Re-ranking the conferences in 2017

UW-Stout celebrates
UW-Stout's win vs. St. Thomas in Week 2 was not only big for the program, it was big for the WIAC as well.
Photo by Caleb Williams, d3photography.com

By Adam Turer

It’s that time of year where we re-rank the conferences.

Recent conference rankings

2017 preseason *
2016 midseason
2016 preseason *
2015 midseason

* subscription required

With constant conference shifting, this task becomes more of a challenge each year. Ten-team leagues are hard to judge, as teams play just one non-conference game each. Some leagues, like the ASC and WIAC, have difficulty finding Division III opponents to schedule with before conference play begins. Other leagues, such as the ODAC, still have non-conference games to play even as we reach the midway point of the season. As always, the insular NESCAC is omitted from these rankings, until they decide to add some non-conference games to the schedule.

Seven out of the 27 D-III conferences are without a winless team: ASC, CCIW, OAC, ODAC, LL, SAA, and WIAC. In the ODAC, every team has at least two wins, impressive considering that there’s only been one week of conference play.

The ASC, CC, NCAC, E8, OAC, PAC, MAC, and WIAC all have multiple undefeated teams. There are at least five conferences that can make a viable claim to be ranked at the top, or at least in the top two.

But one conference continues its reign as the cream of the Division III crop. When your perennial Stagg Bowl contender has its worst start in nearly two decades and the rest of the league picks up the slack, you know you are a notch above the rest.

Without further ado, here is your conference re-rank, updated from Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan’s preseason rankings featured in Kickoff (subscription required).  

1. Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 1
            Non-conference record: 17-5
            Signature win: UW-Stout 25, St. Thomas 22

The WIAC has been represented in 10 of the past 12 Stagg Bowls. Even though UW-Whitewater’s reign might be over, UW-Oshkosh has picked up the torch. UW-Platteville is not far behind, and UW-Stout’s signature win over the Tommies further established the WIAC’s place on top of Division III.

2. American Southwest Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 4
            Non-conference record: 6-4
            Signature win: Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Linfield 3

If only these teams could convince other D-III teams to make the trek to Texas. I loved to see Southwestern playing at Denison and hope we see more of that kind of matchup in years to come. Two top-five teams (UMHB and Hardin-Simmons), the defending national champion (UMHB), and programs on the rise (Sul Ross State, Southwestern) plus a solid East Texas Baptist give the ASC plenty of strong arguments. We just don’t know how to value those non-Division III opponents.

3. Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 2
            Non-conference record: 10-8
            Signature win: Concordia-Moorhead 25, UW-Whitewater 17

The Cobbers adding a third ranked team to this league certainly helps. The Tommie-Johnnie game was a spectacle, but was also decided by just three points. Both of those teams have a realistic chance to advance to the semifinals, and Concordia-Moorhead could make this a three-bid league. Six teams sit at .500 or better.

4. Ohio Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 3
            Non-conference record: 8-2
            Signature win: Heidelberg 40, Olivet 24

Hard to judge a 10-team league where every team has just one non-conference game. But two national semifinalists last year, the Purple Raiders being the Purple Raiders, and the Student Princes looking like a viable contender boosts the OAC from last year’s re-rank. Wilmington already has two wins this year, so the bottom of the conference is much higher than in recent years past, too.

5. College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin

            Kickoff ranking: 7
            Non-conference record: 11-7

            Signature win: Illinois Wesleyan 17, UW-Whitewater 10

OK, so that signature win isn’t quite as impressive as you may have thought when it happened. But this is another league with three Top 25 teams, plus a 4-1 Carthage team. Millikin defeated a defending conference champion and playoff team on the road (Rose-Hulman). No team has two losses, but no team has two wins. The CCIW needs more strength in the middle.

6. New Jersey Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 8
            Non-conference record: 3-6
            Signature win: Frostburg State 33, Stevenson 7

Three winless teams drag this league down. But there are four teams — Frostburg State, Salisbury, Wesley, Christopher Newport — who have the potential to win a game or two if they make it into the postseason. That’s a lot of strength at the top.

7. Northwest Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 6
            Non-conference record: 8-8
            Signature win: George Fox 13, Redlands 10

After Linfield’s uninspiring loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor, it looked like a down year for the NWC. But the Wildcats bounced back with a convincing victory over then-ranked conference foe Whitworth. The Bruins have been the most inspiring story in the conference, losing by just two to UW-Platteville. This league is still a threat to advance a team to the semifinals.

8. Empire 8

            Kickoff ranking: 5
            Non-conference record: 11-6
            Signature win: Brockport 34, Hobart 20

Brockport has been one of the most impressive teams in the country so far this season. The Golden Eagles have even overshadowed defending champion Alfred’s undefeated start. The main thing dragging this league down is a shockingly winless St. John Fisher.

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9. Centennial Conference

Kickoff ranking: 14
Non-conference record: 7-3
Signature win: Johns Hopkins 32, Washington and Lee 29 (OT)

This used to be a one- or two-team league. Now, there are six solid squads. Susquehanna is on the rise; Ursinus and Franklin and Marshall remain undefeated. The dominant team of the past decade, Johns Hopkins, still has a chance to win the title. Only one non-con game makes comparison difficult, but this is the deepest the CC has been in years.

10. Presidents’ Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 12
            Non-conference record: 9-12
            Signature win: Thomas More 47, Franklin 37

Surprising that the league’s best non-conference win came from its biggest in-conference disappointment. The Saints are shockingly 0-3 in league play. But, Washington and Jefferson, Case Western Reserve, and Carnegie Mellon are picking up the slack. All three undefeated teams seem like viable playoff contenders. And Grove City has won two in a row after going winless since 2013.

Coe celebrates during rout of Cornell
Coe was the Iowa Conference's playoff representative last year.
Photo by Russ DeHoedt, d3photography.com

11. Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 13
            Non-conference record: 11-6
            Signature win: Coe 13, UW-River Falls 9

Nebraska Wesleyan is winless, but every other team has at least two victories. Wartburg has been flying under the national radar, but is in the driver’s seat to reclaim the IIAC crown. One of the more wide-open conferences with several contenders.

12. Middle Atlantic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 10
            Non-conference record: 4-6
            Signature win: Delaware Valley 24, Wesley 19

Two undefeated teams, but weakness at the bottom of the standings. Delaware Valley and Albright still have much to prove, despite impressive regular season wins over Wesley and Salisbury, respectively.

13. Old Dominion Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 11
            Non-conference record: 13-9
            Signature win: Bridgewater 25, Thomas More 23

There have been some good losses, too, but we don’t count those. Every team has at least two wins, and this is the most wide-open conference in all of D-III. Looking forward to what #ODACtion has in store for us in the second half of the season. All seven teams remain squarely in contention.

14. Liberty League

            Kickoff ranking: 9
            Non-conference record: 13-9
            Signature win: Hobart 56, Shenandoah 30

The good news is, Ithaca appears to be back under first-year head coach Dan Swanstrom. The bad news is the rest of the league is down. No dominant team, no impressive non-conference victories, and no team that appears to be a threat to make it past the first round of the postseason. Plus, Springfield, WPI and Merchant Marine, who finished in the middle of the conference standings last year, are no longer LL members.

15. North Coast Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 16
            Non-conference record: 8-2
            Signature win: DePauw 41, Mount St. Joseph 30

Strength at the top for the second straight year. Wittenberg, DePauw, and Wabash will duke it out for the automatic Pool A berth. Denison has proven a worthy competitor and the bottom of the league — Hiram and Allegheny — has risen off the mat to push the top teams in the NCAC.

16. Southern Athletic Association

            Kickoff ranking: 15
            Non-conference record: 13-5
            Signature win: Berry 30, Maryville 24

No winless teams, a handful of contenders, and a ranked undefeated leader. Losing last year’s champ, Wash. U., actually strengthened the conference in 2017, as the Bears are having a down year. Berry looks like a team that can win a first round game, but the Vikings have their work cut out for them in conference play. That’s how it should be.

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17. Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association

            Kickoff ranking: 17
            Non-conference record: 12-10
            Signature win: Hope 37, Lakeland 35

This is where the line is drawn. A first-round win, subject to the NCAA’s placement of conference champions in Round One, would be an upset. Although Trine’s defense may have something to say about this. The Thunder are one of the most under-the-radar teams of 2017. Oops, did I just put Trine on the proverbial radar?

18. New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 18
            Non-conference record: 12-10
            Signature win: Springfield 35, Western New England 21

MIT is 4-1! Springfield is undefeated and might run the table! Plenty for this newly formed conference to be excited about. But, we can’t overlook two winless programs at Maine Maritime and Norwich. Once those programs turn things around, this conference has potential to move up.

19. Midwest Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 23
            Non-conference record: 8-12
            Signature win: Monmouth 27, Hope 20

Lake Forest remains unbeaten and Knox is off to its best start in over a decade. But the bottom half of the league struggled in non-conference play, and the competition wasn’t overwhelming. Although division play has yet to start, the teams played two weeks (some played more) of cross-divisional competition, so the 12 teams played just 20 non-conference games. This league seems to always have a solid 9-1 or 10-0 team, but can’t make its way beyond the middle-back of the pack.

20. Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 24
            Non-conference record: 9-8
            Signature win: Framingham State 29, Cortland 14

A somewhat surprisingly strong showing from one of the many northeastern conferences that often find themselves ranking in the mid-twenties. A winning non-conference record and an undefeated team help buoy the MASCAC.

Salve Regina standing
Salve Regina has often scheduled tough non-conference games and is usually in the conference title hunt as well.
Salve Regina athletics photo

21. Commonwealth Coast Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 21
            Non-conference record: 12-16
            Signature win: Curry 15, MIT 7

No conference games yet and only one of six teams is winless, while three teams have three wins apiece. The new CCC/old NEFC is basically in about the same spot as it used to be, where losing Maine Maritime is a benefit and losing Coast Guard and MIT are kind of a wash.

22. USA South Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 20
            Non-conference record: 6-13
            Signature win: Ferrum 13, Emory and Henry 8

Even the 6-13 record is deceiving, but Ferrum’s win vs. Apprentice is more than balanced out by Methodist playing an FCS program and N.C. Wesleyan playing Mount Union. No ranked teams and no dominant leader makes this evaluation even more difficult and shows how subjective these rankings can be. Five teams, rather than two, fighting for the top spot makes the league stronger, in my opinion.

23. Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 19
            Non-conference record: 6-9
            Signature win: Pomona-Pitzer 38, Rhodes 31

The Sagehens took a long trip and came away with a satisfying win. Tough scheduling against the NWC (and an ODAC team — love when teams are willing to play long distance non-con games) led to another losing non-conference record. No clear front-runner, and a couple of teams who will fight to avoid going winless.

24. Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 22
            Non-conference record: 3-15
            Signature win: Mount St. Joseph 38, Capital 20

The non-conference record speaks for itself, and it isn’t pretty. The top is thin, with three teams in contention. The biggest problem is that there appears to be no middle. The bottom six teams are off to bad starts, combining for just five wins through 27 games.

25. Eastern Collegiate Football Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 26
            Non-conference record: 9-15
            Signature win: SUNY-Maritime 38, Merchant Marine 31

SUNY-Maritime remains undefeated and wants ‘Bama, if you’ve noticed the signs on College Gameday. But this league remains bottom-heavy, with three teams winless at 0-4.

26. Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 25
            Non-conference record: 6-14
            Signature win: Benedictine 29, St. Norbert 7

Some fun teams and players at the top, but this conference still struggles to compete against bigger programs. The MIAA once again dominated the MIAA-NACC challenge series.

27. Upper Midwest Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 27
            Non-conference record: 1-7
            Signature win: MacMurray 22, Rockford 14

The signature score from the non-conference slate was St. Scholastica’s 98-0 loss to St. John’s. When your conference’s best team struggles so mightily to compete, it reflects on the rest of the league. The UMAC’s playoff representative will most likely once again be on the receiving end of the most lopsided playoff score, while a second- or third-place team from the power conferences sits at home in the postseason.

There you have it. For more references, I encourage you to take a look at the first Strength of Schedule rankings and our friend Logan Hansen’s ratings. Now, go debate the rankings in the comment section and on Twitter.

The loss of a legend

Muhlenberg head coach Mike Donnelly passed away on Wednesday. The man they call “Duke” is the winningest coach in Mules history. Even more impressive is his Division III coaching tree. Donnelly was always great to this site and its writers and he will be greatly missed. He impacted the lives of so many people and his legacy and life will be celebrated for years to come. Our hearts are with the Mules community and the Donnelly family this week.

Players’ Corner

As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. Wilmington, Grove City, and Howard Payne have all snapped seasons-long losing streaks immediately after being featured in this space this season. I’m not saying, I’m just saying. If you need some good juju for your team, you might want to reach out to me soon. This week, we hear from Maine Maritime Academy senior quarterback Corey Creeger.

Corey Creeger running the ball, as Maine Maritime Academy quarterbacks do.

I fell in love with football as I was growing up. My dad got me into it as we would play catch and such and then got me into peewee football and I guess it just took off from there.

I still love football because it’s a way to release the stress of the day. I can always count on going out on the field and giving it all I have and know that no matter what, all I had to focus on was the game itself.

The Mariners will try to snap an 11-game losing streak this Saturday at MIT. If they do, I will take at least partial credit for the win.

If you or someone you know would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.

What do you know? Do you know things? Let's find out!

There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com. Thanks for reading!

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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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