November 21, 2013

Playoff picks, surprises, disappointments

Spencer Stanek hit the ground running (and throwing) in 2013 and led North Central to a 10-0 regular season. But not a top seed.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

The playoffs are the time of year when Division III partygoers must break out of their small circles and go mingle with the others. It's one big mixer, except it smells like a locker room instead of a barbecue.

Thirty-two teams from 26 conferences and an independent on Saturday will begin to familiarize themselves with the rest of 2013 D-III. Lebanon Valley, have you met my friend, Wittenberg?

Those who face familiar teams might move on to a completely unfamiliar game in Round 2. (Linfield knows Pacific Lutheran well, but not Hampden-Sydney or Maryville). For a couple rounds, D-III's teams of the moment get to spar with its teams of every moment, testing themselves against the perennial powers. And then usually, among the handful of elite teams emerges one wearing purple, heading to Salem and winning it all.

In case you aren't able to entertain those big dreams, enjoy the experience one week at a time. You're still playing, and I can think of about 200 teams who would trade places.

In essence, the mixing began when the 2011 selection committee took a closer look at the fine print and loopholes in the bracket-making process. Certainly a committee could abide by the fewest-flights-possible mantra, yet create intriguing, cross-region matchups. And away from East, South, North and West we went. Linfield got mixed in with Wesley, Kean and Salisbury with UW-Whitewater, Centre with Mount Union and St. John Fisher with St. Thomas.

A system more like D-I basketball's pods gave us a whole new outlook on a national tournament. Suddenly, conference rivals didn't always have to go through each other; North Central could be clear across the bracket from Illinois Wesleyan.

In 2012, the NWC and ASC were rematched off the bat, but we also got North Central at Cal Lutheran and Hobart in the same eight-team group as St. Thomas.

So for anything the 2013 bracket isn't -- besides the teams left out, there were relatively few quibbles -- it is a continuation of the mixing. D-III teams come out of their corners of the country and get to know one another (these playoff capsules are essential). And although 31 seasons will end with dashed dreams, knowing you played against the best the 244-team division had to offer will ultimately be satisfying.

Crunched and digested

Before we digest Saturday's matchups and beyond, let's crunch some numbers.

• Top 25 polling and playoff selection are completely separate. Yet rankings help us measure the strength of the field, which will never be the 32 most powerful teams because of the 24 automatic bids. It's the price D-III is willing to pay to know that every team had a chance to get into the postseason, and whether it did or did not was determined by something that happened on the field.

Seventeen ranked teams made the field of 32, and they were split evenly -- Nos. 1, 10, 12, 15 and 24 in the Mount Union quadrant; 4, 6, 7 and 14 in Bethel's; 2, 5, 13 and 20 in Whitewater's and 3, 8, 9 and 25 in UMHB's.

The eight ranked teams left out were No. 11 UW-Oshkosh, No. 16 St. Thomas, No. 17 Wabash, No. 18 Heidelberg, No. 19 Wheaton, No. 21 Thomas More, No. 22 Concordia-Moorhead and No. 23 Millsaps. It stinks for those teams who were so close, especially the Majors and Titans, who played their way out of the field in Week 11.

It was an unexpectedly large group of ranked teams whose seasons are over.

In 2012, 22 of 25 ranked teams made the 32, with No. 13 UW-Platteville, No. 15 Wheaton and No. 22 Concordia-Moorhead out -- the latter were two third-place teams in conferences that got two teams in. In 2011, 21 ranked teams made it, with No. 18 Wheaton, No. 21 Bethel, No. 23 Baldwin Wallace and No. 24 Montclair State -- all 8-2 -- left out.

• Because of conference movement, the distribution of bids outside Pool A has changed as well. In 2011, there were six in Pool C and one Pool B. In 2012, it was seven and one. This year, Pool B grew to three (with the SCAC, SAA and MASCAC joining the UAA and independents in the group without access to an automatic bid) and Pool C shrunk to five.

One-loss teams left out in Pools B and C the past three seasons:

2011 -- Case Western Reserve, 9-1; Endicott, 9-1.

2012 -- Ohio Wesleyan, 9-1; Waynesburg, 9-1

2013 -- Millsaps, 9-1, Texas Lutheran, 8-1; Thomas More, 9-1; Wabash 9-1; Chapman, 8-1, Greenville, 9-1.

Certainly were quite a few teams on the bubble this year, along with several teams in the top 25 that didn't have a real shot to get in on criteria. The tightening of bids could only have been so much of a factor, as the number of automatic qualifers actually remained at 24 in 2013 from a high of 25 in 2011.

There was nothing easy about assembling this bracket. There were probably ways to mix it up differently so that neither 7-3 Franklin nor 8-2 Hampden-Sydney hosted, but there isn't a single team on the road that unquestionably deserves a home game -- except for Pacific Lutheran, and we all know what happened there. And even in their case, they're a second-place team in their conference just glad to be in the field.

Third-place teams not in the field may have their gripes, but they don't have history on their side. Just once, in 2007, has one conference sent three teams to the postseason. When the Empire 8 did it, it helped that it was a three-way tie and the team with the weakest at-large resume, Hartwick, won the automatic bid tiebreaker. The Hawks and Ithaca got beaten in the first round that year, while St. John Fisher advanced.

 This year's Pool C bids went to five of the six strongest conferences, as ATN ranked them in October. The No. 2 conference, the MIAC, missed out on a second bid, but had three teams (8-2 St. Thomas, 8-2 Concordia-Moorhead and 7-3 St. John's) on the bubble heading into Week 11.

The OAC, CCIW and MIAC have been the most successful at sending multiple teams to the playoffs in the same season.

With the WIAC, OAC, NWC, CCIW and E8 picking up bids, here's the Pool C distribution in the 15 seasons since 1999:

ASC – Seven (2001, 2004, 2006, 2008-09, 2011-12)
CC – One (1999)
CCIW – Eight (2004-06, 2008, 2010-13)
Empire 8 – Four* (2006, 2008, 2013; Also sent two teams in 2003 as a Pool B league)
HCAC – One (2008)
IIAC – Five (1999, 2001-02, 2005, 2009)
LL – One* (2006; In 2000, league was called UCAA and sent two teams via Pool B)
MAC – Two (2005, 2009)
MIAA – Zero
MIAC – Eight (2001, 2003, 2005-07, 2009-10, 2012)
MWC – One (2011)
NEFC – Two (2008, 2012)
NJAC – Three* (2005, 2009, 2012; Also sent two teams in Pool B in 1999, 2001)
NCAC – Two (2002, 2009)
NWC – Three* (2004, 2012-13; Also sent two teams in B in 1999-2000)
PAC – Three (2005, 2008-09)
OAC – 11 (1999-2000, 2002-03, 2005-08, 2010, 2012-13)
ODAC – Two (2000, 2010)
SCIAC – One (2011)
USAC – One (2004)
WIAC – Four (2006-08; 2013)

The SCAC, now a Pool B conference, sent a Pool C team in 2011. The defunct ACFC sent Brockport State and Wesley in 2000, Salisbury and Brockport State in 2002, and Wesley and Salisbury in 2007. Thomas More went in 2001, the same year W&J did, but it was independent then. The playoff field was only 28 teams from 1999 to 2004.

Our surprises and disappointments

Looking at the brackets in this unique way is an annual ATN tradition. We have a place for you to predict all 31 games, and in Triple Take we'll predict final scores each Friday. That's a view of the field as a whole, and one that updates as opinions change each round.

Here, we'll look at the playoff field a little differently. Each of the four quadrants will have a team it sends to the semifinals, but also teams that do more than folks expect, and those who do less.

To help set expectations, and forecast who might exceed them, ATN assembles a panel of five, this year for the first time including Adam Turer, a former player at Washington & Lee, an Around the Region columnist, and a longtime member of the D3sports.com family.

Nobody on the panel consulted with one another; each person did his part independently. The panelists are spread out across the four administrative regions, so hopefully our biases balance out. (Editor's note: Frank Rossi's picks were added at 10:15 ET Thursday night)

If we didn't pick you, don't take it out on us; take it out on that opponent Saturday. Not only will it be more satisfying that way, but you'll earn more respect than you would tweeting about "the haters."

Let's start in the top right corner and work clockwise.

UW-Whitewater Bracket

The Old Dominion Athletic Conference has gone seven playoffs without a win. Set up at home against a comparable opponent, Hampden-Sydney has a chance to end that streak.
Hampden-Sydney athletics photo

Surprises

Ryan Tipps: Hampden-Sydney. Not because anybody expects Sydney to lose, but because they’ve been expected to win in the playoffs in the past and haven’t. This time they will. More importantly, this year will mark the ODAC’s first postseason win since Bridgewater’s powerhouse days of the early 2000s. H-SC’s reward will be a 2,400-mile plane ride.

Adam Turer: Hampden-Sydney/Maryville. Either the ODAC or USA South is going to have a playoff victory in 2013. Either Hampden-Sydney or Maryville will win the first playoff game in program history. The USA South hasn’t won a playoff game since N.C. Wesleyan in 2007. The ODAC hasn’t won one since Bridgewater in 2005. History will be made this weekend, rewarded by a long trip out west.

Frank Rossi: Linfield. Most people missed that the game between UW-Whitewater and UW-River Falls caused the UW-W SoS to plummet by the end of Week 11. My feeling was that, in the West Region, Linfield would potentially draw in the primary criteria a tie against UW-W for seeding purposes, leading to Linfield winning by making the 2012 field a tiebreaker. It did not happen. Thus, I think Linfield has a little to prove and will make the semifinals.

Pat Coleman: Washington U. They don’t have to go far to surprise but the thing I like about Wash. U. is that they’ve kept a few decent programs at or near their lowest offensive output of the season: UW-Whitewater, Coe, Rhodes. With a look at the Franklin-Bluffton tape, what could Wash. U. do in the first round?

Keith McMillan: Hampden-Sydney. After slugging their way through the ODAC, losing to non-playoff teams Christopher Newport and Shenandoah, and needing to stop a tying two-point conversion to even get into the postseason, the Tigers play at home in Round 1. It's actually a pretty sweet place to play. The USAC-on-ODAC action will be a nice Southern contrast in an eightsome that includes teams from Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri, Washington and Oregon. The Tigers defense will slow down the Maryville rushing attack, giving the nation's most balanced conference a playoff victory, albeit over the same conference it beats up on in the regular season. Then quarterback Nash Nance will make some big plays during a shellacking in the Pacific Northwest.

Disappointments

Ryan: Franklin. What I love about the game between Franklin and Washington U. is that it features two teams that each opened their seasons with a very close loss to one of Division III’s most long-lasting powers. But of the two, the Grizzlies’ recent loss to Bluffton is too hard to ignore and overshadows the image I have of the team that almost upended Mount Union. On Sept. 8, I would have pegged them to go deep. Things change though.

Adam: Those who dismiss Franklin. Outsiders see the “3” on the right side of Franklin’s ledger and dismiss the Grizzlies as overrated or undeserving. Yes, Franklin was recently shocked by Bluffton. But, that was Franklin's first HCAC loss since October 31, 2009. Franklin’s two other losses this year were by three points each to top-ranked Mount Union and FCS playoff-bound Butler. Jonny West and Kyle Linville are the most accomplished QB-WR combo in the field and can put up points against anyone.

Frank: Everyone's shock at Franklin hosting. Why not? Remember that Franklin had a loss to Butler, an FCS team, and one other loss was against Mount Union by a possession. The Bluffton loss was bad, but Washington U. was considered to be a lower team than Wesley in Pool B, most likely. As such, Franklin, despite being a Pool A team, seemed to have a better overall resume and deserved to host under the overall circumstances when the pairing was made.

Pat: Whoever loses the Northwest play-in game. Or the 1988 ODAC championship game, however you prefer to look at it. This game is pretty much the best possible matchup for both of these teams, who in a world with more D-III money would each be sent to the Pacific Northwest for their first-round game.

Keith: Pacific Lutheran. If anyone should be complaining about their Round 1 matchup, it should be the Lutes. But they, and we observers, are used to the teams on D-III islands getting matched up early. So there's no chorus of complaints anymore, despite the fact that the Lutes are the third-best team in this eight by far, and would be good to advance a round or two with different matchups. But the Lutes are anticipating their rematch with Linfield, a team it knows all so well, and if they win in Round 1, they'll will be slugging it out with UW-Whitewater two weeks later.

Who will win the top right bracket?
Franklin
Hampden-Sydney
Linfield
Maryville
Pacific Lutheran
St. Norbert
UW-Whitewater
Washington U.

Last team standing

Ryan: Linfield. This choice was not reached lightly, being torn between my heart (Linfield) and my head (Whitewater).

Adam: Linfield. The Wildcats get back to the final four for the first time since 2009.

Frank: Linfield. See above.

Pat: Linfield. Been a while since we could talk about a team being more experienced in the postseason than UW-Whitewater, but that’s definitely the case with the Wildcats, who were in the playoffs last year. With the year off, there are actually very few current Warhawks who played in their last postseason game, the 2011 Stagg Bowl.

Keith: Linfield. This whole quadrant is a precursor to another epic UW-Whitewater/Linfield matchup. Although this time it won't be 44-41, or even 27-17. The defensively excellent Warhawks are going to have win ugly in the postseason, and Linfield -- bruised physically, but determined emotionally -- are one of the few teams in the country that have a unit that can match UW-W's defense, plus an offense that can score against it.

Mary Hardin-Baylor Bracket

From the way they've been playing, the bigger surprise might be if John Carroll failed to make the national quarterfinals.
John Carroll athletics photo 

Surprises

Ryan: John Carroll. I’m a big believer in defense, and despite playing Mount Union and Heidelberg (two of the best offensive teams in the nation), JCU’s defensive resume is still highly impressive. It includes three shutouts, and Mount was the only team to put up more than 10 points on the Blue Streaks. In a couple of weeks, I expect Mary Hardin-Baylor to be adding another OAC team to its box score.

Adam: John Carroll. The Blue Streaks gave up 33 points to opponents not named Mount Union. 33 points total. In nine games. Nobody in this bracket has faced a defense quite like John Carroll’s. The Blue Streaks also showed their mettle in rallying back against the Purple Raiders in Week 11. This defense against Mary Hardin-Baylor’s offense in the quarterfinal would be a treat.

Frank: John Carroll vs. St. John Fisher. This must have been a locational issue more than anything else, as this seems to be a marquee matchup for the first round. St. John Fisher beat John Carroll's OAC-mate Otterbein by the same score that John Carroll did -- both won 28-0. This game really could go either way, and this game might catch the attention of the entire nation.

Pat: Does John Carroll qualify as a surprise? What if I pick them to advance to the quarterfinals?

Keith: John Carroll. These guys have a tough road, but they're a good enough team to possibly go through No. 25 St. John Fisher, No. 8 Hobart and No. 3 UMHB to play in the final four. They're essentially the nation's best defense, alongside UW-W and Mount Union. Even though the attempt to play mostly man-to-man against Mount Union resulted in 42 points allowed, more than half their season total of 75, it should work to smother unfamiliar teams in this eightsome. A Round 1 home win, a Round 2 upset at Hobart (QB Mark Myers against Hobart DE Tyre Coleman and LB Devin Worthington should be a blast) and a game effort in Texas for Round 3 isn't far fetched.

Disappointments

Ryan: St. John Fisher. It’s only natural if I’m going to pick John Carroll to go deep that that means SJF will be a one-and-done. Which is too bad, because this is a very good Cardinals squad that clawed their way into a Pool C spot above a whole bunch of one-loss teams. I was wholly on board with Fisher in 2011, predicting a good run when they were a two-loss at-large pick. That’s just not the case this year.

Adam: Gallaudet. The most memorable season in Bison history will end on a sour note. The thrill of clinching the program’s first playoff berth has been tempered by a regular-season loss in the finale, which will be followed by a blowout loss to Hobart in the first round.

Frank: Hobart. Hear me out. Hobart is the No. 7 team on the brackets most likely, and the No. 7 team on my top 25 ballot. That said, there seems to be an upside limitation for the Statesmen, who have two consecutive undefeated regular seasons to their credit now. They've reached the point, though, that they may have seen their national ceiling; nobody trusts the strength of the East Region, and nobody wants to schedule Hobart since they nearly beat Wesley in 2011. A third round win is necessary, you say? Well, they are paired up with the team potentially playing the best ball in the land this year, UMHB, in the third round. Hobart has been stuck in this positioning all season, making me wonder what it will take to end this blockade.

Pat: Gallaudet, only because I’d like to see them at full strength just to make sure we’re right about where they stand. It would have been nice to see if that team could catch lightning in a bottle, but it doesn’t look like the Bison will be the ECFC team to break through to the next level. And by “the next level” I mean scoring more than 14 or allowing fewer than 60 in a playoff game. Possibly both.

Keith: Gallaudet. The media coverage has been pouring in, and we're all in the same boat when it comes to others noticing and appreciating our #d3fb brethren. Good for the Bison. But nobody who follows D-III closely thinks that a team that split two 7-6 games against ECFC teams, blocked a game-winning field goal try to beat another 40-34 and also had 30-22 and 16-13 wins in one of the division's weakest conferences is going to Hobart and pulling the upset. Nobody's stayed within three scores of the Statesmen since their 34-21 win over Utica in Week 3. One of the drawbacks to the all-access playoff system is outstanding seasons end with a thud. Though Gallaudet's uniqueness allows it to occasionally draw athletes who normally wouldn't even play in D-III, I'd be surprised if there were enough of them to give Hobart a serious challenge.

Who will win the bottom right bracket?
Endicott
Gallaudet
Hobart
John Carroll
Mary Hardin-Baylor
Redlands
Rowan
St. John Fisher

Last team standing

Ryan: Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Cru is a team I’ve watched particularly closely this season since picking them to win the Stagg Bowl in our preseason Kickoff publication. Too often against so-so teams (Sul Ross State, Kean, Mississippi College), UMHB has gotten off to a slow start only to then pour it on after the break. That delay can’t happen in the postseason, and if the Cru can start games the way they’ve been finishing them, they’ll barrel through the opposition.

Adam: Mary Hardin-Baylor. After losing LiDarral Bailey, Javicz Jones, and Darius Wilson to graduation, the Crusaders were not supposed to be this good this year. Somehow, they look even better than last year’s squad that was seconds away from advancing to the Stagg Bowl. The Cru will get a shot at revenge against Mount Union, this time in Salem.

Frank: Mary Hardin-Baylor. To me, they're playing better overall ball than they played in 2012 -- and 2012 was no fluke. Maybe it's the new stadium, but it's the same old Cru showing muscle.

Pat: Mary Hardin-Baylor. As long as they are playing at home, in that palace, I don’t see a team in this bracket that can beat them.

Keith: Mary Hardin-Baylor. A faceoff with John Carroll could be one of the best games of the playoffs, in a Round 3 where all the games end up memorable. Quarterback Zach Anderson has made the transition from four-year starter LiDarral Bailey an easy one, giving UMHB a legitimate passing balance to its Elijah Hudson-led, 281-yards-a-game run attack. But the real story in Belton is a smothering run defense, first nationally at 52.6 yards a game. That will make John Carroll, or whoever it faces, one dimensional offensively, and while the Blue Streaks might have the quarterback to win a game one-dimensionally, this UMHB team might be balanced enough to make it to Salem and avenge last year's last-minute semifinal loss at Mount Union.

Bethel Bracket

There are some mixed opinions from our crew on UW-Platteville's potential for advancement.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com 

Surprises

Ryan:  Illinois Wesleyan. I typically feel good about greenlighting CCIW squads – even the runners up – into Round 2, and IWU should be able to get there without too much of a hitch. Where they’ll surprise is in how well they’ll challenge Bethel. I don’t necessarily see the Titans winning, but they will play well enough to give us – and Bethel – a fair barometer on how well the CCIW champ will line up the week after.

Adam: UW-Platteville. The Pioneers squeaked into the postseason by mere inches. If Zach Litchfield’s 37-yard field goal as time expired in Week 11 goes wide, the Pioneers aren’t in the playoffs. Some may underestimate the WIAC runner-up, thinking that they exhausted their best efforts in surviving UW-Oshkosh in the regular season finale. Don’t.

Frank: None. Keith did this last year once, and I aspire to be more like him. That said, this bracket has nothing earth shattering going on. UW-Platteville was an expected Pool C pick, and there are no surprise matchups. I don't see any surprise teams causing upsets here. It just seems cut and dry for now.

Pat: North Central, perhaps? Not sure they could actually qualify as a surprise, but I don't see any road teams really having a shot in the first round, while I think North Central has the best chance to ultimately outperform its seed.

Keith: Wartburg. This bracket has clear favorites in each opening-round game, and should be CCIW-WIAC and CCIW-MIAC in Round 2. But if any road team has a chance in Round 1, it's the Knights, who put a decent defense up against an IWU offense that's more led by RBs Devonte Jones and T.J. Stinde on the ground than QB Rob Gallik through the air.

Disappointments

Ryan: The road teams. The way I see it, home teams will go 6-0 through the first two rounds of this bracket.

Adam: St. Scholastica. The Saints have won nine straight and just defeated a very good Greenville team. This will not be the year that they play a competitive playoff game against a superior opponent. Bethel is going to keep CSS’s streak of first round blowouts alive.

Frank: Round 2. Here's where the NCAA's new edict to minimize projected flights in the Second Round is painful -- this bracket is too geographically homogeneous. None of the matchups make many people in the East and South get excited. However, things get better in the third round.

Pat: UW-Platteville. Their regular season finale vs. UW-Oshkosh aside, the Pioneers’ season is littered with games in which they gave up way too many points. Allowing 34 to Lewis and Clark? (L&C scored 21 vs. Pacific Lutheran, seven at Linfield.) Allowing 35 to UW-Stout? (That tied their season high. Stout scored 13 vs. Whitewater, 14 vs. North Central.) Welcome to the playoffs – that won’t fly here.

Keith: North Central. The Cardinals started with three WIAC teams and swept the CCIW. But 10-0 earned them neither a No. 1 seed nor an easy path to Salem. Led by QB Spencer Stanek, they're at once one of the best teams in the country, and one that will stumble somewhere, either against UW-Platteville or Bethel. Even if they are the last team standing in their quadrant, they have take the road through Alliance to get to Salem.

Who will win the bottom left bracket?
Albion
Bethel
Concordia (Wis.)
Illinois Wesleyan
North Central
St. Scholastica
UW-Platteville
Wartburg

Last team standing

Ryan: North Central. The Cardinals have a stiff road to the regional finals, and in fact, both Round 2 games in this bracket will be interesting ones. North Central has seen three WIAC teams already this year, and while none is as good as Platteville, the Cardinals can win and leap into prime position for a showdown the following week to win the region.

Adam: North Central. Anything short of winning this bracket will be a disappointment for the Cardinals. The Cardinals have never faced Mount Union, and are eager to finally get their shot this year. The long overdue meeting should happen in the semifinals.

Frank: Bethel. This is a team with something to prove, especially after UW-Whitewater was listed as the No. 1 West Region team in the two regional rankings. The staff has been deep down this road before, and I think this will equate to success after a tough schedule.

Pat: North Central. I suspect this isn't a particularly surprising pick, but I like North Central's balance and the potential North Central-Bethel game should be a classic.

Keith: UW-Platteville. Primarily I'm picking this because I took a stab in the dark in Kickoff '13, and it could actually come true. But also I'm expecting the rest of the gang to split between Bethel, which has a history of overachieving in the postseason, and North Central, which has a history of underachieving. Chalk picks are boring. Which is a fancy way of saying this eightsome is pretty competitive and I have no idea who'll win it. But, uh, I believe in you Pioneers!

Mount Union Bracket

We're going to guess most of you can't name a Framingham State player other than Melikke Van Alstyne. Right?
Framingham State athletics photo 

Surprises

Ryan: Johns Hopkins. Wesley’s not your typical one-and-done team, and I have enormous respect for the Wolverines’ players and coaching staff and their sustainability. But Hopkins is cruising right now behind 512 yards a game of offense and a defense that prevents most opponents from breaking out of the teens on the scoreboard. If JHU topples Wesley, a visit to Alliance in the regional finals is a very likely possibility.

Adam: Framingham State. The Rams are on a roll, winning eight straight. Melikke Van Alstyne (150 rushing yards per game) is one of the best offensive weapons in the Round of 32. Framingham State is one of a very few road teams who have a good chance to advance, facing an Ithaca team coming off of a difficult rivalry loss in the Cortaca Jug game.

Frank: Ithaca hosting Framingham State. The second loss for Ithaca, a Week 11 loss in the Cortaca Jug game vs. Cortland, could have easily knocked the Bombers out of hosting contention. However, a Framingham State team that had a strong SOS and one less loss is on the road. Perhaps, Framingham State did not or cannot host, but this surprised me.

Pat: Framingham State. I think three of the road teams in this bracket could well win on Saturday but have questions about Lebanon Valley being able to put enough points on the board, and of course a Wesley win would not be a surprise. For me, Framingham State actually has more playoff experience than Ithaca, but what they’ll have to overcome includes a large, hostile crowd, and grass, which could be in any kind of shape the fourth weekend in November.

Keith: Framingham State. When the playoffs arrive and we don't intimately know teams aside from the few we watch all season, we often judge off reputations. And New England teams have a well-earned one -- The NEFC is 2-16 since postseason expansion and automatic bids began in 1999. But these now-from-the-MASCAC Rams are not your typical scrubs. They nearly beat Cortland State in the first round last year, drilled Endicott earlier this season and played what was essentially a 22-19 loss to Rowan. Ithaca is an opportunity for a first-round win.

Disappointments

Ryan: Lebanon Valley. After a couple of years of good MAC playoff runs, this season is likely to be decidedly different. And I’m not even convinced that the Dutchmen will look good doing it.

Adam: That one of the three best teams in this bracket won’t make it out of the first round. Either Wesley or Johns Hopkins will be going home too early. You have to commend the committee for seeding on this season’s performance and not relying on history or name recognition alone, but sending Wesley to Johns Hopkins is a surprising disappointment. These are the two teams with the best shot at giving Mount Union a game. The Purple Raiders caught a big break at the top of the bracket, and will only have to face one of these Top-15 teams, and not until the quarterfinal at that.

Frank: Wesley. Which is it? Is a 4-2 Wesley (using Division III results) a really strong team or a really weak team in the eyes or the committee? The fact that the Wolverines are facing Johns Hopkins, likely the No. 8 seed overall, means that Wesley is around No. 25 overall. Yet, I'm not sure a one-loss Texas Lutheran or Millsaps would've been treated that lowly. Even two-loss Fisher wasn't -- and they were likely the final team chosen. Johns Hopkins players are likely scratching their heads at the dichotomy as well.

Pat: Johns Hopkins. And they should be disappointed in the draw, as well, but more importantly, there aren’t many matchups of strong teams in this entire bracket where the teams come in with such different preparation levels. I believe Wesley has played three teams this year who are stronger than anyone on JHU’s schedule. (And two teams stronger than JHU themselves.)

Keith: Johns Hopkins. I take a different tack than the 'Wah, we got a tough first-round matchup' crowd. This game doesn't& bother me much, because this is 8-2, barely-got-in Wesley, not top-5, could-win-the-Stagg-Bowl Wesley. Also, these are the games when your program makes its name -- in essence, becomes a Wesley. Not many people remember the win over Washington & Jefferson in Round 1 last year, but they'll remember if the Blue Jays win this year. And I'm betting the JHU players are embracing the challenge. All that said, a 10-0 season that ends with a first-round loss is disappointing. But I'd be more disappointed that the matchup gets blamed.

Who will win the top left bracket?
Framingham State
Ithaca
Johns Hopkins
Lebanon Valley
Mount Union
Washington and Jefferson
Wesley
Wittenberg

Last team standing

Ryan: Mount Union. The only other undefeated team is a good, but not elite, Johns Hopkins team, and Wesley is having a down year. There are no serious contenders to stop Mount’s run to the national semifinals.

Adam: Mount Union. New head Kehres, same Purple Raiders. I just wish they had to go through both the Blue Jays and Wolverines to get there.

Frank: Mount Union. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Pat: How many years we been doing this, Keith? I’m out of ways to say Mount Union.

Keith: Mount Union. If Mount Union and Wesley do meet in the quarters, it won't quite have the cache of the epic Mount Union/Wesley clashes in past playoffs. But the Purple Raiders have found their next generation of playmakers. Get to know Luc Meacham and Bradley Mitchell as they help carry the Purple Raiders to the semifinals for the 19th year in a row (the last miss was 1994).

Triple take on Fridays

As the playoffs proceed, Pat, Ryan and I change up our usual Triple Take procedures for the postseason. Instead of alerting you to games on the schedule that might be of interest, we take a look at the full slate of playoff games and give a score prediction for each. These aren’t meant to be point spreads; rather, we predict to give an idea of what the national perception and expectation is for certain playoff matchups. Then it's up to your team to play well and create a new national perception.

Don’t tune out!

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

Sat. Nov. 23: Playoffs, Round 1 (32 teams), ECAC bowl games (12 teams)
Following week: ATN podcast on Monday, Road to Salem playoff features Tues.-Wed., Thanksgiving on Thursday
Sat. Nov. 30: Playoffs, Round 2 (16 teams)
Following week: Gagliardi trophy finalists named, D3football.com Road to Salem features, ATN podcast
Sat. Dec. 6: Playoffs, Round 3 (eight teams).
Following week: D3football.com All-Region teams announced, four Gagliardi Trophy regional finalists announced, Liberty Mutual coach of the year fan voting ends, Road to Salem features midweek, ATN podcast.
Fri. Dec. 13: D-III Senior Classic all-star game in Salem, 7 p.m. kickoff.
Sat. Dec. 14: National semifinals (four teams), live webcast with ESPN regional or syndicated coverage possible.
Wed. Dec. 18: Gagliardi Trophy presentation, live webcast
Thu. Dec. 19: Stagg Bowl luncheon, pregame festivities in Salem/Roanoke
Fri. Dec. 20: Stagg Bowl 41, 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.

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Keith McMillan

Keith McMilllan, who has been a columnist for D3football.com since 2000, has provided color commentary on D3football.com's national broadcasts of the Stagg Bowls. He played at Randolph-Macon in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference for four years and covered it for two more.

Previous Columns

March 3, 2014
Analyzing the NJAC and E8's big moves
Wesley and its Capital Athletic Conference brethren join forces with five New Jersey schools to form...
November 24, 2013
Look who stole the show in Round 1
Many of those who shined in the first round of the 32-team playoffs weren't the nationally elite...
November 21, 2013
Playoff picks, surprises, disappointments
ATN assembles a team for an annual look at who might surprise and disappoint us in the 32-team...
November 16, 2013
On this day, they were all big games
Keith McMillan has instant reactions both inside and outside the playoff picture on the final day of...
November 13, 2013
A pre-regional rankings primer
Keith McMillan introduces the committee and their roles, analyzes Pools B and C and takes reader...
November 10, 2013
Snap judgments: Seen from the other side
Millsaps may well have a story for the ages out of Saturday's win vs. Centre, as will Cornell and...
November 7, 2013
Poll positions: What to make of regional rankings
If you haven't seen regional rankings before, or your team hasn't been a contender in recent years,...
November 3, 2013
Snap judgments: The aftermath
With so many games featuring two ranked teams, we should see a lot of movement in Sunday's Top 25...
October 24, 2013
Poll positions: Doing some number crunching
The Top 25 doesn't exist to steal anybody's joy. It is merely a prism through which to view...
October 20, 2013
Snap judgments: Cycling up
Maryville and TCNJ are atop their respective conferences, the John Carroll defense isn't the only...
October 13, 2013
Snap judgments: A blurry picture developing
Not literally -- we get great pictures from our associated photographers and SIDs, but that won't...
October 8, 2013
Poll positions: Streaking up the rankings
Keith McMillan looks at why one computer ranking is making the case for a blue team No. 1, and not a...
October 6, 2013
Snap judgments: Bounceback seasons
Olivet, St. Lawrence, North Park, Husson, Western Connecticut ... the list of improved teams this...
October 3, 2013
Re-ranking the conferences
With September's games, and the vast majority of non-conference play in the books, Around the Nation...
September 29, 2013
Snap judgments: Look away from the Top 25 scores
At first glance -- like say, the scores page, with the top 25 scores the initial finals that catch...
September 26, 2013
History lesson: Engineering rivalries
Week 4 is perhaps the most odd Saturday on the schedule. There aren't many great rivalries, but...
September 24, 2013
Poll positions: How the voters reacted
A kick going wide left produced a wide variety of reactions, but when Wesley got taken down a peg,...
September 22, 2013
Snap judgments: Week 3
The Tommie-Johnnie rivalry is back, UMHB's defensive line is pretty darn good, the MIAA has a better...
September 19, 2013
History lesson: Wesley vs. Mary Hardin-Baylor
Now that longtime rivals Wabash and DePauw are both in the North Coast, and Mount Union and...
September 18, 2013
Poll positions: There's some movement coming
The top of the poll didn't change much last week but Saturday's games could have a significant...
September 17, 2013
Off the beaten path
Just because a team isn't in the Top 25 running or mentioned in the podcast or doesn't have a Play...
September 11, 2013
Poll positions: Why teams shuffle
In Around the Nation, Keith McMillan discusses a nonstandard way of assembling the ballot after Week...
September 8, 2013
Snap judgments
Keith McMillan's Around the Nation column returns. You'll see ATN several times a week, including on...

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