September 30, 2010

A weekend that defies naming

Linfield receiver Chris Slezak
After a season-opening loss to Cal Lutheran, Linfield (and receiver Chris Slezak) face Willamette this week in a game that will likely eliminate the loser from playoff consideration.
Photo by Dan Harris, d3photography.com

Fans, it’s time we band together and have a word with the Division III gridiron gods.

We’re well aware that with more than 200 teams in action on any given Saturday, there will be more great games, stunning finishes and play-of-the-week occurrences than any one of us could possibly witness. But never before have those above rained down on us a dozen games with major conference title, top 25 and playoff implications in a single early-October weekend.

I wanted to come up with a snazzy name for it, but all I’ve got is “Two May Enter, One May Leave Saturday.” Not all that catchy.

With a weekend like this on tap, there’s no way a national column can pick just one game and feature it. Mount Union against the last team it lost to in a regular season? Utica finding out what it takes to become a power against St. John Fisher? The elimination of playoff possibles in the NWC and WIAC? A throwback to the ’90s in the ODAC? What would we choose?

So as we get ready to detonate the top 25 as we knew it, here are, in order, the 12 games you should care most about this weekend (even if your team is uninvolved):

1. No. 15 WILLAMETTE at No. 16 LINFIELD: These two start conference play against their toughest remaining opponent, but each already has a loss, Willamette to No. 12 Hardin-Simmons and Linfield to No. 23 Cal Lutheran. That makes this clash of utmost importance, because the loser picks up a second defeat and is already in trouble in the chase for an at-large playoff bid. The winner becomes the favorite to take the NWC’s automatic bid, though Pacific Lutheran might loom as a challenger.

2. No. 18 UW-EAU CLAIRE at UW-STEVENS POINT: In the same vein, the Blugolds’ loss to No. 10 North Central and the Pointers’ defeat against 15th-ranked Willamette don’t affect the chase for the WIAC bid. But No. 1 UW-Whitewater will. Which makes winning Saturday a matter of survival, if either teams’ high hopes are later to be justified with a playoff spot, earned automatically or not.

3. No. 4 ST. THOMAS at No. 19 ST. JOHN’S: The guard has all but changed in the MIAC, with the Tommies’ deeper playoff run in 2009 and higher current ranking. Except for one minor detail: They haven’t beaten the rival Johnnies in 12 meetings, and they haven’t won in Collegeville since 1986. The days of mismatches are gone, as the Johnnies averaged just 213 yards of offense in 20-17 and 12-9 wins the past two seasons. Tommie RB Ben Wartman has missed two games but is day to day. The Johnnies’ attendance record, 13,107, is the highest number ATN has seen in the D3football.com era and is in definite danger as this is also St. John’s homecoming.

Cecil Shorts
Cecil Shorts and Mount Union were tested in their season opener against UW-Oshkosh. Ohio Northern should provide a stiffer test.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com

4. No. 8 OHIO NORTHERN at No. 2 MOUNT UNION: With both unbeaten, and given Mount Union’s penchant for making games against ranked conference opponents not competitive, it doesn’t rank as high on the list as you’d think an eight vs. two would. Yet ONU is the last team to beat MUC in the regular season, a 21-14 win in Alliance in ’05 (the Purple Raiders recovered to win the national championship). Either team can withstand a loss here and join in the race for No. 2 in the OAC, though both have a non-conference win over a WIAC team that might not help much in the OWP and OOWP criteria for an at-large playoff spot.

5. No. 23 CAL LUTHERAN at REDLANDS: This game could have a ripple effect on the eventual playoff bracket, given the Kingsmen’s 1-1 mark against Linfield and PLU, and Redlands’s win against Whitworth. West Coast teams almost always draw each other in the first round, and a high seed – still attainable by the Bulldogs – could send teams to SoCal in November. If Cal Lutheran sweeps the SCIAC and Redlands finishes with one loss, it might be a strong at-large, forcing another plane ride somewhere in the bracket.

6. No. 22 ILLINOIS WESLEYAN at NO. 21 WHEATON: With six unbeatens to contend with in the CCIW, the sooner a team can get an edge, the better. The Titans need it, because its non-conference wins against Hope, Alma and Aurora won’t help much in at-large playoff selection, nor will Wheaton’s Albion, UW-Platteville and Olivet (both trios are a combined 3-8). There’s a lot of road between here and the CCIW automatic bid, but there might not be enough to recover for the team which stumbles.

7. CARTHAGE at No. 10 NORTH CENTRAL: With each among D-III’s hot offenses, averaging about 38 points per game, it could come down to which team can stop the other. The Cardinals, who have given up 22 points in three games, would seem to have the edge there. And with the same case of needing to get ahead in the CCIW at play, the first conference game is already a crucial one.

8. No. 25 (tie) RANDOLPH-MACON at EMORY & HENRY: At least unbeaten Hampden-Sydney and Bridgewater can count on either the Yellow Jackets or Wasps buzzing off on Saturday; all four teams are unbeaten as ODAC play begins. Each defense has quite a challenge: E&H RB Caleb Jennings is not only a highlight producer; he’s the nation’s third-leading rusher at 171 yards per game. R-MC’s Earl Peoples is second nationally at 10.75 receptions per game and seventh with 175 yards per, and QB Austin Faulkner is the fifth most efficient passer.

9. No. 17 MONTCLAIR STATE at KEAN: The Cougars’ early loss to Cortland State might create a sense of urgency; Kean needs this win to stay in the NJAC race. A win would thrust focus on to the Oct. 30 Montclair-Cortland game. The Red Hawks have been typically stingy on defense, allowing 163 yards and 4.33 points per game, better than any team in the country that’s played more than one game. Kean has only allowed 228 yards per game, so it could be a struggle to score for both teams.

10. FRANKLIN at MOUNT ST. JOSEPH: After a three-point loss at Carthage in the opener, Franklin outscored its next three opponents 140-23. They’re running up 507 yards per game, seventh best in the nation, most of it through the air. Mount St. Joseph is piling up 441 yards per game, with near-perfect balance. The winner will already be one of the last two teams unbeaten in HCAC play, and that’s if Manchester survives Rose-Hulman.

11. TRINITY at WILLIAMS: Hard to believe NESCAC got not a single vote in the Week 4 poll. But with only one game played, and perhaps four teams chasing the conference title, voters wouldn’t even know which one to pick. Aside from defending champion Amherst, these two are almost guaranteed to be in the conference title chase. Neither team had any trouble in its opener, against Bowdoin or Colby, respectively, so this is an opportunity to see who’ll lurch out in front.

12. No. 24 ST. JOHN FISHER at UTICA: The 4-0 start for Utica is both surprising and hard to take seriously, because half of it came against Becker and Castleton State. The 510 yards and 50 points per game are among the nation’s top 10, but Fisher’s 489 yards a game is 12th and its 48 points per game has come against better competition. This game has national significance if Utica wins; For Fisher, it would be the first strike in a loaded Empire 8. The Cardinals, who are getting tremendous quarterback play from Tim Bailey, return home for four of their final five games.

Also worth watching: Curry at Endicott

Lost luster: Lebanon Valley at No. 13 Delaware Valley, DePauw at Millsaps, St. Norbert at Monmouth, No. 5 Mary Hardin-Baylor at Louisiana College.

Want a much more in-depth primer for Week 5? Ryan Tipps, Pat Coleman and I, will forecast the most likely top 25 teams to get upset, the conference races expected to gain the most clarity and teams in need of a “morale win.” Every Friday morning in Triple Take, readers get a three-man look beyond the conference you already follow.

Re-ranking the conferences

As part of the package in Kickoff ’10, readers get our top-to-bottom ranking of the 28 conferences in Division III, save for the one (NESCAC) we can’t slot. Publisher Pat Coleman and I take last season's non-conference and playoff performances, mix them with a dash of ‘quality of play,' and ‘historical performance' and come out with a fresh set of conference rankings.

That's enough for an entire separate column, and it's posted separately here.

Five Ways to Saturday

Follow Around the Nation ...
When the column publishes on Thursdays
When ATN travels on Saturdays, trip highlights are tweeted or blogged on the running game day thread on The Daily Dose.
Mondays, Pat Coleman and I wrap up the week that was in our podcast. Download from iTunes or listen to it in the Daily Dose’s media player.
Throughout the week on Twitter. Follow @D3Keith. There were no shortage of tweets from Connecticut last Saturday.
Further discussions raised here on Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board.

The press box

Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the column, the top 25, moments to remember for the year-in-review, insight on rivalry and trophy games, road trip suggestions (Non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time work especially well) and whatever else crosses your mind. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send email to keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com or use our feedback form.

Sports Information Directors: Both the e-mail address and street address are new this season. To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 3836 Appaloosa Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

As part of the package in Kickoff ’10, readers get our top-to-bottom ranking of the 28 conferences in Division III, save for the one (NESCAC) we can’t slot. Publisher Pat Coleman and I take last season's non-conference and playoff performances, mix them with a dash of ‘quality of play,' and ‘historical performance' and come out with a fresh set of conference rankings.

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Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and begins as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011; has worked on all but one of the preseason Kickoff publications; has done game-day writing and photography and the pregame broadcast at the championship Stagg Bowl in Salem for almost a decade; and has taken photos at the Final Four for D3hoops.com. He's also on the selection staff for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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