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Playoff picks, surprises and disappointments

Will Gillach makes a move in the open field against St. Thomas. (Photo by Wade Gardner, d3photography.com)
If anyone can keep Mary Hardin-Baylor from getting to the national semifinals, our panel thinks St. John's and wide receiver Will Gillach will be the ones.
Photo by Wade Gardner, d3photography.com
 

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

It’s the dawning of a new era, but it’s set up to be a return to the familiar.

The Stagg Bowl will not be in Salem this year, but the game should feature two teams with serious Stagg Bowl pedigrees. On one side of the bracket, the reigning and 13-time national champion Purple Raiders are the favorite. Mount Union is attempting to complete a wire-to-wire season and repeat as champion for the first time since 2014-15.

Past picks

D3football.com has been making these picks in Around the Nation since 2001. Interested in a past season? Here's the list:

2001

2002 2003 2004

2005

2006 2007 2008

2009

2010 2011 2012

2013

2014 2015 2016

2017

     

On the other side, a familiar opponent will likely await.

Will it be Mary Hardin-Baylor, the program which fell short, 12-0, in Salem last year after winning its first title in 2016? Will we see the return of the Warhawks? This year’s UW-Whitewater squad looks fit to claim the program’s seventh national championship. The previous six all came in Stagg Bowl wins over Mount Union, the last in 2014. Or will St. John’s continue to play dominant and inspired football, making its first Stagg Bowl appearance since its championship season of 2003? The Johnnies would be a heartwarming storyline, climbing back to the top of the D-III football world in the season of John Gagliardi’s passing.

Of course, there are 28 teams in the tournament eager to shock the landscape. East region quarterbacks Joe Germinerio (Brockport) and Connor Cox (Frostburg State) would love to represent the East in its first Stagg Bowl appearance since 1999. They have the supporting casts around them to break through.

The past two years, the Stagg Bowl has been defined by frigid temperatures and stone-cold defenses. A total of 29 points have been scored in the past two title games. Will warmer Texas weather yield higher point totals, resulting in a Longhorn State shootout?

We have plenty of pages for you to bookmark now and keep an eye on as we guide you to the Stagg Bowl on Dec. 14. Don’t forget to make your picks in the bracket challenge by 11 a.m. EST on Saturday. On Friday will be our first Quick Hits of the postseason, where we predict not just winners, but final scores.

Our postseason panel consists of Publisher and Executive Editor Pat Coleman, Managing Editor and National Columnist Emeritus Keith McMillan, In the Huddle Broadcaster and Stagg Bowl Sideline Reporter Frank Rossi, Senior Editor Ryan Tipps, Bracketologist Greg Thomas, and me, the Senior Editor and Around the Nation Columnist. Before we get to our specific game predictions on Friday, we took a deep look at each quadrant of the bracket.

For each region, we picked one team that will surprise, one that will disappoint, and one that will make it through to the national semifinals. The lack of consensus just goes to show you how exciting the 2018 postseason is going to be. Read on to find out what us “experts” predict, and chime in with your own predictions in the comments.

Nobody on the panel consulted with one another; each person did his part independently. The panelists are spread out across the four Division III football regions, so hopefully any perception of bias balances out.

Markeith Miller crosses the goal line for UMHB in a home game against McMurry. (Mary Hardin-Baylor athletics photo)
Markeith Miller has 1,301 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns for Mary Hardin-Baylor, despite being pulled from games early in many UMHB blowouts.
UMHB athletics photo
 

Mary Hardin-Baylor Bracket

Surprises

Adam: St. John’s. This Johnnies squad has the formula to win the quadrant. It would be a surprise if no Texas team plays in the first Stagg Bowl held in Texas.

Ryan: St. John’s. This is less a surprise in terms of putting a few in the “W” column and more recognition that the Johnnies’ will be comfortably dominant until they reach the regional final and see some purple on the far sideline.

Greg: Maryville. The Scots and the Vikings have been on very different trajectories since their Week 1 matchup. After an 0-2 start, the Scots are on a seven-game win streak while Berry has slowed down a touch over the last few weeks, culminating in a Week 11 loss at Trinity.

Frank: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. I’m surprised that they’re even here. Their average margin of victory per game: 6.3 points. Even three-loss Hanover had a 20.1-point margin of victory! CMS should be JHTBH (“Just Happy To Be Here”).

Keith: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. So the joy of the AQ system is that every team starts the season with a chance, and every conference champion gets to rewrite the narrative for its league and lowercase-r region. So forget feeling sorry for Hardin-Simmons and Maryville getting rematched against teams they lost by four and five touchdowns against earlier this season. The SCIAC champ doesn't have go through a Linfield with championship aspirations; it instead goes to Spokane to take on a Whitworth team that looks great from afar, but is mostly unknown nationally. The Stags have lost three games in which they had a chance to win in the fourth quarter, but if they find themselves in another one, the opportunity to surprise is most certainly present.

Pat: St. John’s. Not only a bit of a surprise in taking back the top spot in the MIAC this year, but also a team with a legitimate chance to get out of this bracket. The question will likely be whether their lack of deep postseason runs of late hold them back at the quarterfinal level, or whether the new look on offense can propel the Johnnies to the national semifinals, or beyond

Disappointments

Adam: Hardin-Simmons, and the NCAA. Nobody is pleased to see the top two teams in the ASC, and two teams ranked in the top seven in the latest Top 25 poll, face off in the first round. This should be at least a quarterfinal matchup. The Texas teams get the worst draw, and in the year the Stagg Bowl is in Texas. Perplexing. 

Ryan: Hardin-Simmons. This is the easy pick, right? Even the national committee was disappointed that the NCAA forced this rematch so early in the tournament.

Greg: Hardin-Simmons. I don't know what it is going to take for us to really figure out just how good the Cowboys are, but they're almost certainly going to underperform their ranking in this tournament.

Frank: Hardin-Simmons. We’re just never going to get to know how good this year’s team is after they faced a less-than-impressive batch of ASC teams, except for powerhouse UMHB (twice). I think UMHB rolls over them again based on how the first game played out.

Who will win the top left bracket?
Mary Hardin-Baylor
St. John's
Whitworth
Hardin-Simmons
Berry
Maryville
Claremont-Mudd-Scripps
Martin Luther

Keith: St. John's. The Johnnies moved up to No. 3 in our Top 25 after a Week 11 shellacking of Thomas More, and a day later they found themselves with a ridiculously difficult path to the Stagg Bowl. Not only were the Johnnies not a No. 1 seed -- and by the playoff criteria, they had to be in the discussion -- they ended up in a quadrant with the No. 2, 7 and 10 teams in the country. No other team has more than one other fellow top 10 to deal with on its path to the semifinals. So while Jackson Erdmann and Co. should cruise past Martin Luther, Whitworth then UMHB then UW-Whitewater then Mount Union is about the toughest path one could draw up. Some years the field breaks in a way that necessitates South or West Region teams getting jobbed; this year it didn't, but it happened to the Johnnies anyway.

Pat: The penny-pinching of the NCAA. It seems like it’s been a while since I’ve used this phrase. But even in years where I haven’t written those very words, it’s always been present, in some form, and now it’s back with a vengeance.

Last team standing

Adam: St. John’s. The Johnnies are balanced and experienced on offense and feature an aggressive and opportunistic defense. A recipe to advance to the semifinals, at least.

Ryan: Mary Hardin-Baylor. I wouldn’t be surprised to see UMHB playing just down the road from Belton on Dec. 15.

Greg: Mary Hardin-Baylor. That potential quarterfinal game against St. John's is really spicy, but I'm not going to be the one to pick against the home-standing Crusaders.

Frank: Mary Hardin-Baylor. Even with Luke Poorman out and 11 weeks of unpredictability at QB not being my favorite situation nationally, the Cru should be able to carry this bracket as teams fly in from afar in the second and third rounds.

Keith: Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Cru has given up five TDs the past seven weeks, only two in the first half. Whether Jase Hammack is the right QB to lead the team doesn't matter if no opponent can score.

Pat: Mary Hardin-Baylor. Tempted, sorely tempted to pick St. John’s, but I think that UMHB’s speed and postseason experience is going to trump this team’s strong points.

Dalton Heckel of UW-Whitewater wraps up UW-Oshkosh ballcarrier JP Peerenboom. (Photo by Daryl Tessmann, d3photography.com)
Dalton Heckel of UW-Whitewater wraps up UW-Oshkosh ballcarrier JP Peerenboom, as the Whitewater defensive front goes deeper than Harry Henschler.
Photo by Daryl Tessmann, d3photography.com
 

UW-Whitewater Bracket

Surprises

Adam: St. Norbert. The key to stopping Trine is obvious, yet nobody has been able to accomplish it this year. Could St. Norbert’s defense, which allows just 57 rushing yards per game, finally be the team to slow down Lamar Carswell and his nation-best 218.4 yards per game average?

Ryan: North Central. The Cardinals have gotten more impressive as the season trudged on, which means they’re peaking at the perfect time. Quarterback Broc Rutter, with more than 3,000 yards passing, is a candidate for postseason accolades, and he’s got a lot of protection up front. The past two weeks of play have given NCC significant confidence, and they should be able to make their way deep into the postseason and maybe even to Texas (well, Texas in the semifinals, at least).

Greg: Wartburg. The Knights might be riding a little under the radar here, but this is a team with quarterfinal experience from 2017 playing a Bethel club that just posted its first winning record in three seasons. Wartburg has a very good chance to advance.

Frank: Wartburg. Something just tells me they’re going to test Bethel better than most folks expect. If that’s the case, I think they can win the game and potentially give a headache to North Central.

Keith: Wartburg and St. Norbert seem like the underdogs with chances to win in this quadrant. The Knights have faced Bethel in the playoffs in 2003, 2010 and 2013, and to get to the latest game they pulled off the stunner of Round 1 by beating Illinois Wesleyan, 41-7. The Royals are a bit of a surprise themselves, leapfrogging St. Thomas to get into the postseason behind dynamic QB Jaran Roste. But the Knights are one of the few underdogs that has a QB who can match the favorite in Matt Sacia, who leads an offense fourth-best nationally in passing efficiency. So if it becomes a shootout, that might not be so bad for Wartburg.

Pat: I’d say Wartburg has the best chance, in part because I’m not sure what Bethel is doing to get by. But I’m also interested to see how the Knights will perform on Bethel’s field, which is one of the last remaining grass fields in Division III. The last time Bethel made the playoffs, they played their first-round game at the Metrodome and played two more home games, one on a rock-hard field in the quarterfinals. At least Bethel isn’t seeded to have three home games this year.

Disappointments

Adam: North Central. The Cardinals have all the talent and experience to make a Stagg Bowl run. But they could run into an opponent in Round 2 that has momentum and a similar style to the team that emphatically handed North Central its only loss of the season.

Ryan: Trine. The Thunder have put up some epic point totals this year, but they’ve also given up a lot of points in the process. This has made me feel all season that they’re vulnerable, and given a team like St. Norbert, which is third nationally in defensive stats, Trine will find itself struggling right out of the gate and be in for a short postseason.

Greg: LeAnthony Reasnover's final stat line. UW-Whitewater is likely to overwhelm Eureka in this Round 1 matchup, but I hope that doesn't detract fans from recognizing one of the best Division III football careers.

Who will win the bottom left bracket?
UW-Whitewater
North Central
Bethel
Trine
St. Norbert
Wartburg
Hanover
Eureka

Frank: Trine. It’s a 10-0 team that lacks more respect than most 10-0 teams you’ll encounter. However, being forced to face a steamrolling UW-W team in the second round will not help build the case for Trine this year.

Keith: North Central. I'll finally let go of the 52-30 Wheaton loss if NCC gets to the second round and beats the Bethel/Wartburg winner. Although maybe Round 2 for a 9-1 team would be reaching its ceiling, I can't imagine the CCIW champ losing to the MIAC runner-up is satisfying. A North Central-Bethel game would be one of the best in Round 2, but with an experienced offense led by QB Broc Rutter scoring almost 45 points per game, anything less than getting a shot at Whitewater would ultimately be a letdown.

Pat: Trine. No matter how good one might think that Trine is this year, they simply are not set up to succeed. Playing the Midwest Conference champ for the second year in a row is not a test that Top 25 voters will recognize, and even Lamar Carswell’s speed and creativity isn’t going to lift the Thunder past a presumed UW-Whitewater matchup in the second round. We still will not learn where Trine belongs in the national picture – unless it reaches the quarterfinals, of course.

Last team standing

Adam: UW-Whitewater. The Warhawks could face three straight opponents who rank among the nation’s best rushing offenses, including two of the top three. UW-Whitewater yields just 2.1 yards per carry and has allowed only three rushing touchdowns all season. This defense was made for December.  

Ryan: North Central. I waffled a lot on this pick, since UW-Whitewater does have a real opportunity to get a taste of the Stagg Bowl once again. But North Central’s last few games have set the stage for an upset win in the regional final.

Greg: UW-Whitewater. The Warhawks’ path to the regional final looks pretty clear and I'm sold on this defense being championship caliber. Whitewater is back.

Frank: UW-Whitewater. You can tell this team is having fun with the expectations lowered after a pause from the spotlight. With less pressure on a team with strength on both sides of the ball, that’s a great place to be as we enter the NCAA playoffs.

Keith: UW-Whitewater. I was an early re-adopter of the Warhawks because they showed the traits that made them a six-time national champion. Ridiculously smothering defense and an offense than can, er, pound the rock.

Pat: UW-Whitewater. The Warhawks do not have to be 2013 reincarnate to get out of this quadrant of the bracket.

Mount Union Bracket

Surprises

Adam: Muhlenberg. The Mules have proven that they can win big games on the road. They should be able to do it again at least one time.

Ryan: Muhlenberg. If Adam’s conference re-ranking is to be believed (and it is!), Muhlenberg and the rest of the Centennial are having a stronger-than-average year. Led by quarterback Michael Hnatkowsky, the Mules have put up at least 34 points in eight games this year and should be feeling good about themselves. Their defense should be able to stifle DelVal’s crucial run game, and then advance to be in a position to give John Carroll a good fight in Round 2.

Greg: Muhlenberg. The last team invited to this tournament actually has a pretty fair draw. I'm not sure the Mules shouldn't be favored at Delaware Valley and John Carroll has shown some inconsistencies. A quarterfinal run is not out of the question.

Frank: Muhlenberg. The MAC had a down year this year as a whole — I don’t think that statement comes as a surprise. To me, Muhlenberg is more battle-tested than DelVal heading into their first-round matchup, with the Thomas More, Johns Hopkins, and other stronger conference games behind them.

Keith: Muhlenberg. The Mules were likely the last team into the field, but they have an opportunity to pull a stunner or two. The first-round game at Delaware Valley is winnable, and beyond that, a second-round matchup at John Carroll could be intriguing. The Mules faced the Aggies in an ECAC Bowl in 2012 and in the Centennial-MAC challenge after the 2016 season, both three-point losses. Their case for not suffering the same fate is a balanced offense, a plus turnover margin, and a strong rush defense; the Aggies rush for 221 yards per game.

Pat: Muhlenberg. I’m guessing this won’t be a unique opinion, so I’ll let the rest of the crew describe why.

Disappointments

Adam: Denison. The NCAC champion drew the toughest draw in the tournament. This exciting offense would have been able to put on a show and potentially pull off an upset against nearly any other team within 500 miles of Granville.

Ryan: Washington and Jefferson. Even though the Presidents are forced to go on the road, they’re higher in the Top 25 poll than Centre is and should go into this opener as the favorite. Yet W&J hasn’t looked as sharp -- or as dominant -- as Centre has over the past month, leaving Coach Mike Sirianni without the opportunity to square off against his alma mater a week later.

Greg: Denison. Call it bad luck of the draw, but Denison probably deserved better than this Round 1 matchup, particularly with 7-3 Hanover inside the 500-mile radius to Alliance. I would have loved to see what this senior-laden team could have done in a different pairing.

Who will win the top right bracket?
Mount Union
John Carroll
Delaware Valley
Centre
Muhlenberg
Washington & Jefferson
Randolph-Macon
Denison

Frank: John Carroll. It’s another case of “we won’t REALLY get to know how good this team is in 2018” unless they take Mount Union to the mat and just miss a pinfall a second time. I honestly don’t see that happening twice in one season — and if Mount Union wins by a large margin, then the first game becomes an asterisk instead of evidence.

Keith: The soft path to Shenandoah for the Purple Raiders. The four No. 1 seeds each have another team in their bracket that could pose a quarterfinal challenge; UMHB has St. John's, UW-Whitewater has Bethel and North Central, Brockport has Frostburg State and Mount Union has rival John Carroll. The Blue Streaks and Purple Raiders played to a defense-heavy 23-10 Mount Union win back in Week 4. But by the same token, of the top 12 teams in the D3football.com poll -- the best of the best -- the No. 1-ranked Purple Raiders are on the same half of the bracket as Nos. 4, 6 and 8. Teams 2, 3, 5, 6 and 9 through 12 are on the opposite side. There's no particular mistake we can point to that the selection committee made, and it's probably true that the top team should have the easiest path. But of the three most-compelling opponents for Mount Union -- UMHB, UW-Whitewater and St. John's -- we'll only see one of them face the Purple Raiders, at most, and that would be in a Stagg Bowl.

Pat: The fact that we only get to see one Centre-W&J game. This has all the makings of being one of the best and most competitive games in the bracket, and if it lives up to my expectations, we’ll wish we had a game like this in each round.

Last team standing

Adam: Mount Union. The Purple Raiders are on a wire-to-wire mission and they won’t let their biggest rival stop them.

Ryan: Mount Union. They’ve been No. 1 on my ballot all year, and there are no real upset threats to The Machine in this quadrant.

Greg: Mount Union. We just don't have semifinals without these guys and I don't foresee a particularly close game anywhere between here and the final four for the Purple Raiders.

Frank: Mount Union. I might have tossed my No. 1 vote around a couple times this year, but nobody in this bracket was closer than No. 8 to the Purple Raiders. That’s the largest ballot margin differential I had in the four brackets between top team and next team.

Keith: Mount Union. QB D'Angelo Fulford and the loaded offense have made quick work -- 49 or more points -- of everyone since the John Carroll game. Assuming he's healthy -- he left early in the finale against Marietta -- there's no reason to believe the Purple Raiders won't do what they always do.

Pat: Mount Union. I think he’ll have a week to sit and get healthy without the Purple Raiders getting particularly tested, but that’s relying on their defense to outscore the Denison offense. Canaan Gebele has performed ably so far this year but Mount Union’s defense is more elite than Gebele is.

Lincoln Ikwunbo with the ball in the open field for Frostburg State. (Frostburg State athletics photo)
Lincoln Ikwunbo has five receiving touchdowns and a punt return for a score for Frostburg State, perhaps on its last gasp in D-III.
Frostburg State athletics photo
 

Brockport Bracket

Surprises

Adam: Husson. Between RPI’s disappointing Week 11 showing and Husson’s experience pulling off first-round upsets, the Engineers suddenly have a lot of pressure just to make it to Brockport.

Ryan: Johns Hopkins. It won’t be the Blue Jays’ wings that are getting clipped early on. JHU and Frostburg have moved ever closer together in my mind, and assuming they both advance to Round 2, this will be one of the more exciting matchups of that Saturday. JHU is second nationally in offense, Top 50 in defense, and they’ve been beating teams comfortably in the back half of the season. That kind of play will serve them well at this stage.

Greg: Johns Hopkins. How about the lone non-East team in the quadrant?  The Blue Jays have rebounded from their early Centennial Conference defeat and have the talent to spring an upset in the second round.

Frank: RPI. I think their defense will get them to the second round, where they at least challenge Brockport. I’m not saying they beat the Golden Eagles, but I think it will show a consistency where very good defensive teams can cause some minor issues for Brockport this season.

Keith: Johns Hopkins. Anything besides a Brockport-Frostburg quarterfinal in this quadrant would be a surprise, and the only team that even seems capable of upsetting that apple cart is the Blue Jays. Behind QB David Tammaro and RB Stuart Walters, Johns Hopkins is second nationally in total offense coming into the tournament. Since allowing 31 to Randolph-Macon in the opener and 37 in a Week 2 loss to Susquehanna, no team has scored more than 17 against JHU.

Pat: RPI. The Engineers can’t look past the first round, but in the second round, there’s enough reason to suggest they can hang with Brockport.

Disappointments

Adam: Brockport. After last year’s semifinal appearance, and with Joe Germinerio back at quarterback, anything short of last year’s performance will be a disappointment.  

Ryan: RPI. Even if the Engineers get past Husson (which is no given), they will fall swiftly and surely to a high-flying Brockport Golden Eagles flock. A disappointment for a team that had risen as high as 14th in the poll.

Greg: RPI. Husson is no stranger to the playoffs, or to winning in the playoffs. The suddenly Shoes-less Engineers have a bigger challenge on their hands than most realize.

Who will win the bottom right bracket?
Brockport
Frostburg State
Johns Hopkins
RPI
MIT
Framingham State
Western New England
Husson

Frank: MIT. First, the Engineers had to hear that they nearly got displaced from the field by a three-loss team (Thomas More in Pool B). Then they have to face a Johns Hopkins team on a roll. This game won’t help their case that they were under-appreciated by the committee.

Keith: RPI. The Engineers were 8-0 less than a week ago, with half of those wins coming by one score. Now they're heading into the postseason coming off a 34-10 home loss to rival Union and staring at Husson -- the team that stunned 10-0 Springfield in Round 1 last year -- for its playoff opener. They should win, but Brockport will await in Round 2.

Pat: Brockport. The Golden Eagles’ close calls aside, they have only cruised in the regular season about the same as last year. And although Brockport made the 2017 semis, it wasn’t a walkover. Envision that to be the same this year, so it’s no given that Brockport gets out of this bracket.

Last team standing

Adam: Frostburg State. The Bobcats get the rematch against the Purple Raiders they’ve been craving since their 2017 season ended. This time there’s a trip to the title game on the line.

Ryan: Brockport. Their time has come again.

Greg: Brockport. This region looks a bit more open to me with respect to the number of teams that I think can actually win it. Something that we see often is how playoff success begets more playoff success. I'll take the top-seeded Golden Eagles to survive a challenging region.

Frank: Brockport. Frostburg State’s inconsistency this year makes me believe that Brockport will be the last team standing. However, those two teams rotated on my ballot more than my No. 1 vote did — ultimately with Brockport above Frostburg by a spot.

Keith: Brockport. Tempting to go Frostburg here, but in one of the best matchups of the tournament, the Golden Eagles' run defense -- it allowed minus-2.8 yards per game this season, 33 yards better than national No. 2 St. Thomas -- might make the difference.

Pat: Frostburg State. Wanted to see this matchup last year. Hope we get to see it this year.

What's next?

Quick Hits is coming on Friday, and we’ll predict not just winners, but final scores. Pat and Keith will continue with the two-podcast weekly schedule through the end of the season. We’ll have Road to the Stagg Bowl features continuing next week. Around the Nation will return in December for our annual Year in Review. 

Read the rest of this column


Columnist

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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