10 games to watch for 2012

Wisconsin Lutheran has high hopes this season.
Wisconsin Lutheran athletics photo

There will be no shortage of big games and big surprises in the Midwest region this season.

There are four nationally ranked teams: No. 6 North Central, No. 13 Franklin, No. 15 Wheaton and No. 21 Illinois Wesleyan. Some teams, like North Central and Franklin, have recently dominated their conferences, while leagues like the Midwest Conference and Northern Athletics Conference could crown new champions this season.

Then there are always the mystery teams. Who would have thought before the 2011 season that Illinois College would be in the field of 32 playoff teams? Who would have thought in 2009 that Concordia Chicago would turn its program around and post three consecutive 8-2 campaigns?

So if you’re following the Midwest region, here are the top 10 games that should be on your radar as the 2012 season unfolds.

Aug. 30, Benedictine at Wheaton: The Benedictine Eagles will carry the reputation of the Northern Athletics Conference into Thursday night’s contest against one of Division III’s traditional powers. Coaches will never say moral victories are acceptable, but Benedictine will also want to be respectable against the Thunder to open the season. One can’t ignore how poll voters view your conference depending on how well your best team matches up against other top teams, so this game does have meaning beyond your typical non-conference matchup.

Sept. 1, Mount Union at Franklin: Ditto for this contest at well. Franklin opened its home slate last season against No. 1 UW-Whitewater. Franklin quarterback Jonny West took a beating in what ended up as a lopsided victory for the defending national champions. West, though, bounced back impressively to become the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference’s offensive player of the year. West, now a junior, will get to see just how far he’s come on the national stage against No. 2 Mount Union. Yes, the Grizzlies would want nothing more than to beat the Purple Raiders, but they also want to see progress it made in catching up with the Mount Unions and UW-Whitewaters of the world. West will need to play well to help make that happen. What a way to open a season.

Sept. 29, St. Norbert at Monmouth: Can anyone remember the last time the St. Norbert Green Knights were not picked to finish first or second in the Midwest Conference? We didn’t think so. This is one of those years as the MWC favorite Fighting Scots will battle its old nemesis at home. Because of the quirk in the MWC schedule where all the conference no longer play each other, the other conference favorite, Illinois College, does not play St. Norbert this season, added additional importance for Monmouth.

Oct. 6, Franklin at Mount St. Joseph: The Grizzlies have dominated this series lately between arguably the most successful programs in the HCAC over the past 10 seasons. Franklin’s beefed up preseason schedule was created with these types of games in mind. After opening with Mount Union, there’s going to be little that the Lions will be able to throw at the Grizzlies that will catch them off guard. Mount St. Joseph knows the key to winning this game will be defense. Franklin lit the Lions in its last two contests, 35-23 in 2011 and 41-10 in 2010. Keeping the Grizzlies under 30 points will give the Lions a chance and a shot to dethrone Franklin, which is riding an 18-game HCAC win streak.

Oct. 20, Benedictine at Wisconsin Lutheran: Even though Benedictine is the favorite in the Northern Athletic Conference, all roads to the conference title may go through suburban Milwaukee. Wisconsin Lutheran edged Benedictine 23-21 last season, denying the Eagles an outright title. In 2009, the Warriors upended Concordia-Chicago, denying them a conference title. Motivation will likely be on Benedictine’s side, but Wisconsin Lutheran has proven to have a little something extra in games like this.

Oct. 20, Illinois Wesleyan at Wheaton: This is the first of three consecutive weeks where the favorites in the CCIW play their own round-robin tournament to possibly decide the conference title. Illinois Wesleyan drew the short straw in the schedule, with two consecutive road trips in the matchups. The Titans have beaten the Thunder two of the last three seasons, but both of those have come in Bloomington, Ill., including a 24-19 victory last season. As much as the Thunder would want to look ahead to the Little Brass Bell bash on Nov. 3, it simply won’t be able to against a very good Illinois Wesleyan team. With last year’s loss not completely forgotten, the Titans will probably have Wheaton’s full, undivided attention.

Oct. 27, Illinois College at Monmouth: Illinois College had a breakthrough season last year, earning a share of the Midwest Conference title and making the playoffs after coming so close to pulling it off in 2010. The trouble is the Blueboys were never able to get the Monmouth monkey off its back. The Fighting Scots pounded Illinois College last year 55-14 and now must travel to Monmouth for what will be a crucial game. Since Illinois College does not play St. Norbert this season, it could quite possibly run the table up to this point, putting the title and a playoff spot on the line.

Oct. 27, Illinois Wesleyan at North Central: This is the second game of the CCIW round-robin, with the Titans traveling the Naperville, Ill., to battle the Cardinals. North Central has proven troublesome for the Titans, beating IWU 24-0 last year and 30-7 in 2010. But you only have to go back to 2009 when Illinois Wesleyan swept North Central (28-22) and Wheaton (20-17). Doing it on the road is another thing entirely. The Cardinals also open the season with a 16-game CCIW win streak and haven’t lost a home conference game since 2007.

Oct. 27, Concordia-Chicago at Benedictine: What do the Cougars have to do to win an outright Northern Athletics Conference title? The Lonnie Pries rejuvenated squad has been knocking on the playoff door the past three seasons, going 8-2 each time. Along with the consistency of Concordia’s record is its struggle with Benedictine, losing to the Eagles each time. Benedictine humbled the Cougars 43-21 a year ago. If the Cougars can get over the hump against Eagles, it could finally bring them that playoff appearance it’s been looking for.

Nov. 3, Wheaton at North Central: The battle for the “Little Brass Bell” will likely shape the CCIW race once again. Wheaton was the last team to beat North Central at home, back in 2007. Since then, the Cardinals have been dominant at home against fellow CCIW opponents, but you can usually throw records out of the window in this cross-suburban Chicago grudge match. North Central and Wheaton have both been ranked in the Top 25 when this game was played and it will likely be the same this season. The loser of this game has also stayed home from the playoffs for the past several years, adding more pressure.