|Pasquale Vacchio helped
spearhead the Bengals defense with 19 tackles.
Buffalo State athletics file photo
In the past week, Buffalo State players have accomplished things many Division III players never will. After beating the No. 1 team in the country on their home field, the Bengals saw their highlights played on ESPN, pushed their program into a top 25 for the first time since they were in diapers and created a palpable buzz on campus.
After a whirlwind week that’s taken the program to heights they had only imagined, the Bengals could be pretty satisfied with themselves. But it’s hard to pat yourself on the back when there are seven Empire 8 opponents waiting to knock you on it.
“There’s a great deal of self-satisfaction, a feeling of accomplishment,” said coach Jerry Boyes in a phone interview on Wednesday. “But because it’s so early in the season, you can’t hang your hat on it.”
Buffalo State has the nation’s fifth-toughest schedule, as determined by the NCAA among the 212 D-III teams who play at least nine games against other D-III teams. The Bengals’ seven remaining opponents are off to a 16-4 start, with three undefeated and this week’s opponent, Alfred, at 1-1 having the worst record among them. The three teams Buffalo State has played haven’t lost to anyone besides the Bengals, making their overall opponents’ record 20-6, or 19-4 when you take the Bengals’ games out.
The schedule can be viewed as a mountain too tough to climb. But those willing to accept the challenge of trying to climb might find there’s a pretty nice views the higher you go.
“I think for a lot of guys,” quarterback Casey Kacz told Around the East columnist Andrew Lovell, “they might have just been saying it because other guys were saying it, but I think now everyone on the team believes we really can make a run at the national championship, just as long as we take care of our league play first.”
That’ll be no easy task. Though the Bengals start their first foray into the E8 – ranked in our Kickoff ’12 preseason publication (login required) as the nation’s third-strongest conference of 27 – after six seasons in the NJAC with three home games, they have games ahead with No. 8 Salisbury and No. 10 St. John Fisher, after having beaten No. 4 UW-Whitewater and lost at No. 17 Brockport State.
The win in Wisconsin against the three-time defending national champions might have been a less-difficult accomplishment than winning the E8. That only required the Bengals to play one outstanding game. Winning the conference’s automatic playoff bid, and the program’s first since 1999, will require at least six, and probably seven.
“It’s what you want,” Boyes said. “Now the pressure is on us to follow it up. Anybody on our schedule can beat us. But now we know that if we play the way we’re capable of playing, we can beat anybody on our schedule.”
And whereas Buffalo State might have been little more than a curiosity to Ithaca, Utica, Frostburg State and Hartwick, it’s a now a game those teams circle on the schedule and know they have to bring their best for.
“Like it or not, as I told the players Saturday after the ballgame,” Boyes told Lovell, “we just put a big red circle on our chest. Which is great to have … everybody now wants to beat Buffalo State College. Our level of play has to be at the same level it was this past Saturday. Great teams do that.”
The Bengals, 5-5 last season and 5-4 against the NJAC, had consecutive wins once in 2011 and has alternated wins and losses so far this season too. They outgained Cortland State 706-422 in a 49-31 Week 1 win, then were outgained 533-321 in a 38-24 loss to Brockport State. Of the three teams its faced so far, UW-Whitewater has put up the lowest yardage total (311, to Buffalo State’s 356).
Consistency has escaped the Bengals so far.
“Quite frankly,” Boyes told me, “it was the same question after Cortland. Can we handle success? Only time will tell.”
The first order of business this week was moving past the UW-Whitewater upset. Enjoying it – the “Bengal Idol” singing on the 12-hour bus ride home, or being singled out in Monday’s classes by professors who usually don’t make mention of the football team during lectures – is important. Boyes said that validation, and the feelings that come from big wins, are what players put in so much effort for.
“Those are the rewards for what you’ve been doing up to this point,” Boyes said. (He might as well have been talking about himself too, since the program went from 7-4 to 1-8 in 2001 when he stopped coaching. This is the best start to a season since he took the helm back over in 2009.)
But, similar to every weekend on the Buffalo State campus, game day was Saturday, the players are completely off on Sundays and they come in at 3 on Monday to watch video of the game. For about two hours, they look for things to correct, and then they begin their week of practice.
“As soon as those projectors are turned off,” Boyes said, “last Saturday is history.
“You can’t get too down when you lose and you can’t get too high when you win. It’s a great and special victory we had last week, but it really has to be history.”
If focus was a potential issue, it helps that Alfred, which has averaged 8.25 wins a season since 2004 and was a playoff team in 2009 and ’10 is coming to town, with Salisbury next. The Sea Gulls have just one fewer win than Alfred over that eight-season span (65 to the Saxons’ 66), have made the playoffs four times since ’04 and were an 11-2 national quarterfinalist last season.
The competitiveness of the Empire 8 “was one of the huge factors” in the move, Boyes said. But so was travel from upstate New York.
“The NJAC is a fantastic conference, and in a lot of ways it was a better fit for us,” he said. “But being such an outlier … on some of our eight-, eight-and-a-half-hour bus trips to New Jersey, we would pass by all these schools and think ‘this doesn’t make a lot of sense.’ ”
A football independent through 2003, Boyes recalls scheduling St. John Fisher, Ithaca and Hartwick. While the NJAC matched up Buffalo State, SUNY-Brockport and SUNY-Cortland with fellow state schools in New Jersey and Connecticut, the Bengals suffered when it came to atmosphere and missed class time.
Boyes said visiting crowds, whether Buffalo State’s in New Jersey or NJAC teams in Buffalo, consisted mostly of parents of upperclassmen. The fan base, he thinks, already energized by the Whitewater game, would make shorter trips in New York, and visitors would come to Coyer Field.
Fans “know who Alfred is, know who Ithaca is,” Boyes said. “We’ll have more visiting people at our home games, and more traveling with us.”
Bengals players also had four road games a season in which the bus departed for New Jersey early on Friday. That meant not just being absent from class, but doing it several times in a semester.
“Missing that same class four times, that was a fairly strong issue,” Boyes said. Now, besides the game at Whitewater and one trip to Maryland (this year at Frostburg State, next year at Salisbury), Buffalo State players can go to class on Fridays, have their walk-through on campus and then depart on their road trips. St. John Fisher and Alfred, Boyes happily noted, are Saturday up-and-back trips.
The Empire 8 might be the best travel fit, but can the Bengals compete week in and week out? “We’ll find that out,” Boyes said.
Were they properly humbled by the Brockport State loss, and then built back up again by winning at UW-Whitewater? Can they sustain it?
“You learn some of your greater lessons in losses,” Boyes said. “Did we learn enough from winning? I’ll answer that at four o’clock on Saturday.”
The folks at UW-Whitewater have to be pretty bummed this week. Perkins Stadium had grown into one of the best places in D-III to see a game, and the Warhawks have built one of the most energetic fan bases. They’re Wisconsin tough, they’ll survive; besides, nobody feels sorry for you when you have four championships and seven Stagg Bowl appearance to fall back on. As we noted when Mount Union had its streaks of 54 and 55 wins broken, there are players at UW-Whitewater who over the past 46 games had never experienced the agony of defeat.
It wasn’t fair, and it’s probably true that the longer you go between losses, the harder they hit. Still, the one positive byproduct of Buffalo State’s upset is that it reminded us not to take UW-Whitewater or Mount Union wins for granted. The purple powers have dominated D-III so long that it’s easy to assume they’ll be Nos. 1 and 2 in each poll, 10-0 each regular season and in Salem when it’s all over. One thing I have to credit each program for, though, is never taking those wins for granted.
At UW-Whitewater, they’ve preached one game at a time during seasons when they easy could have been arrogantly looking ahead. At Mount Union, folks tell me that coach Larry Kehres starts every week of preparation by convincing his team that the other opponent is good enough to beat them if they don’t play well, and he’s dead serious, even if nobody outside the program would buy it. And at each Stagg Bowl, both programs lived in the moment, never assuming they’d automatically be able to do it again someday.
The unprecedented runs of success wouldn’t have happened if not for each program’s ability to block out the noise and stay singularly focused on the now. Players completely buy into these mantras: What can I do to get better today in practice? I can’t win the Stagg Bowl in August or September or October, but I can do my part for this week’s game, by doing whatever my role is to the best of my ability. There are myriad other reasons for the streaks, but that’s the lifeblood of them.
Whenever a streak is broken, it’s a reminder how truly difficult it is to achieve. One 10-0 or 15-0 season would mean the world to most programs. Stringing together several undefeated seasons in a row, like Trinity (Conn.), Mount Union and UW-Whitewater have, is the ultimate accomplishment.
I received an e-mail from a person named Tony Jordan, asking me specifically to address enrollment disparities in D-III. Since this comes up all the time, and there are some common misconceptions, I agreed with Tony that I should tackle it.
Please explain in a column how you can line up schools like Buffalo State or any of the U Wisconsin schools with true Div III schools.
When Div III was founded in the 1940's it was primarily for small schools. Now you have schools with upwards of 15,000 students competing against schools that have as few as 1,000. Sounds pretty uneven.
Buffalo State and UWis/Whitewater are almost twice as large
as Wake Forest, Duke, Stanford, Notre Dame and a few other Div
I schools. Why isn't there a division for set aside for large
schools which choose not to give athletic scholarships? Certainly
they shouldn't be
competing against schools a tenth their size.
As for the creation of a Division IV, give that designation to
the big public schools and let
Div III remain the small schools that set it up. You've returned to the place in history where Div III was created: when small schools realized they couldn't compete with the large state universities or the well-endowed private schools. Time for change but let it be for those who came lately to the party not those that had the vision of student-athletes remaining such.
Tony touches on a couple of key points by mentioning that endowment, as much as enrollment, is a factor. Let’s back up for a second though.
Division III was established in 1973. Previously, the NCAA had subdivided into University and College divisions.
There’s a fallacy among football fans that enrollment equals success. Unlike in high school, where the pool of potential players is directly influenced by a school’s enrollment numbers, in D-III recruiting equals success. The wider a net you can cast in a search for talented who can stay in school for four years, the better off a team is likely going to be.
Also, as in many fields, access to money equals success. So a school with a larger endowment, or a larger athletic budget, while it might not have the enrollment numbers of a big state school, you can bet it can outrecruit one. Amherst has an enrollment of 1,697, but in terms of academic and athletic prestige, it has a much different appeal than Mass.-Dartmouth, with its enrollment of 6,995.
Most importantly though, D-III schools are in the same pool because they choose to be. The school presidents and athletic departments set their own rules through the NCAA, then agree to abide by them. Although there was a push for a Division IV in recent years, led mostly by academically elite institutions, there weren’t enough schools who wanted it to support its existence, so it never came to be.
Remember too that in D-III, football is not the driver of everything the way it is in D-I. Mount Union can’t switch to D-II, as often is suggested on our message boards, because by rule, it would have to bring its basketball and wrestling and cross country programs along, ones which are a perfect fit in the D-III OAC. And just because a team wins in non-scholarship D-III doesn’t mean it automatically could compete in D-II, where teams are allowed to divide up to 36 full athletic scholarships any way they see fit. In 2007, UW-Whitewater lost 26-16 to D-II St. Cloud State. The Warhawks won the national championship. SCSU won four games.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over 12 seasons of writing this column, it’s that every D-III school has its own challenges to overcome. Here are just a few of them I could think of off the top of my head:
Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia are loaded with top-level D-I FBS and FCS programs, plus a D-II presence. That’s a whole lot more competition for players than in Wisconsin, where there’s UW-Madison, out-of-state schools and the WIAC.
In those states and the surrounding ones, there’s also a major tuition disparity, a big concern in financially trying times. A student might fall in love with Gettysburg, but can’t afford $54,770 a year for tuition, room and board. You can bet that Hampden-Sydney ($47,351 a year) and its fellow private schools in the ODAC lose a few players each recruiting cycle to Christopher Newport ($10,260 a semester).
To keep from any one school loading up on players who don’t have a realistic chance of participating, the WIAC and NJAC impose 100-man roster limits for football. That means they can’t take but so much advantage of their tuition advantage and the idea that state schools should be easily accessible to in-state residents. Athletically, the belief that UW-Stout and UW-Platteville need starters more than UW-Whitewater needs third-stringers has helped the WIAC (and the NJAC) remain two of the most competitively balanced conferences in the country, even given the Warhawks’ recent run of success.
But the roster limit has its drawbacks. It’s why Wesley, which brought 162 men to campus for football this fall, can’t link up with the NJAC, a geographic and competitive perfect fit. When football is responsible for enrollment that many students at a private school, in a time when women meet college admissions standards better than men, a small college can’t afford to give up the opportunity to enroll and educate that many men to meet the 100-man roster limit.
Said Boyes, on Buffalo State’s move from the state-school-heavy NJAC to the Empire 8, “We’re going to find out that the private institutions have some definite advantages over us in terms of squad size and JV games, because they’re able to bring in significantly more kids.”
In addition, a state school owes an explanation of all its spending to taxpayers. Private schools don’t have quite the same bureaucracy to go through to spend funds it obtains.
So having the big enrollments has some advantages and drawbacks.
In the WIAC, schools are generally recruiting from similar pools of prospects. In the ODAC, Washington & Lee casts its net nationally, while H-SC, Randolph-Macon, Bridgewater, Emory & Henry, Catholic and Guilford – all respected schools in their own rights – look for students mostly in their surrounding region. Cornell, whose quirky block schedule make it a desirable place to land academically, chose to return to the MWC rather than keep the travel advantages and rivalries it had developed in the IIAC.
There are other challenges schools have to overcome to bring players in. Sul Ross State is miles from the rest of Texas, near the border of New Mexico and Mexico. Duluth, Minn. is home to St. Scholastica, which as close to Canada than any of its D-III opponents.
Norwich, Merchant Marine and Coast Guard recruit from a small pool of players who have indicated an interest in military or maritime service. Maine Maritime, Mass. Maritime and SUNY-Maritime also have specialized curriculums which do not appeal to all football recruits.
The same could be said of RPI, WPI, Rose-Hulman and Carnegie Mellon, engineering and research-heavy schools that aren’t similar to the liberal arts offerings at the schools they play football against.
Sometimes the recruiting challenge can be simple as being the last school to catch up in an in-conference facilities race, or being the one that just started football, going against counterparts with decades of tradition.
In short, it’s a little more complicated than just comparing enrollments. In non-football-specific numbers, D-III enrollments range from 329 to 22,049 at 442 institutions. The average enrollment is 2,625, and the average student body is made up of 20 percent athletes, But that really doesn’t begin to tell the story of a Chicago, which has nearly 5,000 students, almost none of whom play football. The team is a fraction of the student body at UW-Eau Claire (9,665) and Franklin (1,018). Care to guess which one would win a head to head matchup? From where I sit, the answer isn’t obvious, and enrollment isn’t one of the factors I would use to predict the outcome.
For what it’s worth, here are the enrollment figures for the top six teams in the D-III poll: Mount Union, 2115, Mary Hardin-Baylor 2202, Linfield 1659, UW-Whitewater 8,857, St. Thomas 5780, Wesley 1350.
Speaking of the top 25, there shouldn’t be much surprise at UW-Whitewater sliding only to fourth in the D3football.com poll, just three points ahead of No. 5 St. Thomas. The No. 1-ranked team being upset in the regular season is actually unprecedented in the history of the poll, which started in 2003. In 2005, No. 2 Mount Union lost to Ohio Northern and fell to sixth. In 2008, No. 2 UW-Whitewater lost to UW-Stevens Point and fell to sixth.
In other words, the poll is fairly consistent in giving a top team a pass for one unexpected loss. The 2005 and 2008 losses were to more established teams than Buffalo State, and only time will tell if it was a fluke win or a loss that portended a fall for the Warhawks.
The AFCA released its first poll of the season, so UW-Whitewater didn’t have a No. 1 spot to fall from. The D-III coaches poll has a panel of 42 voters, as opposed to 25 in our poll, and the panel is made up entirely of coaches, whereas ours is balanced between coaches, media and sports information directors. So sometimes the two polls (they are the main two; anything else is usually a ‘ranking’) produce interesting contrasts. Over the years, the AFCA poll has tended to more strictly reward winning and losing, while the D3football.com poll places a strong emphasis on scheduling and the context of losses. But the two polls had a similar view of UW-Whitewater’s home loss and Buffalo State’s subsequent positioning.
On D3boards.com, there’s also a fan poll. This week it had seven voters. I present the three polls here for you, side by side, to draw whatever conclusions you wish. If nothing, it’s an interesting contrast on the size of voter pools in polls, the effect of the top-five shakeup and the No. 1 upset on the fortunes of Buffalo State, UW-Whitewater and Brockport State.
|1||Mount Union (23 No. 1 votes)||Mount Union (39)||Mount Union (6)|
|2||Mary Hardin-Baylor (2)||Mary Hardin-Baylor (1)||Mary Hardin-Baylor (1)|
|5||St. Thomas||UW-Whitewater (2)||St Thomas|
|9||Cal Lutheran||St John Fisher||Bethel|
|10||St. John Fisher||Baldwin Wallace||Cal Lutheran|
|11||Bethel||Salisbury||St John Fisher|
|12||North Central||Hobart||North Central|
|14||Baldwin Wallace||North Central||UW-Oshkosh|
|15||Illinois Wesleyan||Illinois Wesleyan||Illinois Wesleyan|
|16||UW-Platteville||Johns Hopkins||Baldwin Wallace|
|19||Buffalo State||Cal Lutheran||Widener|
|24||Johns Hopkins||Buffalo State||Buffalo State|
|25||Franklin||Louisiana College||Louisiana College|
A few observations:
I wonder if there are some truths that come out no matter how what has taken place is interpreted. Or if there are some things, like say Wheaton losing to Albion and then Albion losing to Benedictine but the Thunder staying ranked, that are influenced by not just history and reputation, but the polls’ effects on each other. The D3football.com poll is released on Sunday evenings; it would be hard, if I were voting in a poll whose due date was after that, to not look at it so that my opinion would be my own, and not influenced.
Ridiculous that Cal Lutheran nearly beats Linfield and drops to 19th. If anything, we learned that Cal Lutheran is nearly Linfield’s equal.
Interesting that UW-Whitewater hung on to two of its No. 1 votes in the coaches’ poll. Free pass?
Buffalo State debuted in all three polls. But D3football.com, at 19th, gave it more respect than the others, at 24th. And I think the coaches’ poll missed a correct interpretation: That if Buffalo State deserves to be ranked, so does Brockport State, the undefeated team that beat them by two touchdowns a week ago.
Odd that with all the differences below No. 10 in the three polls (Johns Hopkins is 24th, 16th and unranked; UW-Oshkosh is unranked, 20th and 14th) that IWU held the No. 15 spot in all three, while CCIW mates Wheaton (20-22-22) and North Central (12-14-12) were consistent as well.
A couple of Tommie-Johnnie game notes, courtesy of Gene McGivern
at St. Thomas:
-- With its 63-7 win in 2011 and a 43-21 victory in 2012, St. Thomas became the first school to score 40-plus points in consecutive seasons against the storied St. John's football program.
-- Last Saturday's attendance of 14,286 in Collegeville for the 81st meeting between the Tommies and Johnnies was higher than two FBS games, 43 of 51 FCS games, 79 of the 81 Division II games, and all 103 Division III games played that day.
For a preview from a national perspective on the Week 4 clashes, check out this week’s Triple Take Friday morning on the Daily Dose, where Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I dig through this week’s slate of games and point you in the direction of some of the week's games to keep an eye on. This week we'll tackle the opening of NESCAC play, most likely top 25 team to get upset, which team could get caught looking ahead and more.
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