October 11, 2012

What’s better: Conference dominance or parity?

RPI isn't in the Top 25 race, but the Engineers are far from out of the Liberty League race.
RPI athletics photo

At this time two years ago, the IIAC had two teams, Coe and Central, in the top 10. The ODAC had both Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney in the top 25. And the MIAA featured 15th-ranked Trine, which would go on to win its first round playoff game for the second season in a row, and give eventual champion UW-Whitewater its toughest game leading up to the Stagg Bowl.

Today those three respected conferences have a grand total of zero teams in the Top 25. Onliy Coe and the ODAC’s Washington & Lee – ranked 25th on one measly ballot – are even receiving votes.

And you know what? The conferences aren’t worse off.

Around the Nation spoke with commissioners of five conferences – the IIAC, LL, MIAA, MWC and ODAC – to pose a deceivingly complex question: What’s better, the years when one team dominates the conference, rises up the Top 25 and gains national recognition, or the season in which there is drama week to week and great parity in the title chase?

The answer, it turns out, might depend on your perch.

“I suppose my viewpoint will differ from a coach’s,” says MWC commissioner Chris Graham, “but I think it's better to be more competitive within your own league. That's always been a hallmark of the Midwest Conference, is a focus on conference competition. The more excitement you can generate for your student-athletes, the better it is for your league.”

“You know, the first question you mentioned obviously would depend on which school you asked,” chuckles David Neilson, the MIAA commissioner since 2002. “You talk to Trine a few years ago, they would definitely would say the years when have a top 25 team.”

“It's tough to know what is the right answer from my seat,” says ODAC commissioner Brad Bankston. “We try to give our student-athletes a great experience, and to have every game be competitive down to the last week is important.”

“The national piece, having somebody dominant, we’ve been in that before, with Bridgewater,” says Bankston, who witnessed the 2001 Eagles advance to the national championship game that his conference has hosted in Salem since 1993. “But to me it's the internal race within. As long as every game counts … it keeps every team in the league and their fans involved until the last week. That's what we like to see from [a conference] standpoint.”

It’s been a long time since the IIAC has had zero Top 25 teams. Coe is 5-0 but has yet to reach the meat of its schedule. Simpson is a surprising 4-1 and every other team has at least one conference loss. Can competitiveness within a conference be mistaken for a “bad” year?

“Of course when we have an exciting league race in Weeks 7, 8, 9 ... that’s good for our conference publicity-wise,” says IIAC commissioner Chuck Yrigoyen, “and it’s good for the conference all-around, because it shows the competitive nature of your group.

“It is great to have a dominant team that goes through 10-0 and they maybe only have a couple of close games and they get a home game in the tournament,” Yrigoyen says, “but from a conference commissioner's standpoint, both of those things can be beneficial.”

Neilson says a good conference race and postseason success don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“We’d like to see our conference go down to the last week, and then have our champion go on to win the national championship,” he said.

The MIAA, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this season, won a Stagg Bowl in 1994 with Albion. Currently, the conference has a very good Calvin cross country program and Kalamazoo tennis program. But in volleyball and men’s basketball, the conference races are heated, and then the teams go on to win in the playoffs.

In other sports, Neilson points out, the MIAA plays a double round-robin, with each team playing a home-and-home. Then the top four finishers in conference play compete for the automatic bid. But in football, that’s not possible. With just six MIAA games, there’s no margin for error while chasing the conference title.

Football also brings other challenges.

Bankston says that even in D-III, there are offensive and defensive stars who by themselves can change outcomes of games. A semi-serious injury that costs a player some missed time but not an entire season can lead to unexpected results. Those upsets are factored in when the playoff selection committee matches up teams and determines which ones will be playing at home.

“When you get in a situation when teams are beating up on each other,” says Bankston, “and you come out of the AQ with an 8-2 record, you're not going to get a very good matchup in the first round. You pick your poison.”

“Maybe the worst of all worlds,” says Yrigoyen,” is when you have teams knocking each other off, and maybe three losses is going to win the conference. That's good for parity, but not really good for how your league is perceived.”

“The tournament is a crapshoot to some degree,” says Bankston, who has served on the NCAA selection committee. “The travel, and who you get matched up against sometimes determine how much success you’ll have.”

If the teams are off to good starts before conference play begins, the parity can actually help.

“I think that clearly in years where we have a bunch of teams in the second half  of the season who are vying for a conference championship, that is good,” says Yrigoyen. “We like that parity, we like the fact that we're interesting. What you need to have to couple that with, is a lot of wins in the non-conference season. Then getting the second team, that takes care of itself.”

But, as Bankston points out, even getting two teams into the final 32 doesn’t guarantee a “good” year for the conference. In 2010, Hampden-Sydney drew a first-round home game with Montclair State, while Washington & Lee went to Thomas More. The ODAC thought it had a shot at beating a team from the NJAC and one from the PAC and advancing both. Instead, both the Tigers and Generals lost.

The Liberty League has been the conference whose teams beat up on each other and ends up with a hard-luck story. In 2010, St. Lawrence lost four non-conference games but went 4-1 in the LL, earning a 5-5 team a playoff spot. The Saints were sent to Mount Union in the first round, and lost 49-0. (Last season, Albion lost four non-conference games, went 6-0 in the MIAA and got sent to UW-Whitewater in the first round. They were down 21-0 before they could exhale, and lost 59-0.)

But this season, the LL’s Hobart is 6-0 and ranked 12th in the country. Commissioner Tracy King points out that Union is 3-0 in the conference (though just 3-3 overall) and RPI is 2-1, 4-1, so it’s not safe to call Hobart a “runaway” winner yet. But in a year when many similar conferences have the parity going for them, the LL has the Statesmen putting their best feet forward.

“When you have a team in your own league that's having that kind of season,” Yrigoyen says, “they're bound to get media attention, and bound to give your conference some publicity.”

That doesn’t just mean Top 25 recognition, a bump up the ATN conference rankings and a favorable feeling of your conference’s strength in the selection committee deliberations. Publicity has an impact that is even more tangible.

“One of the things you want as a conference is to do well in postseason competition,” says the MIAA’s Neilson. “That gives a higher aura to the conference [and makes a] better impression to prospective student-athletes.”

Yrigoyen points out that a good impression made for one is a good impression made for all.

“I give this speech at some of our schools when I have a chance,” he says. “It’s easy for me to be in that position, and say ‘When Central is really good in football, that's good for all of us. When Loras goes to the men’s Final Four in soccer two years in a row, that's good for all of us. When Wartburg wins the national championship in women’s indoor and outdoor track, and wrestling for the second year in a row, that’s good for all of us.

“It's hard when you're a coach in that environment to be happy, because that team is probably going to breed some more success,” Yrigoyen adds. “But I don’t think there's any question that that kind of exposure or publicity is good for the league as a whole. Not everybody can go play men's soccer at Loras, but they can go play in the league that Loras plays in. Not everybody can wrestle at Wartburg, but they can wrestle in the best Division III conference in the country.”

But for the most part, national success is a bonus, not the end-all, be-all.

“The Midwest Conference certainly appreciates the national attention,” Graham says. “I won’t say as we enter into our seasons that's on top of our list of things to achieve. I think it's wonderful for our student-athletes to receive additional recognition. But the purpose of the conference as we see it here in Division III is to stimulate competition among like-minded institutions … [National achievements are] just the icing on the cake for our programs.”

“As much as one strong team can get you a lot of attention, it's always beneficial when the teams within the conference are competitive with each other,” says King.

Ideally, conferences would have it all.

“If you talk to me right now during the middle of the conference season, I'll say I want to have a competitive conference race,” Neilson said. “Once I do that trophy presentation, once I hand that trophy out, I want to see our teams win the national championship.”

Computer love

ATN has often acknowledged the idea that a D-III poll is part art, part science. Computer rankings can help with the science (and math). When Pat and I sit down to do the 1-239 rankings, we start by reviewing the Massey Ratings, so there’s at least some analytic, numerical basis to what we come up with once our subjectivity is added in.

And if there’s any doubt that subjectivity is needed, not to mention an intimate knowledge of D-III, check out these computer rankings from Sport Theory:

No. 1 Mary Hardin-Baylor, No. 4 Wesley, No. 5 St. Thomas, No. 6 Linfield, No. 7 North Central, No. 11 Willamette, No. 13 UW-Platteville, No. 15 UW-Oshkosh. I can get behind most of those rankings, they aren’t too far from where I’d rank them.

No. 2 Johns Hopkins is a little high. So is No. 3 Bethel, given the manner in which the Royals squeaked by last Saturday. No. 8 Ithaca is weird, even weirder given the 31-7 loss to Sport Theory’s 12th-ranked team, Alfred, on Saturday.

I don’t see the methodology on the site, but clearly there’s some conference-specific tuning going on, much related to how a conference did in non-conference games. Scroll past No. 17 UW-Whitewater. Click on to the second page. Past No. 29 Utica and No. 30 Randolph-Macon.

Mount Union is ranked 34th.

Yeah. Even ignoring the 20 years of history that says Mount Union is at any given time one of the top 5 teams in the country, based on this year alone, they’ve done nothing but slaughter opponents. If the math can’t account for four consecutive shutouts, one touchdown given up in five games and a 274-7 scoring advantage AND it doesn’t know the history, then the rating isn’t very useful, even if the model is mathematically sound.

The math is even less favorable for Mount Union in the Atomic Football college ratings, where the Purple Raiders check in at No. 76. Bethel is No. 1. Atomic Football does have pretty cool features though, such as a predicted win-out percentage (i.e., at 5-0, Johns Hopkins has a 64.7% chance of finishing 10-0) and both score predictions and win percentage predictions for each game on the schedule (JHU is expected to beat Dickinson 39-14, and would win 97.4% of the time).

It’s not really stuff you’ll find elsewhere, and since there’s really no reason to expect anyone would use the information for betting on D-III games, there’s no harm in passing it on. (The site discourages betting anyway, saying that making money on it can hardly be done) Plus, the explanation for its claim that the win-loss rating has no subjective inputs, are right there for you to read. It’s the type of thing that could lead you down a number-filled rabbit hole. Hat tip to the Huntingdon fan who passed it on.

There are our old friends, the Massey Ratings, who appear to have upgraded the site but made a D-III specific sort more difficult. You could click on an individual team though, like, say, Johns Hopkins, and find it’s rated eighth in D-III. If you’re crafty, you could sort by region (second in south) or simulate the rest of the Blue Jays’ season. (they’re likely to win 4.51 of their final five games, whatever that means).

ATN’s other longtime favorite rating, the Laz Index, is still current. If you’re curious, loves Bethel (No. 2) and Johns Hopkins (No. 7) as well. But wisely, Mount Union is there at No. 3.

If nothing else, these are a fun way to see your team through another perspective, and find the highest rating possible for your favorite team, should you disagree with the D3football.com pollsters.

Three takes on Week 7

Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I take a look at another great week across D-III Friday morning on the Daily Dose, our blog. We’ll tackle teams who are avenging upsets of the past, pick between some unusual mascots and color combos, plus our usual looks at possible upsets, surprisingly close games and games of the week. We’ll go coast to coast, in the Triple Take.

Six ways to Saturday

I see you guys on instagram, tagging your game-day pics with #d3fb. I found 63 of them immediately upon (finally) signing up. Pictures are an important part of painting the full picture of what this D-III experience is like. Besides, there isn’t a soul on earth who can be at 120 game sites at once, so whatever photos you tweet or instagram, video highlights or D3 Reports you share help make the picture of D-III more vivid.

If you want to follow the national picture, and you’re missing the conversation, especially on game days, you’re missing some of the best ATN and D3football.com have to offer. It’s no longer an era in D-III when everything you need to know is in Thursday’s columns. If you’re interested in seeing, hearing and joining in the discussion of what’s happening from Maine to Southern California and everywhere in between, here’s how you can keep up.

Follow ATN …

• 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. There’s also @d3football and @D3MidAtlantic (Tipps), plus five of our regional columnists: @AdamTurer, @Andrew_Lovell, @BLester1993, @clydehughes and @kylerobarts.

If you want to get us to notice you, use hashtag #d3fb. On Saturdays, the ability to sort by hashtag on Twitter gives D-III football its own channel for live insights, in addition to our live scoreboards, which is home to instantaneous updates, plus all the live stats, audio and video links we’re aware of.

• 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 instagram, via @d3keith.

On Saturdays, our running game day conversation no longer lives on the Daily Dose, but on Twitter.

The press box

Crowd sourcing: I'm looking for your photos wearing D-III shirts or hats on vacations or at famous places around the world. It's for a future project, showing how we represent.

Also looking for your suggestions on who's "next" in D-III: Young star players who have begun to emerge this season, and you expect to hear about for years to come. Extra credit for nominating someone not on your team or related to you.

Also looking for ex-players and others willing to give testimonials about all-star games they’ve played in recruiting services they’ve used and more. Please e-mail for more details.

For the Love of the Game: Show your love everywhere you go with an original, high-quality, color-themed Division III shirt from zazzle.com/D3Keith.

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 e-mail 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, 12457 Manchester Way, Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

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