Year in review: The year everything changed

There were plenty of fireworks throughout the season, but at this year's Stagg Bowl, they were confined to the pregame and postgame celebrations.
Photo by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com

Dom Todarello and UW-Oshkosh put up just enough offense to get to Salem, and the Titans were oh-so-close to bringing home the Walnut and Bronze.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com 
Monmouth got shut down by the Coe defense, then the St. Thomas defense shut down Coe's Trevor Heitland, then St. Thomas turned it over eight times to UW-Oshkosh and Mary Hardin-Baylor finished it off with a 10-7 win vs. UW-Oshkosh.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
Carroll's first season in the CCIW was a painful one, to be sure.
d3photography.com photo

As Pat Coleman said in the final Around the Nation podcast after Friday’s Stagg Bowl, this is the year that everything changed.

We had a first-time Division III national champion for the first time since 2007. Mount Union lost a regular season game for the first time since 2005, fell short of Salem for the first time since 2004, and failed to win the OAC for the first time since 1994.

The WIAC turned in a season for the ages, with three teams making the playoffs and UW-Oshkosh advancing all the way to the Stagg Bowl for the first time in program history.

The Titans advanced to Salem by scoring enough to defeat John Carroll, one of this season’s biggest surprises. The Blue Streaks won at Mount Union in the regular season finale to clinch an outright OAC title for the first time since 1989, then defeated UW-Whitewater on the road to advance to the national semifinals for the second time in program history.

Even after the season ended, the changes continued. Head coach Tom Arth left John Carroll to take the head coaching position at Division I FCS University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Dan Pifer, who turned Olivet from an 0-10 team in 2012 to a 9-2 playoff team this year, left for Division II Walsh. Arth’s departure marked the third straight season that a head coach of a Division III contender made the leap directly to the Division I head coaching ranks.

This was also the year that defense made a triumphant return. Coe forced nine turnovers in a first-round playoff win over Monmouth. UW-Oshkosh forced eight St. Thomas turnovers in a quarterfinal victory. The national semifinals and Stagg Bowl featured teams that averaged 44 points per game heading into the semifinal round. Those four teams combined to score a total of 56 points in the semifinals and championship game. Scores of 10-3, 14-12, and 10-7 decided this year’s national champion, Mary Hardin-Baylor. Those four teams finished the season in the top 13 in the nation in scoring defense; none of the four gave up more than 14.1 points per game, despite facing the stiffest postseason competition. Mary Hardin-Baylor allowed 14 points in the first quarter of the playoff opener against Redlands. The Cru gave up just 59 points over the remaining 19 quarters of postseason play.

The Crusaders earned the attention of many top 25 voters with their 66-27 win over then-third-ranked Linfield in Week 3. Mary Hardin-Baylor earned three first-place votes after the win and continued to gain more votes and momentum throughout the season, but did not crack the top spot until Mount Union suffered its first loss in the regular season finale. Kudos to the pollsters for correctly selecting the Cru as the top team entering the playoffs and congrats to the Cru for playing up to those expectations.

What will next year bring? The top defenders from both Stagg Bowl teams graduate — UMHB’s Teidrick Smith, Baylor Mullins, and Matt Cody; UW-Oshkosh’s Johnny Eagan, Reese Dziedzic, and Cameron Brown. The coaching staff’s departure leaves John Carroll as an unknown. Was this a one-year blip of dominant defenses carrying the day? Two of the four semifinalists started a freshman at quarterback. Offense could return with a vengeance in 2017. But we’re not going to look too far ahead to 2017 just yet. Enjoy your moment, Crusaders.

We already know in some certain ways how different 2017 will be. Goodbye, NEFC. Hello, NEWMAC and CCC. The conference shake-up continues to evolve and we’ll keep you updated of any more announcements this offseason. We’ll also keep you updated as the coaching carousel continues to spin. Who will get to take over the team that finished ranked third in the final Top 25 poll now that Arth has left John Carroll? How will Dan Swanstrom handle his first year as Ithaca head coach after Mike Welch’s 23-year reign? More changes are on the horizon in 2017.

Looking back at how right and wrong we were

While it’s too early to predict the 2017 season, this is just the time to look back on our 2016 predictions. In the year that everything changed, expectations for our preseason panel are low. Who among Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan, Ryan Tipps, Frank Rossi, Josh Smith, and myself was the most prescient back in August?  Before we break down the predictions, bonus points to Keith, who correctly hit on four of his six deep sleeper picks in Kickoff. Husson, Monmouth, Stevenson, and Hobart all made the 2016 playoffs despite entering the season ranked outside of the Top 25 and missing the playoffs in 2015. Now, on to the 20 questions and their answers:

Which will be the last team chosen in Pool C, and what will their record be?

Frank correctly predicted UW-Platteville at 8-2. Kudos to the NCAA selection committee for recognizing the strength of the WIAC this year and including the Pioneers in the tournament. Pat and Josh also predicted playoff entrants, but John Carroll and UW-Whitewater earned their respective conference’s Pool A berths.

Which team will be the most surprising playoff entry?

Goose egg. While there were some surprising playoff teams this year, not one of us correctly predicted this category. Trinity (Texas), Rowan, Concordia-Moorhead, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Case Western Reserve, and Muhlenberg all fell short, some moreso than others. Credit to Ryan for predicting the Mules would finish 9-1, but the committee did not find that resumé worthy, so no points awarded here.

Will UW-Whitewater and Mount Union meet in Stagg Bowl XLIV?

We made up for the prior question by all correctly predicting that no, this wasn’t going to be the matchup in Salem this year. Everybody gets a point.

Who will reach the national semifinals?

Every team picked here did make the playoffs and win at least one game, so that’s good. Four of us included Mary Hardin-Baylor. Josh didn’t, but he was the only one to hit on UW-Oshkosh. Everyone picked Mount Union and Linfield, four of us had the Cru, four had St. Thomas, three had UW-Whitewater, and one had UW-Oshkosh. Nobody picked more than two correctly, though, and Keith had just one (Mount Union). 0.5 points for everyone but Keith, who gets 0.25.  Everyone who picked Mary Hardin-Baylor also picked Linfield. Looking back, we should have known that one of those teams was guaranteed a regular season loss on September 17, so the committee placing them in the same region of the tournament shouldn’t have been so far-fetched.

Who will win the national title?

Another whiff. In the year of unpredictability, nobody even came that close. Josh picked Mount Union, a semifinalist. Three of us guessed Linfield, with two picking UW-Whitewater. Better luck next year, guys.

Which state will Mary Hardin-Baylor's first playoff opponent hail from?

Only Josh correctly guessed California. The Cru hosted Redlands in the opening round. Again, props to the committee for surprising us and giving Hardin-Simmons an opportunity to face someone besides the Cru in the opening round. Four of us thought we’d see another Texas battle in round one. Pat thought Hendrix would be the choice. Point for Josh.

Which 2015 playoff team will have the worst fall-off, record-wise?

Frank and I picked Washington and Lee, which lost four games after running the regular season table in 2015. The Generals still managed to finish second in the ODAC, one game behind Randolph-Macon. Lakeland, Josh’s pick, returned to the playoffs despite winning one fewer game in 2016. Ryan went with Framingham State, which missed the playoffs but still won seven regular season games. Keith’s pick of La Verne looked like a winner, as the Leopards went from 7-2 to 2-7. But nobody except Pat Coleman could have guessed that 9-1 Albion would only win one regular season game in 2016. The Britons finished 1-9, the biggest drop-off I believe this category has ever seen.

Which team will have the best improvement over its 2015 record?

Cal Lutheran once again finished 4-5, Bethel stayed at 5-5, Ithaca improved by one game to 5-5, and MIT improved by one game to 3-7. Pat predicted Pacific Lutheran would improve, and the Lutes did, finishing 5-4 after a disappointing 2-7 season. But Josh’s pick, North Central, finished 11-1 after going 7-3 and missing the playoffs in 2015. Both improved their regular season win total by three, but the Cardinals also earned a playoff victory.

But, nobody predicted Coe would turn last year’s 4-6 disappointment into the fuel that led to an 11-win 2016 campaign. Special mention to Hope and Southwestern, which both improved from two wins to seven this year.

Will Jordan Roberts and Sam Benger each rush for more than 2,000 yards again?

We did not foresee Roberts missing nearly the entire season. In fact, we featured the St. Thomas running back in Kickoff, focusing on how he played through injuries in his historic 2015 season. Another injury derailed Roberts’ 2016 campaign. Benger had another great season, finishing third in the nation with 1,671 rushing yards. Only Frank correctly predicted that neither back would eclipse the 2,000-yard mark in 2016.

Who will be the D3football.com offensive & defensive players of the year?

It’s not easy to play up to the pressure of such high expectations. We talked to both Sam Riddle and Teidrick Smith in Kickoff about the different pressures they faced heading into their senior seasons. Both the Linfield quarterback and Mary Hardin-Baylor defensive end lived up to the hype. Five of us correctly predicted that the duo would be our players of the year. Josh thought Roberts would win the offensive award. One of the highlights of the season was watching the friendship and mutual respect between these two players grow. After Riddle’s team eliminated Smith’s in 2015, the Cru returned the favor this year, handing the Wildcats their only two losses in 2016. We will miss this individual rivalry between two players who lifted their teams to great heights.

Will FDU-Florham-to-Mount Union transfer Malik Pressley be the next Pierre Garcon, Chris Denton or Germany Woods? (Will he be a star, a good player or non-factor?)

Pressley, who caught 89 passes and 18 touchdowns at FDU-Florham last year, was a complete non-factor for the Purple Raiders. He only appeared in three games and did not register a statistic. Pat correctly compared Pressley’s impact to that of Woods — minimal.

How will Carroll fare in its first year in the CCIW?

After a 6-4 (4-1) final season in the MWC, Carroll received a rude welcome to the CCIW. The Pioneers finished 1-9, winning one conference game in their first season back in the CCIW. Our expectations were much higher, with only three predicting a losing record for Carroll this year, all at 4-6. No points awarded here. 

Which future NEWMAC team will have the best record in its farewell year?

The best overall record goes to WPI, which finished 6-4, but just 3-4 in Liberty League play, a game behind Springfield and Merchant Marine in the conference standings. Keith picked Norwich, which finished 5-5. Keith also picked WPI. Everyone else picked just one team (three for Norwich, one for MIT (3-7), one for Springfield (5-5). Half a point for Keith, begrudgingly.

Who will win the SAA?

Nobody foresaw Washington U. earning the conference’s automatic bid. Hopes were high for Hendrix, which finished in fourth place at 7-3 (5-3). The other two picks went to Berry, which finished with the best overall record at 9-1 and tied Wash U. for the conference title. The Bears earned the automatic bid via tiebreaker thanks to a head-to-head win over the Vikings. Half a point to me and Keith for picking Berry.

How many PAC teams go undefeated?

This was essentially a question about Thomas More and Case Western Reserve, since the two didn’t play each other this season. That left open the possibility of two teams making it through the season with a perfect record in conference play. It nearly happened, but Case Western Reserve was defeated by Carnegie Mellon in the season finale. The Saints survived unscathed and earned the league’s automatic bid. Points to me, Ryan, and Josh for guessing only one PAC team would make it through undefeated.  

Which team that went winless in 2015 will win the most games in 2016?

Allegheny got in the win column once; UW-Eau Claire, Gallaudet, and Southern Virginia won twice; and Union and McDaniel each won three games. Earlham, Grove City, Lewis and Clark, and Whittier all finished winless again. Frank and I correctly predicted Union, and Ryan hit on McDaniel. Josh and Pat were close with UW-Eau Claire, and Keith picked Allegheny.

Which team with a new coach will have the biggest gain in the win column?

Springfield improved by one game, Hanover by two, and Union by three. Williams and Simpson took steps backwards. Ryan, the southwestern Virginia native, correctly picked a team he saw transform up close. Ferrum, led by Rob Grande, broke through for a four-win improvement, finishing 6-4.

What will be the most surprising upset of the season?

Adam: St. Olaf over Gustavus Adolphus. I’ve got so many Golden Girls references I’ve been saving for this moment. The Oles lost 23-3. Guess I’ll have to wait until next year to blow my own vetügenflüken.

Ryan: Muhlenberg over Johns Hopkins on Sept. 24. The Mules nearly pulled it off, falling 30-24 after leading at halftime. It was Muhlenberg’s only loss of the regular season.

Frank: Rowan defeats Wesley on Oct. 24, part of a bounce-back season for the Profs. Another near miss, as the Profs rallied from a 24-3 deficit but came up short, falling 24-17.

Josh: Northwestern (Minn.) knocks off St. Scholastica on Oct. 15. Josh gets the win, as he predicted the upset that gave the Eagles the UMAC title and their first automatic playoff berth. Northwestern knocked off the Saints, 14-7.

Keith: UW-Eau Claire over UW-Platteville, Nov. 5. I'm buying on Dan Larson. The Pioneers defeated the Blugolds 56-0.

Pat: Ithaca over Cortland, Nov. 12. Gotta get that Jug back someday. Mike Welch’s final game was a loss, as Cortland retained the Cortaca Jug with a 28-16 win.

Nobody predicted John Carroll snapping Mount Union’s 112-game regular season winning streak, which many believe was the most surprising upset of the season.

Alma mater excluded, which game are you most anticipating?

Three people went the obvious route, picking Linfield at Mary Hardin-Baylor on Sept. 17. That game turned into a blowout in the second half, and was the turning point for the Cru’s championship run. Josh and Frank were both looking forward to conference rivalries that ultimately decided the WIAC and MIAC crowns; all four teams made the playoffs. I was looking forward to Earlham getting Nick Johnson his first win as head coach. That didn’t happen this year, but Johnson and his family were featured in an Around the Nation column and on ESPN College GameDay this season.

And lastly, will you give us a one-sentence prediction we're unlikely to see anywhere else?

Adam: This year’s national semifinals will be decided by ten points or fewer, combined. (Nailed it. Defense was the story of the semifinals, which were decided by nine points combined.)

Ryan: I will have no speaking roles in podcasts or game-day broadcasts this season -- and I like it that way! (Accurate, but you’re always welcome to contribute next year.)

Frank: No independent teams will make the playoffs in 2016. (No, Maranatha Baptist, Alfred State, and Finlandia didn’t make the playoffs. Not really going out on a limb here.)

Josh: There will only be one purple team in the Stagg Bowl this year. (Josh not only got this right, but he correctly predicted that UW-Oshkosh would be the non-purple team to break through. Well done, sir.)

Keith: All the Around the Nation podcast episodes will clock in at under one hour. (Close, but not quite.)

Pat: None of the predictions in this box will come true. (Have some faith in us, Pat.)

Final tally: Ryan and Frank tied with 5.5, edging me by half a point. Josh and Pat were next with 4.5, and Keith scored a 3.25.

One person who delivered on his preseason prognostications was Mary Hardin-Baylor defensive end Teidrick Smith, who stated his intent to win national Defensive Player of the Year and, more importantly, deliver his program its first national title.

"A successful season for me means being the best possible leader and teammate that I can be and getting to the national championship and winning,” Smith said in Kickoff. “It's time for our school and Coach Fred to get a championship."

All of the points to Teidrick.

Until next time

This was my first season as Around the Nation columnist and it was an honor to share so many inspiring stories from throughout Division III football. Thank you to all who contributed and all who read. I was impressed by the players who shared their memories of falling in love with the game of football and why they still love it today. That love, camaraderie, and passion were on full display on Friday night in Salem.

All of the stories were inspiring, but I still face a big decision this offseason. My son is 12 and wants to play tackle football for the first time next year, in seventh grade. I am squarely on the fence. If you’re reading this, you’re most likely firmly on one side of this debate. But I welcome any input from any players, coaches, parents, or fans as to why I should or should not let him play. He loves football, especially college football, and specifically Division III football. I just don’t know how much he would benefit from playing the game.

Please feel free to reach out to me in the comments, on Twitter, or by email this offseason to keep the football discussion going. Thank you to everyone who made this 2016 season so special. Everything changed, but the passion for D-III football has never been higher. 

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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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