointed by the empty feeling that follows unfulfilled hopes and expectations. But even then, it wasn’t a raw deal for the 9-1 Profs and the 8-1 Lutes and Bulldogs so much as it was three seasons snuffed out by the abundance of quality nationally. With nine one-loss teams for six at-large spots, and six power teams at 10-0 pulling for a No. 1 seed, there was no way everybody could get what they thought they deserved.

In football, Pool C is a reprieve for teams who’ve had one bad day – or in the case of Montclair State, which missed a 30-yard field goal that would’ve beaten Cortland and made it a 10-0 No. 1 seed candidate -- one bad play. It’s necessary. Mary Hardin-Baylor in 2004 and UW-Whitewater in 2008 made it to the Stagg Bowl from Pool C, while Pacific Lutheran was a runner-up in the Northwest Conference in 1999 when it was a Pool B league. Two-loss Wheaton won three playoff games and its regional bracket in ’08, when it was clearly the last team in and entered Week 11 with hardly a postseason shot.

When there are nine teams who need that reprieve and six spots left over after the 23 automatic bids are earned and three more set aside for those who have no bid to play for doled out, three teams are going to be turning in the equipment no matter how the committee slices it.

In theory, one-loss teams shouldn’t be staying home when four- and five-loss teams are in. But that’s the system we’ve built, and St. Lawrence and Christopher Newport earned their automatic bids just as Rowan, PLU and Redlands failed to earn theirs. Those are the facts, though it doesn’t make the hurt of a season over too soon any easier.

Quite a bit of the griping, though, comes from fans of teams who are in. The Profs, Lutes and Bulldogs don’t have much sympathy for teams who didn’t get the seed or the site they wanted.

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Podcast: Pat, Keith debate

UW-Whitewater is the consensus No. 1 team in the polls, and the defending national champion. It went 10-0, with only one team coming closer than 23 points, at 27-14. And yet, it’s no travesty the Warhawks were seeded second in their bracket behind a team that went 10-0 with only one coming closer than 20, at 20-6.

On the surface, it’s easy to assume fairness is putting the team favored to repeat atop its bracket. What else could UW-W have done besides go 10-0, right?

Welcome to North Central’s world, and that of any team in a top North Region conference whose path to a No. 1 seed for years has been blocked by either UW-Whitewater or 13-time Stagg Bowl team Mount Union. If the argument is that any 10-0 season by the Warhawks or Purple Raiders automatically deserves a No. 1 seed, then you’ve essentially told a team like North Central is it can’t be a No. 1 seed unless one of those teams loses, or those teams are needed as No. 1s in the West and East. Otherwise, it can go 10-0 all it wants against whoever it wants and it’s not going to matter.

This year’s selection committee took the information presented and, stripping UMU and UW-W of the advantage of respecting past history, chose its No. 1 seeds.

Take the names off these six resumes and choose the four best, using wins against regionally ranked opponents (a separate committee from each administrative region ranks its top 10 teams for this purpose) and a strength of schedule figure (made up of two-thirds opponents’ winning percentage, and one-third opponents’ opponents winning percentage):

.608, 2-0
.548, 1-0
.523, 2-0
.512, 1-0
.502, 2-0
.487, 0-0

Pretty easy to see which one doesn’t belong, right?

Those teams, of course, are Wesley, St. Thomas, North Central and Mount Union in the top four, followed by Mary Hardin-Baylor and UW-Whitewater, respectively. And if you further want to match names with numbers, check out Pat’s last set of playoff projections, where he first projected those regional rankings. Substitute 7-3 Baldwin-Wallace for 7-3 Illinois Wesleyan at the bottom of the North Region rankings, and that explains how .512 Mount Union (now 2-0 vs. RROs) could be the third overall No. 1 seed ahead of .523 North Central (now 1-0).

I know exactly what you’re thinking. This is all too numbery. Whatever happened to plain old common sense? But the funny thing is, when a selection committee uses ‘common sense,’ those who don’t like the result say ‘this is all too subjective. Give me some numbers to prove why you did that.’

They can’t win.

Absolutely, using SoS figures and results against RROs is all nitpicking – incidentally, the same word I’d use for teams unhappy with where they’re seeded against other similarly powerful teams.

But how else to sort out six elite teams – five 10-0 and one 9-0, five from power conferences (Wesley plays in the four-team, soon-to-disband ACFC), and three which didn’t let a team come within two scores (St. Thomas had a four-point win, Wesley had a four and a three, and Mary Hardin-Baylor played three one-score games)? Even if margin of victory were criteria, which is generally frowned upon to avoid there being an incentive to run up scores, it wouldn’t solve this.

There was simply an abundance of quality, and the selection committee had to, well, select.

St. Thomas
Ben Wartman and St. Thomas got a top seed, which wasn't a surprise. But the No. 2 seed overall?
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

As one of the handful of people on earth who has seen UW-Whitewater, Mount Union, St. Thomas, Wesley, North Central and Mary Hardin-Baylor play in person – though not all this season – I can tell you there’s no definitive way to sort them out except for with a tournament. Which we have, and all of Division III should be thankful. I listed them in the order ranked on my most recent top 25 ballot, but it’s fairly certain the next vote – after the Stagg Bowl – will list them in a different order.

Without the benefit of having them all play each other, the committee relied heavily on strength of schedule figures. I back that, and so should UW-Whitewater even though its .487 is primarily what led to its No. 2 seed.

Rewarding strength of schedule is the very thing that’s going to encourage teams to take a risk and come play at Perkins Stadium. If all records are judged to be equal and playoff teams sorted only by number of losses, why would any team risk a loss to the Warhawks when it can schedule someone it can beat? Failure to reward strength of schedule contributed to UW-W having to play two NAIA schools non-conference this year, while Adrian was the only D-III to man up and schedule the two-time champions. And those two games against NAIAs didn’t help – instead of the Warhawks getting an opportunity for a win against an RRO, they just got a game.

Crusading against the use of SoS alone is a stance against the very thing that would prevent this from happening to future UW-W teams (though a dearth of quality at the top would help too).

The current Warhawks are, in a roundabout way, a victim of their own success. But in the end, the only thing they’ve lost – potentially – is a pair of home playoff games in December.

Asking the purple powers to go on the road and win in the semifinals doesn’t bother me because it the same thing Wesley, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Linfield or the MIAC, NJAC and CCIW champion is asked to do every season. Should past success entitle the national powers to home playoff games?

Maybe. But what’s so bad about a road trip every now and again? They’re taken during the season, and even preferred by some coaches for team bonding and allowing players to avoid non-football distractions. Fans create some of their best memories on the road.

Plus, it’s a playoff. If UW-Whitewater really is the best team – and I believe it is – then a road game isn’t going to stop them from fulfilling their destiny. If 11,000 fans can make it to a Whitewater home game, then a significant fraction of that can wrap themselves in purple and black, make the 100-mile, two-hour drive, and scream ‘Pound the Rock’ at North Central’s Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium. A bunch of the Warhawks are from Northern Illinois anyway. There might not be a cannon going off after every touchdown, but who says it can’t feel like a home game?

Non-Warhawks and non-Purple Raiders have labeled late December boring because of the repetitive final two. Now we’ve been spoon-fed some potential drama and there are still complaints? The selection committee can’t win. The wealth has finally been spread so that Dover or St. Paul or Belton could be the site of a semifinal, and there are problems with that?

I hear you. It’s not the selection committee’s job to spread the wealth or make sure the playoffs are compelling. They’re just supposed to put the right teams in the right places.

And how, again, should they define what’s right? By not relying so much on the numbers, but adding more subjectivity to the process?

Be careful what you wish for.

The least constructive part about the bracket unhappiness is that folks are more than willing to point out what they don’t like but are strangely devoid of better ideas.

I don’t blame Rowan, Pacific Lutheran and Redlands backers for being upset. But with nine teams for six spots, it’s no different if Montclair State, Coe and Hampden-Sydney are left out, just different to you. Three teams are still feeling the same pain and raising the same gripes.


“I voiced my opinion strongly (about PLU getting in) to the committee – I think anybody who loses one game to a team that was ranked is worthy of getting in,” Scott Carnahan, the Linfield AD and West Region evaluation committee member, told the Tacoma News-Tribune. “But it comes down to a ranking system with very little human common sense to it.”

Here's the problem I have with that. These things decisions aren't made in a vacuum -- Take PLU and maybe Coe gets left home, with a very similar gripe. It goes back to that abundance of quality. Reality is there were nine teams for six at-large slots, and six No. 1-seed worthy teams for four seeds. Even human common sense can't fix that math.

The selection committee could have looked the other way on North Central, made UW-Whitewater the top seed in that bracket, and no one would have batted an eye. It could have ignored SoS when seeding overall brackets – Wesley was sure stunned to learn that its success put the “South Region” on top.

The committee could have made the No. 1 team the No. 1 seed. It could have reversed a few home games. But it could not have won your hearts. You’re predisposed to disagreeing with them.

Let's not lose sight of what's really important here.

Saturday, we have 16 playoff games. In D-III, the buck never stops at a ranking or with a selection committee. There's a real live opportunity to write the history of the 2010 season.

Didn't like your seed? Comeuppance, in the form of victory, shall be sweet.

Feel robbed of a home game? You’ll cherish the good times you have on road trips.

Unless you're from PLU, Redlands or Rowan, it's time to turn the page. ATN’s annual Surprises and Disappointments column represents that look ahead. Frank Rossi (graduate of an East Region school), Ryan Tipps (North Region grad), Me (Keith McMillan, South Region grad) and Pat Coleman, who lives in the West Region and has taken in more games this year than anybody I know, are back to break it down from here to Salem. Add in the team capsules and Friday’s score predictions in Triple Take, and it’s time to acknowledge that Alfred and Salisbury and Wartburg – teams nobody’s griping about – have games this week. It’s time to learn who Justin Autera and Eric Hedin and Phil Konopka are. (See also our preview capsules for that)

But before we get there, once more for the history books -- er, web archives -- ATN takes one more quick-hit look at the field of 32:

Bracket reactions
Toughest first-round draw:
Franklin. Round 1 games against top seeds are usually the domain of multiple-loss teams or those from the weakest of conferences. The Grizzlies, who not two seasons ago made the final eight and are a three-point loss against a 6-4 CCIW team from being 10-0 just like Trine and Wittenberg, are matched up with the ticked-off national champions. Anybody know Chad Rupp’s number?

Easiest opening game
You’re expecting me to pick on St. Lawrence here. But Mount Union makes opening-round games against 9-1 teams look easy, forget 5-5. St. Thomas’s draw of Benedictine is actually easier. The Eagles are pretty decent statistically, but put up their 8-2 record against a schedule that was not just worst among playoff teams (.403), but nearly the worst, period. Benedictine played the 223rd-toughest schedule of the 227 teams we have a figure for, and lost early in the season to 2-8 North Park and 3-7 Kalamazoo.

Toughest path to Salem
Here are the facts. You decide:

Mount Union/Eastish bracket: Two undefeated teams, five with multiple losses, aggregate record 66-14 (71-8 last year).

Wesley/Southish: Three undefeated teams, three with multiple losses, aggregate record 68-11 (69-10 last year).

St. Thomas/Westish: Two undefeated teams, one with multiple losses, aggregate record 71-7 (75-4 last year).
North Central/Northish: Four undefeated teams, one with multiple losses, aggregate record 74-6 (72-8 last year).
 
But without picking on a No. 8 seed, here’s the road I’d least like to travel: Cal Lutheran, ranked 16th in the D3football.com poll, must again beat eighth-ranked Linfield, then potentially face a road of fourth-ranked St. Thomas, the winner of the Wartburg/Bethel/Coe/Wheaton quadrant, all ranked between 11th and 15th, then second-ranked Mount Union, then whoever comes to Salem from the Whitewater/North Central/Wesley/UMHB (all ranked in the top six) side.

You win five in a row against teams ranked no lower than 11th, you’re the national champion alright.

Longest road to Salem
I can’t remember the last time we had a bracket with no travel gripes. Only one Texas team made it, which isn’t enough to host the annual subbracket. Two made it from the far West, and the claims of coastal bias are hollow, because if that were the case, they’d have pushed PLU and Redlands through, made them play their conference rival again (frowned upon, but there’s precedent for it), and produced a bracket with zero flights (which there is no precedent for, that I can remember). Pat and Gordon Mann projected Wabash and Rowan instead of PLU and Redlands, and I wrote that I thought Coe and Montclair State would go. Unfortunately, the West was a victim of its own success, squeezing Willamette out of the regional rankings and robbing PLU of its second win against an RRO, which probably would have got it in the field.

In any case, Montclair State’s road to the national championship starts in Virginia, and could take them to Delaware, Texas or Kentucky, Illinois/Indiana/Wisconsin, Ohio/Minnesota, and back to Virginia for the national championship game.

Easiest path to Salem
Mount Union actually has some intriguing matchups if it’s forced to face Salisbury’s triple option and Cortland State’s best-in-the nation scoring defense. (The Red Dragons have allowed 10 TDs – four without extra points -- and four FGs all season, one point better than Mount Union’s 11 and one). But all of the other No. 1 seeds have a program with Stagg Bowl pedigree lurking in their brackets, and the Purple Raiders don’t.

The committee nailed
The emphasis on strength of schedule and pretty much all of the matchups. Plus they went back to providing seeds, created intrigue with the potential road semifinals for the purple powers and made the right call on Montclair State vs. Rowan (the Profs had a slight edge by most criteria but an impossible-to-ignore 26-7 loss to the Red Hawks). I even liked that Washington & Lee got sent on the road despite a win over Hampden-Sydney, which hosts, because the Generals lost two early season games, against Franklin & Marshall (35-7; Diplomats finished 6-4) and Averett (20-10; 5-5). Of the 10 lowest strength of schedule figures among playoff teams, only UW-Whitewater plays a first-round game at home.

Also, did anyone even notice that there are no mismatched No. 2 seed vs. No. 3 seed games this year? And more than ever, we need to avoid calling these brackets East, West, etc. I count six teams playing outside what would be their home region, yet not one of the matchups is a travel problem.

The committee blew

DePauw and Wittenberg have a common opponent. Why doesn't that play into the seeding as strongly as SOS did?
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

The DePauw-Wittenberg seeds. The SCAC’s Tigers (.549) had a huge SoS advantage over the NCAC’s Tigers (.440). Wittenberg had the fourth-worst SoS in the field and DePauw had the seventh best. But they had a common opponent that fit one of the two listed criteria in the handbook; Wittenberg beat Wabash, 34-17, in Week 10, and the Little Giants rebounded to crush DePauw, 47-0, in Week 11. We know why 10-0 Wittenberg is seeded fifth and 9-1 DePauw third, but it doesn’t match up with the common opponent. Sixth-seeded Trine and fourth-seeded Ohio Northern are all within a bus ride of Wittenberg and DePauw, so any order of the seeds there would have worked. Wittenberg could have been in a 3-6 game with DePauw set to play the UW-Whitewater-Franklin winner, with Trine making the very short trip from Angola, Ind., to Ada, Ohio. But the Tigers might be better off on the ONU/North Central side of the draw.

And if UW-Whitewater had been a No. 1 seed, perhaps Witt-DePauw would have been the only gripe with any legs.

Road team most deserving of a home game
Wittenberg aside, this is a toss-up between Cal Lutheran and SUNY-Maritime. Both schools were seeded to host, but for off-the-field reasons will not, and end up on the road for as long as their tournament runs last.

Home team least deserving of a home game
Prior to their Week 11 flop on the last drive against Widener, Delaware Valley was a fringe candidate for a top seed and a shoo-in for a No. 2. Now, they’re the only multiple-loss team hosting a first-round game, though their SoS figure is through the roof, and one of the five multi-loss teams in that bracket had to host. Montclair State (9-1) could be substituted in their stead, playing Salisbury (230 miles, four hours) at home in Round 1 instead of Hampden-Sydney (400 miles, 7.5 hours) on the road. But it’d almost be a punishment for the Red Hawks, to be assured of going to Mount Union in the second round for the second consecutive season.

Of the seven teams that made the playoffs without winning their conference (including Salisbury, in Pool B), three (ONU, H-SC and Wheaton) host in Round 1.

We would have liked to see
A three-loss cap. Well, maybe. As much sense as the automatic bids make, and as mean as it would be to wrest one away from a team that won its conference, it’s a national championship tournament, and 6-4 Christopher Newport and 5-5 St. Lawrence aren’t going to win it. ATN is getting into a hypothetical here, and there are some holes in the theory. Thirty-one of the 32 teams aren’t going to win it, and maybe only eight have more than a miracle shot. Also, as detailed in this very space, losses alone are not a good measure for who belongs and who doesn’t. At the same time, anyone outside of Canton, N.Y., and Newport News, Va. would agree it would be a more competitive tournament with Rowan and Pacific Lutheran instead. But the abundance of quality would still leave 8-1 Redlands home.

Maybe make it a two-loss cap, and bump Muhlenberg and St. Norbert for Redlands and Wabash. Or Louisiana College (7-2 vs. D-IIIs). Or maybe Hardin-Simmons, Maine Maritime, Framingham State, Western New England, Ursinus, Norwich, St. John Fisher, Springfield, Bridgewater (Va.), Central, Washington & Jefferson, Claremont Mudd Scripps, Case Western Reserve, Chicago or Concordia (Ill.) No matter where the line is drawn, there will always be competition for the final spot. And then there would be incentive to play fewer games, as teams with nine-game schedules are less likely to reach the loss cap. And that list of teams is proof that number of losses by itself won’t give you a pool of even teams.

I went ahead and spelled it out anyway so we could see what a three-loss cap would leave us with. And while I’d be fine letting teams know they get two mulligans, but not more, I was also standing by the huddle when Muhlenberg clinched its bid. To see the Mules’ joy, and to hear Mike Donnelly tell them to soak it in, was one of those this-is-what-it’s-all-about moments. To know they would have played that bid down the drain in their Week 11 loss to rival Moravian, had there been a two-loss cap, is downright cruel. But so is being 9-1 and left out.

Played themselves in during Week 11
Because none of the at-large spots opened up for teams that weren’t in the hunt after Week 10, there’s really only the automatic bid clinchers here: Franklin, Cortland State & company. And certainly the six Pool C teams all needed their victories. Wabash was nearly the one who came out of nowhere.

Played themselves out during Week 11
Really just Hardin-Simmons. Delaware Valley, DePauw and Muhlenberg played their way into lower seeds.

Best first-round matchup
The first one that jumped out was Montclair State at Hampden-Sydney, because it’s a great defense against a prolific offense, and because of the inter-region and historic aspect. Second was Wartburg-Bethel, the classic could-go-either way game. Honestly, all the 4-5 games look great: Linfield and Cal Lutheran played a 47-42 barnburner earlier in the year. Ohio Northern is the prototype No. 2-in-the-OAC team, facing a Wittenberg that went to last year’s final eight, and Delaware Valley and Salisbury each nearly beat top overall seed Wesley. Even Wheaton-Coe looks pretty competitive for a 2/7 game.

The 33rd team award
ATN retired this category a few years ago so as not to rub it in. But because Rowan was so close to Montclair State and Cortland State, and because Pacific Lutheran was basically one West Region ranking slot (for Willamette) away from being in, I brought it back. That’s proof of how close these teams all were – I can’t even make up my mind who the first team left out was. But along with Redlands, the frequent victim of one-loss tough luck, three teams with resumes that get them in the playoffs easy when there’s a weaker national field can share this award.

The 'sorry for the false hopes' award
ATN should really stop calling these awards. Winning is just an extra kick in the pants.

Each year, D3football.com projects the playoff field the night before Selection Sunday, looking at the same data the national selection committee does, except we simulate the regional committees’ final regional rankings. Here's how we've done projecting the field since we began, and how the teams we missed on have fared:

2010: 30 of 32: Pat and Gordon projected Rowan and Wabash; the committee took Montclair State and Coe.

2009: 31 of 32: We projected Ohio Northern; the committee took Washington & Jefferson, which lost 55-0 in the first round.


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

No need for much introduction here. In Triple Take, we’ll give you an idea of the scores we expect each week. Here is where four of us – without consulting with each other -- look at the four groups of eight and project who could last longer than expected, who might underachieve and which will be among the last four teams standing.

MOUNT UNION BRACKET

Surprises

Frank: New York. This was my disappointment last year, as only Alfred represented the state of New York. This year, a full half of the Mount Union Bracket is comprised of New York teams (No. 2 Cortland State, No. 3 SUNY-Maritime, No. 6 Alfred and No. 8 St. Lawrence). With SUNY-Maritime at Alfred, New York will get at least one win this year.

Ryan: SUNY-Maritime. Expect the Privateers -- yet another in the growing slurry of teams to be successful with the triple option -- to land the ECFC its first-ever playoff win. I have a lot respect for opponent Alfred and the Empire 8, but the Saxons have proven themselves vulnerable at times this season. And Maritime is riding high in recent weeks, knocking off its biggest conference competitors in two of its three final games.

Keith: Salisbury. I like the Salisbury/Delaware Valley winner to give Mount Union a scare. And if anyone besides Cortland State came out of the lower foursome, it would be a surprise. If I have to man up and choose, I’ll say the Sea Gulls squeak past the Aggies and are within a score of the Purple Raiders in the third quarter.

Pat: Salisbury. Not that I would pick them at Alliance, as we’ll confirm soon enough, but the Sea Gulls haven’t won a playoff game since 1986. It’s about time.

Disappointments

Frank: No home game for SUNY-Maritime. It was a storybook season; a 10-0 finish, an ESPN special feature on their coach on Veterans’ Day and the team's first ever NCAA playoff run. With a No. 3 seed, of course the team would host for a storybook ending. Not so fast -- insufficient facilities prevent it from happening and force a much tougher road for the Privateers.

Ryan: The top-heavy bracket. Because of the quad that includes Mount Union, Delaware Valley and Salisbury, the best strength in this bracket is top-loaded. Two of these teams are being set up to fail early in the playoffs. That said, the Delaware Valley/Salisbury game will be one of the best first-round matchups in the country. Their margins of loss against common opponent Wesley were similar, and it’ll be interesting to see how well Salisbury’s heavy-handed run game does against a defense that placed 10 guys on the all-conference list.

Keith: Delaware Valley. I guess picking the Sea Gulls means I’m committed to burying the Aggies. I saw one of Delaware Valley’s most dominating performances of the year, a 36-0 win against Lycoming, and was high on them through Week 10. Sometimes a Week 11 loss can have a snap-back effect, in that being humbled before the playoffs reminds a team how much it stinks to lose. But despite potentially being refocused, and having one of the true defensive stars in D-III in linebacker Kyle Gesswein, the Aggies are a team that in one drive against Widener went from being in the top 10, potentially earning a No. 2 seed and playing three playoff games to maybe getting bounced in Game 1. Unless they upset Mount Union in the second round, the Aggies will qualify as a disappointment.

Pat: All the fans beating their chests about St. Lawrence deserving to have its bid taken away. I mean, seriously, people. This isn’t what D-III, or the NCAA is all about. Go 14-17 but win the MEAC and you’re in the big dance. Win the AL West at 83-79 and you get in. I hope someday those fans’ teams go 6-4 and get into the playoffs. St. Lawrence accomplished what it needed to do to go to the playoffs, and every team knows what it needs to do at the beginning of the year.

Champion

Frank: For the first time in a few years, it will not be Mount Union College. However, the University of Mount Union will be the champion.

Ryan: You-Em-You.

Keith: Mount Union. They might have shown enough weakness to worry observant fans, but their defense is stingy and they didn’t have to pull out a single game in the fourth quarter. Plus there’s one player (Cecil Shorts III, coming off a four-TD Week 11) who can mask any issues against teams that are merely pretty good.

Pat: Mount Union. And there’s no need for more words here, but I’m writing just anticipating that some of my colleagues will simply say Mount Union and leave the page looking awful blank in this section.

ST. THOMAS BRACKET

Surprises

Frank: Coe. Here's where the top 25 poll and the selection seeding is mismatched. Bracket seeds: Wheaton No. 2, Coe No. 7. Top 25: Wheaton No. 15, Coe No. 13. Yet, Coe had to sweat things out after a win over an 0-10 team that knocked the team's SoS way down. This game is much better than an average No. 2 vs. No. 7 -- and we're ripe for an upset here.

Ryan: Coe. With a low seed for the second year in a row, the Kohawks have a good shot at nabbing a prominent win right out of the gate. Last year, it was against undefeated St. John’s; this year, it’s CCIW runner-up Wheaton. There’s slim reason to think we won’t get to see a rematch of the Oct. 16 Coe/Wartburg game in Round 2. And like last year, that’s the round when Coe’s fortunes will end.

Keith: Linfield. When the 5-6-7 teams in a bracket are the 8-14-13 in the national poll, that’s a loaded bracket. As usual out West. And since the team at the top isn’t the one with the most pedigree, this is the toughest region to pick. There’s a lot to like about the Wildcats though, assuming star quarterback Aaron Boehme can avoid the three interceptions he threw in the 47-42 loss to Cal Lutheran early in the season. Linfield led that game 28-7 in the second and 35-31 in the fourth, and the player key to the Kingsmen’s rally, Daniel Mosier, who rushed for 194 yards after halftime, is no longer with the team. A Linfield win sets up a rematch with St. Thomas, who it defeated, 31-20, in the round of eight last season.

Pat: None. I think this bracket is too wide open and neither of the teams that would truly surprise by advancing (Benedictine, Cal Lutheran) are likely to do so.

Disappointments

Frank: St. Thomas. This is just a gut feeling, after reviewing the MIAC's season. To me, it looked like a lesser year than most for the MIAC, especially with early troubles for St. John's. The Cal Lutheran/Linfield winner will have a great shot to knock out the Tommies early.

Ryan: The quality of teams that will be gone right out of the gate. Perhaps this is a testament to the overall quality of the field in this year’s playoff, but the St. Thomas Bracket will have to bid a quick farewell to some of the nation’s best teams. Seven of the eight teams in this bracket are ranked in the Top 25; no other bracket can boast as many. This will make for some pretty awesome matchups on Saturday, and some pretty tricky top 25 voting on Dec. 19.

Keith: Wheaton. The Thunder don’t carry the dominant aura of a No. 2 seed, and this could be the season where a team besides Mount Union finally bounces them from the playoffs. The first-round game against Coe is no gimme, and neither would be any game in a subsequent round.

Pat: Wartburg. I feel like the Knights are the home team most likely to lose in the first round, although Bethel will need a huge day from Logan Flannery and Justin Aakre in the backfield and perhaps a defensive score to make it happen.

Champion

Frank: Linfield. The Far West teams have slid under the radar all season. Since Linfield's 47-42 Cal Lutheran loss, the team has done nothing but win big. The Wildcats are ready for the Kingsmen this time and will have confidence to run the bracket.

Ryan: Linfield. Opening-day loss aside, the rematch against Cal Lutheran will be just the start of a rapid run though the first three rounds of play.

Keith: St. Thomas. Very tempted to go off the board here and pick a lower seed, as the bracket is stacked seven deep. But I’ve had the Tommies ranked No. 3 overall since Day 1 and need to stand firm.

Pat: Linfield. If there’s one team in this section that causes every coach concern, this would have to be the one. There’s too much talent here and enough defense to cause big trouble for St. Thomas.

WESLEY BRACKET

Surprises

Frank: Mary Hardin-Baylor. This is a team that has faced an enormous number of tests all year and is ready to cash in on the experience the regular season provided. A big road win at UW-La Crosse, a close game at McMurry and a normal classic vs. Hardin-Simmons were just the first three games of a roller-coaster 10-0 season -- but it will pay off, even against No. 1 seed Wesley later.

Ryan: The Christopher Newport/Mary Hardin-Baylor matchup. It’s a little nostalgia here, but one of the first D-III games I went to after moving to Virginia was the 15-10 CNU win at home over UMHB back in 2006. The following year, the result was a big swing in the opposite direction. These two teams tend to fit nicely into a storybook David vs. Goliath matchup. UMHB has spent the past three weeks pummeling the Davids in its conference. CNU probably won’t go down so quietly.

Keith: Montclair State. Though I’m not even sure they’ll win their first round game, the Red Hawks have the defense (No. 5 nationally) to carry them to an upset of Wesley (No. 1 in total defense) and down to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the quarterfinals.

Pat: Washington and Lee. And I don’t just mean by their mere presence, although there’s a part to that as well. There’s no way they could be in a better position in terms of knowing the offense and it does appear to be clicking on all cylinders.

Disappointments

Frank: Montclair State. I hate saying this since I wished hard that Montclair's head-to-head win over Rowan would be honored. However, the committee decided to not just make Montclair a road team, but one that has to travel 400 miles to Hampden-Sydney. This was an odd seeding and even odder placement that seemed to rob Montclair of a home game.

Ryan: Washington and Lee. In all fairness, W&L shouldn’t be forced to travel while Hampden-Sydney gets to play at home on Saturday. Their head-to-head matchup should have remedied this kind of seeding. The silver lining for the Generals though is probably that I’d rather line up against Thomas More than against Montclair State. The Generals have the best combination of offense (450 yards a game) and defense (333 yards a game) in the ODAC, and they’ll win if they can showcase both sides.

Keith: Thomas More. At 10-0 and with faint memories of the upset loss to Johns Hopkins in lat year’s postseason, there’s a bad feeling it’s going to happen again. For everything Washington & Lee wasn’t in its first three games, it has been since. The Generals have scored 35 points or more in every game since September, rush for 370 yards per game and though not great on defense, they’ve been solid in key situations. A W&L upset could set up the shortest playoff game in history at UMHB.

Pat: Mary Hardin-Baylor. But I’m not sure who is going to make them show it. I think we have been overly high on them this season and there are too many question marks about their pass defense. I just don’t see anyone on their side of the bracket being able to take advantage.

Champion

Frank: Mary Hardin-Baylor. I just think the experience of the season trumps Wesley's two close calls.

Ryan: Wesley. Defense wins championships, and, statistically, there’s no one out there on defense better.

Keith: Wesley. The Wolverines are banged up, and UMHB has put it together, but it’s still Wesley’s bracket to lose.

Pat: Wesley. Too many things going right for them in this bracket.

NORTH CENTRAL BRACKET
Surprises

Frank: Wittenberg. All season, their strength of schedule has been under a microscope. Their respect level has been low. Yet, they've done nothing but win, and against two good teams in the final two weeks. The Tigers are ready for Ohio Northern.

Ryan: Trine. No matter how high up the poll the Thunder drift, there’s still a sense of them being a perennial underdog because they come from a weak conference. But senior quarterback Eric Watt and his 28-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio has another opportunity this year to quiet naysayers. I have just one (utterly disastrous) game in person to base the DePauw team on, but Trine will get the video from it and should know exactly how to exploit DPU. And, I could see Trine giving UW-Whitewater a game for the first 20 or 30 minutes of play, which is something in itself to be proud of. The Thunder will roll -- at least for a while.

Keith: Ohio Northern. The Polar Bears didn’t look that good against Mount Union, but who ever does? ONU knows North Central well enough to spoil their home date with UW-Whitewater before it ever happens.

Pat: DePauw. Here’s a chance for redemption, especially for a senior quarterback whose current lasting memory on the big stage is the Monon Blowout. Michael Engle (well, and the punting game) get a chance to redeem themselves. And even though they’re at home and the higher seed, DePauw is lower-ranked than Trine, so this would be considered an upset. But I’m only calling one win.

Disappointments

Frank: A lack of subjectivity. I just can't bring myself to agree with the placement of Whitewater as a No. 2 seed, no matter how much I'm told that the numbers told the committee to do it. I'm disappointed at the NCAA for using the same set of criteria for football that is used in baseball, soccer and other sports with 20 to 40 games (much larger sample sizes) that forces the committee to make such odd decisions.

Ryan: Wittenberg’s No. 5 seeding. This isn’t exactly new ground that I’m treading with this comment, but the Tigers have a legitimate gripe about being seeded lower than the other Tigers in the bracket, DePauw. Sure, Wittenberg is saddled with a much tougher Round 1 than is DePauw, but I’ll also miss getting to see a playoff rematch between UW-Whitewater and Wittenberg -- I don’t foresee Witt being able to get through both Ohio Northern and North Central to play in the regional finals. However, just one win in the postseason would give the NCAC its first marquee win in nearly a decade.

Keith: Wittenberg. A final-eight team goes 10-0, and is seeded fifth against a team it might not beat in Round 1; that sets the stage for a disappointment. North Central and UW-Whitewater also stand in the way of improving over last season.

Pat: Wittenberg. I had a chance to reflect on their playoff run last year in preparing this year’s set of playoff team capsules and I was reminded that that run consisted of home games against Mount St. Joseph and Trine. That means, basically, that this year’s high preseason ranking was predicated on one competitive half at UW-Whitewater. That seems a little bit too much and even with the sliding that Wittenberg did in our poll midseason, they’re still really high considering who they’ve actually beaten lately. I also like this first-round matchup, because it’s one of the places where we disagree with the AFCA poll. The AFCA thinks Wittenberg will win, while D3football.com thinks Ohio Northern will win.

Champion

Frank: UW-Whitewater. Thanks, NCAA. You just gave a defending national champion something to prove, as if 10-0 with nine routs wasn't proof enough.

Ryan: UW-Whitewater. The Warhawks have been at the top of my ballot since the start of the 2009 season. No reason to jump ship now.

Keith: UW-Whitewater. Even if someone had lines that can deal with the relentless push the Warhawks get on both sides, they’d have to be healthy and play their best games. Oh, and figure out how to tackle Levell Coppage, Antwan Anderson or Booker Stanley in the open field.

Pat: UW-Whitewater. I’m not sure that the Warhawks don’t end up getting to play that quarterfinal game at home anyway, after all is said and done, simply hosting Ohio Northern rather than traveling to North Central.

Stay tuned
Sixteen seasons will end after Saturday’s playoff games, as will 14 more following ECAC bowls. Yet D3football.com keeps the stove warm through the winter holidays. Even after your favorite players turn in the pads, there are still reasons to visit the site:

Sat. Nov. 20: Playoffs, Round 1 (32 teams), ECAC bowl games (14 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 XXXVII, 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.

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: ATN takes its annual hiatus until Stagg Bowl weekend. We’ll still be around via the podcasts and Triple Take, and you can stay in touch through the normal channels. Before you tune out for the year, please run through your memory banks and share what stood out so ATN can highlight it in the annual year-in-review. From remarkable plays and players to odd stats and off-the-beaten path moments, ATN delivers each December and January the entire season in a (rather long) nutshell. Send your personal memories or suggestions for items – we’ll do the legwork – using the contact info below.

Around the Nation encourages your opinions, questions and insights. 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.

Handy playoff reference material: A breakdown of how Division III selects its 32-team field; Strength of schedule numbers; The last published set of regional rankings, prior to Week 11 games -- not the final ones the committee used; The Division III championship handbook (everything you could ever want to know about the playoff process).

Sports Information Directors: To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 3836 Appaloosa Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

 

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.

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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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