|Linfield. How far do our experts think the Wildcats will go this season?
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We have our field of 32, led by three West Region teams and the purple-clad machine known as Mount Union.
You’ve had time to digest the brackets and pore over the placement of your favorite teams. Hopefully you’ve also registered for the Bracket Challenge and gotten a hearty helping of insight on this past Monday’s ATN Podcast.
There’s so much more to embrace this week, though, with D3football.com’s capsules of every playoff team, the Around the Region columns that delve into many of the stars going into the postseason and Friday’s Triple Take column, where we will predict the scores of each of the 16 games. There’s also the column you’re reading now, which features the Stagg Bowl staff’s annual playoff surprises and disappointments.
It’s one of my favorite things to write about each season -- it’s challenging and forces me to look deeply at the makeup of each team, to understand their weaknesses and successes and to understand the matchups in front of me. Each quadrant goes under the microscope.
There are five of us who go bracket-by bracket to select surprising and disappointing teams: Publisher and Executive Editor Pat Coleman, Managing Editor and National Columnist Emeritus Keith McMillan, Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist and Senior Editor Adam Turer, In The HuddLLe Broadcaster and Stagg Bowl Sideline Guy Frank Rossi, and me, the Senior Editor and current Around the Nation Columnist.
From this year’s field, six teams in the Top 25 poll were left at home, the most notable being No. 14 UW-Platteville, which, if selected, would have been the third WIAC team in the field. We have to go back to 2007 to find the only time three teams from one conference were chosen. They were St. John Fisher, Hartwick and Ithaca from the Empire 8 -- and all were placed in the same bracket quadrant. Only one, Fisher, advanced past the first round.
Of the 32 teams in the playoffs, 13 aren’t in the Top 25, most notably a 6-4 Norwich, which made the field by way of the ECFC’s automatic qualifier. Still, a 6-4 record isn’t the worst record that’s made the postseason -- there was 5-5 automatic qualifier St. Lawrence back in 2010 that, coincidentally, is in the field again for the first time since that season. The Saints are a healthy 8-2 this time around.
Because most teams have only one or two or three nonconference games during the regular season, the playoffs are a lively way to sort through the teams that really have some mettle to them. Some conferences are naturally stronger, but even weak conferences have teams that rise up and make a statement -- and have us rethinking their place in the poll.
The chart at right contains a rundown on how each conference’s teams have fared in the playoffs since the automatic qualifier system was installed in 1999.
The WIAC and OAC, with their consistent Mount Union and UW-Whitewater Stagg Bowl matchups, are unsurprisingly at the top of the heap. Over the past decade, each postseason appearance by those teams have led to either 4-1 or 5-0 playoff records, which are more than enough to tip the scales.
Many times, though, a second team from the WIAC and OAC has earned a spot and made a deep run. This season, the ASC, MIAC, NJAC, NWC, OAC and WIAC have two teams in the playoff field. Of course, sometimes that means teams from the same conference have to play themselves early (like the ASC and NWC this year), so factor those kinds of instances in when analyzing the postseason W/L percentage from the table above.
Now is our opportunity to look forward, to flesh out what to expect over the next few weeks of play. The five D3football.com staffers below give a detailed description of what’s on their minds.
Nobody on the panel consulted with one another; each person did his part independently. The panelists are spread out across the four administrative regions, so hopefully any perception of bias balances out.
Mount Union Bracket
Adam: Johns Hopkins. The Blue Jays have one of the most balanced, complete teams in the nation. Junior quarterback Jonathan Germano has excelled, leading the nation in completion percentage. He is surrounded by talented skill players and supported by a tenacious defense. The Blue Jays will finally make a statement against one of the nation’s perennial powers and get past Wesley.
Frank: Johns Hopkins. In a Centennial Conference that seemed somewhat lackluster this season, Hopkins stood out in ways similar to Mount Union in the OAC -- except with a few more points given up defensively. This team just keeps on winning in the regular season, and this may be the year they see some success deeper into the postseason.
Ryan: Wesley. Can the No. 11 team in the nation surprise anyone? They can if they’re the third seed in their quadrant and have to go on the road in Round 2. What Wesley has shown over the years is an ability to bounce back after a loss and refocus on the task at hand, on success. Coach Mike Drass and his team surely felt a sting after the regular-season Salisbury game, and there’s little doubt they’ve regrouped and are hoping to get another shot at Mount Union in the regional final.
Keith: Johns Hopkins. Anything besides a Mount Union-Wesley quarterfinal would be eye-opening, but the Blue Jays have played the Wolverines tough over the years and wouldn't come into a second-round matchup intimidated. Players on this year's team were on the 2013 squad that led Wesley with 50 seconds left. These are different teams of course, and the Blue Jays would have to play their best pass defense of the season to slow down Joe Callahan and the Wesley offense, but the opportunity exists, and it's more likely than name recognition would have some believe.
Pat: Wesley. Because they are lower seeded and (for once) lower ranked than Johns Hopkins. I expect these two teams to play a pretty epic second-round game (sorry, Framingham and Western New England), and I expect JHU will have more trouble containing Joe Callahan than the Wolverines have containing Stuart Walters and Jonathan Germano.
Adam: Wesley. After coming so close in 2013 and being humbled in 2014, the Wolverines will again fall short of their goals in 2015.
Frank: Wesley. Something about the Wolverines seemed a little off this season, and the North Central result was the first red flag for many people. I'll go as far as suggesting Framingham State might be a small challenge for Wesley in Round 1, but my guess is that Hopkins will have a legitimate opportunity to finish the job in Round 2. Wesley has one of the toughest draws for a power team in the whole tournament, in my opinion.
Ryan: St. Lawrence. As interesting as it was to see someone besides Hobart survive the Liberty League, a trip to Alliance is a pretty stiff punishment for the champ -- a punishment that I know was largely caused by geography in combination with an 8-2 Saints record. The 6-4 Norwich squad should be in this position, but I’ve stated in previous columns that the playoffs aren’t intended to sort out the ranking order of the nation’s Top 32 teams, they’re intended to be a means to crown a Division III champion. St. Lawrence will no doubt play hard, but this is a tough out after such a strong season.
Keith: Framingham State. The Rams' playoff history is one of drawing tough matchups and falling just short, and with Wesley in Round 1, it will be tough to break the trend. Framingham State might be able to win a first-round matchup with someone else.
Pat: Push. All four first-round opponents are in significant underdog situations.
LAST TEAM STANDING
Adam: Mount Union. The Purple Raiders keep the Salem streak alive.
Frank: Mount Union ... next!
Ryan: I believe in a few things: Motivation, opportunity, unity, nobility, teamwork, Understanding, nurturing, integrity, optimism and noteworthiness. What’s that spell … ?
Keith: Mount Union. It's easy to glaze over 10-0 seasons from the Purple Raiders, ones in which they outscore opponents 538-34, because accomplishments like that are commonplace in Alliance. Mount Union's is the only program where literally nothing that happens before Salem can amaze us. We should be impressed by quarterback Taurice Scott, who's thrown 29 touchdown passes and two interceptions after playing wide receiver last season, and the Tom Lally- and Alex Kocheff-led defense that has allowed three points since Oct. 17.
Pat: Mount Union, without breaking a sweat.
St. Thomas Bracket
Adam: Wabash. The Little Giants’ defense will be tested in Round 2, either by Thomas More or Washington and Lee. That game will be the surprisingly close contest of this quadrant. The Generals’ top-ranked run offense or Thomas More’s balanced and efficient attack (50 points per game) against the Little Giants’ fifth-ranked total defense will be the most entertaining Round of 16 matchup.
Frank: Washington and Lee. Thomas More has sailed through an emotional season, posting big wins that opened eyes. However, the Saints struggled against a decent Case Western Reserve before facing a Washington and Lee team that is fighting to battle a perceived snub of the ODAC with Guilford being passed over in Pool C. As a result, the Generals will stay close in this game, if not win.
Ryan: Wabash. It’s hard to talk about my alma mater without sounding like a homer, but the fact that I’ve been following this team for two decades makes me realize when the Little Giants have put together a squad that’s unique. The 2015 team is just that. A large part of my appreciation for this year’s team is that the aggressive, stout defense is intact, and the offense has built up a balanced approach under coach Erik Raeburn that gives this team an edge that it didn’t have during the playoff runs of the 2000s. A trip to the regional final is expected for the No. 2 seed right? The Little Giants will get there and give St. Thomas a challenge.
Keith: Washington and Lee. I was very tempted to pick the matchup of Albion's No. 2-in-the-nation offense (577.3 yards/game) against Wabash's fifth-ranked defense (209.6 yards/game), but the bigger chance for a stunner is in Kentucky, where the participants are ranked No. 7 (Thomas More, 522.7 yards/game) and No. 10 (W&L, 510.7) in total offense. If the Saints can't stop the Generals’ best-in-the-nation running game, then it could be a shootout. And from there, being on the side of the bracket with Wabash is better than being on the side with St. Thomas and St. John’s.
Pat: Tough call here but I'm going to go with Washington and Lee. These are both teams that have fires lit under them this postseason, Thomas More because of the tragic loss of Mitch Kramer in the preseason, and W&L because of their low seeding and lack of a home game. In a sense, this is the perfect first-round matchup for both to get their feet wet before facing (presumably) Wabash, but I think these teams are appropriately matched up and seeded. Tough to pick against either of these motivated teams.
Adam: Washington and Lee. Undefeated W&L travels to undefeated Thomas More in the opening round. Both of these teams deserved the opportunity to host and earn a playoff win. Instead, we have a rematch of 2010’s 42-14 Saints rout. This should be a closer result, but one of these teams will have its season end a week earlier than it should have.
Frank: St. Thomas/St. John's rematch potential. I'll reach for my inner Pat Coleman here and say that for all the rematches that are seemingly unavoidable (see Linfield/Whitworth and Hardin-Simmons/UMHB), this early potential rematch was avoidable -- and should have been avoided based on the teams' performances this year.
Ryan: Thomas More. The Saints caught my eye on Week 1 this year, clobbering St. John Fisher and positioning itself to get back into the postseason. The team has also climbed the polls, though I admittedly dropped them a few spots at the end of the season as I re-evaluated where I believed teams stood. Maybe it was a close game to Case, which then lost in Week 11, that shook my confidence? Maybe it was the belief that other teams’ losses were the exception rather than the rule, so I moved those teams back up? Either way, something has me shaky on the Saints, and despite having played against W&L’s triple-option offense a couple years ago, I feel differently this time around.
Keith: St. John’s. The Johnnies faithful would be anything but disappointed to get another shot at the Tommies, but given the three-touchdown margin in the first game, it's hard for an outsider to expect a different outcome. For all we know, St. John's could be having one of those seasons where they are as good as any team in the country except for one, and that's the one they have to go through.
Pat: Dubuque. Not that we expect them to win, but I think we expect to see them improved from Week 1. I'm not sure they will be more competitive and if the score is closer, dig into the game to see when the Johnnies called off Sura and the rest of the dogs.
LAST TEAM STANDING
Adam: St. Thomas. Glenn Caruso has been starving to get back to Salem and has the squad to do it this year. The Tommies’ biggest test might come in a Round 2 rematch against their rival Johnnies.
Frank: St. Thomas. Their hardest game seems to be that potential St. John's rematch. I don't see how the Johnnies turn around a prior 21-point deficit when losing home-field advantage in the rematch.
Ryan: St. Thomas. The Tommies have rolled through one of the toughest conferences in the nation, and it has prepared them well to be one of the nation’s last four standing.
Keith: St. Thomas. The Tommies didn't just go 10-0. They did it in one of the nation's strongest conferences, by scoring at least 35 in every game and never allowing more than 14. They had 12 punts and allowed 11 touchdowns. This isn't just a final four contender. This is a Walnut-and-Bronze contender.
Pat: I think this is St. Thomas' bracket. They are a top seed for a reason. Rolling up yards on the ground and stellar on defense, which will only be more important as the weather gets worse up here.
Adam: Huntingdon. The Hawks are going to make a statement against Hendrix and will put up a surprisingly strong first half against its Texas-based Round 2 opponent. It will be an impressive showing for a Hawks squad full of players making their first playoff appearance.
Frank: Salisbury. I don't think it's a huge surprise if Salisbury beats Cortland, but I think they will easily handle the Red Dragons. Cortland is one of those teams that lived on the edge all season despite any opponent's relative strength. Salisbury just got the scare of their lives against Frostburg State. The triple option will lead to points early and often and a flight from Maryland to Oregon.
Ryan: Hendrix. Unless we’re talking about Linfield or a Texas team, there’s nobody in this bracket that will win two games. But the Warriors will be a surprise because of their performance throughout the season: overcoming an opening-day loss, and not just getting to the postseason, but then getting the school’s first-ever playoff win. And this is only the third season the team has played in the modern era. The Warriors are a young team that will use this experience to do even better things in 2016.
Keith: Salisbury. On Oct. 31, the Sea Gulls gave up 51 points to a one-win team. By Nov. 28, the team from the Eastern Shore of Maryland could be in Oregon wine country, playing in one of Division III's beautiful venues against one of its best teams. And while the Linfield defense allowed less than seven points and 64 rushing yards per game all season, Salisbury should be able to give it a bit of trouble in a second-round game that would be interesting into the second half.
Pat: Hendrix. A one-round surprise, to be sure, but definitely the potential to do that. Hendrix might look a little inconsistent over the past couple of years, but the offense has only struggled if Seth Peters has been out. He's been healthy all season and the Warriors have been tough to stop. If they can get some defensive stops, they'll be in good shape.
Adam: Hardin-Simmons. First there was the regular season letdown against East Texas Baptist. Now, the Cowboys will have a postseason letdown in their first-round rematch against the Crusaders.
Frank: Hardin-Simmons. This is due to a combination of issues. First, their ETBU loss should not have been a close game, regardless of the field conditions. The Cru's win vs. ETBU would tell me that they woke up since the Cowboys beat them by three points on Halloween, as field conditions and home-field advantage don't account for a 53-point differential. I think the Cru get revenge after being shocked, and they cut short a dream season for the Cowboys.
Ryan: The host teams. In no other bracket do the host teams seem as susceptible as in this one. Cortland State, Huntingdon and Hardin-Simmons could all be defeated by the close of business on Saturday, and while I don’t begrudge any of these three teams the opportunity to host (based on the criteria, they’ve earned it), these are some tough first-round draws.
Keith: Linfield. The Wildcats again come into a postseason with great expectations, as they should. Since losing at UW-Whitewater last season in a semifinal it could well have won, Linfield hasn't made a single misstep. But the potential for another meeting with Mary Hardin-Baylor offers the possibility for symmetry with last season. Last year, the Cru were the nation's No. 2 team, siphoning No. 1 votes and playing at home when one-loss Linfield went to Texas and pulled the upset. The teams are pretty evenly matched, both strong on defense, especially against the run, dangerous on special teams and balanced on offense, and the surprise could go the other way.
Pat: Hardin-Simmons. I don't envision a repeat of the regular-season game and expect Mary Hardin-Baylor to finally come out charged up from the opening kickoff and put all that playoff experience to use. Of course, containing Weston Garner, Jessie Ramos, Korey Zavala and the rest of the HSU front four is easier said than done.
LAST TEAM STANDING
Adam: Linfield. This team will go far.
Frank: Linfield. I'm going to believe all those fans suggesting this is the best Linfield team since [insert year here] -- but I feel like I've heard this many times in the past decade. Part of me feels the Northwest Conference is down this year, leading to those statements, but I don't see them losing in their first three games.
Ryan: Linfield. I’m one of the six who have the Wildcats on his ballot in the No. 1 position. I’m as confident now as ever that they’ll advance through the bracket.
Keith: UMHB. The smart thinking is to take Linfield. But I'm not that smart. It's probably a toss-up game if these two end up facing off, and as the “underdogs,” the Cru would be able to play loose while trying to avenge last year's 31-28 second-round loss.
Pat: Linfield. If you have trouble containing Zavala and Garner, wait until you see Alex Hoff and Sam Riddle.
Adam: UW-Whitewater. Is anything UW-W does in the postseason surprising? UW-Oshkosh was clearly the better WIAC team during the regular season, but the Warhawks will surprise the Titans with their most complete performance since the Sept. 24 win at Morningside.
Frank: Franklin. I think I've picked Franklin for this spot before (see 2014, when Wabash proved me wrong). However, I'm a headstrong Italian (shocking, I know) and think this Grizz team has enough to get past ONU and to at least challenge Oshkosh.
Ryan: Ohio Northern. The 31st team into the playoffs has an opportunity to show the nation that the OAC is more than Mount Union and (to a lesser extent) John Carroll. Coach Dean Paul has taken a young team that was short on defense in 2014 and turned it into a winner.
Keith: Ohio Northern. The most surprising team in the field is also the one the in best position to do something unexpected. Wheaton, UW-Whitewater or UW-Oshkosh winning games, or the bracket, wouldn't be too much of a stunner. The Polar Bears, on the other hand, can rise from team No. 31 in to one of the final 16 by winning at Franklin (both are 8-2), and they're playing with house money after that. ONU is not one of the best 32 teams in the country in anything but fewest penalty yards, net punting and passing yards allowed, so it'll have to do something unexpected. But they're in position.
Pat: UW-Whitewater. Partially just because I'm not sure I've ever been able to say that before. (Checks 2010 predictions, phew.) But in all honesty, despite my assertions that Ohio Northern doesn't belong in the field if UW-Platteville isn't also in it, I think they'll win that first-round game and get an all-expenses paid trip to Oshkosh, Wis.
Adam: Franklin. The Grizzlies continued their regular season dominance of the HCAC and earned a home game against the most surprising at-large entrant. But the Polar Bears will do just enough to slow Franklin’s potent offense and pull out a narrow victory.
Frank: Ohio Northern. When we did the Mock Selection Show last weekend, ONU's resume didn't impress me, especially in a seemingly weaker Ohio Athletic Conference. The John Carroll win doesn't strike me as powerful as it would have last year, making me have doubts that ONU makes much of an impression in the field.
Ryan: Wheaton. There’s undoubtedly a weight on a team’s shoulders when the defending national champions are poised to pounce right around the corner. Many teams can get caught looking ahead in a situation like this. I’m not sure we’ll get the blowout win over Lakeland that many people would expect, and Wheaton doesn’t seem likely to stay in the dance past the second round.
Keith: Wheaton. The Thunder have reached the plateau where they're always good enough to make the playoffs and advance, but can't be counted on to beat other elite teams. In Wheaton's 11-8 playoff history, it is 9-0 in first-round games, and the losses have come against Mount Union (six times), John Carroll and Bethel. This year, it could win another first-round matchup and lose in Round 2 to UW-Whitewater (the teams last met in 1937), and it would be a disappointment. The Thunder have a special player in linebacker Adam Dansdill and an outstanding defense as part of a traditionally stout team. But unless it can get through two WIAC teams and get over the Mount Union hump, a trip to Salem will elude the Thunder.
Pat: None. Of the top three seeds in this quadrant of the bracket, none of them will lose to any of the bottom five, and the top three are so closely packed in the Top 10 (No. 3, No. 6, No. 5) that the only true disappointment is that they are all in the same bracket.
LAST TEAM STANDING
Adam: UW-Whitewater. The two-time defending champs will not go quietly in Kevin Bullis’ first postseason as head coach.
Frank: UW-Whitewater. They're the defending national champion. They haven't lost a playoff game prior to the Stagg Bowl in over a decade. I can't see this changing in their first three playoff games this year.
Ryan: UW-Oshkosh. For all the talk about the committee putting UW-Whitewater and Mount Union on the same side of the bracket, and thus definitively negating another Purple Powers Stagg Bowl, I think this is the year that Whitewater doesn’t even get the opportunity to face Mount Union. An Oshkosh win in the regional final would vindicate the selection committee to an extent and help to refocus the narrative of the national semifinal matchups. Oh, and Oshkosh is darned good, so there’s that.
Keith: UW-Whitewater. UW-Oshkosh would play a rematch of its 10-7 win at home, and the first win was no fluke; the Warhawks were only able to grind out 76 rushing yards on 32 carries. That's not typical Whitewater, but neither was the Oshkosh offense typical in that game. The Titans scored in the 30s on nearly everyone else. A rematch of a three-point clash, in both this case and the one in Texas, may go to the team more used to grinding out playoff wins. Sure, we'd all like to see some new (or semi-new) faces in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, but would anyone be surprised by another Mount Union/UW-Whitewater game?
Pat: This is a too-close-to-call type of situation. I know I have to pick someone, so I will put in UW-Oshkosh in this space, but I don't have a clear favorite.
Check back in after the Stagg Bowl
This might be the last Around the Nation column for a few weeks, but it won’t be the last one for the year. In the days after the nation’s best meet in Salem, I’ll put out ATN’s year in review.
The column will be an expansive recap at the great performance and the thrilling games of 2015. I’ll also revisit many of the expert panel’s picks from our preseason publication, Kickoff 2015. And just a refresher from that panel, only one person picked a Whitewater-Mount Union Stagg Bowl, and three of the five panelists still have all four semifinalists alive, even though they were picked before a single game was played. We’ll see over the next five weeks how close our crystal ball was on those picks and more.