October 6, 2011

Let's appreciate what we have, can't predict

Tony Tokarz
Senior quarterback Tony Tokarz has guided Worcester State to a 5-0 start.
Worcester State athletics photo 

If asked to describe the 2011 season, with five of 11 weeks in the books, what exactly would one say?

Fans of 5-0 Dubuque, Worcester State and Adrian would probably call it the best half-season ever. In the case of fifth-year program Birmingham-Southern, also 5-0, it literally is, at least since they brought the program back after 67 years off.

Perennial playoff contenders Hardin-Simmons, Coe and Otterbein, on the other hand, each already have three losses. Augustana, once the class of Division III, is 0-4. St. John’s is having a memorable season – but at 2-3 and coming off a 63-7 loss to rival St. Thomas, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

The description depends on perspective, of course. From Around the Nation’s vantage point, it’s hard to foresee anything besides a seventh consecutive national championship clash between No. 1 UW-Whitewater and No. 2 Mount Union in Salem. The story of 2011 has many chapters still to be written, and before we think Stagg Bowl, there are still rivals to upend, one-time occurrences to behold and conference championships to be won.

Still, as we head into Week 6, it’s a good time to zoom in on a point that sometimes falls on deaf ears when it’s mentioned in mid-December: The D-III season is about so much more than the last team standing. While the destination for any team is Salem, remember there is much to appreciate about the journey.

The last time Birmingham-Southern was 5-0 was 1934. They dropped the sport from 1940-2006.
Birmingham-Southern athletics photo 

Whenever it is suggested that the Purple Raiders and Warhawks’ dominance of the final game means D-III lacks parity, my reply is that the focus is too narrow. And now, when all 239 teams are active instead of just two, is a better time to point this out.

Of the 32 teams who made the playoffs in 2010, precisely 16 did not in 2009. Of the 16 who made it both years, only Mount Union, UW-Whitewater, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Wesley, Trine and Thomas More also made it in 2008. And since both UMHB and UW-W made the postseason once as an at-large runner-up in that stretch, all but four of D-III’s 27 conferences have had more than one champion over the past three seasons. The Liberty League, NathCon, NEFC, NESCAC and ODAC have each crowned three in three years.

This season’s first five weeks have been full of intrigue and unexpected happenings, the kind that keep us on the end of the bleachers and remind us why we love athletics.

Here’s a way to visualize what an exciting season it’s been so far. On the left is my preseason top 25 ballot. On the right is the one I turned in last week:

1. UW-Whitewater UW-Whitewater
2. Mount Union Mount Union
3. Wesley St. Thomas
4. North Central Mary Hardin-Baylor
5. Bethel Linfield
6. St. Thomas Cal Lutheran
7. Linfield Redlands
8. Mary Hardin-Baylor North Central
9. Coe Kean
10. Hardin-Simmons Wesley
11. Montclair State Illinois Wesleyan
12. Cal Lutheran Thomas More
13. Wabash Delaware Valley
14. Salisbury Bethel
15. UW-Stevens Point Hobart
16. Hampden-Sydney Birmingham-Southern
17. Alfred Louisiana College
18. Franklin Wabash
19. Cortland State Johns Hopkins
20. Thomas More Salisbury
21. Trine Cortland State
22. Wheaton Endicott
23. St. John's Adrian
24. Rowan UW-Oshkosh
25. Ohio Northern Centre

When you compare the two side by side, some points emerge:

  • Only two teams, after five weeks, remain in the spot in which they began: No. 1 UW-Whitewater and No. 2 Mount Union.
  • My No. 3-ranked team has gone from Wesley to Bethel to Linfield to St. Thomas.
  • The 25 teams I put on my ballot in the preseason have combined for 23 losses. The 25 teams I voted for after Week 5 have seven losses.
  • Of the preseason 25, 12 are no longer on my ballot. All 12 of those teams started out ninth or below. The teams I thought were the top eight in the country are still ranked, but the group below has fluctuated wildly.
  • The 25 teams I’ve got ranked now, plus 12 no longer there make 37 teams I’ve deemed top-25 worthy this season. But wait, there’s more. At various points, I’ve had Baldwin-Wallace, Mississippi College, UW-Platteville, UW-Eau Claire, Wartburg, Washington & Lee, Williams and Wittenberg ranked. That means a total of 45 teams have made up my top 25s so far.

The point in revealing all that is not to make a fool of myself (although I probably did a pretty good job) or make the rankings about me. In a few weeks, where a team stood on my Week 5 ballot will be about as memorable as the hot dog (or was it a hamburger) you got from the concession stand at the game.

It does, however, illustrate a truism about the parity in D-III. Once you dive below the purple powers, there’s all kind of drama and uncertainty. And while there’s no harm in wishing to see a few new teams get to enjoy the spoils of the Stagg Bowl, the excitement is right here before us, right now.

If we get to Dec. 16 – the Stagg Bowl is a 7 p.m. Friday night kickoff for the first time I can remember – and we’re still disappointed about the lack of variety, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

Everything worth winning – trophy games, conference titles and the like -- besides the national championship itself is completely up for grabs.

Poll positions

Since I touched on it above, a few disclaimers about the top 25 poll in D-III:

We have often debated on D3boards.com whether the poll is more art than science, or more subjective than objective. In reality, it’s all of that and then some.

I ranked Endicott above UW-Oshkosh this week, for instance. The Gulls are 5-0 against four teams that were .500 or better last season, with only one game closer than 20 points. Within their region and against the teams on their schedule, they have been excellent. They could win the NEFC title game and a playoff game or two. UW-Oshkosh, meanwhile, has no margin for error, with a loss at No. 2 Mount Union earlier this season and a conference game against No. 1 UW-Whitewater following road trips to Eau Claire and Platteville. Even if the Titans were perfect against everybody but the top two teams in the country, there’s no guarantee the NCAA playoff selection committee looks at that and takes them over a 9-1 at-large team, although there are strength-of-schedule measures to consider. Endicott is more successful now, by wins and losses, and might end up that way, by number of rounds advanced in the playoffs.

And yet, if UW-Oshkosh traveled to Beverly for a game, would anyone expect the Gulls to win?

The poll’s aim to identify the 25 best teams in the country, but even ‘best’ is open to interpretation. Does ‘best’ mean the team that wins the most? That tends to be how the AFCA poll works, and maybe that makes sense because coaches often think all that matters in the end is whether you won or lost (and graduated – it’s still D-III, after all). Or does ‘best’ mean the team that performs well against strongest competition? Or lives up to expectations?

Certainly, some subjectivity is warranted. All records are not created equal. Some teams seek to challenge themselves, and show more strength in a loss to a powerful team than they would in a victory over a not-so-powerful one. I’m proud to say that since we started our poll in 2003, D3football.com voters have attempted to recognize that.

We also deliberately balance our 25-person panel with coaches, sports information directors and media/D3football.com staff, so that no one perspective is too heavily represented. We do the same geographically, and with respect to the 27 conferences, so local biases get dulled by the other 24 voters.

In the end, each voter has his own style. Mine is to re-evaluate the entire body of work each week, heavily weighing the success and strength of opposition, to come up with a fresh top 25. That means my ballots, especially early in the season when there’s less data to go on, fluctuate wildly. I have dropped top 15 teams out of the poll entirely and moved an unranked team in at No. 11. Sometimes one result puts all the previous ones in perspective, and I hate to doom a team to incremental moves up the poll if their entire body of work comes into focus. Should Illinois Wesleyan and Kean stay stuck in the 20s because they didn’t start the season ranked? Or can their victories over Wheaton and Wesley put them into the poll where we thought the team they beat belonged?

Another factor to be careful of is scores. Taken alone, each determines winner and loser. But they are an inconsistent predictor of future success. Teams don’t play to their potential each week, some don’t match up with one team as well as another, and some scores are misleading for other reasons. I try not to buy too far into a run-up score. I tend to look at whether a game was winnable by either team in the fourth quarter (in which case a loss is sometimes an indicator of evenness with the winning team), was one team ahead by 10-21 points, or even more comfortably ahead (dominant).

Even within a voter’s own system there are contradictions. You might notice that on my ballot, Wesley stays stuck behind Kean, which it lost to, even though the Cougars’ 44-33 win against Western Connecticut, which lost its previous games by 48 and 65, was less than impressive for a top 10 team, as was its 7-6 win against TCNJ. I also can’t bump North Central ahead of Redlands since the Bulldogs have a 35-29 win over the Cardinals. Some voters give NCC a pass for flying from Illinois to California and leading in the final minute, until Redlands scored with 28 seconds left.

Yet while I stick firmly to head-to-head results in those cases, I have 3-1 Bethel ranked and 4-1 St. Olaf unranked despite the Oles’ 30-28 comeback win against the Royals. Maybe I’m overweighting the Oles’ 49-14 loss to No. 3 St. Thomas and not giving them enough credit for Saturday’s win. I’ll probably fix that.

When there are 239 teams to consider, with 110 or so winners each week, not every victor moves up. Salisbury dropped off my ballot after barely beating Christopher Newport, 27-23, the week after the Captains lost to first-year Stevenson. They’ve since moved back on. Montclair State, which I once had ranked eighth, was off this week’s ballot after a second lackluster win. The Redhawks escaped with a one-point road victory at Morrisville State by stopping late two-point conversion try, and won by a touchdown at Brockport State last Saturday. Despite being undefeated, and winning both games on the road, there are other teams performing well enough to deserve my top 25 vote instead of the Redhawks right now. But if they beat Cortland State this week, which I saw beat Rowan a few weeks ago, I’ll probably put them back on. And Wittenberg, No. 14 overall but unranked for me, has a chance to surge right back on to my ballot with a win at 4-1 Huntingdon this week; the Hawks want some top-25 recognition as well if they beat the Tigers.

I could write about the top 25 for days on end. It’s an interesting art-science, but not one without flaws. Lucky for us, we keep it in the proper perspective, and let our playoff teams sort things out against one another in November and December.

What’s in a name?

I’ve previously put the call out for input on D-III’s most interesting mascot names. I want to know what people think makes a good name – uniqueness, football toughness or perhaps just athletic poetry. Which name’s origins are you most interested in learning about?

Here are 20 that stand out for me:

Knox Prairie Fire
Amherst Lord Jeffs
Heidelberg Student Princes
Oberlin Yeomen
Whittier Poets
Tufts Jumbos
Rowan Profs
Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens
Mass.-Dartmouth Corsairs
Williams Ephs
Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Stags
Kenyon Lords
Wabash Little Giants
Ithaca Bombers
Austin Kangaroos
Hamilton Continentals
Hamline Pipers
Trinity Bantams
Olivet Comets
Mississippi College Choctaws

I’ll also take a look at some trends: What do Baldwin-Wallace, Defiance, Randolph-Macon, Rochester and Waynesburg have in common? How come you can throw a color on an inanimate object, like a Tornado or Terror, and make it into a cool sounding team name? Can you believe there is more than one team uses Flying Dutchmen, Battling Bishops and Polar Bears?

Pick your favorites (the list is here), or write in some candidates, and I’ll get to work on finding out the backstories. 

Who are those guys?

With Wesley beating a scholarship program in Charleston Southern last Saturday, and conference play getting underway, it’s probably time to revisit an old ATN favorite: How D-III teams do against teams from other divisions.

vs. Division I-FCS: 3-3

McMurry’s win over UT-San Antonio and loss to Stephen F. Austin garnered lots of attention at the time, but we barely mentioned Franklin’s 49-35 win against non-scholarship Valparaiso or Maryville’s 56-7 loss to Tennessee Tech.

vs. Division II: 0-4

D-II always eats our lunch, and here it was three Northeast-10 teams (Stonehill, Bentley and Merrimack) getting easy early wins (against Curry, SUNY-Maritime and WPI) and Western New Mexico hanging on against Sul Ross State.

vs. NAIA: 10-15

For the first time since I started tracking this stat several years ago, D-III is significantly behind NAIA opposition. Former D-III Menlo has done three games’ worth of damage (to Pacific, Whitworth and Occidental), as has Azusa Pacific (La Verne, Whittier and Chapman). Bethel (Tenn.) beat UW-Eau Claire but gave up 70 to North Central, while teams from the south and the Dakotas make up the rest of the results.

Rivalry watch

Here’s our latest check-in with the biggest games coast to coast:

Week 1 (Sept. 3):

Backyard Brawl, Mississippi College 33, Millsaps 27, OT: The Majors’ Beau Brady misses a 37-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation, and the Choctaws’ Tommy Reyer scores from eight yards out in overtime.

Soup Bowl, Guilford 27, Greensboro 7: The Quakers win the first game of the Chris Rusiewicz era in grand fashion.

Week 2 (Sept. 10):

Secretaries’ Cup, Merchant Marine 35, Coast Guard 28: Kings Point’s Stephen Sasso finds Chase Dunn for a 40-yard TD pass with eight seconds left to win.

Week 3 (Sept. 17)

Courage Bowl, St. John Fisher 52, Rochester 3: Luckily this game still benefits a worthy cause in Camp Good Days, and the highlight is having cancer-affected children experience game week with each team. Because this was as big a dud competitively as there has been in the series. The Cardinals led 28-3 at the half and scored 45 unanswered after it was 7-3.

Week 4 (Sept. 24)

Transit Trophy, RPI at WPI: Ernie Mello rushed for four touchdowns, the WPI defense caused five turnovers and the Transit Trophy spent consecutive seasons in Worcester for the first time since 1995-96.

Week 5 (Oct. 1)

Holy Grail trophy game, St. John’s at St. Thomas: The Tommies ended a 12-year losing streak with an overtime win in Collegeville in 2010; this one seemed to get all that aggression out. St. Thomas won, 63-7, in front of more than 10,000 fans for its first home win in the series in decades.

Conestoga Wagon: Dickinson at Franklin & Marshall: The Red Devils rallied from a 21-0 halftime deficit to bring the trophy back to Carlisle (check out a picture of it here) in a 31-24 victory.

Week 9 (Oct. 29)

Dutchman’s Shoes: RPI at Union
CBB, Part I: Bates at Colby

Week 10 (Nov. 5)

Little Brass Bell: Wheaton at North Central
Bronze Turkey game, Knox at Monmouth
Cranberry Bowl: Mass. Maritime at Bridgewater State
CBB, Part II: Bowdoin at Bates

Week 11 (Nov. 12)
Oldest rivalry in D-III: Amherst at Williams
Monon Bell: Wabash at DePauw
Cortaca Jug: Cortland State at Ithaca
The Game: Hampden-Sydney at Randolph-Macon
Victory Bell: Franklin at Hanover
Cornell at Coe
Wesleyan at Trinity
Moravian at Muhlenberg
CBB, Part III: Colby at Bowdoin
Bridge Bowl: Thomas More at Mount St. Joseph
Regents Cup: Frostburg State at Salisbury
Keystone Cup, Widener at Delaware Valley

Have rivalry games we should add to the list? E-mail keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com

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. It’s also the best way to directly converse with the column’s author.

• On Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board. That’s the next 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 Daily Dose features a running game day thread and live chat, for real-time reactions from across the country.

The press box

Crowd sourcing: I’m still looking for fish-out-of-water tales. What’s it like being a certain race or religion on a campus and a team full of people completely unlike you? What’s it like being the team that thinks one way, playing a whole bunch of other teams who operate differently. Send thoughts or ideas by e-mail or Twitter, and I’ll help you flesh them out.

For the Love of the Game: Send us a picture of you wearing one of the shirts below, and we’ll feature it here:

Readers: 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.

Sports Information Directors: To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 12331 Midsummer Lane A102, Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and began as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011, has worked on the preseason Kickoff publication since 2006 and has covered the Stagg Bowl in Salem for more than a decade. Ryan, a Wabash graduate, worked in newspapers as a writer and editor for 15 years before his current full-time job as editor of a magazine in Virginia.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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