Playing up to expectations

Jacques Perra and the Tommies have dominated over the second half of the season. Can they carry that momentum all the way to Salem? 
Photo by Caleb Williams, d3photography.com 

By Adam Turer

Every Division III football player wants to eat Thanksgiving dinner in his on-campus dining hall. That means there's still football being played. 

In a few hours, we'll find out exactly which 32 teams earned that opportunity to play deep into November. 

Making the playoffs is every team's goal, and the expectation of many programs. The 32-team tournament format is the best in all of football. Congratulations to the 25 teams who have clinched their spot in Week 12 by winning their conference's automatic bid. We can safely congratulate Pool B at-large teams, too. Mary Hardin-Baylor, the defending national champion, carries a 25-game winning streak into the postseason. Springfield completed a perfect season, securing the program's first 10-win season since 2006. The Cru and the Pride are in. 

You've probably seen our projected playoff bracket by now. You know that the selection show will reveal the committee's bracket at 5:30 this evening. There is plenty to look forward to. So now, let's take a look back. 

If you were wise enough to order Kickoff back in August, you had the opportunity to read a comprehensive preview of all 249 teams in the country, from Mary Hardin-Baylor to Finlandia. By combing through each conference prediction, we compiled a projected playoff field before the season even began. 

Three weeks ago, as conference races were coming down to the wire, I took another crack at projecting the 32-team field

Plenty of teams played up to their expectations this year. Only a few fell short, and often not by much. As we await tonight's bracket release, let's kill some time looking back on whose names we thought we'd hear called tonight, and find out what happened to those teams whose seasons ended earlier than expected. 

Predicted, played up to it, clinched

The following teams played with a target on their backs all season. They were predicted back in Kickoff to win their conference, I picked them to clinch three weeks ago, and they delivered. 

Centennial: Johns Hopkins. Even though the Blue Jays suffered their first conference loss since 2012, the Blue Jays bounced back to clinch their seventh straight conference championship and playoff berth. But that one loss could end up being the difference tonight when we find out if the Blue Jays will be hosting at Homewood Field or taking to the road for round one. 

CCC: Western New England. The Golden Bears struggled out of the gate, opening the season 1-2. But those two losses were to eventual playoff clinchers Springfield and RPI. Western New England dominated its conference for the third straight season, going unbeaten in the first year of Commonwealth Coast Conference play. The Golden Bears, winners of the final two NEFC titles, have not lost a conference game since November 1, 2014.

ECFC: Husson. The Eagles ran the table in the ECFC for the third time in four seasons. Their only regular season loss was to Western New England, another playoff team. Gabby Price's squad is used to playing well under high expectations.

HCAC: Franklin. The Grizzlies bounced back after last year's disappointment and an 0-2 start to the 2017 season. Franklin continued its decade of dominance in the conference. The Grizzlies have lost just four conference games since 2007. Their eighth perfect conference slate secured the program's ninth playoff appearance in the past 11 years. 

IIAC: Wartburg. This right here is why you should read Kickoff. The Knights were coming off of a 6-4 season. If you read Kickoff, you learned that three of those losses were by one possession. The Knights were predicted to bounce back and win the conference, and that's exactly what they did. 

MIAC: St. Thomas. The Tommies were upset at UW-Stout in Week 2, but bounced back to go undefeated in MIAC play for the third straight season and sixth time in eight years. There might not be a team in the country clicking in all three phases at the moment the way the Tommies have been over the final half of the regular season.

NACC: Lakeland. The Muskies rolled to another conference championship, but suffered their biggest loss when quarterback Michael Whitley went down with an injury in Week 10. Without their dynamic quarterback, this is a very different team. The Muskies will rely heavily on running back Dezmon Eddie.

NCAC: Wittenberg. Remember what I said about St. Thomas? The Tigers can argue that they've been playing as well as any team in the country all season long. Their closest game was a non-conference win over Westminster (Pa.) in Week 1. Wittenberg went on the road in back-to-back weeks and defeated the second and third place NCAC teams, holding DePauw and Wabash to 20 total points and 473 total yards. That is impressive.

NJAC: Wesley. It wasn't easy for the Wolverines, as they had to fight off Frostburg State in overtime. But they took care of business the rest of the way, winning the program's third straight but first outright conference championship since joining the NJAC. Wesley may ultimately earn a shot at avenging its season-opening loss to Delaware Valley.

NWC: Linfield. I'm still not sure what to make of this year's Wildcats, but I do know that they won their ninth straight conference title. It wasn't necessarily pretty, as the Wildcats eked out consecutive six-point wins over George Fox and Pacific Lutheran (in overtime). Linfield has lost just two conference games over the past ten seasons.

OAC: Mount Union. Last year was the surprise. Yesterday, the Purple Raiders avenged their loss to John Carroll and reclaimed the OAC crown. The Blue Streaks put up a good fight, but it would have been an even bigger surprise if Mount Union went consecutive years without a conference title. 

PAC: Washington and Jefferson. The Presidents shared the title with Case Western Reserve, as both teams completed perfect regular seasons. But, they didn't meet head-to-head, and W&J's conference opponents finished with a better cumulative conference record that CWRU's. And now we do not have to discuss the 2017 PAC tiebreaker ever again.

SAA: Berry. We've seen this program rapidly rise over its five seasons and were not surprised to see the Vikings clinch the program's first playoff berth after falling just short last year. To go from 0-9 to 10-0 and a playoff berth in just five years is remarkable and a testament to coach Tony Kunczewski and his staff's vision and leadership. 

UMAC: Eureka. Another reason to read Kickoff. If you did, you knew that the Red Devils returned 19 starters, positioning them to win their first UMAC title in their final season before moving to the NACC. The Red Devils delivered on the program's highest expectations to date and will enjoy the program's first ever playoff appearance on Saturday. 

USA South: Huntingdon. No surprise here. The Hawks are making their third straight playoff appearance. What's changed the most over these three seasons is the teams nipping at Huntingdon's heels. New head coaches at Ferrum and Averett have turned those programs around, but the Panthers are departing for the ODAC in 2018.  

Surprise, surprise

These conferences did not shake out the way we thought they would in Kickoff. Some results were more surprising than others. 

CCIW. Predicted: Wheaton. Winner: North Central. The Thunder won the Little Brass Bell in dramatic fashion, dominating the second half two days after the game was suspended at halftime due to weather. But that win was not enough to overcome a pair of four-point losses to Illinois Wesleyan and Millikin in consecutive weeks in the middle of the season. The Titans ended up sharing the title with the Cardinals, but North Central earns the Pool A bid by virtue of its head-to-head win. Not much of a surprise, as Kickoff pegged North Central as a playoff team, just via Pool C. 

Empire 8. Predicted: Alfred. Winner: Brockport. As predicted, the conference title was on the line when these two teams met on November 4. What we did not predict was the extent of the breakout season for the Golden Eagles and quarterback Joe Germinerio. The Saxons knocked Germinerio out of the game late, but he should be back for the playoffs after missing Week 11. 

Liberty League. Predicted: Hobart. My Oct. 22 prediction: Ithaca. Winner: RPI. The only conference that was a total whiff. Despite returning so much talent, especially on offense, the Statesmen fell just short. A three-point loss at Ithaca and a five-point loss at Union will keep Hobart out of the playoffs for just the second time in the past six seasons. The Bombers did win a share of the conference title in Dan Swanstrom's first season as head coach, but the Engineers earned the automatic berth by virtue of their October 14 win over Ithaca. That started a streak of five straight wins to close out the season and came one week after RPI lost to Hobart, 30-0. One of the wackiest conferences of the season.

MAC. Predicted: Stevenson. Winner: Delaware Valley. The Mustangs slid all the way back to fourth place in the conference, finishing 6-4. The Aggies dominated from start to finish with a perfect MAC slate and a season-opening win over Wesley, another playoff team. Stevenson lost two of its conference games by seven points or less and remained above .500 for the fourth straight year. 

MASCAC. Predicted: Framingham State. Winner: Plymouth State. Not too far off at all, as these teams tied atop the conference standings. The conference race could not have been much closer. The Panthers advance thanks to their 16-13 overtime home win over the Rams on October 14. Framingham State finishes 9-1 but will most likely be left on the wrong side of the Pool C bubble. 

MIAA. Predicted: Hope. Winner: Trine. Again, not too far off here. Hope finished 8-2 (5-1), and the Flying Dutchmen's showdown with the Thunder was still for the conference title. What we failed to predict was Trine completely dominating the conference, going undefeated and throttling Hope, 50-14. After three straight 6-4 seasons, Trine left no doubts in 2017, outscoring opponents by an average of 46-13. 

MWC. Predicted: St. Norbert. Winner: Monmouth. Much like the MASCAC, this conference race could not have been much closer. The championship game between these two teams yesterday was a defensive battle that went down to the wire. Monmouth prevailed, 9-6, in overtime. 

ODAC. Predicted: Emory and Henry. Winner: Washington & Lee. A lot of people may have assumed I was being a homer when I picked the Generals to win the conference three weeks ago, when the race was still wide open. It came down to four teams with a shot at a share of the title on the final day of regular season play. The Generals handled their business in convincing fashion. Their only conference loss was against the Wasps back on September 30. Emory and Henry's season can best be encapsulated by its regular season finale. The Wasps outgained their opponent 712-373, but lost by four points. Their only conference win was against the Generals. A weird, disappointing 2017 season for the team that was predicted to win the ODAC by both Kickoff and the conference's coaches.

SCIAC. Predicted: Redlands. Winner: Chapman. An 0-2 start and an unexpected bye in Week 11, but the Panthers did nothing but win all of their conference games in between. A 45-26 win over the Bulldogs on October 14 ultimately decided the conference race. It was the only SCIAC loss for Redlands. 

WIAC. Predicted: UW-Whitewater. Winner: UW-Oshkosh. Despite a disappointing three-loss season, the Warhawks did finish in second place at 6-1 in WIAC play. A 37-20 loss to the Titans back on September 30 was part of the 1-3 start that will UW-Whitewater out of the playoffs. 

The fun part

That brings us to the seven at-large bids. No surprise at all that the defending Stagg Bowl champions are in via Pool B. Kickoff predicted Mary Hardin-Baylor's American Southwest Conference mate Hardin-Simmons to earn the other Pool B spot. Few foresaw Springfield running the table and earning a playoff spot for the NEWMAC before the conference obtains its Pool A bid. Here are the at-large predictions made in Kickoff, and in this column three weeks ago.

Kickoff Snap Judgments
Mary Hardin-Baylor Mary Hardin-Baylor
Hardin-Simmons Springfield
Case Western Reserve Hardin-Simmons
North Central Illinois Wesleyan
St. John's St. John's
Whitworth Frostburg State
UW-Oshkosh UW-Platteville

Not bad at all. North Central and UW-Oshkosh earned their playoff berths via Pool A. Kickoff predicted the PAC scenario with two unbeatens. I thought that Carnegie Mellon was going to knock off the Spartans and they really could not have come much closer. I'm still trying to wrap my head around that crazy finish that will almost certainly send CWRU into the playoffs and prevent a 9-1 team from getting in. St. John's, with its only loss to St. Thomas is pretty much a lock for a Pool C bid. 

Only two of these teams played themselves out of the discussion. UW-Platteville had a chance, even if it lost one of its final three games. The Pioneers went out and lost two straight, finishing the season 7-3. A fourth quarter rally after falling behind 24-3 came up short against UW-La Crosse. The next week, turnovers made all the difference in a 17-16 loss to UW-Whitewater. Whitworth finished a respectable 8-2. At 9-1, the Pirates would certainly remain in the Pool C discussion today. A loss to Linfield was expected, but that was followed by a 20-point loss to upstart George Fox. The Bruins and Pirates tied for second place in the NWC.

Illinois Wesleyan, Hardin-Simmons, and Frostburg State should hear their names called today. If I had to predict the order of security these teams should feel as 5:30 approaches, I'd say the Cowboys are the safest, followed by the Titans. After finishing 9-1 and being left out last season, the Bobcats should know better than to get their hopes up. I still think they belong, with only an overtime loss to Wesley blemishing their record. 

From 32 to 1

The next five weeks are going to be a blast. There is no clear-cut favorite head and shoulders above the rest of the field, as there has been in past years. I loved the chaos that the tournament brought us last year and have high expectations for more thrillers this postseason. There are easily four teams I can see winning it all, and each team has its flaws. Thanks to reader and commenter GoScotties, here are my rankings of the expected 32 playoff teams. This is not necessarily who I think will be in the final four, or eight, or sixteen, and this may differ from my Top 25 ballot. But here are some power rankings to debate while we await the bracket.

32 Lakeland
31 Plymouth State
30 Eureka
29 Husson
28 Western New England
27 Chapman
26 RPI
25 Franklin
24 Monmouth
23 Huntingdon
22 Springfield
21 Washington & Lee
20 Case Western Reserve
19 Johns Hopkins
18 Trine
17 Berry
16 Washington & Jefferson
15 Wartburg
14 St. John's
13 Illinois Wesleyan
12 Frostburg State
11 Linfield
10 Brockport
9 Wesley
8 Wittenberg
7 North Central
6 Hardin-Simmons
5 Delaware Valley
4 St. Thomas
3 Mary Hardin-Baylor
2 Mount Union
1 UW-Oshkosh

Thanks for reading all season and keep following for comprehensive playoff coverage. Let the second season begin!

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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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