September 3, 2010

10 games to watch for 2010

When it comes to college football in Oregon, there are generally only two options when it comes to allegiance: You're either a Duck (University of Oregon) or a Beaver (Oregon State).

So when people around here ask me what team I root for and I respond "Willamette," the question of how I got bitten so badly by the Division III football bug comes up fairly frequently.

I can pinpoint the exact date: Sept. 29, 2007. It was the fall of my sophomore year, and the Bearcats rallied from 19 points down to beat our archrivals, Linfield, for the first time since 1999. I was there, and it was the most magical experience I've ever had. I haven't missed a game at McCulloch Stadium since.

Eventually, that led to me becoming the football beat writer for the Collegian, Willamette's student newspaper, for the last two years. The last two summers, I've also written the Northwest Conference previews and feature for D3football.com's Kickoff -- which you should still purchase if you haven't already.

So when Pat and Keith offered me the opportunity to continue covering the most exciting and complex region in the already exciting and complex world of Division III football, I couldn't turn them down.

In taking over Around the West this year, I recognize that I have tremendous shoes to fill. Adam Johnson's column has been must-read material, and he did an exemplary job of covering every conference in the West -- WIAC, MIAC, IIAC, SCIAC, and NWC -- in the most evenhanded way possible.

So I ask for your patience as I try and grow into this space. If you have any comments, suggestions, or story ideas, send me an e-mail. With five conferences in two time zones, I'll be counting on your help week in and week out. Still, it's an honor just to be here, writing for fans who are as excited for the start of Division III football as I am.

Without further ado then, here are ten West Region games to watch in 2010. If nothing else, be sure to block out your day on Oct. 2, where three games -- scheduled conveniently for your viewing pleasure -- could decide three conference titles.

Ten Games to Watch in 2010
Sept. 11: California Lutheran vs. Linfield:
The first game of the season for both teams will be a rematch of a first round playoff matchup last season, and it'll be a trial by fire for whomever takes over the reigns at quarterback for three-year CLU starter Jericho Toilolo. Linfield is deep and experienced -- especially on defense -- but make no mistake, the Kingsmen will be playing with a chip on their shoulder. Whether or not that will be enough to bring home the SCIAC's first scalp against a top-tier NWC team since 2007 remains to be seen.

Sept. 18: Pacific vs. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps: The Boxers and Stags will likely both finish near the bottom of their respective conferences, but there will still be plenty of pageantry for Pacific's first home football game since 1991. It's a unique situation for the Boxers, who played football continuously from 1892-1991, and will therefore be simultaneously playing both their first and 100th years of football. The Stags will certainly do their best to spoil the party, but with first year head coaches at both schools, it should be anyone's game -- and a terrific celebration of Division III football.

Sept. 25: Coe vs. Central: The Dutch blew out the Kohawks last year in Pella, racking up 455 yards of offense in a 24-6 victory. But Coe won their next seven games, including the playoffs' biggest first round upset: beating No. 4 St. John's on the road. Central, meanwhile, suffered a heartbreaking first-round loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Dutch return 18 starters from last year's squad, but for the 16 Kohawk returners, the stakes could be even higher. With no non-conference D-III games, Coe will probably need the IIAC autobid to make the playoffs.

Oct. 2 (1:00 p.m., 11:00 a.m. Pacific): St. John's vs. St. Thomas: The October 2 football feast kicks off with the Johnnie/Tommie game from Collegeville, and all the drama that fantastic rivalry entails. St. Thomas hasn't beaten St. John's since 1997, but the gap has been closing. Two years ago, the Tommies were denied victory by a controversial goal-line call. Last year, they lost in overtime. After a playoff run to the quarterfinals and with 21 starters back, could this be St. Thomas' year? Or will John Gagliardi's magic continue for the Johnnies, who were eliminated in the first round?

Oct. 2 (1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. Central): Linfield vs. Willamette: Setting aside my personal bias, there's no better game day atmosphere in the NWC that at Maxwell Field, and no regular season game there draws bigger or better crowds than this matchup between archrivals. The last two Willamette/Linfield games have decided the conference championship, with both schools winning on the road. Willamette will look to continue that trend with eight starters returning from the NWC's best offense, but eight also return from the NWC's best defense (Linfield). Needless to say, October 2's matinee performance should be very, very good.

Oct. 2 (7:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m. Central): Redlands vs. California Lutheran: With Occidental coach Dale Widolff sidelined for four games due to unspecified NCAA violations, October 2's nightcap will probably decide the SCIAC champion for the second year in a row. Redlands is led by sixth-year senior quarterback Dan Selway, who's been head-and-shoulders above his competition -- when he's healthy. But the Bulldogs were simply outclassed by the Kingsmen last year in a game they had to win. They'll be looking for revenge this time around.

Oct. 9: Bethel vs. St. John's: The Royals look like a classic darkhorse in the MIAC this year. Don't let last year's 7-3 record fool you -- Bethel lost to three very good playoff-type teams by a combined 14 points. Besides, the Royals have been a bogeyman for St. John's the last few years, winning three in a row against the Johnnies before last year's 16-14 loss. Coming the week after the Johnnie/Tommie game, Bethel should be playing for a share of first place. If they win, the Royals set up a MIAC title showdown with St. Thomas in two weeks (see below).

Oct. 16: UW-Stout vs. UW-Stevens Point: With Whitewater the prohibitive favorite in the West Region this year, let alone the WIAC, Stout/Stevens Point will probably decide which Wisconsin school gets a shot at an at-large bid. Last season's matchup was a defensive classic, with the Pointers coming from behind to notch a 7-6 victory over the Blue Devils. Stout will host this year's contest, which the Blue Devils hope will offset Stevens Point's experience edge.

Oct. 23: St. Thomas vs. Bethel: Regardless of the outcome of the Johnnie/Tommie game, this game will have playoff implications, whether for the MIAC title or for an at-large bid. Bethel gave St. Thomas one of their toughest games of the season last year, a 19-10 Tommie victory, but given their returning starters and playoff run, Glenn Caruso's team will be the prohibitive favorites. Still, in what looks like a three-way race in the MIAC, this third game will be pivotal.

Oct. 30: UW-Whitewater vs. UW-Stevens Point: The Pointers are probably still having nightmares about last year's 41-12 blowout loss to the Warhawks on Halloween. Don't expect Stevens Point to lay down quite as easily this year, though. The Pointers have a ton of experience, especially on offense, and with a legit NFL prospect in wide receiver/punter Jared Jenkins (again, buy Kickoff), anything could happen. Still, it's still Whitewater we're talking about here: Levell Coppage only keeps getting better, and four starters on the offensive line return for the defending national champs.

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Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith covers high school and Division III athletics for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wis. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and contributes to multiple publications in addition to his duties at the Daily Union, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He graduated from UW-Whitewater with a degree in print journalism.

2011-12 columns: Jason Galleske
2010: Tim Walsh
2003-09: Adam Johnson
1999-2000: Don Stoner 

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