Season off to a fine start

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JACKSON, Miss. -- One of the best things about following Division III football is that there is almost always a new experience. There’s always a story you haven’t heard, a team you know little about, a place you’ve never been.

For me, a new experience kicked off a new season, as Pat Coleman and I skipped a day of work and headed down to Mississippi for the Backyard Brawl and — what else? — some more work.

Though the city of Jackson wasn’t drastically different from Virginia or anywhere else I’ve been, there were a few culture shock moments. Though the game between Mississippi College and Millsaps wasn’t unlike any other rivalry in Division III, it does have its own quirks.

Until four years ago, the rivals hadn’t played since a riot following a 1960 basketball game led to the series’ suspension. That the rivalry had resumed, being played in Jackson Veterans Memorial Stadium as an event sponsored by the Salvation Army, led Pat to argue that it was the South’s most heated Division III rivalry. I, of course, think that honor belongs to Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon, who have played 108 times in 110 years, but I’m biased. And besides, even a guy from New Jersey can tell the Virginia south from the Mississippi south.

I’m sure the Jackson area is a great place to visit, but broadcasters in town for a day don’t get to see much. And so our Mississippi experience was defined mostly by the taxi driver from and to the airport and whomever we met in restaurants and our hotel.

Our driver was a gospel-song hummer, but an otherwise nice guy who recommended a nice steak house for dinner. We of course only made it to the fast-food Backyard Burgers for lunch and stadium pizza at halftime for dinner.

We did, however, see a pretty good game. A few thousand fans don’t seem as rowdy as they should when spread out in a 60,000-seat stadium, but when rivals are going at it in a one- or two-score game, details like that can be ignored.

Mississippi College had talked before the game about how it had added speed on offense, and Millsaps debuted a new coach and a new offensive look from Ole Miss. But it looked like an opener for both offenses, as each moved the ball between the 20s but struggled to score points. Jimbo Thornton (left) hit two long field goals for the only points on offense.

The night didn’t lack excitement, as the dearth of points scored kept the game close. The only touchdown came when a Choctaw defender ripped the ball out of the quarterback’s hands instead of dragging him down for a sack, then took it back 8 yards to score. Mississippi evened the series at 2-2 since its renewal with a 13-0 victory.

Even after the loss, a Millsaps player and his family were kind enough to grab Pat and I some Wendy’s, as all of the fine dining establishments in Jackson had closed by game’s end. I caught the end of the NFL kickoff game between the Redskins and Jets, then joined everyone in the lobby of the Cabot House hotel for some southern hospitality.

Though I could go for an easy punch line, as “lids” in Jackson were referred to as “lee-ids” and “tires” as “taars,” I figure we got treated pretty well for hardly being able to experience the city. There were signs of us being in the Bible Belt — abortion protesters picketed the walk to the stadium with gruesome posters — but everyone we spoke to down there was easy to talk with. We missed an afternoon pep rally at Millsaps, but got to chat with coach David Saunders and browse the museum of Majors football history — much of it to do with the Mississippi rivalry — in the halls of the athletic center.

I was extra-interested to see how football in Mississippi went down, because even though football is crowned king during autumn in the deep south, it’s one of the few pockets between Maine and Southern California without a populous Division III presence.

As Mississippi College and Millsaps players talked and embraced on the field after the game, I was reminded that the spirit of Division III seems to be the same wherever I go.

10 things to watch for in 2003
Though the season is underway, here are 10 occurrences that observers of the national scene should keep their eyes open for:

1. A new mark at Mount Union: If Baldwin-Wallace doesn’t beat the Purple Raiders on Sept. 20, Mount Union may very well surpass its own 54-game winning streak — currently at 43 games — in this season’s playoffs. For those who are hoping the Purple Raiders will fall, let’s just say if it doesn’t happen this year, give up hope, at least for the near future.

2. New conference alignments will affect the playoff picture: The MIAA and SCIAC join the ranks of the automatic qualifier (Pool A/C) conferences, while the NJAC no longer has an AQ. There’s no guarantee Rowan or any NJAC school will get into the field of 28, but depending on the strength of Pool B, it could be a positive for those teams.

3. New conference champions: As Wabash did with Wittenberg last season, upstarts may supplant traditional conference title-winners across the country. Mount Union looks about as vulnerable as they’ll ever be under Larry Kehres, and some are unsure whether Rowan is still a powerhouse now that K.C. Keeler is at Delaware. Hampden-Sydney may knock off Bridgewater in the ODAC, while Wartburg and Coe both made the playoffs and will make it difficult for traditional champion Central to return to its perch. Johns Hopkins could be ready to surpass Muhlenberg and McDaniel in the Centennial. King’s, Lake Forest and Mary Hardin-Baylor were unexpected champions last season, which means teams in their conferences are now gunning for them. Wabash better look out too. Not only does Wittenberg want its title back, but Wooster wants to factor in as well.

4. Slow progress for new schools: Endicott, Husson and Huntingdon begin play this season, but it may take a while for the programs to become competitive. Recent start-ups at Averett, Shenandoah and East Texas Baptist have produced wins, but not serious title contenders. At least not yet.

5. A Wisconsin run in the playoffs: The WIAC is often considered one of Division III’s strongest leagues, but its teams haven’t had playoff success in recent years. Look for that to change, if UW-La Crosse’s 42-0 win over Howard Payne is any indication of the conference’s strength. Just don’t ask us to gauge which conference team might survive the WIAC to do it.

6. John Gagliardi will pass Eddie Robinson: The legendary St. John’s coach hit 400 wins last season, and should draw attention from national media as he nears the former Grambling’s coach’s mark of 408. If you haven’t read Austin Murphy’s The Sweet Season, now might be a good time to crack open a book and get to know Gagliardi.

7. Division III’s membership will become more fractured: As conferences like the Centennial and NESCAC institute rules above and beyond what other Division III conferences do to keep the student-athlete’s focus on academics, look for the debate over what Division III’s mission is to grow heated. Is this Division I, only with smaller players and fewer fans? Or do academics already come first in Division III? Do wins matter, or is competing enough? This year may be a big one for Division III’s future as the mission of this level of football gets twisted in several directions.

8. Sick statistics: We’ve already seen 105 points scored. This is the division that gave us 700-yard passing games at Menlo, 400 yards of receiving at Principia and a back who scored more than Barry Sanders at Mount Union. Another statistic this season will drop jaws, guaranteed.

9. Galloping home: Expect a win over Wabash if not a playoff appearance by DePauw, and a run through the playoffs for Pacific Lutheran. Never underestimate the effects of a retiring coach on the psyche of a team. As Nick Mourouzis and Frosty Westering hang up their whistles after decades at DePauw and PLU, respectively, look for their teams to send them off nicely.

10. The same old finish: Despite all the talk about Mount Union being vulnerable, how many of you would take the 227-team field against the Purple Raiders if you had to bet now on who would become champion? I thought so.

Claim to fame
Before Ohio State suspended running back Maurice Clarrett, Coast Guard linebacker John Oscar was the last one to put him out of action. In a high school game, Clarrett burned Oscar for a TD, but later in the game Oscar tackled him and knocked him to the turf. He ended up breaking Clarrett's ankle.

Stat of the week
Pick one from Rockford’s 105-0 win over Trinity Bible College. The Regents set a Division III record for points in a game and margin of victory. They scored all of those points by throwing just two passes, and everyone on their roster played in the game. Heck, just read the Around the Midwest Region column if you haven’t already.

National game of the week
No. 15 Hardin-Simmons at No. 12 UW-Stout
And not just because Pat Coleman and I will be there, broadcasting (free plug!). It’s because Texas gets another chance to go up to Wisconsin and earn some respect. Two playoff and conference title contenders will be going head-to-head.

Honorable mentions: Alma at No. 4 Wheaton, No. 5 Rowan at Wesley, No. 6 Mary Hardin-Baylor at Willamette, No. 7 Linfield at Redlands, No. 17 Hanover at Thomas More, King’s at No. 19 Lycoming, Allegheny at No. 20 Washington & Jefferson, Augustana at No. 23 Central, St. Thomas at Bethel.

Hindsight game of the week
In the future, I’ll be comparing the previous Around the Nation game of the week to the game that turned out to be the best. If I’m any good, I’ll hit on a good percentage. For this week, however, let’s take a look at last week’s most important game.

No. 15 UW-La Crosse’s 42-0 win over No. 5 Howard Payne may not have been a fun game to attend, especially for Yellow Jacket fans who made a very long trip to where the Cheeseheads roam, but it was significant in that it showed where Division III’s power still lies. The OAC and WIAC are often regarded as the nation’s strongest conferences, but recently it has been for different reasons. While OAC members pile up national championships and playoff victories, WIAC teams beat up on each other and send league members to the NFL. But after the Eagles flexed their muscle on one of Texas’ finest, trips to UW-Stout and Willamette need to pan out for Texas teams. Otherwise, there should be no don’t-mess-with-us jabber-jawing from the Lone Star state.

Hindsight honorable mentions: Bridgewater over McDaniel 13-10, UW-Stevens Point over Augustana 19-15, Kings Point over Muhlenberg 22-14.

Your nation, your words
As always, Around the Nation thrives on reader feedback. We’re interested in your thoughts on three points this week, and when you write in, please include your full name, age, hometown and school you root for. Or use our handy feedback form.

1. What exactly is the mission of Division III? What should it be?
2. Whether you have a personal relationship or watch from afar, send ATN your most vivid memories of St. John’s John Gagliardi over the years. The namesake of the Division’s top trophy and a 400-game winner is known more for his daring to be different than the statistics. Tell us what you remember about him as he approaches the record.
3. What are the coolest, most unique names you see around the division? Each year, a friend and I comb through Division I preview magazines looking for the next Pig Prather, Craphonso Thorpe or LaBrandon Toefield. Tell ATN the best names you’ve spotted around the country.

Attention SIDs
Around the Nation is looking for new directories, media guides, record books and other helpful tools from both conference and school SIDs. The information is used when compiling Around the Nation, and is a great help for feature stories. SIDs can also add to football-only release lists or e-mail us the Web address of online guides, but please label correspondence as such in the subject line. Snail mail to Keith McMillan, 14010 Smoketown Rd., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.