Games to watch for 2013

St. John's athletics photo

The beauty of the beginning of football season comes from the anticipation of a new year, the enthusiasm to do a good job and the excitement of what may come. I’m ready to bring that same spirit to this column.

Having worked on D3football.com’s Kickoff the last two years, I’m excited to tackle the Around the West column this season. I have been a beat writer within the WIAC for the last three years and graduated from UW-Whitewater, so I’m familiar with what Division III football can offer. I look forward to chronicling these moments for you. Though my background is in the WIAC, I cannot wait to get more involved with other leagues and share those stories as well.

Given the vast geographical area the West Region covers, I encourage anyone to contact with me with story ideas. Or just drop a note to let me know what you like or don’t like about the column. I can be reached via email at josh.smith@d3sports.com or follow me on Twitter @DU_Josh_Smith.

As the 2013 season nears, there are a number of games that stand out on the schedule – many of which could decide conference championships and playoff berths. Here is a look at the 10 games I’m anticipating to be big-time matchups.

St. John’s at St. Thomas on Sept. 21: With legendary head coach John Gagliardi retired, St. John’s begins a new era under Gary Fasching. The Johnnies’ first league test comes against rival and 2012 national runner-up St. Thomas. The No. 2 ranked Tommies are looking to retain their crown for a fourth straight season while St. John’s – the last MIAC team to beat UST in a conference game – would like to get back on top for the first time since winning the 2009 crown.

Pacific Lutheran at Linfield on Oct. 5: It’s hard to believe a conference title could be won or lost in the fifth week of the season, but that is likely the scenario facing Pacific Lutheran and Linfield when the Northwest Conference rivals square off at Maxwell Field in McMinnville. Whoever wins this game will still have plenty of work to do. But a victory will certainly give one team the inside track toward winning the league crown. Both teams enter the season ranked – Pacific Lutheran is the No. 13 team and Linfield is No. 4 – and have playoff aspirations, so a good start to the league schedule is critical.

Redlands at Cal Lutheran on Oct. 12: The second annual battle for the Smudge Pot could serve as a pseudo-championship game in the SCIAC. Four-time defending champion Cal Lutheran has finished one game ahead of Redlands the last three years, so both teams know what’s at stake when they meet in Thousand Oaks. Both squads will be battle tested, taking on Top 25 opponents in the first two weeks. Cal Lutheran hosts No. 13 Pacific Lutheran and travels to No. 4 Linfield in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively. The Bulldogs host No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor to open the season before traveling to Tacoma to face Pacific Lutheran the following week.

St. Scholastica at Northwestern (Minn.) on Oct. 12: Last year there was a three-way tie for first place in the UMAC, and St. Scholastica made the playoffs ahead of Northwestern and Greenville by winning a random draw. If the Saints want to secure a third consecutive title, they’ll need a road win at Roseville in Week 6. The Eagles won last year’s meeting by a point and they’ll look to win again this year to prove they belong in the UMAC conversation.

St. Thomas at Bethel on Oct. 19: What’s better than a matchup of Top 10 teams? The answer is that same matchup with conference implications on the line. The two teams that have vied for the MIAC title the last three years are both ranked in the Top 10. St. Thomas is coming off a Stagg Bowl appearance and is ranked No. 2 nationally while Bethel is the No. 8 ranked squad. This is a must-win game if the Royals hope to dethrone the Tommies, and secure the conference’s automatic playoff bid.

Greenville at Northwestern (Minn.) on Oct. 19: Greenville defeated Northwestern twice last season in consecutive weeks, including a 28-27 overtime decision in the NCCAA Victory Bowl after both teams were denied playoff berths. The two teams shared the UMAC crown with St. Scholastica but the Saints won a random draw to reach the NCAA postseason. Northwestern will surely be looking to avenge last season’s losses while trying to stay in the hunt for the 2013 UMAC championship. Greenville will want to keep bragging rights on its sideline and try to finish as strong as they did a year ago when the Panthers won their final eight contests. A win here could help Greenville make a push for its first outright league title since 2010.

UW-Whitewater at UW-Oshkosh on Oct. 26: A matchup of the last two WIAC champions is sure to be a fierce battle. UW-Whitewater is looking to return to the playoffs after missing out for the first time since 2004. Meanwhile the Titans will want to prove that they are still a contender despite the graduation of All-American quarterback Nate Wara. Both teams enter the season ranked – UW-W is No. 9 and UW-O is No. 12. Neither team wants to suffer a loss and fall behind in the conference race, especially with UW-Platteville coming up on the schedule.

UW-Platteville at UW-Whitewater on Nov. 2: UW-Platteville, ranked No. 11 nationally, is the preseason favorite to win the WIAC. But the Pioneers have never qualified for the NCAA playoffs. If UW-P wants to make a postseason appearance and secure its first conference title since 1980, the Pioneers will have to knock off the rival Warhawks in the annual George Chryst Memorial Bowl. UW-Platteville nearly won last year, but the potential winning two-point conversion was unsuccessful and the Warhawks retained the Miner’s Pick. UW-Whitewater has postseason experience, having reached the Stagg Bowl seven times in the last eight years. The Warhawks will need to use that experience if they hope to find success during a challenging two-week stretch.

Coe at Central on Nov. 16: Defending IIAC champ Coe posted an undefeated record last year to secure its first outright championship. Central has experienced players and four conference titles in the last decade. However, the Dutch’s last IIAC championship came in 2009. Whether the No. 21 ranked Kohawks are able to repeat as conference champs or Central returns to the top of the league could be determined in the regular season finale in Pella.

UW-Platteville at UW-Oshkosh on Nov. 16: No. 11 UW-Platteville wants a WIAC championship and No. 12 UW-Oshkosh – the defending champions and 2012 national semifinalist – could be the only thing standing in the Pioneers way. A road win in the regular season finale could mean a league championship for the Pioneers whereas a victory for the Titans could me co- or even tri-champions in the WIAC.

Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith has covered Division III sports for more than five years. He writes for multiple publications, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and lives in southern Wisconsin near UW-Whitewater, where he graduated 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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