|Jamaal Morant and the Bobcats reached a new peak in the polls, then slipped back despite remaining unbeaten.
Frostburg State Athletics photo
By Adam Turer
The first few are easy.
For most voters, it’s a no-brainer at the top, followed by an easy choice for the second spot.
The next few spots are a jumble, but I think most voters can agree on teams three through nine.
For me, that’s when the voting ceases to matter. The top nine teams in the poll are the contenders to reach the Stagg Bowl. We could see a team from outside that group emerge with an impressive run to the national semifinals, but it would be a stunner if any team other than the top nine advanced to Shenandoah.
For programs to rise up into that tier means a lot to a lot of people who contributed along the way. Players are going to pay attention to the poll, whether their coaches want them to or not. Taking care of business each Saturday and earning a favorable playoff draw is what matters the most.
“What the poll does is it’s gotten our alumni base here in Maryland excited. For us as a university, this is a huge source of pride. It means a ton to our alumni, our administration, our employees, and our students,” said Frostburg State head coach DeLane Fitzgerald. “To our coaches and players, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. For me personally, it doesn’t mean a hill of beans. We go out and beat a really good Montclair State team and fall two spots in the poll. So our players go out and take it out on Southern Virginia the next week.”
My top nine at the moment are Mount Union, Mary Hardin-Baylor, St. John’s, Brockport, UW-Whitewater, Frostburg State, St. Thomas, Hardin-Simmons, and John Carroll.
The top two are the only programs who have received number one votes from any voters this season. The Cru have steadily gained a few more top votes as the season has gone on, but the Purple Raiders will not be unseated until they lose. The defending champs can go wire-to-wire by winning seven more games.
The third spot is where the real debate begins. The consensus through Week 8 gave the number three ranking to Brockport. I have the Johnnies in that slot because I believe they have a better win on their resume, the 40-20 victory over St. Thomas on October 13. St. John’s arguably has two better victories, thanks to their 34-16 win over Bethel the week before. Brockport’s best win so far is probably a 13-7 road win at Ithaca. The Bombers are now 6-2, while the MIAC foes vanquished by St. John’s are unbeaten but for their loss to the Johnnies.
I’ve gone back and forth with UW-Whitewater and Frostburg State in recent weeks. Wesley’s loss to Montclair State yesterday slightly diminishes the Bobcats’ signature win. Although, the Wolverines are just a few extra points away from being unbeaten and ranked in the top five themselves. Then again, UW-Oshkosh’s loss yesterday also diminishes the Warhawks’ best win of the season. Quite a conundrum.
So, I see six unbeatens who can make it to the Stagg Bowl. The next wave comes from one-loss teams whose sole defeat was to one of the aforementioned unbeatens. The Tommies had one bad day against their rival. The Cowboys can’t get over the UMHB hump, and the Blue Streaks have the same struggle with the Purple Raiders. Could those programs beat almost every other team in the nation? I believe so.
Now we’ve reached another point that I, and surely many other voters, struggle with. At this point of the season, you can’t really ask any more of a team than to line up each week and do whatever it takes to come out of the weekend with a win. There are 14 unbeatens who have at least seven wins. But Eureka, Western Connecticut, and Amherst didn’t even receive a single vote in the latest poll. That’s what the voters think of the NACC, MASCAC, and NESCAC. In a season featuring so many strong one-loss teams from more traditionally successful conferences, an unbeaten in one of the lower-tier conferences is going to be left out of the poll.
So, apologies to those three teams and also to Trine, who fell off of my ballot this week. That’s no indictment of the Thunder, who I had ranked as highly as number 14 at one point this year. Trine’s non-conference schedule didn’t look so bad at the beginning of the year, but Bluffton and Lakeland are both having extremely down seasons after recent years of consistent success.
On the other hand, Berry just keeps winning its way up the poll and has already clinched a playoff berth at 9-0. Salisbury still has its two toughest tests ahead, but the Gulls flew up my poll this week. I have those two ranked behind number 10 Whitworth. As impressive as their win over Linfield was, the Pirates will need to prove themselves worthy of inclusion in that top tier in the postseason.
Speaking of Linfield, there are some programs who seem to have name recognition that keeps them in the poll. Personally, I find it difficult to rank a two-loss team this late in the season. The voters included the Wildcats, UW-Oshkosh, and Wesley last week. That won’t be an issue this week as the Titans and Wolverines should surely drop out after picking up their third loss of the year (although Linfield and Oshkosh both lost games to non-D-III competition).
The fun thing about the poll is some voters won’t rank Salisbury at all and will rank Berry somewhere well below the top 15. If you were a voter, would you reward Salisbury for winning its first eight games, or not vote for them because you anticipate them losing at least one of their final two games? If the Gulls win out, they certainly belong in the top 12 of the poll.
The rest of the poll is a jumbled mess. How do you deal with the CCIW? North Central has looked like a top tier team, except for one week when they were crushed by rival Wheaton. But the Thunder have two losses, so they are no longer ranked. Illinois Wesleyan defeated Wheaton but opened the season with a non-conference loss. My poll is my prediction for this week’s showdown, as I think the Cardinals will go on the road and defeat the Titans.
Bethel and Baldwin-Wallace entered my poll for the first time this week with a similar profile: one-loss team from a top five conference. Of course, both are expected to finish the season with two losses and unranked. But for now, I think they’ve earned some national recognition.
If you’re considering a two-loss team, how about Montclair State? The Red Hawks have two losses, both to undefeated ranked opponents, both by single digits. We’ve seen similar seasons to this year’s NJAC from other conferences, most notably the WIAC and MIAC. It’s not unusual for one league to boast three ranked teams at a given point in the season. Eventually, conference play leads to attrition.
“For Rick Giancola to do the job he’s done in the last year with that group, I’ve been really, really impressed. Salisbury, Montclair, and Rowan are better football teams than people think they are,” said Fitzgerald. “You take them and put them in a different conference and they’ll go 10-0.”
Some decisions are easier than others. One-loss Johns Hopkins leapfrogs over one-loss Muhlenberg this week after the Blue Jays soundly defeated the Mules. Washington and Jefferson has to stay ahead of Case Western Reserve thanks to a head-to-head result, although the co-leaders of the PAC are both 7-1. Wabash jumped back into my poll, just ahead of Wittenberg after upsetting the Tigers yesterday.
There are far too many one-loss teams to rank them all. Deep in the poll, voters have to think about who they can trust to continue a hot streak. The ODAC often beats up on itself, but Randolph-Macon appears to be on a path of destruction this season. Their only loss was a non-conference defeat at the hands of Johns Hopkins. With the Blue Jays ranked in my top 15 and the Yellow Jackets playing at a different level than their conference foes, I am confident in voting for Randolph-Macon over some unbeaten teams.
After the top nine, my poll is subject to much fluctuation week to week. A big upset over a previously unbeaten conference rival could escalate a team directly into my top 20. Teams in my poll rarely sees a steady creep up; it’s much more likely that a team will slowly rise based on teams ahead of it losing. I’ll often reward a big win with a bigger jump than one or two spots. As Fitzgerald said, the poll ranking brings pride to the campus community. I am much more inclined to reward immediate success than to predict which teams I think will advance to the second round of the playoffs.
There will be ranked teams who miss out on the postseason, and plenty of unranked teams who earn playoff berths. When the calendar turns to December, I am very confident that only teams who have been in my top nine for most of the season will still be playing football.
That’s some insight into how I spend my Sunday mornings. If you were a top 25 voter, what would be your voting criteria?
Here's what to watch for on D3football.com this week.
Later today-- New Top 25 poll released
Monday--Around the Nation podcast with Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan and Team of the Week weekly honors.
Thursday--Around the Nation column.
Friday--Quick Hits, and another edition of the Around the Nation podcast.
Saturday--You know what Saturdays are for.
We've got great content coming at you all week, every week. Follow along and get to know D-III football beyond just your favorite team, and don’t forget to use the #d3fb hashtag on social media.
If you have ideas for an upcoming column or just want to talk some D-III football, get at me at @adamturer on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.