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Re-ranking the conferences for 2015

Bethel took UW-Stout down on Division III's opening night, but that's just one piece of a puzzle determining the relative ranking of the two D-III power conferences.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3sports.com

By Ryan Tipps
D3sports.com

Each August for the preseason Kickoff publication, D3football.com goes deep into the conference projections to determine which are the strongest conferences in the nation. They are ranked, Nos. 1 through 27, based on that perceived strength. Independent teams, as well as the NESCAC, which doesn’t play nonconference games, are not included in this ranking.

Since we’re at the midpoint of the season, I’m revisiting those conference rankings and re-evaluating them – it’s something of an Around the Nation tradition.

It matters little if a conference has one great team if the others that flow in behind it lack competitiveness. Yes, that 0-5 team means just as much to the conference ranking as does the 5-0 team. What is eye-catching is when even the bottom teams can compete against upper-tier teams and can win games during nonconference play.

These rankings are not based on previous year’s teams or past playoff success. While the experiences of a coach or the performance of returning starters might help inform how good a team and a conference can be, the ultimate judge is the first six weeks of play.

The season is half over, but there are still a lot of games -- crucial games -- left on teams’ schedules. It’s not hard to find quality teams whose schedules are back-loaded (Wheaton, Johns Hopkins and Gustavus Adolphus, to name a few), so there are many opportunities for the D-III landscape to shift.

When reading this re-ranking, consider not just the strength of the top, middle and bottom tiers of a conference, but also the nonconference record and what kind of teams that record came against. I highlight some of that data before giving you a synopsis of why I’ve slotted a conference where I did.

If you want to weigh in – and I encourage you to do so – please use the comments section below.

1. Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 1 of 27 conferences ranked

2015 nonconference record: 13-10

Most telling results: UW-Platteville 35, North Central 28; UW-Whitewater 33, Morningside (NAIA) 30; Albion 65, UW-Stevens Point 52

Verdict: There is no movement whatsoever in how strong this conference is believed to be. For years, the WIAC has been the standard for Division III competitiveness. UW-Whitewater’s loss just this past week proves that this year’s WIAC isn’t a one-trick pony. Whitewater, UW-Oshkosh and UW-Platteville (ranked in the fifth through 13th spots in the poll) are all frighteningly good, and even a team such as UW-River Falls is worlds away from the winless season of two year ago. UW-Stevens Point, which lost in Week 1 to an undefeated MIAA team, has matured in recent weeks, narrowly missing upsetting Platteville on the road. This conference will almost surely send two teams to the playoffs this fall, and a deep run by at least one would surprise no one.

2. Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 2

2015 nonconference record: 14-4

Most telling results: St. John’s 45, Dubuque 9; Wartburg 24, Bethel 14

Verdict: Having three teams in the Top 20 and one more team leading the pack among “others receiving votes” in the poll should give you a pretty good indication of how deep this conference is. Every team in the conference won at least one conference game, which isn’t a claim that a lot of conferences can make. The talent pool is rich in Minnesota, and despite a plethora of football opportunities in the region, the best players end up at MIAC schools – and it shows. Not only is this conference capable of flexing its muscle in the regular season, but fans can expect a representative to have a long run in the postseason, too.

3. Empire 8

Kickoff ranking: 5

2015 nonconference record: 13-2

Most telling results: Ithaca 24, Hobart 6; Cortland State 26, Heidelberg 24; Thomas More 48, St. John Fisher 0; Ohio Northern 29, Utica 22

Verdict: We’ve seemingly talked a lot about the Empire 8’s nonconference losses only because of how unexpectedly lopsided one of them was and how close another was. Both of those losses had implications on the bigger picture of the Division III landscape, so it was easy to get caught up in them. The thing is, though: They were the E8’s only losses in nonconference play. They were notable ones, but also notable were the wins. This conference has beaten nonconference opponents 13 times this year, with more still to come as easier games against Finlandia and Alfred State are on mid- to late-season schedules. This conference is notorious for its teams beating up on each other, and the addition of Cortland State and Morrisville State this year has done little to temper that notion. Salisbury leaving took a little bit of oomph from this conference, but not enough to make us doubt its abilities top to bottom.

4. Ohio Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 3

2015 nonconference record: 4-6

Most telling results: Ohio Northern 29, Utica 22; Mount Union 47, Bethany 0; Bluffton 38, Baldwin Wallace 26, Cortland State 26, Heidelberg 24

Verdict: This conference lacks some of the swagger it carried with it in recent years. John Carroll is 4-1 but not as dominating as last season. Baldwin Wallace had perhaps one of the most surprising losses of the year, but the Yellow Jackets have bounced back and have been competitive in conference play. Mount Union is still the well-oiled Machine, leaping into the top spot nationally amid a season in which it has given up just 14 points. This isn’t a ranking of a conference’s top one or two teams – for this list, everyone in the conference either swims together or sinks together. The OAC sank a bit. The bottom five teams in the conference went just 1-4 in nonconference action. As a comparison, the conference as a whole last year went 7-3 against nonconference foes in the regular season.

5. New Jersey Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 4

2015 nonconference record: 5-5

Most telling results: Wesley 50, North Central 49; Rowan 24, Widener 10; Albright 24, Salisbury 23; Hampden-Sydney 26, Christopher Newport 9

Verdict: Bringing Wesley and Salisbury into the fold undoubtedly raised the level of play in this conference over previous years. In fact, in the midseason re-ranking I did in 2014, the NJAC was No. 14. The preseason ranking respected the value these newcomers would bring and weighed it against the loss of Cortland State. As remarkable of a jump this conference has made as a whole, what can’t be overlooked is the fact that Salisbury lost its lone nonconference game (to Albright), and Wesley escaped defeat in the final seconds of its game against North Central with a touchdown and two-point conversion. Even Rowan’s win against Widener is tempered a bit by the Pride’s slip this fall. This is a conference better than it has ever been from top to bottom and has three ranked teams. But there is still room to grow.

6. College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin

Wheaton cruised through its non-conference schedule, a year after advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com 

Kickoff ranking: 8

2015 nonconference record: 14-10

Most telling results: Wheaton 52, Coe 14; Illinois Wesleyan 34, Franklin 24; Wesley 50, North Central 49

Verdict: Three teams in this conference went undefeated in nonconference play, and Illinois Wesleyan has been a surprise performer, carrying a perfect record into the midpoint of the season. The CCIW boasts three teams in the Top 25, including the poll’s only two-loss team, North Central. NCC dropped its game in the final seconds against current No. 4 Wesley, and its other loss comes to the nation’s 13th-ranked team. Had the Cardinals won either of those games, there would be even more reason to celebrate the direction this conference is headed. That said, I’m also a believer in a “good loss,” and both of those were one-score games. At the bottom of the CCIW pack, North Park notched a good win for the program, but Milikin should have come up on the winning side in its games against Kalamazoo and Aurora. Still, this is undoubtedly a competitive conference.

7. American Southwest Conference

Kickoff ranking: 7

2015 nonconference record: 12 -12

Most telling results: Hardin-Simmons 35, Texas Lutheran 27; Millsaps 52, Belhaven 23

Verdict: The disparity from top to bottom is on striking display in this conference. McMurry and Belhaven in their first seasons in Division III (or, in McMurry’s case, back in Division III) make this conference difficult to gauge as everyone gets a handle on their new roles. Not all matchups between teams in the ASC count as conference games because of those teams’ transitions. Mary Hardin-Baylor is again a national power, their abilities showing through in their margin of victories moreso than the level of their opponents. While the struggles of the bottom teams are nothing new, what is a surprise this season is Hardin-Simmons, which hasn’t posed a real threat to UMHB for the conference title in some time. The Cowboys, though, are having a stellar year and are ranked No. 15 in the nation. They are helping to keep the ASC propped up.

8. Northwest Conference

Kickoff ranking: 6

2015 nonconference record: 10-9

Most telling results: Linfield 44, Redlands 7; George Fox 39, Redlands 35; Trinity 35, Willamette 6

Verdict: We knew going into this season that Pacific Lutheran was going to have a down year. The coach hinted as much in our preseason Kickoff publication when he talked about having to replace more starters than ever before. But 0-4 for a team that’s used to seven- or eight-win seasons is a tough pill to swallow; Willamette, too, is struggling on game day and far down compared with last season. The effects of those are reflected in the conference ranking. Still, there are bright spots: George Fox is finding its footing as a program, and Whitworth is undefeated and poised to break into the Top 25 poll if they continue to play well. And, of course, there’s Linfield, the No. 2 team in the nation (and which six voters believe to be the best team in the nation). This NWC ranking might be a drop from the preseason projection, but there’s no question that this is still one of the best conferences in Division III.

9. Centennial Conference

Kickoff ranking: 10

2015 nonconference record: 7-3

Most telling results: Gettysburg 49, Bridgewater 10; Franklin and Marshall 42, Lebanon Valley 37; Hobart 29, Dickinson 7

Verdict: The large Centennial doesn’t get many chances to showcase what it’s capable of in nonconference play, however, at almost every opportunity, it has outperformed neighboring teams in the MAC and ODAC when pitted against each other. Helping give this group a boost is the performances of Gettysburg and Moravian, which have strong starts to their seasons and have helped expand the Centennial title race – there are at least four, and maybe five, teams that are reasonably competing for the automatic qualifier. That kind of depth, as well as the nonconference record, bodes well for placement in a conference ranking.

10. Old Dominion Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 12

2015 nonconference record: 18-6

Most telling results: Emory and Henry 27, East Tennessee State (D-I FCS) 24; Hampden-Sydney 24, Christopher Newport 9; Maryville 30, Emory and Henry 13; Wabash 35, Hampden-Sydney 3

Verdict: Two of the conference’s veteran playoff contenders (Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon) are having down years, but there are some reasons that this group is trending upward. Washington and Lee is having a breakout season with its undefeated run, and Guilford and Emory and Henry are playing exactly as projected and performing at (or close to) the top of their game. Most notably though is that with eight teams in the league, seven have records better than .500. The ODAC would be above the Centennial if there was stronger evidence in the head-to-head competition between the conferences.

11. Presidents’ Athletic Conference

The game between Case and Chicago in Week 1 looks a lot different in mid-October, considering the teams have one loss apiece.
Photo by David Malamut, d3photography.com

Kickoff ranking: 14

2015 nonconference record: 6-6

Most telling results: Thomas More 48, St. John Fisher 0; Chicago 31, Case Western Reserve 30; John Carroll 26, St. Vincent 3

Verdict: Thomas More and Washington and Jefferson are both ranked in the Top 20 of the poll, and Case Western Reserve is looking like the Spartans of five years ago. For the first time, we’re seeing evidence that the addition of Case and Carnegie Mellon had at least a neutral effect on the strength of the conference, if not a bit of a boost. This is a big group, and there are certainly the cellar teams there that are holding the conference back.

12. Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 8

2015 nonconference record: 13-12

Most telling results: Wartburg 24, Bethel 14; Dubuque 31, Pacific 29; Wheaton 52, Coe 14; Benedictine 21, Central 19

Verdict: A lot of the preseason hype around this conference was tied to Wartburg’s performance in the 2014 postseason and the thought that that would help elevate the IIAC overall. But while Wartburg is still at No. 8 nationally, there’s considerable feeling that Knights aren’t firing with the same gusto as last fall. Couple that with some pretty ugly losses early in the season, and there’s reason to believe that things this year are just a little off the mark in Iowa.

13. Southern Athletic Association

Kickoff ranking: 16

2015 nonconference record: 12-4

Most telling results: Chicago 31, Case Western Reserve 30; Birmingham-Southern 35, Huntingdon 34; Maryville 43, Berry 17

Verdict: The out-of-conference competition hasn’t been as stiff as others have faced, but the SAA has taken care of business at almost every turn. Centre and Chicago were both ranked at one point, and relative D-III newcomers Hendrix and Berry are playing well enough to keep the conference title race a guessing game. This is a conference that benefits from not one top dog pulling the rest of the teams with it but rather from the teams’ abilities down through the ranks. Even the teams at the bottom have wins against teams in the bottom of other conferences, suggesting that they are a step above their peers.

14. Middle Atlantic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 13

2015 nonconference record: 4-6

Most telling results: Albright 24, Salisbury 23; Rowan 24, Widener 10; Franklin and Marshall 42, Lebanon Valley 37

Verdict: For what has been known as one of the nation’s top conferences a lot of years, the MAC’s nonconference record isn’t encouraging. The matchups against NJAC teams have been telling in a lot of ways, both to help prove the NJAC’s strength and to expose the MAC’s weaknesses. Albright and Stevenson are 2015’s standard-bearers for the conference and are holding their own. Yet no one from the MAC is in the Top 25, and that’s a problem when looking at the toughness of a conference. Despite some graduations, Delaware Valley is performing well, but that’s offset by a dropoff from Lycoming compared with previous years. And the bottom tier is doing just what bottom tiers typically do in trying to stay afloat week to week.

15. Liberty League

Kickoff ranking: 11

2015 nonconference record: 14-8

Most telling results: Rochester 45, Catholic 28; Ithaca 24, Hobart 6; Western New England 34, Springfield 14

Verdict: The Liberty League is lacking a marquee win to pump itself up. On down the line, teams in the league have done well playing those outside, but when the opportunity for a good win arose, the Liberty hasn’t quite come through. In this space last season, the LL was the biggest mover upward, thanks to Hobart playing so well and other teams in the league being competitive on a regular basis. This year is quite the opposite, and we’re seeing it drop down the conference rankings. Individually, Hobart has nearly slid off of every voter’s ballot, and St. Lawrence is eking out only a handful of votes.

16. Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 19

2015 nonconference record: 14-8

Most telling results: Texas Lutheran 55, East Texas Baptist 27; Austin 55, Hendrix 41, Hardin-Simmons 31, Trinity 7

Verdict: This is a small league, and that means two things: 1) there are a lot of nonconference games in which to judge the SCAC’s performance and 2) there may not be a huge gap between the top and bottom. We’re halfway through the season, and the conference’s last-place team is already better than last year. Texas Lutheran may not be quite as powerful as in 2014, but it’s carrying just a lone loss into this forthcoming showdown with Mary Hardin-Baylor. Even Trinity is looking sharper than in previous years, though they haven’t faced still competition at many turns. All that aside, there has been noticeable growth as a whole.

17. Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association

Kickoff ranking: 18

2015 nonconference record: 16-7

Most telling results: Albion 65, UW-Stevens Point 52; Olivet 44, Aurora 14; North Central 41, Trine 7

Verdict: Olivet was 0-10 in 2012; this year, the Comets are undefeated. Albion has only one season in the past decade that topped seven wins; the Britons, too, are undefeated. Even more spectacular is that Albion has a win over UW-Stevens Point in an opening week shootout that almost immediately put the team on the national radar. There’s some movement in this conference that could see it rising in coming years if it can stay on this arc. Things are looking up, and players from Albion and Olivet can’t be far from thinking about the potential of the playoffs – or the potential of a first-round win.

18. North Coast Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 15

2015 nonconference record: 4-6

Most telling results: Wabash 35, Hampden-Sydney 3; Wittenberg 38, Capital 27; Brockport State 44, Oberlin 7

Verdict: This conference is another victim of consolidation of power at the top, leading to a big dropoff to the shelf below. The top four teams in the conference all won their nonconference games, and every team below them lost theirs. DePauw’s admission to the NCAC in 2012 is now paying off, with the undefeated Tigers proving that they are in position to compete for a playoff spot. However, teams such as Wooster and Kenyon have put their best years in the rear-view mirror. Yes, Wabash and Wittenberg are strong, and now DePauw and Denison are notable too, but this is a 10-team conference, not a four-team one.

19. Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 17

2015 nonconference record: 6-10

Most telling results: La Verne 27, George Fox 23; Cal Lutheran 27, Willamette 24; Linfield 44, Redlands 7; Whitworth 37, Chapman 7

Verdict: With Chapman backsliding this season and Redlands and Cal Lutheran not quite the front-runners they once were, there’s not much surprise to how this season is shaping up for the conference. Scratch that, there is one surprise: La Verne. The Leopards are sitting at 3-1 right now and seem on track to have the best season in a decade or more. The conference is wide open, more than it has been in years. What this means, though, is that the team that wins the automatic qualifier almost certainly has a one-and-done experience in McMinnville, Ore.

20. Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 21

2015 nonconference record: 9-9

Most telling results: Framingham State 42, Endicott 6; Kean 47, Bridgewater State 21

Verdict: What the MASCAC has been doing that others further down the list were coming up short on is winning in nonconference play. The group isn’t toppling national powers or having big breakout games, but it’s holding steady against the kind of teams it should be competing with. Framingham State is again the team emerging with a bulls-eye on its back for a playoff run, but eight of the nine teams in the MASCAC had at least one out-of-conference win.

21. USA South Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 20

2015 nonconference record: 8-16

Most telling results: Maryville 30, Emory and Henry 13; Stevenson 20, N.C. Wesleyan 9; Birmingham-Southern 35, Huntingdon 34

Verdict: The USA South was a conference of gunslinging quarterbacks in 2014, but most of them graduated and left many of the teams struggling to find a way to rejuvenate their offenses. Maryville (which didn’t graduate its signal-caller) has found the most success by knocking off E&H and Division I-FCS East Tennessee State. Huntingdon will compete as well, but beyond them, there have been a lot of struggles when competing outside the USAC. The USA South was noticeably weakened by Christopher Newport’s departure to the NJAC – and perhaps the biggest tell of where this conference stands lies in that move: the Captains were long the top team in the USA South but now sit at just 1-3 in NJAC games.

22. Midwest Conference

Kickoff ranking: 24

2015 nonconference record: 9-14

Most telling results: Ripon 17, St. Scholastica 16; St. Norbert 35, Carthage 6; Central 23, Monmouth 17; Coe 50, Cornell 3

Verdict: This conference is big but not overall much better than in years past. A lot of traditional Midwest names are seen in the top spots of the divisions, but a lot of the usual suspects are near the bottom as well and getting beaten up by outside competition. The MWC rises on this list more because conferences that were ahead of it are having worse-than-expected years rather than the MWC having that much better of a year.

23. Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 22

2015 nonconference record: 3-13

Most telling results: Bluffton 38, Baldwin Wallace 26; Illinois Wesleyan 34, Franklin 24

Verdict: The HCAC has been the Franklin show for a half-dozen years. That may or may not be the case again this year as things are murkier than ever when it comes to crowning a front-runner. Bluffton had by far the brightest point in the season by beating Baldwin Wallace, but the fact that the Beavers are now 1-2 in conference play makes it seem like that game was a flash in the pan rather than a sign of better things to come.

24. New England Football Conference

Kickoff ranking: 23

2015 nonconference record: 9-13

Most telling results: Western New England 34, Springfield 14; Hobart 28, Endicott 17

Verdict: MIT’s predicted slide is coming to fruition, and Western New England is taking the reins of the top spot. The Golden Bears have a good win to hang their hat on, but several of the NEFC teams’ nonconference wins come against Anna Maria and other teams in the ECFC, a conference that you will find even farther down on this list.

25. Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference

Kickoff ranking: 26

2015 nonconference record: 9-14

Most telling results: Benedictine 21, Central 19; Albion 47, Lakeland 21; Olivet 44, Aurora 14

Verdict: This was a tough decision to slot the NACC here rather than another spot higher, but I couldn’t fully justify another step up. That said, the NACC was a disappointing 4-17 at this point last season in nonconference play, so this year’s mark is far superior than 2014. Teams at the top of the conference all the way down to Rockford and Wisconsin Lutheran are getting in on the action this time around, making for a conference that’s much more fun to watch if not positioning itself to climb even higher in coming seasons.

26. Eastern Collegiate Football Conference

Kickoff ranking: 25

2015 nonconference record: 7-15

Most telling results: Becker 37, MIT 26; Alfred 39, Husson 25; St. Lawrence 42, Norwich 28

Verdict: There are several wins in this bunch to consider, but few help to make the conference as a whole stand out from the rest of Division III. A positive is in the “good” losses – or at least, the absence of many blowout losses. ECFC teams have lined up against some tough competition this season (such as Alfred and St. Lawrence), and the ECFC has been able to put points on those board in those kinds of outings.

27. Upper Midwest Athletic Conference

Kickoff ranking: 27

2015 nonconference record: 2-7

Most telling results: Eureka 32, Knox 21; Ripon 17, St. Scholastica 16

Verdict: It’s hard to argue in favor of a conference that has just two nonconference wins to its name, one coming against an independent with a notoriously small roster. We do come across individual UMAC players who can really help carry their teams to successful seasons, but the consistency isn’t there to bump this conference up any further in this list.

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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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