/columns/around-the-nation/2014/surprises-and-disappointments

Playoff picks, surprises, disappointments

Taylor Jacobsmeier is a versatile weapon on offense for Wartburg. What the Knights' fate might be in this playoff is the subject of a good amount of debate below.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com 

We have 32 very good football teams gearing up to start the playoffs this Saturday, but we all know that these aren't the best 32 teams in Division III. Like it or not, the system isn't set up that way.

Four teams in the Top 25 -- North Central, St. John Fisher, Thomas More and UW-Oshkosh -- missed the NCAA's cut. Even more, of the poll's top 32 vote-getters, there are a total of 10 teams that haven't made their way in the bracket.

That kind of disparity between the teams that have earned a spot and the ones who are among the nation's elite can be cavernous at times. It leads to some mismatches in early rounds, but it also gives teams that may have been looking to prove themselves the opportunity to show they are more than just champs of a middle- to lower-tier conference. Teams such as Macalester and MIT and St. Scholastica have a chance to imprint upon the national landscape this weekend.

We've seen sleepers emerge before, and we have every reason to believe that we could see some again starting Saturday. That’s part of the fun of the postseason.

Mary Hardin-Baylor leads a stacked bracket consisting of seven teams in the Top 25. The Mount Union and UW-Whitewater brackets aren’t far behind with six and five ranked teams in them, respectively.

Wesley’s bracket is the outlier. With Ithaca and Hampden-Sydney dropping out of the rankings thanks to rivalry-game losses, and Husson and MIT coming from lower-tier conferences that are off the rankings radar a bit, the Wesley bracket contains a clear gap between the perceived haves and have-nots. Of those “haves,” however, all three aren’t just Top 25, they’re Top 10s.

What’s notable is that no 9-1 teams from conferences with automatic qualifiers were left out this year. Chicago (8-1) and Framingham State (9-1) were both in Pool B conferences and thus, unlike Pool A teams, had no guaranteed path to the postseason. They were both left behind in Pool C by two-loss St. Thomas, which, in addition to coming from one of the nation’s strongest conferences, had a quality win (and two close losses) on its resume.

Speaking of Pool C bids, here’s a list of the conferences that have earned at-large bids since the playoffs expanded in 1999:

ASC – Seven (2001, 2004, 2006, 2008-09, 2011-12)
CC – Two (1999, 2014)
CCIW – Eight (2004-06, 2008, 2010-13)
Empire 8 – Three* (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 – Two* (2005, 2006; In 2000, league was called UCAA and sent two teams via Pool B)
MAC – Three (2005, 2009, 2014)
MIAA – Zero
MIAC – Nine (2001, 2003, 2005-07, 2009-10, 2012, 2014)
MWC – One (2011)
NEFC – Two (2008, 2012)
NJAC – Three* (2005, 2009, 2012; Also sent two teams in Pool B in 1999, 2001)
NCAC – Three (2002, 2009, 2014)
NWC – Three* (2004, 2012-13; Also sent two teams in B in 1999-2000)
PAC – Three (2005, 2008-09)
OAC – 12 (1999-2000, 2002-03, 2005-08, 2010, 2012-14)
ODAC – Two (2000, 2010)
SAA – One* (2014 as a Pool B conference)
SCIAC – One (2011)
USAC – One (2004)
WIAC – Four (2006-08; 2013)

All of this leads up to the D3football.com team’s annual surprises and disappointment picks. Five of us go bracket by bracket to offer insights on the teams. There are no real rules to what we pick as surprises and disappointments, just that they’re pegged specifically to the bracket. We’re encouraged to think outside the box – within reason that is (meaning nobody is picking Adrian to pull the upset on Saturday). In the past, the picks have largely consisted of lower-seed or road teams we think will do particularly well and higher-ranked ones that could flop. Or we might look at the pairings or be happy or annoyed about the status of the bracket overall.

The panel consists of D3football.com Publisher and Executive Editor Pat Coleman, Managing Editor and National Columnist Emeritus Keith McMillan, Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist Adam Turer, In The HuddLLe Broadcaster and Stagg Bowl Sideline Guy Frank Rossi, and me, the Senior Editor and current Around the Nation Columnist.

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 the biases balance out.

UW-Whitewater Bracket

Surprises

Adam: St. Thomas. Not only did St. Thomas get a surprising Pool C bid, but it drew a winnable game at Wartburg. The Knights’ win over common opponent Bethel came in the season opener, so I don’t give that too much weight. I think the Tommies have solidified their offense after struggling early, and I’ve learned to never pick against Glenn Caruso.

Ryan: St. John’s. The Johnnies are back, and a trip to Whitewater in the Regional Finals isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Wartburg will be a massively tough foe in the second round, but I love me some defense, and St. John’s is packed with it.

Frank: Franklin. Since starting 0-2, the Griz reeled off eight in a row pretty much under the radar. The team has momentum, a better chemistry now, and the team's trademark high-scoring offense back intact.  Look out, Wabash!

Keith: Wabash. A gritty Little Giants bunch might go toe-to-toe with a UW-Whitewater team that nearly lost to UW-River Falls in Week 11. Wabash allows only 57 rushing yards per game, and if the Warhawks struggle to run the ball, it could take awhile for them to get going.

Pat: St. Thomas. I can’t actually predict any road team to win its first-round matchup here because all of the home teams are clear favorites. But for a Tommies team who lost to Bethel, who lost to Wartburg, I think St. Thomas will outperform expectations, even if it does go one-and-out. It ought to be an entertaining game, at least, because UST should put some points on the board.

Disappointments

Adam: Wartburg. If you’re a Wartburg fan, you might be disappointed by the first round draw. Playing a Stagg Bowl-tested team in the first round will be a tall task for a Knights team that has been dominant week in and week out this season.

Ryan: St. Thomas. While it was good pick to bring the Tommies into the playoff fold as a Pool C team, I think the stint will be a short one. Wartburg’s been in a leave-no-doubt mentality all season, including in the Week 2 game against Bethel, a team that toppled St. Thomas less than a month ago. (I realize the sharky waters I’m playing in by highlighting two of the nation’s fiercest rivals on opposite ends of my surprises/disappointments projections.)

Frank: St. Thomas. The inconsistency this season is going to make the 2014 two-loss at-large pick more disappointing than what we've seen in the past.  Wartburg is just too good this year, so don't look for a what St. John Fisher has down as a two-loss entrant to be matched here.

Keith: Wartburg. The Knights are sneaky good, and the No. 5 team in the country could legitimately harbor semifinal dreams. The issue is Wartburg's road to Salem: No. 20 St. Thomas, plus potential games against No. 13 St. John's, No. 1 UW-Whitewater and No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor. Brandon Domeyer and the Knights will be game, but it's too tough a road for them to get through to Salem.

Pat: UW-Whitewater. Not sure what got into the Warhawks, if it’s all just because Kumerow is out at wide receiver, but if they don’t play better, they won’t get out of this bracket. I watched the last 66 seconds of the River Falls game and they looked all right then, but it doesn’t usually take anywhere near as long for them to wear opponents down.

Who will win the top left bracket?
UW-Whitewater
Wartburg
St. John's
Wabash
Franklin
St. Thomas
St. Scholastica
Macalester

Last team standing

Adam: UW-Whitewater. Either they’ll have a healthy (enough) Jake Kumerow, or they’ll have had enough time to develop an offensive game plan without their stud receiver. The Warhawks just know how to win in the postseason.

Ryan: UW-Whitewater. The team is No. 1 on my ballot for a reason.

Frank: UW-Whitewater. They're still the defending national champions, Week 11 hiccup and all.

Keith: UW-Whitewater.

Pat: Still UW-Whitewater. Until proven otherwise. Whitewater hasn’t lost a playoff game outside of Salem since 1997 and I have to think they will find a way to win this bracket, even if it’s an ugly way.

Mount Union Bracket

Surprises

Adam: The bracket’s toughness. Top to bottom, this might be the best of the four regions. Washington and Jefferson lost in overtime to rival Waynesburg on Saturday, or would likely be hosting a game. Centre went undefeated and is rewarded with a road trip to John Carroll. Whoever emerges from this region will be more battle-tested than the other three semifinalists.

Ryan: Wittenberg. I’ll be the first to admit that I had doubts about the Tigers early on. Witt lost a lot from last year, and I didn’t have the team on my preseason Top 25 ballot. I’ve changed largely because Witt itself wasn’t changed by its departed senior class. I don’t think the Tigers are going to get past the Purple Power in Round 2 (THAT would be a surprise), but I do think Witt takes care of W&J with ease and gives Mount Union the kind of game that isn’t separated by four touchdowns.

Frank: Centre. I called it a "Close Game Alert" on "In the HuddLLe" the other night -- I don't see Centre beating John Carroll.  However, this is a team that a week ago thought perfection would lead to rejection from the tournament.  Now, they have nothing to lose and everything to prove to the naysayers who thought their schedule strength spoke to the relative strength (or lack thereof) of their team.  Centre keeps it close against the near giant-killer.

Keith: Washington and Jefferson. The Presidents fumbled away a chance at an unbeaten season and a home game in Round 1 with a Week 11 loss, and drew Wittenberg, which hasn't lost to a D-III team this season. The Tigers (12.8 points per game) can play some defense, but Pete Coughlin and the Presidents (46 points, 548 yards/game) are high powered enough to perhaps pull the upset.

Pat: Nobody. None of these teams can win two games as a lower seed, and I think only Washington and Jefferson can even win one. The only question is untested Centre vs. 2013 playoff flameout John Carroll.

Disappointments

Adam: Mount Union should handle Adrian in the first round, but I wonder if the near-loss to John Carroll on Saturday prevented the Purple Raiders from hosting Benedictine instead. Since the Bulldogs defeated the Eagles in the regular season and finished with the better overall record, this appears to be a bigger challenge for Mount Union. Probably just a matter of travel distance, which won’t matter much after a pair of blowouts in round one.

Ryan: Centre. I want to believe in the Colonels. I really really do. Going 10-0 no matter your schedule is not easy, and Centre has improved significantly as the year progressed. But John Carroll is a doozy of an opener, and while Centre’s players will feel like they’ve given it their all on Saturday, I fear that the scoreboard won’t readily reflect that.

Frank: Wittenberg. I don't know if I'm concerned so much with Wittenberg as I am with W&J bouncing back from a big loss a week earlier here.  I foresee a high-scoring affair, which Wittenberg hasn't encountered all season (23 points were the most given up all season).  The Tigers must be careful to avoid looking ahead to a Mount Union matchup here because the first round is definitely no gimme.

Keith: Centre. Likely galvanized by the thought that they almost got left out of the field despite going 10-0, the Colonels have their work cut out for them. They go on the road to face a John Carroll team that nearly beat Mount Union last week (it was tied with three minutes left, and the Blue Streaks ran out of time on the seven-yard line). John Carroll's quarterback is the big name, but they were powerful up front and had a running game that got stronger as the Mount Union game wore on. Plus they're one of the nation's top five defenses. JCU will be by far the best team Centre has played this season, and probably the last.

Pat: Wheaton, if I must pick one. I have very little expectation here for the Thunder or the Blue Streaks, because there’s plenty of reason to have questions about each one. Anecdotally, I don’t see Wheaton going toe to toe with Mount Union down to the last minute, but JCU basically did that last year, too, and then lost to St. John Fisher in the first round.

Who will win the bottom right bracket?
Mount Union
Wheaton
John Carroll
Wittenberg
Washington and Jefferson
Centre
Adrian
Benedictine

Last team standing

Adam: Mount Union. Because I don’t think Kevin Burke will let his team lose before the semifinals. He will find a way to will his team past John Carroll in a Dec. 6 rematch.

Ryan: The bracket’s namesake, Mount Union.

Frank: Mount Union. I just see their road to the semifinals as potentially the easiest out of the four No. 1 seeds.  Even with youth, this team just keeps on winning and now knows how to win a close game against a major opponent.

Keith: Wheaton-John Carroll could be an excellent second-round game on a day filled with them, and an all-OAC quarterfinal is possible. I'll take Kevin Burke and Mount Union here until someone shocks the D-III world.

Pat: Mount Union. Until someone shows me otherwise.

Wesley Bracket

Surprises

Adam: Wesley. With its five-game Division III schedule, it still proved its worth to the committee to earn the unofficial top seed in this bracket. After pitting Johns Hopkins and Wesley in the opening round last year, the committee gave us a chance to see this showdown when it matters even more. Of course, Hobart and every other team in the region will have something to say about that.

Ryan: Ithaca. High-seeded Hobart certainly got one of the toughest Round 1 draws in the Bombers. For all the glory that comes with winning the hard-nosed Empire 8, it might be a surprise that, of Ithaca’s three losses, only one came against a team with a winning record. Picking Ithaca here would be less of a surprise if the Bombers hadn’t, umm, bombed against their rival in the Cortaca Jug game. The E8 teams are often able to get their stuff together come playoff time, and for opponents like Hobart and Hopkins, that spells trouble.

Frank: MIT traveling. The way this whole scenario shaped up is a financial risk for the NCAA.  Home teams have an advantage, and Husson is certainly capable of beating MIT -- the NEFC and ECFC are not worlds apart in strength.  Should that happen, suddenly, a flight is necessary in the second round since Husson is too far away from both Wesley and Hampden-Sydney (although, MIT is only within driving distance of Wesley out of those two).  Now that we know MIT filed to host, I'm surprised the NCAA didn't honor the request and now risks an extra flight.

Keith: MIT's draw. The Engineers were widely expected to be matched up with Husson because they were the only playoff qualifier within 500 miles of Bangor, Maine. The shocker was the 9-0 NEFC champs going on the road in Round 1, because they did not meet the requirements to host. And while MIT should be pleased that it is matched up with one of the few teams in the tournament it can beat, they're probably headed for a relentless pummeling at Wesley in Round 2.

Pat: Ithaca. Few teams in this bracket have a chance to win two road games, but if Ithaca puts it all back together, it certainly could. Hobart is either vulnerable or has been playing an elegant cat-and-mouse game with us the past two weeks, especially vs. Rochester in Week 11. Even though the game was only a five-point game for a few minutes in the fourth quarter, that’s more minutes than it should have been. Hobart made its 2012 run to the quarterfinals without facing a team from a power conference and lost to one in the second round in 2013. But I am definitely ascribing St. John Fisher attributes to Ithaca, and Ithaca hasn’t quite shown it can get to the national quarterfinals with two road wins yet.

Disappointments

Adam: The JHU/MIT pairing that didn’t happen. I’m disappointed that Johns Hopkins is not hosting MIT. That would have set an unbreakable record for highest average SAT score and most future Ph.D.’s in a playoff game. Alas, the Brain Bowl will have to wait.

Ryan: Hobart. I know this seems obvious since I picked Ithaca to surge in the previous category, but it goes deeper than that. It’s been noted this year how Hobart seemed to creep up the rankings because other teams ahead of it were losing, not necessarily because the Statesmen were notching lots of big wins. In this bracket, which boasts the fewest ranked teams, Hobart has the hardest path to the national semifinals. If they can get through two rounds as a No. 2 seed should, a tip of the hat to them, but I don’t see it panning out that way.

Frank: Hobart. The team is again in the No. 2 seed slot, and I think they can beat Ithaca (since Union lost to Ithaca and Hobart beat Union pretty handily).  However, the second round matchup could be a huge challenge.  The team has become very turnover prone as the weather turned colder in Weeks 10 and 11, and the passing game is still a question.  This is a team that wants to at least match their two playoff wins from 2012, but I don't think it's going to happen.  As a Liberty League guy, I hope I'm wrong, of course.

Keith: Hobart. The Statesmen are 10-0, finished ninth in the 244-team division in total defense and floated as high as eighth in the top 25. But a trip to the final eight is no guarantee with Ithaca as the first-round draw. The Bombers were up and down, losing three games this season but also beat eight-win St. John Fisher, seven-win Utica and six-win Salisbury. Hobart was 11-0 last year when it was knocked out in Round 2 by the Empire 8 champ. Hobart coming in after a shaky Week 11 win against Rochester gives me pause. Should the Statesmen get past the multiple-loss E8 winner this time around, the reward could be a game against a team with a very similar profile: Unbeaten and seventh-ranked Johns Hopkins. But Hobart would have to get past that game and put up a fight against Wesley to say it maxed out its talent this season.

Pat: Hobart/Johns Hopkins. One of these teams may well move on to the national quarterfinals, likely against Wesley. And if that happens, I don’t think we’ll have the epic showdown that a No. 4 vs. No. 7 or No. 9 game should be. JHU and Hobart have drifted up the poll all season without really playing anyone challenging and it could show in the quarters, if not before.

Last team standing

Who will win the top right bracket?
Wesley
Hobart
Johns Hopkins
MIT
Rowan
Ithaca
Hampden-Sydney
Husson

Adam: Wesley. I watched this Wolverines squad play a Division I scholarship program and look like they belonged. I don’t see any Division III team in this region of the bracket that can stop Joe Callahan and the Wesley offense.

Ryan: Pat and/or Keith have said a couple of times this year in the ATN Podcast that this could be the best Wesley team we’ve ever seen. Yeah, I’ll buy that.

Frank: Wesley. They almost beat UNC-Charlotte, a second-year FCS team that went 4-6. The team looked unbeatable against D-III teams.  I just don't see any of their first three potential opponents creating major issues on their way presumably back to Alliance.

Keith: Wesley. I'm on the record saying this is the best Wolverines team since the 2011 squad that lost by a touchdown at Mount Union in the semis, and that includes last year's team that lost by three at Mount Union.

Pat: Wesley. The Wolverines are going to get challenged better than they were in most of their non-Division III schedule, but they should be ready.

Mary-Hardin Baylor Bracket

Surprises

Adam: Muhlenberg. I’ve been covering Muhlenberg all season in my Around the Mid-Atlantic column. They are a very good team that played Johns Hopkins tough until the Blue Jays pulled away in the fourth quarter. I did not think the Centennial Conference would get two teams in the field. An even bigger surprise is that the Mules are traveling to their former MAC rival Widener, instead of MAC runner-up Delaware Valley. Instead, the Aggies get 7-3 USA South champ Christopher Newport.

Ryan: Christopher Newport. I know this pick will put me in the minority, but I’m a sucker for a good dual-threat quarterback, and Marcus Morrast is definitely that -- as well as being tested and tough. It’ll show through against Delaware Valley in Round 1. CNU has already faced four of the nation’s top 50 passing teams, so intimidation won’t be a factor. The Aggies and Captains both have a difficult time keeping opponents out of the end zone, and this initial matchup has the makings of a shootout (Del Val averages 43 points a game; CNU 36). The Captains will play this one well and present evidence that they are ready for the move to the increasingly competitive NJAC in 2015.

Frank: Delaware Valley. I smell a bounce back coming from a team that was flying high until Week 11. Look for a Widener rematch in Round 2 with a different result, as the expectations and pressure will flip to Widener's side of the ledger. Their powerful offense will take the squad to the quarterfinals.

Keith: Delaware Valley. There really isn't much potential for upset in this quadrant, with clear favorites in all the Round 1 games. But if the Aggies can get past Christopher Newport, they have a chance to face Widener for the second time in three weeks and clean up the turnovers and shaky blocking that cost them in a 44-28 Week 11 loss.

Pat: Muhlenberg. This goes against the relative conference histories, of course. The Centennial is 8-16 in the expanded playoff era, while the MAC is 19-16. But Muhlenberg is in a position to do something here, with the matchup that I’m not sure it should have gotten. If the NCAA were keeping with its own regional rankings, then Widener should get Christopher Newport and Delaware Valley should get Muhlenberg.

Disappointments

Adam: The Texas sub-bracket. It was pretty much inevitable, but the first round rematch between Texas Lutheran and Mary Hardin-Baylor is disappointing. No knock on the Bulldogs, but a 72-15 thrashing at the hands of the Cru just four weeks ago does not have me excited for this Saturday’s rematch.

Ryan: Linfield. All things level, I would love to see Linfield and UMHB meet deeper in the playoffs, but that’s not the case. The Wildcats aren’t just in the same bracket as the Cru, but in the same half of the bracket, too. This technically would be the opportunity to test the ultra-elite claim I made in a column during the regular season (http://www.d3football.com/columns/around-the-nation/2014/snap-judgments-wheres-the-division-iii-dropoff), but the tragedy with Linfield’s team this past weekend (http://www.d3football.com/notables/2014/11/linfield-player-parker-moore-killed) makes it hard to call this a level playing field. I think Linfield will get past Chapman again but will falter thereafter.

Frank: Linfield's need to mourn. On Sunday, while 31 other teams in the tournament rejoiced, one was completely floored and distracted for all of the wrong reasons. Linfield's Parker Moore was killed senselessly at a convenience store.  The disappointment I'm speaking of here isn't that I believe Linfield will lose to Chapman; the team's rabid fan base (which I wish existed for all 244 D-III teams) will help carry the emotion-ridden team to victory. However, it won't ease the pain and disappointment of the ultimate loss experienced by the Wildcats.

Keith: Chapman. SCIAC teams are used to tough draws. In this case, the Panthers have already seen Linfield, during a 21-14 loss in Week 1. So there's no intimidation factor. But what might be a beatable Linfield team will be filled with emotion, and playing at home, for the first time since Parker Moore was stabbed to death. And if Chapman were to win, they'd likely earn a date at Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Pat: Linfield. And I understand why it is a disappointing time on campus. This could go one of two ways – Linfield could find itself slow to shake off the emotional shock and find itself in a hole vs. Chapman that it can’t get out of, or it could put it all together for a magical five-week run. Without that, the general ceiling for this team is going to be getting to Belton and losing in the second round.

Who will win the bottom left bracket?
Mary Hardin-Baylor
Widener
Delaware Valley
Linfield
Chapman
Texas Lutheran
Muhlenberg
Christopher Newport

Last team standing

Adam: The Crusaders. The tragic news out of Linfield could ignite the Wildcats to spring the second-round upset, or it could have them rattled. The loss of a life so young and promising is devastating, no matter the outcome of the football game. If the Cru gets past Linfield, they should advance to the semis.

Ryan: I’m true to the Cru.

Frank: Mary Hardin-Baylor. The offense has been consistently unbelievable, and the defense has always responded when teams looked to challenge early. Maybe the tests weren't great so far, but I don't see a more complete team in their way to the semifinals.

Keith: Mary Hardin-Baylor. May be the last team standing in the entire tournament.

Pat: Mary Hardin-Baylor. With the Cru rolling right now, and playing at home with teams having to fly to them, I don’t see anyone else getting out.

Wait, there’s more!

Playoff coverage certainly doesn’t start or end here. If you haven’t looked at the Around the Region features detailing many of the playoff teams, check them out.

We also have:

Check back in after the Stagg Bowl

This might be the last Around the Nation column for a few weeks, but it won’t be the last one for the year. In the days after the nation’s best meet in Salem, I’ll put out ATN’s year in review.

The column will be an expansive recap at the great performance and the thrilling games of 2014. I’ll also revisit many of the expert panel’s picks from our preseason publication, Kickoff 2014. And just a refresher from that panel, not a single one of us said UW-Whitewater and Mount Union will meet this year in the Stagg Bowl. We’ll see over the next five weeks how close our crystal ball was on that pick and more.

Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his second season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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