Playoff picks, surprises and disappointments

They’re here, the games 220 or so teams in Division III aim for beginning with the first practices on blazing August days. 

Twelve playoff games Saturday kick off the third postseason in which the NCAA has invited 28 teams to the national tournament.

Since I know fans love picks and predictions, I enlisted two of my D3football.com counterparts to join me in giving our takes on the four regions and the surprises, disappointments and champions in each.

Mark Simon is a national columnist who sees more NJAC games than the rest of us. He’s been the play-by-play man for me on our last two Stagg Bowl broadcasts, and is never afraid to voice his always-interesting opinion. Here are his thoughts on the playoffs:

"Let’s face it. As sportswriters, we don’t root so much for teams and individuals as we do for storylines. And there would be no better storyline than to have a final four of Mount Union vs. St. John’s and Rowan vs. Widener. A rematch of last season’s championship game and the battle between a former star player (Mike Warker) and the team he played for is simply too good to resist."

Pat and I spare you the overview. We’re eager to look at each region, from coast to coast:


Mark: I really wanted to pick Brockport here, and even though the Golden Eagles got the worst possible matchup, we’ll give them their due. I didn’t think this team could match the performance of last season after losing top lineman Josh Warner, quarterback Mike Haas, and tailback Courtlan Green, but it goes to show how good a coaching staff Brockport has that it managed to get back to the NCAAs for the second straight season.

Pat: Someone besides Montclair keeps a game close against Rowan in this bracket. And someone scores a touchdown in the Western Connecticut/Westfield State game.

Keith: If the higher seeds won every game in this bracket and RPI went to the semifinals. Rowan and Montclair State are our favorites, so we’d be surprised if they don’t meet on Dec. 1. The low seeds (Ithaca, Brockport and Western Connecticut) are no cream puffs. Look for upsets.

Mark: Top seeds RPI and Westfield State fail to make it out of the second round, setting up an all-NJAC final between Rowan and Montclair.
Pat: Gotta be RPI. I don’t think they’d be even a four seed in the South, nor would they be in the top two if the brackets were seeded by (gasp!) the actual quality of the teams.
Keith: Montclair State. I believe anything less than a final four appearance is coming up short for the Red Hawks. Since they’ll probably have to go through Rowan again to do it, a mental whitewash of last Saturday’s 53-21 debacle and some clever defensive scheming is the only way to avoid letting themselves down after a 9-0 start.

Mark: Can Rowan coach K.C. Keeler finally win the big game? We’ll still say that based on history, probably not, but that won’t stop them from getting there, and losing to Mount Union.
Pat: Gotta be Rowan. They might not face a challenge. Unless Cortland sneaks into the field.
Keith: Much to the dismay of my friends at Montclair State and elsewhere, I’ll make it a clean sweep for the Profs. I find it hard to pick against Rowan after I was all set to get on the Red Hawks bandwagon before the Profs trashed them. Rowan’s defense isn’t pretty, but it’ll take a team with a whole lot of defense to slow them down. I see too many offensive-minded teams (and defenses playing 50 fronts) to lean any other way.

Mark: That Widener is in this bracket and a team from Texas is in what we refer to as the North bracket. One of the Texas teams here, Trinity, has a well-respected coach in Steve Mohr, and a program that is two seasons removed from a final four appearance. This season they will upset Bridgewater and come up one game short.
Pat: Everyone who needed to file to host games did, and the committee rewarded Bridgewater’s win against another playoff team (Western Maryland) by giving them the top seed.
Keith: That Christopher Newport is in the playoffs while some deserving team is sitting home. I’m positive that the Captains will be a force someday, but any team that lost three out of eight games, including one to my alma mater (4-6 Randolph-Macon) is going to get shellacked by Widener. 

Mark: Three undefeated teams in this bracket, so something has to give. The two that don’t make it to the final four — Washington and Jefferson and Bridgewater — are likely to leave the field in tears, so there’s the disappointment.
Pat: Western Maryland is the disappointment already, after the loss last week. They can make Washington & Jefferson the disappointment this week.
Keith: This is the strongest bracket by far, with three of the top five teams in the postseason. Any of the top five teams could reach the semifinals. That leaves at least two of the three unbeatens to lose before they reach the final four. Don’t forget that Trinity beat Bridgewater in last year’s playoffs, so we could see all three unbeatens come up short in two weekends (on Nov. 24 and Dec. 1). 

Mark: What does a team have to do to get a first-round bye? Widener quarterback Mike Warker, who left Rowan last season, leads the way to a matchup against his former teammates.
Pat: I’m taking Bridgewater on home-field advantage and having too many offensive weapons. Tough call over Widener, but remember the Pioneers are in a tougher bracket this year.
Keith: Widener is in the same all-offense boat as Rowan, although their defense is much improved. Trouble is, there are some defensive powerhouses in this bracket. Bridgewater has the perfect mix of speed on offense and defense. Whoever wins the South will defeat the East bracket champion on Dec. 8.

Mark: After back-to-back seasons with teams from Texas going out in the final four, Hardin-Simmons finally will get a crack at Mount Union in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs. The surprise isn’t that they’ll win, because they won’t, but that they will keep the game close.
Pat: Hardin-Simmons, just because they’re here. A team that could make some noise but is on the short road to Alliance is Augustana. If they’d won last week, certainly they’d be on the other side of the bracket.
Keith: With so many relative newcomers in the field, including two first-timers in MacMurray and Defiance, there has to be at least one surprise in the round of 16 from the Thomas More/MacMurray game. But the big shocker will come in the Dec. 1 regional title game. 

Mark: Wittenberg’s early-season loss and close games in NCAC play showed that it still misses standout running back Casey Donaldson.
Pat: Thomas More barely beat Adrian (2-8) on the road and Chapman (3-6) at home. (Of course, Menlo rolled Chapman on the road a couple weeks later, but do the powers-that-be care?)
Keith: Thomas More is primed for an early exit. Anything less than another championship is considered a disappointment for the Purple Raiders.

Mark: Can someone give Larry Kehres a Division I coaching job already? Mount Union, again.
Pat: Mount Union. Hardin-Simmons’ fans are confident, and we’d certainly be interested to see our preseason No. 1 and No. 2 battle it out, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in anyone beating Mount Union.
Keith: Mount Union is easily the best team in the field, but as St. John’s, Rowan and John Carroll have proved, they’re human. Can they be beaten? Only in a near-perfect outing or by a team on a mission (Pacific Lutheran would have smoked them in 1999). This year, Hardin-Simmons is the heir to the throne.

Mark: We’re pigeon-holed here. You can’t justify making Pacific Lutheran a surprise after their national championship run of two years ago and we can’t pick Bethel because MIAC teams don’t qualify as surprises either. My final four pick tells you that St. Norbert won’t win a game, so we’ll go with Whitworth by default.
Pat: Is it a surprise in the west when a higher seed wins? This is the year the WIAC gets back on the winning track, for one week at least.
Keith: St. Norbert, Whitworth, Stevens Point and Bethel are among the 13 teams in the field yet to win a playoff game. The Pointers could show that the competitive WIAC season served them well by beating two MIAC teams back-to-back in Bethel and St. John’s. 

Mark: That the NCAA didn’t think enough of the WIAC to pick two teams from that league. UW-Stevens Point won’t help the cause any by falling in its opening game.
Pat: Whitworth. Hardly dominant in the regular season and if they manage to win the rematch with Pacific Lutheran they’ll get a wake-up call somewhere down the line.
Keith: St. John’s and Central are historically powerful teams, but each had to replace 17 starters from last season, so their playoff experience isn’t what some may have you think. Despite its strong showing over Bethel, I don’t think the Johnnies can match the magic of last season’s run to Salem.

Mark: Is John Gagliardi ever going to retire? St. John’s over a Whitworth team that takes out some Northwest Conference frustration from last season (see "The Miracle in the Mud") on Central.
Pat: Ugh. I’ve gone back and forth between Frosty and Jo... err... Pacific Lutheran and St. John’s, and I’m going to take PLU at Mount Union on Dec. 8.
Keith: This bracket’s really up in the air. The Dutch proved last season that can play with the Northwest Conference’s best, and they won four games by seven points or less in the regular season. That could be a sign of weakness, but being frequently tested should work to Central’s advantage.

Thoughts from a regular season gone by
Whether playing, watching or writing about it, the Division III football season has always been a blast for me. There are too many good stories to tell, and far too many great games to attend.

There are also a few things on my mind at the end of the 2001 regular season.

I am disappointed in the fact that one undefeated team did not make this season’s 28-team playoff field. Williams won a dramatic overtime game against rival Amherst to capture the NESCAC title and finish 8-0.

I understand that it is the policy of the academically excellent NESCAC schools and their presidents not to participate in the postseason in football, unlike the rest of their sports, but I don’t agree with it.

Colleges across the nation lure students by touting the opportunities available at their particular institution, from studying abroad to using facilities like recreation rooms and computer labs. Strange how in the case of a few athletic events, schools would choose to prohibit such opportunity.

The beautiful thing about learning is that there’s nothing absolute about it. You can’t define learning by a time period, a measureable amount or even a letter grade.

A football game however, is the exact opposite. There are 60 minutes of opportunity, and whatever chances pass you by in that hour, are gone forever.

This year and in this sport, the players from Williams missed out on an opportunity they might not have even known existed. The NCAA, which would probably add a 29th playoff spot if the 10 NESCAC schools made themselves postseason-eligible in football, would have been a wonderful teacher for those kids.

The experiences of Pacific Lutheran particularly, through their five road-game journey from Tacoma, Wash., to Salem, Va., in 1999 must have been a tremendous education in a variety of disclipines. Rowan, Mount Union and St. John’s football players I’m sure have had similar brushes with culture, self-discipline and self-motivation over the past two Stagg Bowl runs — experiences that far outweigh any class time they may have missed. There are some lessons that can’t be taught on blackboard and with books.

Unfortunately, the only lesson learned here is that hard work and success don’t always pay off.

Here’s hoping the NESCAC presidents someday reconsider and let their student-athletes partake in a one-time learning experience.

High standards or garbage?
And while we’re on the subject, it’s funny how supporters of a frequently whooped football team love to pull out the old academic standards argument when their gridiron trash talk doesn’t hold up. The "you’ll work for us someday" joke is about as tired as Bob Barker hosting the Price is Right (won’t that guy retire already?).

Getting into school doesn’t make one successful, and I’m not so sure getting out does (though it marks a fine accomplishment). Everybody at an academically exclusive school doesn’t make it big, and everyone from a less exclusive school isn’t a gas-pumping low-life. Success comes from individual drive, desire and achievement. You message board junkies can start by tuning up your trash talk.

Air defense
Johns Hopkins, in their season-ending, streak-snapping victory against Western Maryland, did something no Division III team had done since Dayton in 1980: They concluded a season without surrendering a touchdown pass.

Amherst, who finished 7-1, did the same.

As a former defensive back, I’m kinda proud.

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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 third 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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