|Aggies defensive lineman Aric Boyes will be chasing down a new Wesley quarterback.
Delaware Valley athletics photo
Welcome! A new season dawns in Division III football. It won’t be long before the autumn leaves turn, making the eastern region of the country one of the most beautiful areas to watch small college football on a Saturday afternoon.
With a new season, comes hope. And in the East, perhaps no region in the country are there more teams with a shot at a conference title. It promises to be a very competitive year.
This column covers the Empire 8, Liberty League, Middle Atlantic Conference and New Jersey Athletic Conference. If you look in the crystal ball, expect the conference title chases to go down to the final weekend in at least three of the four conferences (E8, MAC, NJAC). The depth and tradition in these conferences makes it difficult to forecast who end up standing at the top of the hill in mid-November. But a case can be made that five, in some cases six teams, could contend for conference crowns in the E8, MAC and NJAC.
This is my 30th season following small college football as either a player, coach, SID, writer, broadcaster or just plain fan. It is my second season as the writer for Around the East and my 10th as a contributor to this site, which brings us all together into one D-III community.
If you are new to D-III, welcome aboard. This column will strive to keep you informed about the conference races while featuring stories about student-athletes and coaches who aren’t playing the game for a scholarship or money. They just love the game and want to get a great education.
For this season anyway, conference alignments have remained stable. There are changes on the way in the future for the LL and E8. But for one last time, the rivalries developed get one final go-round.
The NJAC, in its second season under a new configuration in alliance with schools that play the rest of their sports in the Capital Athletic Conference, new rivalries continue to form, while the traditional continue to thrive.
Two region coaches with a bunch of wins and a ton of respect have announced that this will be their final season. Mike Welch (164-73) at Ithaca had the tough task following a legend 23 years ago, but continued the program’s winning tradition alive. At Christopher Newport, Matt Kelchner (102-57) had to build a program from scratch 16 years ago. He guided the Captains to the NCAA playoffs in their first five seasons of existence and has endured just one sub-.500 season.
Meanwhile, six schools in the region are welcoming new head coaches: Lebanon Valley (Joe Buehler), Springfield (Mike Cerasuolo), St. Lawrence (Dan Puckhaber), Union (Jeff Behrman), TCNJ (Rocky Hager) and Southern Virginia (Joe DePaix).
In the D3football.com preseason rankings, five teams start the season in the top 25: Wesley (7), Albright (16), Cortland (17), Salisbury (23) and Delaware Valley (25). Seven other teams are receiving votes: Stevenson, St. Lawrence, St. John Fisher, Kean, Alfred, RPI and Rowan.
This week’s column features what I believe will be the top games to watch in the region in 2016. It is always hard to limit it to just 10, especially when you have conferences this deep.
The first two weeks of the season feature a ton of great nonconference matchups. But four games stand out in my mind:
No. 25 Delaware Valley (9-2, 7-2 MAC) at No. 7 Wesley (11-2, 8-1 NJAC), 6 p.m. Sept 2: Gagliardi Trophy winner Joe Callahan has given DIII fans a thrill with his play this preseason for the Green Bay Packers over the past three weeks. Who will replace the Callahan as the Wolverines signal-caller? The answer is Nick Falkenberg. The junior completed seven of eight passes last season with one touchdown. Plenty of weapons from a unit that topped D-III with nearly 600 yards a game last season. Duel threat running back Jamal Baynard, All-American Bryce Shade and sophomore burner Alex Kemp could still give the Aggie defense a lot of headaches. Delaware Valley returns plenty of explosiveness at the skill position too, headed by receiver Tyler Bing and sophomore quarterback Dawshawn Darden.
No. 16 Albright (10-2, 8-1 MAC) at No. 23 Salisbury (7-3, 7-1 NJAC), 7 p.m. Sept 2: A match up of ranked teams that both advanced to the playoffs last season. This game came down to the final seconds in the season opener a year ago for both after the Lions erased a 20-point second half deficit. A short Sea Gull field goal made the score 24-23. Albright may have the best right side of the offensive line in the area with All-American guard John Cassano and sophomore tackle Kensey Davis. They have a veteran signal-caller in redshirt sophomore Mike Knight and a ton of experience in the receiving corps. For the Gulls, quarterback Ryan Jones is a proven leader that guides the triple option with a great stable of backs. The defense will have to step up returning six starters on a unit that allowed over 36 points per contest in their last seven games.
Rowan (6-4, 5-4) at Widener (6-4, 6-3 MAC), 1 p.m. Sept 3: Two programs with great pedigrees square off after down years in 2016. The Pride made a deep run into the playoffs two years ago, while Rowan had made three straight appearances. A win here could start one of these programs back toward the conference elite. Whomever replaces leading rusher Withler Marcelin in the Prof backfield will have an experienced offensive line to pave the way. Widener also returns a lot up front on offense. Both defenses are always physical.
Hobart (7-3, 5-2 LL) at Brockport (5-5, 3-5 E8), 1 p.m. Sept 3: A match up of All-American running back Dan Andrews against a Statesman defense that ranked sixth statistically last season and returns nine starters including All-American linebacker Marcus Jemison. Good stuff. The Eagle haves won four straight openers. Watch how it goes for the Hobart offense, who will spread out more this season under the direction of healthy Shane Sweeney at quarterback.
The most interesting conference matchups are here:
Stevenson (9-2, 7-2 MAC) at Albright, 1 p.m. Sept 10: After two straight postseason bowl wins, the Mustangs are looking make it to the top of the MAC for the first time. The conference opener against the defending champion will let them if they’re on their way right away. Both teams lived off causing bundles of turnovers last season. Stevenson corner Austin Tennessee is one of the top corners around.
Alfred (8-3, 5-3 E8) at Buffalo State (7-4, 5-3 E8), 12:00 p.m. Sept 17: Both these teams earned bowls bids last season. Can one of them finally take control of the E8 race? Not without a victory here. The Bengals return Kyle Hoppy at quarterback, who missed most of last season with an injury. Saxons quarterback Tyler Johnson is one of the best dual threats in the region.
St. John Fisher (7-4, 6-2) at Cortland (9-3, 6-2 E8), 12:00 p.m. Sept 17: The Red Dragons won a playoff game a year ago and may have the best returning quarterback in the region in Steven Ferreira and six other starters back from an explosive offense. The Cards return nine starters on O including quarterback Matt Naton after winning their last six regular season games to share to top spot in the E8 a year ago. Nobody probably wins out in the E8 but the victor here definitely sets themselves up to be there in November.
Albright at Delaware Valley, 1 p.m. Sept 24: The fourth straight tough opponent for the Lions. Delaware Valley handed Albright their only regular-season loss a year ago (28-23). This time the teams play a month earlier.
St. Lawrence (8-3, 6-1 LL) at RPI (8-3, 6-1 LL), 12 p.m. Sept 24: Which team tied the Saints for the LL title last season? Surprised that it wasn’t Hobart? RPI will have to replace quarterback Jeff Avery and returns just two starters on last season’s offensive unit. A win for the Engineers will be a tall task against a playoff team that returns eight starters on offense and nine on a defense that includes All-American defensive lineman Chyron Brown-Wallace.
Lycoming (4-6, 4-5 MAC) at Widener, 1:30 p.m. Oct 1: The series has historically produced exciting football game. Neither team should have more than one loss by this point, so a win here keeps them on track to a climb back to the top for these traditional powers.
Frostburg State (6-4, 5-4 NJAC) at Kean (8-3, 6-3 NJAC), 1 p.m. Oct 1: If you’re looking for a dark horse in the NJAC, it could be the winner of this game. The Cougars return 10 starters on defense including All-American corner Austin Davis. The Bobcats have eight starters back on both sides of the ball.
Hobart at St Lawrence, 1 p.m. Nov 5: A trip to the playoffs was grand for the Saints, but a blowing a 10-point fourth quarter lead to the Statesmen on a controversial play with two seconds left. That hurts. The winner of this game likely gets the LL’s automatic bid to the playoffs.
Wesley at Salisbury, 12 p.m. Nov 5: There is no love lost between the teams in the “Route 13 Rivalry.” The Gulls upset Wesley for the first time since 2004 last year. Even if the NJAC title is not up for grabs here (although it probably will be), expect an emotional slugfest at the Sea Gulls’ newly rebuilt facility.
Nov. 12 MAC games: Stevenson at Lycoming, Albright at Lebanon Valley and Delaware Valley at Widener. With depth of the conference, one of these six teams will walk away an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs. Who will it be? Don’t ask me.
Nov. 12 E8 games: Yes there is the Cortaca Jug game with Ithaca (4-6, 2-6 E8) and Cortland squaring off as conference rivals for the second and likely last time. But you also have the I-90 rivalry with Buffalo State at Brockport and St. John Fisher at Alfred. Similar to the MAC, there’s no telling which of these six clinches a bid, but we may have to brush up on the conference’s tie-breakers.
Do you have a great story, a question? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or catch me on Twitter or Instagram @d3jason.