November 10, 2011

Everything to play for

Randolph-Macon sideline
Randolph-Macon has no playoff or ODAC title hopes, but if it knocks off Hampden-Sydney on Saturday, it will be a happy offseason.
Randolph-Macon athletics photo

The great second-weekend-in-November rivalry games each stand out because of their unique traits, including the pursuit of the Monon Bell, Cortaca Jug and Victory Bell, the finality of Williams-Amherst and scenes like at Day Field, where fans will stand four or five deep surrounding the field for the entire Hampden-Sydney/Randolph-Macon game.

This season, however, the five most prominent Week 11 rivalries all have a striking similarity: There’s a clear favorite playing for something greater than a rivalry win, but a .500-or-better underdog poised to end its season by springing an upset.

You know how they say throw out the record books? These are the years for which that cliché was coined. Even in rivalry games, really bad teams almost never beat really good ones. But when a team that’s had its ups and downs puts it all together on the big stage, it becomes one that lives forever in rivalry lore.

These are the clashes that sustain the rivalries.

No conference championships or playoff bids are on the line, but when two of the five result in upsets this Saturday, they’ll go down in history.

Randolph-Macon, 7-2 and playing its last home game before moving and renovating its football stadium, is the most obvious candidate to pull the upset. The Yellow Jackets are two close losses from being unbeaten this season. In the rivalry, they have lost nine of 10, though the past two were by a field goal and a touchdown. The 8-1 Tigers clinched a playoff spot with last Saturday’s 42-35 win against Washington & Lee and have another game to play no matter what happens in Ashland.

The Yellow Jackets have a built-in sense of desperation. The final game either sets the tone for the offseason or is a player’s last memory in a uniform.

“I was just saying that on Tuesday night,” recalls Randolph-Macon head coach Pedro Arruza. “It was 10:30, I’m laying in bed with my wife, thinking about the game, and I said to her ‘you know, the whole winter hinges on this game. If we win, it’s going to be a great winter. If not, it’s going to be tough.’

“I was being facetious,” he said, “but there is a degree of truth to it.”

R-MC seniors remember beating the Tigers in 2008 to earn a playoff spot, but have two bitter memories of H-SC clashes since.

The Tigers have to manufacture such meaning, reminding themselves that they’re playing to impress alumni who might not make it to a road playoff game. They’ll have to lean on the familiar refrain about how a season is only successful if it includes a win over Randolph-Macon.

DePauw and Wabash each play that card in the Monon Bell rivalry, but the 4-4 Tigers are truly trying to salvage a lost season. In transitioning from the SCAC last year to the NCAC in 2012, they’re the only DePauw sports team playing 2011 as an independent, with six of the first seven games on the road. They played in Greencastle last Saturday for the first time since Oct. 1 (from Week 5 to Week 10) and can finish above .500 by beating the Little Giants.

Wabash, 9-0 with the fifth-ranked scoring defense nationally at a shade over 10 points per game, locked up a playoff spot with last Saturday’s 28-17 win against Wittenberg. They should be confident after smoking DePauw 47-0 to retain the 300-pound bell last season.

Franklin’s only losses in its past 19 games have come against reigning national champion UW-Whitewater. The 8-1 Grizzlies have hit or passed the 49-point mark six times this season, and travel to Hanover with the HCAC title and automatic playoff bid already locked up. The Panthers had won four straight after a 1-3 start and could have put the conference title as well as the Victory Bell on the line, but they lost, 41-23, at Mount St. Joseph last week.

Hampden-Sydney, Wabash and Franklin each have playoff games guaranteed and go on the road into hostile environments. Cortland State, at 7-2, is a virtual lock for an ECAC bowl invite, and it too travels, to South Hill to face Ithaca.

The Red Dragons lost by five to No. 16 Kean and by one to No. 17 Montclair State; as a result, those two play Saturday for the NJAC title. Cortland State’s only consolation: knowing it’s six points from coming into the Cortaca Jug game 9-0.

Ithaca, on the other hand, is assured of its worst record since going 5-4 in 1995. The Bombers, a one-time powerhouse and three-time national champion between 1979 and 1991, were riding a streak of 40 consecutive winning seasons. At 4-5, the best Ithaca can hope for is to extend that streak to 41 non-losing seasons; Mount Union, at 34 and counting, takes up the spot behind Linfield’s 56 straight seasons of .500 or better. (And Linfield’s 56 seasons are all over .500.)

The Bombers have an edge in desperation, and share their rivals’ close-game luck. Six Ithaca games, including the past five, have been decided by five points or less. Four of those have been losses – 13-10 in overtime against 7-2 St. John Fisher, 38-33 against 6-3 Springfield, 13-10 to 4-5 Frostburg State and 21-19 to 6-3 Alfred.

In other words, they’re perfectly capable of running alongside Cortland State even if they weren’t about to meet in a game where emotions boil over.

Perhaps the king of all D-III rivalries – certainly the oldest, dating from 1884 – is Williams-Amherst. Because NESCAC football teams play no non-conference or playoff games, this is it for both, win or lose.

But like H-SC, Wabash, Franklin and Cortland State, Amherst is playing for something beyond a mere win – at 7-0, it’s a chance for the ninth perfect season in Lord Jeffs history.

Williams alum Lee Kindlon remembers his alma mater's rivalry for Around the Nation.

The Williams-Amherst rivalry is all about the perfect season – or spoiling them. Williams has completed seven perfect seasons and spoiled seven Amherst attempts. Amherst has spoiled the Ephs five times.

In the past two years, each side has beaten the other to complete perfection (Read about Amherst’s 2009 here). And there’s nothing more perfect than ending your season with a win over the rival.

That’s why a perfect season doesn’t always have to be one without a loss. Sometimes it’s just one with the perfect ending.

Jake Barger plans to attend his 53rd consecutive Hampden-Sydney/Randolph-Macon game on Saturday. What stands out in his memories of game action aren’t always the most successful teams. Often, they’re the unexpected sublime performances. Barger remembers quarterback Brian Partlow throwing 50 passes in 1998 with a broken thumb.

Matt Sigrist looks back with fond memories on two imperfect Williams seasons that ended when his Ephs played above their heads and beat 7-0 Amherst teams.

“The coolest thing about that week was seeing the different level of intensity in practice, what happened when the sum of our team became greater than its parts,” said Sigrist, a wide receiver in 1996 and ’97 upsets. “We had two years where we failed to put all the parts together until the last week.”

You listening DePauw, Randolph-Macon, Ithaca, Hanover and – yes – Williams?

Monon Bell fans perspective
Wabash alum Ryan Tipps remembers his alma mater's rivalry for Around the Nation.

The rivalries need your extraordinary efforts this week. Ryan Tipps, our Mid-Atlantic columnist and a Wabash alum, tweeted last week about the importance of DePauw maintaining a certain level of success, so fans remain interested. Just as with this week’s passing of Joe Frazier boxing fans said that without him, there was no Muhammad Ali, Wabash needs DePauw as a healthy rival to make the Monon Bell rivalry what it is.

Sometimes the best memories are made when the team that appears healthiest going in isn’t the one that emerges. Sigrist fondly recalls being able to “eke out a couple of wins that maybe we didn’t deserve. Maybe we weren’t the more talented team.”

Rich Willard, the Amherst quarterback who threw five touchdown passes in a 48-46 loss in the 1997 game that ended on a short last-second field goal, told Amherst Magazine “you won’t find a more devastating way to lose than we did.”

The old Williams assistant coach Renzie Lamb used to give this pregame speech:

“If you want to be happy for an hour, get intoxicated.
If you want to be happy for three days, get married.
If you want to be happy for eight days, kill your pig and eat it.
If you want to be happy forever, beat Amherst.”

This is what both sides in each rivalry are staring at on Saturday. And while there’s clearly a more successful team coming into each game, that’s not necessarily the one which will get to walk away happy forever.

Memories unrivaled

There are reams of stories that have been written about the great rivalries. The more you search, the more that will turn up. I had a quest to write something that hadn’t been written before, and along the way, I heard some tales I hadn’t before. The A/B-plus prank from Williams-Amherst. Rob Boras, a former DePauw center who now coaches with the Jacksonville Jaguars, assured me the Monon Bell had been filled with beer and sipped from in its travels. He was a delight to talk to, as was Pete Metzelaars of Wabash.

Barger was full of great memories that didn’t fit into any story I was writing – one being his first scene of the R-MC/H-SC game, when it was played in the rain in 1959 at Richmond’s City Stadium.

“The field was a big bowl of soup. Guard John Bagby ran onto the field and took a big swan dive. That set the tone for the day.”

The result was a 0-0 tie, one of 11 in the series.

(By the way, the 55-53-9 record in the Wabash-DePauw series – 37-36-6 in the other direction since the Bell was introduced – is one of its great attributes)

There were others, like Bob Doggett and Michael McAdam (Williams) whose contributions I couldn’t even use, and Matt Hall (Amherst), who I didn’t get a chance to connect with. They all have great stories – if you ever meet an alum of one of these games, ask them about it. It’s worth whatever time you spend listening.

In any case, two of the contributions I got, from Lee Kindlon, a former Williams offensive lineman, and our own Ryan Tipps, were so good I had to run them in full. Hopefully including them will give you a little bit of insight into what these rivalries are like to live through.

Projection room

With so many of the playoff bids already decided – 20 of the 25 automatic bids are in hand, and there are good candidates for the other seven spots – it’s not a bad idea to take a look at what a potential bracket might look like.

Of course Saturday’s results can cause a ripple effect that changes everything. And of course the eight-person national selection committee could interpret information differently than I do below. This is by no means a detailed projection like the one we’ll do between Saturday night’s last game and Sunday’s 6 p.m. selection show.

This is, at best, a rough sketch designed to get you thinking about potential playoff matchups. If you’re interested in how I chose which non-AQ teams to use, read the Pool B thread and Pool C thread on D3boards.com. Also use the latest regional rankings to help understand why teams are ordered the way they are.

In this sketch, I’ll use Wesley, Illinois Wesleyan, Redlands, Centre, McMurry, Case Western Reserve and Endicott/Widener. The five conference championship games (Kean/Montclair State, Delaware Valley/Widener, Hobart/Union, Linfield/Lewis & Clark and Framingham State/Western New England) are geographically irrelevant. That is to say, the outcome of those games won’t affect the placement of teams in the bracket given the committee’s directive to place teams within bus-ride distance of each other whenever possible. The games, will, of course, affect seeding, but let’s leave those out for the moment.

I’m using seven East Region teams and nine from the South to fill out the first sketch, but those are issues easily rectified because techinically there is no requirement that the four eight-team brackets be built by region. Johns Hopkins or Wesley could easily move from the south bracket to host an eastern team. This sketch also assumes that Delaware Valley beats Widener, and Endicott gets a playoff spot.

Scenario 1: Sixteen potential first-round matchups

McMurry at Trinity (Texas); Centre at Mary Hardin-Baylor; Thomas More at Hampden-Sydney; Christopher Newport at Johns Hopkins

Norwich at Salisbury; Western New England at Wesley; LL champ at NJAC champ; Endicott at Delaware Valley

Benedictine at Mount Union; Illinois Wesleyan at Franklin; Case Western Reserve at North Central; Albion at Wabash

St. Scholastica at UW-Whitewater; Monmouth at St. Thomas; Redlands at Linfield; Dubuque at Cal Lutheran

Here’s the logic behind these matchups:

Mount Union stays at home in the “North” bracket for the first time in five years, because an East team, Delaware Valley, finishes 10-0 and earns a No. 1 seed. But the East still only has seven teams, so to competitively balance the bracket, we import Wesley. Except for Norwich-to-Salisbury, everyone in this bracket can bus.

Mount Union and Wabash are the top two seeds in their bracket, and the regional rankings suggest North Central and Franklin would also get home games. But to avoid a rematch with Illinois Wesleyan, we send Case Western Reserve to North Central and IWU to Franklin.

The “south” is more like two subbrackets, the mid-Atlantic and deep south. Hampden-Sydney lucks into another home game despite having a loss – assuming they beat rival R-MC of course – while in Texas, there are three teams in, so it only makes sense not to rematch McMurry with UMHB off the bat. Distance of flight is still a travel concern, so the next-closest team, Centre, flies into Belton, and if the Cru wins, there’s an all-Texas faceoff the next week.

The West is loaded as usual, with three of the country’s top five teams in the bracket. With three West Coast teams, somebody has to fly, so we followed the regional rankings best we could, sending Redlands to Linfield and Dubuque out to California.

Scenario 2: Widener wins.

McMurry at Trinity (Texas); Centre at Mary Hardin-Baylor; Hampden-Sydney at Wesley; Christopher Newport at Johns Hopkins

LL champ at Mount Union; Norwich at Widener; Delaware Valley at NJAC champ; WNEC at Salisbury

Benedictine at UW-Whitewater; Thomas More at Franklin; Case Western Reserve at North Central; Albion at Wabash

St. Scholastica at St. Thomas; Monmouth at Illinois Wesleyan; Redlands at Linfield; Dubuque at Cal Lutheran

In this scenario, Del Val’s loss requires Mount Union to be shifted east to be the No. 1 seed, and UW-Whitewater to take that role in the north. That makes St. Thomas a top seed and bumps Linfield up one, plus gets them out of UW-W’s bracket -- so perhaps those programs are big Widener fans on Saturday.

Also in this scenario, since neither Norwich or WNEC is less than 500 miles from Mount Union, the Liberty League champ gets that honor. Widener plays itself into a home game, but Wesley staying in the south – now that eight East teams are in – significantly affects H-SC’s draw.

Scenario 3: Travel consciousness

Case Western Reserve at Mount Union; Western New England at Hobart; Norwich at NJAC champ; Endicott at Delaware Valley.

St. Scholastica at UW-Whitewater; Albion at Franklin; Benedictine at North Central; Monmouth at Wabash.

Centre at Illinois Wesleyan; Thomas More at Johns Hopkins; Christopher Newport at Wesley; Hampden-Sydney at Salisbury.

Redlands at Cal Lutheran; Trinity at Mary Hardin-Baylor; Dubuque at Linfield; McMurry at St. Thomas.

In this case, I tried to keep everyone as close to home as possible, with matchups like CWRU and Mount Union and Benedictine at North Central. But even going cost-conscious on the California and Texas teams left me with two flights. This is harder than it looks. Sending McMurry to Linfield requires an even more costly charter flight, which is why I’ve avoided it.

What scenarios do you see? Share on the Around the Nation thread.

ATN calendar

After the last regular season game is played, there’s a lot to look forward to, so don’t tune out!

Sat. Nov. 12: Week 11 games, with top rivalries.

Sun. Nov. 13: Selection Sunday (show now at 6:00 p.m. online)
Following week: Playoff features, team capsules
Thu. Nov. 17: ATN’s annual playoff surprises/disappointments column
Sat. Nov. 19: 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. 26: Playoffs, Round 2
Following week: Gagliardi trophy finalists named, D3football.com Road to Salem features, ATN podcast
Sat. Dec. 3: Playoffs, Round 3 (eight teams).
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.
Fri. Dec. 9: D-III Senior Classic all-star game in Salem, 7 p.m. kickoff.
Sat. Dec. 10: National semifinals (four teams), live webcast with ESPN regional or syndicated coverage possible.
Wed. Dec. 14: Gagliardi Trophy presentation, live webcast
Thu. Dec. 15: Stagg Bowl luncheon, pregame festivities in Salem/Roanoke
Fri. Dec. 16: Stagg Bowl 39, 7 p.m., D3football.com all-Americans announced during pregame broadcast, wall-to-wall coverage of the championship, ATN’s year-in-review column
Mon. Jan. 9: Liberty Mutual coach of the year award winner announced.

Games of the week

Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I identify the games to watch among the 100 or so each Saturday across the nation, providing three distinct looks at what’s ahead in Triple Take. This week we look at the impact of rivalry games and what could fall where in the playoff picture.

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: Share your ideas for the year-in-review column on the ATN thread.

For the Love of the Game: Show your love everywhere you go:

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.

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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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