|Chase Burton and the Grizzlies held off HCAC competition once again last year and look to do the same in 2016.
Photo by Jennifer Mangrum
It is my favorite time of the year.
The smell of freshly-cut grass and hot dogs being grilled in a parking lot tailgate dominates the air on a Saturday afternoon. It could only mean college football season is here. And while many of the same teams will move on to the Division III playoffs by November, September is always the month that tells us that all things are possible.
From surprising upsets, overtime thrillers, to the team that unexpectedly catches fire and rides that wave into the their first trip to the postseason, all of those things start in September. So here are my faithful Top 10 games to watch in the Midwest this year, but of course, everything can change with a surprise or two.
Illinois College at Rose-Hulman, 7 p.m., Sept 3: This game has been a lot of fun to watch the past two seasons, even though you may need a calculator to keep up with the total offense amassed. The Fightin' Engineers are averaging 62.5 points per game in the last two contests, including a 51-33 win over the Blueboys last year. Illinois College, which has scored 50.5 points per game in the two games, will be looking for their first win in three tries. In 2014 in Terre Haute, Rose-Hulman won an epic 74-68 triple-overtime game in which the quarterbacks threw for 1,138 yards. It was a breakthrough game for Rose-Hulman quarterback Austin Swenson, who returns for his senior season.
Franklin at Butler, 6:30 p.m., Sept. 10: The eight-time HCAC champions renew their annual battle against the Division I non-scholarship Bulldogs in Indianapolis. Butler defeated Franklin 41-14 last year, but the Grizzlies did not lose again until the first round of the playoffs against Ohio Northern. The game has always been a stiff test for Franklin, which is lurking just outside of the Top 25 poll this season, but one that appears to prepare it well for the HCAC season. With 14 starters returning, the Grizzlies are hoping that maybe this is the year to get the better of the Bulldogs.
Carroll at Augustana, 7 p.m., Sept. 17: The Carroll Pioneers, former members of the Midwest Conference, make their official debut in the CCIW. The Pioneers were one of the top programs in the MWC in recent years, compiling a 36-18 record (.667) since 2010. Carroll was 6-4 last year and was one win from playing in the MWC championship game. The Vikings, which are expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the conference, will give Carroll a good measuring stick to where it stands against the rest of the CCIW early on.
No. 12 UW-Platteville at Lakeland, 2 p.m., Sept. 24: While few people would expect Lakeland to beat nationally-ranked UW-Platteville, the Muskies have a couple things to help them be upset-minded. The defending NACC champions come with some playoff experience, losing on the road to Wheaton in the first round last season. Lakeland will also be playing at home, a needed comfort zone against such a powerful opponent. Beyond that, the Muskies will have to play their best game of the season to keep up with the Pioneers.
No. 8 Wheaton at Illinois Wesleyan, 2 p.m., Oct. 1: If there will be a change in the top rung in the CCIW this season, this game could dictate that. The Titans bounced back from a disappointing 4-6 record in 2014 with a 7-3 record last year. They will be hoping home field advantage will be enough to tilt the scales against the Thunder. Illinois Wesleyan is used to winning, making the Division III playoffs in 2009, 2011 and 2013. Illinois Wesleyan last beat Wheaton in 2013, taking a 30-19 win at home.
Lakeland at Adrian, 1 p.m., Oct. 8: This game is not officially a part of the MIAA-NACC Challenge Series, which is being held on Sept. 17, but it should be one of the most interesting, pitting the favorites from the two conferences. For the Muskies, it could be a good resume builder if they are able to repeat and make the Division III playoffs this season. It will not be easy, though, playing the tough Bulldogs on the road. A win here could certainly give Lakeland a boost going into the conference season. Lakeland lost its MIAA-NACC Challenge game to Albion last year, 47-21, and will play the same team in this year's series.
Lakeland at Benedictine, 2 p.m., Oct. 15: This contest is earlier this year than its season finale thrillers in the past. The contest has had a direct impact on the NACC title for the past two seasons and despite its mid-season schedule date, the Muskies and the Eagles will be playing to have another big impact on the conference race. The teams have split the last two contests, with the winners representing the NACC in the Division III playoffs. The game's site moves back to Benedictine. The home team captured the wins in 2014 and 2015.
No. 8 Wheaton at No. 13 North Central, 8 p.m., Oct. 15: Expect this to yet be another big "Little Brass Bell" game between the two suburban Chicago rivals that seems to always have major CCIW title implications as well as Division III playoff considerations. Wheaton is the defending champion while North Central was arguably the best three-loss team in all of Division III, losing to nationally-ranked UW-Platteville and Wesley by a total of eight points last season before dropping a nine-point game in Wheaton. You can expect another close, hard-hitting battle with so much at stake.
Rose-Hulman at Franklin, 1:30 p.m., Oct. 22: Rose-Hulman, behind Swenson, has been knocking on the door trying to dislodge the Franklin Grizzlies from the HCAC throne for the past two seasons. The senior now has one shot left with his top wide receiver Alec Fisher, but will have to do it on the road where the Grizzlies are always difficult to beat. The Fightin' Engineers took a fourth quarter lead into last year's game only to fall as the Grizzlies grabbed their sixth straight conference title. Franklin quarterback Chase Burton, picked as the HCAC's offensive player of the year last season, will try to keep that streak going.
St. Norbert at Monmouth, 2 p.m., Nov. 5: Fans had to wait last year until the end of the season to see the predictable play out – that the Green Knights and Fighting Scots would end up playing for the MWC title after division play. Going back to round-robin format, there is an anticipation that St. Norbert and Monmouth will be in the same position again. Both teams return eight all-division performers from the previous season as well as their quarterbacks and solid backfields. The difference in this game will come from which defense will be strong enough to make the big plays and turnovers to slow down their opponent's offense.
Did I miss another big game? Your game? Big rivalries? Possible upset specials in the making? Email me clyde.hughes@d3sports or on Twitter at @clydehughes. I want to hear from you.