November 11, 2010

A pair of profound perspectives

More news about: UW-Whitewater
A.J. Raebel
Part of the UW-Whitewater road to the Stagg Bowl in 2005 involved A.J. Raebel intercepting a pass from Brett Elliott, left, and taking it to the end zone.

Something about a recent lackluster practice bothered A.J. Raebel.

So as it finished, he stepped in front of the players and spoke from the heart. One of the last things he remembers saying was “every opportunity you squander is someone else’s dream. We owe it to ourselves to put every ounce of effort into everything we do.”

Booker Stanley knows all about squandered opportunity. And although he doesn’t know Raebel and shares little with him besides an association with the same university, he can relate. Stanley knows what it’s like to be stuck in a place he never wanted to go, somewhere far away from football, wondering how life put him on that path.

One-hundred and ninety-six of Division III’s 238 teams play their final regular-season games on Saturday. Roughly 15,000 players make up those teams, and if just 15 per squad are suiting up for the last time, because they will soon graduate, or because they no longer see a future in football, or because they will suffer career-ending injuries, that’s nearly 3,000 players who will never do it again.

Somewhere between Sul Ross State and St. Scholastica, between Colby and Cal Lutheran, is a young man who doesn’t recognize the blessing it is simply to be able to play. Perhaps an old-timer has advised him to soak in the moment. Perhaps his coach has told him to pay attention to detail, or to have fun out there.

But he doesn’t hear those guys.

A.J. Raebel on Day 22 of treatment
A.J. Raebel's words come from experiencing something bigger than football. This photo was taken on Day 22 of his cancer treatment.

When it comes from Raebel, like it did when the Craig High School defensive coordinator gave his emotional talk, players can’t help but listen.

Raebel is a champion, having led UW-Whitewater to three Stagg Bowls and a national title in 2007, his senior year. That alone gives him credibility, but the star linebacker is beating an opponent more dangerous than any he faced on the field: testicular cancer.

Stanley has credibility other players respect too, having once been a star running back at Division I Wisconsin. But growing up with an imperfect family life, standing trial for choices he made and eventually spending time in jail left him with a worldly sensibility that could rub off on plenty of college players flying blind through life.

Raebel and Stanley have wisdom and perspective far beyond the football field. Just by sharing, they can teach us all. But their messages might strike a particular chord with those who can really relate.

“A Mom facebooked me about her son who was locked up,” said Stanley, now a senior UW-Whitewater running back splitting time with All-American Levell Coppage and 1,200-yard reserve Antwan Anderson. “She told me he had got a hold of a paper, somewhere in Chicago or Illinois, that wrote a story about me. He read that and was inspired by that and she thanked me.

“It was kind of like a surreal moment,” said Stanley, who talks about graduation and friendships at UW-W more than statistics or Saturday’s opponents. “One of the biggest things I want to do is inspire people, yet I wasn’t even thinking I could do that yet. To get that was a validation … but it humbled me even more.”

Raebel found out he’d been an inspiration when he showed up to an event in March that the UW-Whitewater community threw in his honor.

“I guess over 500 people showed up to the benefit,” Raebel recalls. “People I had never seen, people that said they had had so much fun watching me play football that they wanted to give something back to me. … It was so overwhelming and I cannot thank the WW community enough.”

The fun-loving, red-headed outside linebacker from the Warhawks’ early forays into the playoffs was diagnosed with cancer in November 2009. Not long after, led by his friend and 2007 Gagliardi Trophy winner Justin Beaver, the Cure 33 Fund was established.

Raebel says he got flowers, texts and cards from more people than he could respond to – hundreds.

“One day I got a call from [UW-W coach Lance] Leipold, and he asked me if I needed a fundraiser for help, and I told him not to worry about it,” Raebel said. “I called him back about five minutes later and told him that I might have downplayed my financial disparities and that we really could use the help, but it was difficult for me to admit it right away. He said ‘don’t worry, I’ve already talked to [athletic director] Paul Plinske and we were going to do it anyway.’ ”

A.J. Raebel and Paul Plinske
Former UW-Whitewater linebacker A.J. Raebel, left, and athletic director Paul Plinske, wearing a 33 jersey at the Cure 33 benefit.

Raebel began chemotherapy in January, and the benefit took place in March. The Warhawk athletic community brought out its championship wheelchair basketball teams, football alumni, the Milwaukee Bucks dunk team and more to raise more than $12,000.

On May 5, Raebel went in for surgery, and remembers that his hair hadn’t started growing back yet.

“The worst part,” he says, “was not any particular day or particular side effect, but just how much time I spent sick and recovering from surgeries. It really wears on your psyche.

“I lost nine months of my life to cancer,” Raebel says. “There were probably only 12 days of the chemotherapy that were really, really hard, but even then it wasn’t worse than the swine flu, which I had last October.”

Stanley says he spent “a year and a half going through my situation in Madison,” which doesn’t sound all that bad considering he was once facing 57 years in prison. Stanley’s trial was big news in Madison, and after a few twists, in July 2006, he was convicted of four crimes. The most serious of his convictions was vacated in the summer of 2008, and he’s served his time.

Holding a conversation with Stanley in November 2010, it sounds like college is right where he belongs. He’s 27, and has the wisdom to match.

“I think that maturity and growing up and life experiences will always mold you into a better person,” says Stanley, who is third on the Warhawks with 68 carries for 558 yards and six TDs this season. “It’s unfortunate, some people are never able to get that enlightenment.”

Stanley has his. And when ATN asked, he was willing to share.

“I believe it’s really hard to look into the future and know where you’re going to end up,” he said. “A lot of people get off that path.

Booker Stanley
Booker Stanley was once a big name for the Badgers. Now he's just one of the guys in the backfield for the Warhawks, but with a lot of wisdom to impart to his younger teammates.
Photo by Darryl Tessman, d3photography.com

“Sometimes you have your trials and tribulations and in the end you come out stronger. If there’s one piece of advice I would give, it’s to stay on that path that got you there.”

From fans to friends and beyond, Stanley says there are “so many influences, it can make you forget those things that are important.” Like any college student, he’s learned to prioritize, which had made a difference in his life.

“Lately I’ve been doing a lot with time management,” he says. “Just understanding the concepts of time management, what you’re doing with your time. A lot of times it’s a battle within you. What is your focus? What do you want out of life?”

Leipold made sure Stanley wasn’t the focus of his championship-level program by asking Stanley, when he inquired about coming to Whitewater before the 2009 season, to enroll in the school the following semester. Stanley put in the work, and had the same experiences other players had, though he had football and life experience beyond his peers.

After a win against UW-Stevens Point where Stanley was still working his way back from a shoulder injury and had only three carries, Leipold was more focused on making sure Stanley soaked in his final collegiate football season and stayed on track to graduate. The running back appreciates his coach’s perspective.

“It’s about the experience at the end of the day,” Stanley said. “Nobody remembers how many touchdowns you scored or how many yards you had. Personally, you think about the friendships you’ve made and the times you’ve shared. Those are the things you hold on to forever.”

He once was lost
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote an article in 2006 headlined “Stanley can’t seem to find his way.” A few years later, he couldn’t seem more found. Here’s a sampling of some more of his profound thoughts:

“It takes a lifetime to reach your potential.”

“Get around people who are genuinely your friends. Not those who are going to bring drama into your life, or negativity. Sometimes we want to believe everyone is our friend and they’re not.”

“You never know where you’ll end up. Five years ago I never thought I’d be at Whitewater.”

The Cure 33 Fund might be the best example of that. Raebel had given all he could to the Warhawks eligibility-wise -- he tried to catch on with the Minnesota Vikings and the CFL’s Saskatchewan Rough Riders after graduation. UW-Whitewater could get nothing from him anymore, yet it reached out and gave to him.

“The money helped,” Raebel said. “But the support was priceless.”

Likewise, the Warhawks had already won two championships before Stanley joined the roster. The program didn’t need his talent, not with Coppage and Anderson already around, and it didn’t need to risk its reputation by taking on someone who was less than perfect.

But Stanley felt welcomed beyond the confines of the football program.

“The team and the student body … I never had to walk around with my head down or feeling bad,” the Milwaukee native said. “They got to know the real me. Collectively, the whole city of Whitewater made me feel at home.”

And so Stanley deferred to Coppage (1,007 yards, at 6.3 per carry, and 14 TDs in eight games) and Anderson (730, at 5.8, and six in eight games), telling them it was their show and he was “just along for the ride.”

“This is your time to shine,” Stanley recalls saying. “I feel like I’ve had my time. My whole thing wasn’t to come here to resurrect my career.”

He has though, resurrected his reputation in the eyes of some who now view him as a success. The support, he says, comes from people he knows well and from those he doesn’t.

For Raebel, it was like that at the benefit too.

And since people are watching Stanley and Raebel and perhaps other D-III players and ex-players wherever they may be, and whatever they might have been through, it feels only appropriate to relay the rest of the speech Raebel says he gave his high school charges.

“I want to tell you a story from my life. I learned a lot about this world, how fragile we all are, and what’s truly important. I had to go through a very difficult time to earn this clarity, and I want to share it with you.

“Right now there are people your age, sitting in a hospital fighting cancer. All that they think about is how much they can’t wait to be in school. All they want to do is have the opportunity to sit in a classroom, something all of us have taken for granted at one time. Right now there are people your age sitting in wheelchairs who would give everything they own to go for a jog, something we complain about doing every time. In your school, there are people wishing they were in good enough health to be playing football beside you guys.

“What you need to realize is every opportunity you squander is someone else’s dream. We owe it to ourselves to put every ounce of effort into everything we do.” 

Take that with you into your final games in Week 11.

A digital world
Willamette has a chance to finish 8-2, which won’t get them in the playoffs this season, but would be another notable season on its own. Coach Mark Speckman runs his unique offense and usually fields one of the West’s most competitive teams.

While we’re writing about inspiration, ATN would be remiss not to mention the book Figure It Out: How I Learned to Live in a Digital World Without Digits. Speckman, who co-wrote the book with former player and assistant W. Jason Niedermayer, begins with his earliest recollections of being born without hands, but being treated by his parents the same as his brothers.

And like Raebel and Stanley, you don’t have to have faced the challenges Speckman has faced to get something from the book. It’s not only about Speckman figuring out how to get by with no hands, but how to get through a shaky job interview, move on after divorce and find his place in life. Much of it involves things most of us can relate to.

If you find yourself rooting for a team like Willamette, and thinking the season will be over on Saturday, do yourself a favor and extend the season a little by reading the book.

The playoff picture
The fan proletariat has become quite sophisticated over the years, to the point where ATN’s analysis is at times a rehash of ideas already discussed during the week on Post Patterns’ various threads. Even so, I’m told it’s missed when not here, and at worst it’s good to have everything in one place.

There’s a playoff primer below for those of you who are new to selection process. Those looking for advanced analysis of what lies between now and the revelation of the 32 teams on Sunday afternoon on ESPNews between 3 and 3:30 p.m. ET, here’s a good place to start: No. 1 seeds.

Even after Wednesday’s regional rankings placed the defending champion and consensus national No. 1 second in its own region, ATN still believes there’s no chance an undefeated UW-Whitewater or an undefeated Mount Union would be passed over for top seeds. Maybe if you switched the Purple Raiders’ accomplishments this season with those of another undefeated team, they wouldn’t rank in the top two. But both the Warhawks and Purple Raiders will have brackets built around them, and those two brackets will be ranked 1-2, set on opposite sides so the teams would not have to meet in the semifinals.

Could you imagine the stink raised if there was finally a new participant in Salem, but it came not because someone beat one of the purple powers along the way, but because they were matched up before the Stagg Bowl? Keeping the two apart is not only what’s going to happen, but it’s the right thing to do. Anyone who gets to Salem is going to have to earn it by going through Whitewater or Alliance.

There are four other legitimate candidates for No. 1’s, assuming all remain undefeated: Wesley, Mary Hardin-Baylor, St. Thomas and North Central. All have wins against regionally ranked teams, and while the latter three are champions of power conferences, Wesley has the No. 1 strength of schedule figure in the nation through Week 10. Pencil the Wolverines in for the third top seed.

UMHB’s SoS number (.511 through Week 10) is far from North Central’s (.561) or St. Thomas’s (.538). North Central expects to drop by closing with North Park (2-7) and though the Tommies are already 10-0, their opponents’ opponents still have games, meaning their OOWP can trend up. The Tommies might actually get the fourth top seed by a shade if St. Norbert climbs into the West regional rankings, therefore giving them a second win over a RRO (regionally ranked opponent), which is key critieria in separating teams without common opponents.

(Those were my thoughts on Tuesday, before Illinois Wesleyan appeared in Wednesday’s regional rankings, giving North Central a second win over an RRO, along with Wheaton. Yet St. Thomas came out as the West’s No. 1, which is a clear hint that they’ll get a No. 1 seed. Since St. Thomas gets one before UW-W, and the Warhawks have a better result than North Central against a common opponent, UW-Eau Claire, I’d pencil the Cardinals in as the No. 1-seed worthy team most likely to be squeezed).

The Tommies as a No. 1 would create an interesting dilemma with UW-Whitewater, another West Region team, as to which bracket to place North Central and other top North Region teams, and where to place Linfield, Cal Lutheran and Wartburg.

That depends on a lot we don’t know. The selection committee’s decisions are sometimes explained in great detail and sometimes not; what we do know is they’ll only need to deliberate for nine of the 32 spots. Which leads me to ...

Pool A watch
DePauw became the SCAC’s automatic qualifier in Week 8, and St. Thomas earned the MIAC’s nod in Week 9. Fifteen teams became AQs in Week 10, leaving six of the 23 automatic bids up for grabs. Here are the six conferences, from least-confusing scenario to best:

NEFC – Endicott goes to defending champion Maine Maritime in the conference title game. Winner joins field of 32, loser is likely invited to an ECAC bowl game.

MIAA – Trine hosts Albion, which began the season 1-4 with losses to I-AA Butler, current No. 18 Wheaton and against powerful UW-Stevens Point. The Britons have won four in a row and could steal a bid; Despite being 9-0, the Thunder would likely miss the playoffs by virtue of not stacking up well against the crowd already lining up for one of the six at-large bids.

HCAC – Franklin needs to beat Hanover in the Victory Bell game to clinch. If Hanover wins and Defiance beats Bluffton, it becomes a three-way tie settled by “total winning percentage by non-conference opponents.” Then it gets confusing because one of Franklin’s non-conference wins came against I-FCS Valparaiso, which is 0-9. So the Grizzlies pounding a I-AA team would actually hurt their case, while Hanover losing 56-12 to undefeated Thomas More would help theirs. Long story short: if Franklin wins, they’re in, otherwise, Hanover is in.

USAC – Christopher Newport, at 5-1, 5-4, can clinch with a home win against 1-5, 2-7 Methodist. If the Captains stumble, North Carolina Wesleyan – which lost to CNU, 23-15, in Week 7 – could take the bid with a home win against Averett. The Cougars, at 3-3, 5-4, beat CNU in Week 6. If both CNU and NCWC lose, Ferrum, at 4-2, 4-5, could pull even with a home win against Maryville. But with the Panthers 0-2 against CNU and NCWC, the tie would be broken and CNU’s head-to-head win against NCWC would give it the bid. Long story short: CNU is in with a win and has a chance even if it loses.

NCAC – Similar situation to the MIAA in that Wooster is 5-4 overall but 4-1 in the conference, like Albion, and Wittenberg is 9-0 yet probably out of the playoffs with a loss, like Trine. But if the Scots pull off the home win against the Tigers, there’s a three-way tie at 5-1 in NCAC games, with Wabash. And based on our understanding of the tiebreakers, the first three – head to head, results vs. opponents in descending order and fewest losses in NCAC away games – solve nothing. And the fourth, highest preseason power rank, draws on the 2006 and 2007 seasons to break the tie for Wabash. Which is totally bizarre, because if it drew on, oh, I don’t know, this season, the choice would be Wittenberg easy, based on last season’s long playoff run. Long story short: Wittenberg is in with a win. A loss sends the Little Giants.

NJAC – Cortland State, Montclair State and Rowan are each 8-1; the Red Dragons are done with NJAC play and host rival Ithaca. The Red Hawks travel to William Paterson, and Rowan goes to TCNJ. If all three win and finish 8-1, 9-1, and 1-1 against each other, the NJAC goes down to its fourth tiebreaker: Opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage. Frank Rossi crunched the numbers, and reports that, even with a loss, Cortland’s worst possible cumulative opponents record would be 57-51. Montclair’s best is 56-53 and Rowan’s best is 55-55, meaning even with a loss to Ithaca, Cortland State wins the tiebreaker for the Pool A bid. Makes the one point they edged Montclair by a pretty important one. Cortland can only lose the Pool A bid if Montclair State loses and it finishes tied with Rowan, whose head-to-head 20-17 win give it an advantage over the Red Dragons. Long story short: If all three win, Cortland State is in, and Montclair State gets into the Pool C discussion before Rowan by virtue of a 26-7 head-to-head win, which counts as a win against a RRO.

Elsewhere, the clinched bids:

ASC – Mary Hardin-Baylor; CC – Muhlenberg; CCIW – North Central; E8 – Alfred; IIAC – Wartburg; LL – St. Lawrence; MAC – Delaware Valley; MWC – St. Norbert; MIAC – St. Thomas; NATHC – Benedictine; NWC – Linfield; OAC – Mount Union; ODAC – Washington & Lee; PAC – Thomas More; SCAC – DePauw; SCIAC – Cal Lutheran; WIAC – UW-Whitewater.

Pool B watch
Wesley, the third-ranked team in the country, finishes against 5-4 Kean and probably gets a Pool B bid even with a stunning loss. Remember their national-best .640 strength of schedule figure. SUNY-Maritime is 10-0 and a lock for another bid, despite a .446 SoS that ties for 193rd among the 225 playoff-eligible teams.

Five teams could make a case for the last bid set aside for independents and teams not in AQ conferences. 

Salisbury is 6-2 and regionally ranked. Three UAA teams, Chicago, Wash. U. and Case Western Reserve are each 7-2. Norwich is 8-2 and has beaten playoff qualifier St. Lawrence.

The bid should come down to Salisbury and the winner of Wash. U. at Chicago game.

Salisbury has the No. 9 SoS figure of 225, and losses by four points or fewer to two other teams that show up in the regional rankings, Wesley and Hampden-Sydney. Results (not wins) against RROs are secondary criteria and can be considered. Wash. U., if it wins, could edge the Sea Gulls if Wabash, which it beat, defeats DePauw in the Monon Bell game. That would give it a win over an RRO, but the SoS of .442 (No. 200) might be too much to overcome, even with a win against Chicago. The Maroons have an SoS of .526 (56th) that will go up after playing the Bears, but it lost to Wabash, its only potential RRO.

ATN thinks if Salisbury beats Frostburg State in the Regents’ Cup game, it will wrap up the third Pool B bid.

Further the Pool B discussion on Post Patterns.

Pool C watch

On Post Patterns, Frank Rossi has assembled a list of 15 teams that could be up for discussion for one of six at-large bids come Saturday night. If you’re a fan of one of those schools, however, don’t despair. The list, broken down by region and with NCAA strength of schedule figure and quality wins and losses included, reveals the potential for a cascade of Week 11 surprises.

Only one of the 15, Coe, plays a team significantly below .500, in 0-9 Cornell. Montclair State and Bethel each play 4-5 opponents (William Paterson and Augsburg), and several others are in the neighborhood of .500. So wins for all 15 teams are far from guaranteed.

On the list, both Wittenberg and Trine are likely to earn Pool A bids, and Wabash likely will take the NCAC’s spot if Wittenberg doesn’t. Wash. U.’s chances aren’t great in Pool B, and they’re almost none in Pool C. Cortland State has got a good shot at winning the NJAC, win or lose. So let’s focus on 10 teams for six bids.

Of those 10, Hampden-Sydney and Hardin-Simmons are in good shape, and Pacific Lutheran’s got a case, but they have to get through Saturday afternoon before worrying about Saturday night. Rival Randolph-Macon (7-2) awaits the Tigers, while pass-happy Louisiana College (6-3) could spring an upset on the Cowboys, and 7-2 Willamette poses a problem for the Lutes.

Defeats there could trim the list to seven teams for six spots, a manageable scenario, yet one that leaves room for a strong one-loss team to be left in the cold.

The other important thing to keep in mind is that the selection committee doesn’t throw all the Pool C candidates in the pot at once and stir. One from each region will be on the board at any particular time, and the committee can compare the merits of four teams at a time instead of 15. That doesn’t block the road for any one team; even if you’re the sixth Pool C candidate in the West, you could still get in if the five West teams ahead of you each grade out better than the other three on the board.

What it does do is simply the process, especially since regional committees send their rankings to the national selection committee on Saturday night. So if Frank’s order is how things end up after Week 11, with Hampden-Sydney, Hardin-Simmons and Wash U. the order in the South, Wheaton, Ohio Northern, Wittenberg, Trine and Wabash in the North; Montclair State, Rowan and Cortland in the East; and Coe, Bethel, Redlands and PLU the teams from the West, here’s how it would work:

H-SC, Wheaton, Montclair State and Coe go on the board to start. They’re all 9-1, and all four teams are 1-1 against regionally ranked opponents. Wheaton has the monster SoS figure (.604 through Week 10) and Montclair State has a win over the No. 2 RRO in the East, in Rowan. Let’s say Wheaton is in the field first.

Then Ohio Northern, the next best North Region team, comes on the board with H-SC, MSU and Coe. ONU is also 1-1 against RROs. With their .543 SoS, Coe goes in next. Then the West’s next team, Bethel, joins the discussion. They’re 0-1 against RROs – just the loss to St. Thomas – meaning if H-SC, MSU and ONU all go before Bethel, Redlands and PLU haven’t even been brought into the discussion by the time five at-large spots are awarded. And Bethel would have the leg up on its West brethren, meaning Redlands never even makes it to the table. Same with Hardin-Simmons, which wouldn’t even be discussed until Hampden-Sydney goes in.

Now, here’s an important caveat: The scenario I laid out above is all based on what we know through Week 10, and it’s just my interpretation of the facts. The committee could easily see it differently, and regionally ranked teams are likely to change in Week 11, which could alter the order of everything. Coe, with it’s win over Central, the 10th-ranked West team, is on particularly thin ice because without that RRO, it could go from the second team in to much further down the list, maybe even behind Bethel.

If ATN had to set a pecking order now, just for viewers’ edification during Saturday’s games, it would be: Wheaton, Coe, Hampden-Sydney, Montclair State, Ohio Northern, Rowan.

If ATN had to select the teams it thought most deserved to get in, strictly anecdotally, it’d be Hardin-Simmons, Wheaton, Bethel, Ohio Northern, Montclair State and either Rowan or Coe.

This of course, is all presupposing wins by every team in the Pool C mix, which is highly unlikely. And while it’s meant to be helpful, it’s open to interpretation.

If you’re a fan looking for a miracle scenario, as one PLU backer was on Post Patterns, here’s your best bet for Saturday: Root hard for all but one of Randolph-Macon, Louisiana College, Millikin, Heidelberg, William Paterson, TCNJ, Cornell, Augsburg, Chapman and Willamette. Those are the 10 opponents for the most likely Pool C contenders (H-SC, HSU, Wheaton, ONU, MSU, Rowan, Coe, Bethel, Redlands and PLU).

Further the Pool C discussion on Post Patterns.

Rivalry watch

Half of D-III’s most prominent rivalry games are scheduled for Saturday. Here’s a quick look at the ones that have already been played, and what’s at stake in Week 11:

Backyard Brawl: In Week 1, Mississippi beat Millsaps in what’s become a solid South Region non-conference clash since it was revived in 2000.

Secretaries’ Cup: ATN covered Coast Guard’s victory over Merchant Marine here.

Courage Bowl: St. John Fisher dominated Rochester, 49-21, but the big winners in Week 3 are the kids from Camp Good Days.

Tommie-Johnnie Game: We can say it that order, since St. Thomas broke a long skid against St. John’s with a 27-26 win in front of the largest crowd on record in Division III.

The Dutchman Shoes: It’s been a down year for the Liberty League, but RPI’s 21-7 win over Union in Week 9 was still a highlight.

The Bronze Turkey: It’s been a long time Knox, which lost 42-7 in Week 10, kept it close with Monmouth, but this rivalry still boasts the best trophy-stealing stories in history.

The Little Brass Bell: North Central’s Week 10 28-6 win against Wheaton had the CCIW title and the inside track to a potential No. 1 playoff seed on the line.

This week:

Oldest Small-College Rivalry West of the Mississippi: It’s a long name, but with the playoffs in their sights, Coe is likely to make short work of winless Cornell.

The Bridge Bowl: Only dates from 1990, but the recent success of Thomas More and Mount St. Joseph makes the Kentucky-Ohio border rivalry fun.

CBB: Colby, Bates and Bowdoin wrap up their battle to be the best in Maine.

Victory Bell: As noted above, Franklin and Hanover have more than a trophy to play for.

The Game: Washington & Lee beat both Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon and broke a three-year string of the two teams playing for the title and automatic bid, so the two-loss Yellow Jackets will look to make sure the Tigers pick up a second and stay home too.

The Biggest Little Game in America: Amherst’s loss to Trinity last week was their first since the 2008 season, but if they stop rival Williams from having an undefeated season, it would continue a recurring theme in the rivalry that began in 1883 and is D-III’s oldest.

The Cortaca Jug: Public vs. private, red vs. blue, big stadium vs. quaint, Cortland State and Ithaca have almost nothing in common except this game. And while neither will really change the postseason fortunes of the other, the offseason is much different for the team without the Cortaca Jug than the one with it.

The Monon Bell Game: DePauw is 9-0 and in the playoffs, Wabash is 7-2 and likely out. Yet this is often a playoff in itself, and the series pretty much stays even. It’s the quintessential ‘who cares what their records are?’ If a player on either team has it in them, it’s coming out in this game.

Gagliardi Trophy watchBased on Trine’s mail campaign for D-III’s premier award, I’d say Eric Watt is a nominee. And the quarterback might well be a deserving finalist. UW-W’s Levell Coppage and Mount Union’s Cecil Shorts III are the nation’s most prominent players, but one is a junior and the other has missed time due to injury, so who knows if they’ll even be nominated.

Monmouth quarterback Alex Tanney, the only returning player from last season’s 10 finalists, won’t be back in the group since he missed most of the season due to injury. But we could see Hardin-Simmons’ fifth-year quarterback Justin Feaster, who made the final 10 as a junior.

This season, the four regional finalists will be honored Thursday night in Salem, flown into town if not already there for the Stagg Bowl by Jostens and the St. Cloud J-Club, who sponsor and give out the award.

Augustana tackle Blaine Westemeyer’s win last season reminds us that a phenonmenal young man will bring home the trophy, whether or not its one whose playing exploits we’re already familiar with.

Best teams I’ve seen this year
As is often noted around the site, the playoffs offer every team a path to five more weeks of games in the postseason, but they don’t necessarily assemble the 32 best teams, whatever the definition of “best” is. And although I didn’t see nearly as many games as I would have liked, or as many as I see in a normal regular season, that still provides some context for a brief exercise, ranking the best teams ATN has seen in person this season.

1. UW-Whitewater: If someone else wins the national championship, it’s because a team played an amazing game along the lines, where the Warhawks often dominate.

2. UW-Stevens Point: I’m not just putting them here to prop up all the times ATN has ranked the WIAC the strongest conference based on its depth. The Pointers weren’t the sharpest team around, but they have a pair of 6-4, 220-pound receivers that can go the distance any time they touch the ball, and they stood tall against Whitewater in a 27-14 loss. If Willamette beat this team, and has no shot of making the playoffs, we definitely aren’t getting the best 32 in.

3. Delaware Valley: They might beat UW-SP, but the Pointers win the eye test. The Aggies have speed, heart and a killer instinct. They were disappointed at halftime despite shutting out then-one-loss Lycoming the day I was there, and they buried them in the fourth quarter, turning a 20-0 game into 36-0. This team should either end up in Alliance carrying the banner for the rest of the East, or find its way into a rematch with Wesley.

4. Randolph-Macon: I was finally ready to admit an R-MC team was better than the last 8-2 one I played on there, because it had all the elements: Toughness, leadership and talent beyond the top few stars. I don’t know that they were ever the same once fifth-year quarterback Austin Faulkner went out, but for the first six week or so, they looked like trouble.

5. Carthage: I realize I only caught a portion of a game coach Tim Rucks described as “flat” afterward, and Evan Jones didn’t have his best night against North Park. Size-wise they looked like a typical CCIW team, bigger than either the Yellow Jackets or Aggies. And I know since they beat Franklin, who could clinch a playoff bid Saturday, that they have it in them.

6. SUNY-Maritime: When I caught these guys, on the road at West. Conn., I had no idea they’d go 10-0. They looked like a scrappy little team that could trouble you with a triple-option and make a few plays on defense. I thought beating an NJAC program was impressive.

7. Lycoming: DelVal wasn’t their best game, and the talent and toughness is there, I just didn’t notice any playmakers that would really scare a playoff-level team.

8. Catholic: Was a little bit impressive in a second-half rally against the Jackets, and improved to 4-5 on the season. Honestly was kind of hard to figure out why they were so non-competitive against the Jackets early.

9. Coast Guard: Has some players who could play anywhere in D-III. A 0-9 prediction in Kickoff was largely based on youth and lack of offensive line, and the Bears finished 2-7, in the NEFC.

10. Merchant Marine: Stayed close with Coast Guard, and undoubtedly got better throughout the season, as they rose to 4-5.

11. North Park: Tied at 10 at the half against Carthage and fully engaged on the sideline through the final whistle of a 13-point loss, the Vikings were impressive. They didn’t have much size or any real passing attack, but they went hard. That’s probably why they’re typically winless in CCIW play, but 2-1 non-conference.

12. Western Conn. State: The Colonials had a couple of really good linemen, and a back (Tyler DeRosa) who rushed for 205 yards against SUNY-Maritime. From that, it’s a little puzzling how this team dropped to 0-9 and has been outscored 372-87, including giving up 70 in a game. But the numbers tell the story.

Stay tuned
Your season might be wrapping up, but D3football.com keeps the stove warm through the winter holidays. Even after your favorite players turn in the pads, there are still reasons to keep visiting the site:

Sat. Nov. 13: Week 11 games.

Sun. Nov. 14: Selection Sunday (show between 3-3:30 p.m. ET on ESPNews)
Following week: Playoff primers, D3football.com playoff pick ‘em
Thu. Nov. 18: ATN’s annual playoff surprises/disappointments column
Sat. Nov. 20: Playoffs, Round 1 (32 teams), ECAC bowl games (12 teams)
Following week: ATN podcast on Mondays, D3football.com regional wrap-ups and playoff features Tues.-Wed.
Sat. Nov. 27: Playoffs, Round 2
Following week: Gagliardi trophy finalists named, D3football.com Road to Salem features, ATN podcast
Fri. Dec. 3: D-III Senior Classic all-star game in Salem
Sat. Dec. 4: Playoffs, Round 3 (eight teams)
Following week: D3football.com All-Region teams announced, Gagliardi Trophy regional finalists (four) announced, Liberty Mutual coach of the year fan voting ends, D3football.com playoff features midweek, ATN podcast
Sat. Dec. 11: National semifinals (four teams), live webcast
Thu. Dec. 16: Gagliardi Trophy presentation
Fri. Dec. 17: Stagg Bowl luncheon, pregame festivities in Salem/Roanoke
Sat. Dec. 18: Stagg Bowl XXXVII, 3:30 p.m., D3football.com all-Americans announced during pregame broadcast, wall-to-wall coverage of the championship, First installment of ATN’s year-in-review
Last week Dec./First week Jan.: Final installment of ATN’s year-in-review, Liberty Mutual coach of the year award winner announced.

Playoff primer
Keep these links handy as we discuss the playoffs and more.

If this is your first season following the playoff selection process closely, here’s a breakdown of how Division III selects its 32-team field. Knowing why there are 23 teams in Pool A, three in B and six in C will help you understand a lot of what we write about.

In that handbook, are these criteria, which will be used to select the at-large teams:

Win-loss percentage against regional opponents.
Strength-of-schedule (only contests versus regional competition). SOS is weighted 2/3s Opponents' Average Winning Percentage (OWP) and 1/3 Opponents' Opponents' Average Winning Percentage (OOWP).
In-region head-to-head competition.
In-region results versus common regional opponents.
In-region results versus regionally ranked teams.

There are secondary critieria involving all games, not just regional contests, and more, but I'll let you visit the FAQ page or the handbook for those.

This is important to know because as we debate who should be in and out, or who should be seeded where and why, it's good for us to be discussing the same things the committee is discussing.

Five Ways to Saturday

Follow Around the Nation …

Throughout the week on Twitter. Follow @D3Keith. It’s a sporadic stream of short-form minutiae, most of it D-III related.

On Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board. That’s the best place to ask a question about a topic raised in the column or continue a discussion unrelated to this week’s ATN.

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.

When the column publishes on Thursdays.

In Friday morning’s Triple Take, on The Daily Dose.

The press box
Hard to believe another season of ATN is in the books. I’ll be back next week with the annual playoff surprises and disappointments column, and year in review part one should go up on Stagg Bowl weekend. I’m glad I got a chance to touch a few important bases this year, and I appreciate the cooperation of everyone who called or e-mailed. We do this D-III thing because we are D-III and we experienced it and want to pass that experience down the line. Hope ATN has been a part of your week in 2010, and I hope it will be in years beyond.

Readers: Before you tune out for the year, run through your memory banks and share what stood out so ATN can highlight it in the annual year-in-review. From remarkable plays and players to odd stats and off-the-beaten path moments, ATN delivers each December and January the entire season in a (rather long) nutshell. Send your personal memories or suggestions for items – we’ll do the legwork – using the contact info below.

Around the Nation encourages your opinions, questions and insights. 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: To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 3836 Appaloosa Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

comments powered by Disqus

Keith McMillan

Keith McMilllan, who has been a columnist for D3football.com since 2000, has provided color commentary on D3football.com's national broadcasts of the Stagg Bowls. He played at Randolph-Macon in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference for four years and covered it for two more.

Previous Columns

March 3, 2014
Analyzing the NJAC and E8's big moves
Wesley and its Capital Athletic Conference brethren join forces with five New Jersey schools to form...
November 24, 2013
Look who stole the show in Round 1
Many of those who shined in the first round of the 32-team playoffs weren't the nationally elite...
November 21, 2013
Playoff picks, surprises, disappointments
ATN assembles a team for an annual look at who might surprise and disappoint us in the 32-team...
November 16, 2013
On this day, they were all big games
Keith McMillan has instant reactions both inside and outside the playoff picture on the final day of...
November 13, 2013
A pre-regional rankings primer
Keith McMillan introduces the committee and their roles, analyzes Pools B and C and takes reader...
November 10, 2013
Snap judgments: Seen from the other side
Millsaps may well have a story for the ages out of Saturday's win vs. Centre, as will Cornell and...
November 7, 2013
Poll positions: What to make of regional rankings
If you haven't seen regional rankings before, or your team hasn't been a contender in recent years,...
November 3, 2013
Snap judgments: The aftermath
With so many games featuring two ranked teams, we should see a lot of movement in Sunday's Top 25...
October 24, 2013
Poll positions: Doing some number crunching
The Top 25 doesn't exist to steal anybody's joy. It is merely a prism through which to view...
October 20, 2013
Snap judgments: Cycling up
Maryville and TCNJ are atop their respective conferences, the John Carroll defense isn't the only...
October 13, 2013
Snap judgments: A blurry picture developing
Not literally -- we get great pictures from our associated photographers and SIDs, but that won't...
October 8, 2013
Poll positions: Streaking up the rankings
Keith McMillan looks at why one computer ranking is making the case for a blue team No. 1, and not a...
October 6, 2013
Snap judgments: Bounceback seasons
Olivet, St. Lawrence, North Park, Husson, Western Connecticut ... the list of improved teams this...
October 3, 2013
Re-ranking the conferences
With September's games, and the vast majority of non-conference play in the books, Around the Nation...
September 29, 2013
Snap judgments: Look away from the Top 25 scores
At first glance -- like say, the scores page, with the top 25 scores the initial finals that catch...
September 26, 2013
History lesson: Engineering rivalries
Week 4 is perhaps the most odd Saturday on the schedule. There aren't many great rivalries, but...
September 24, 2013
Poll positions: How the voters reacted
A kick going wide left produced a wide variety of reactions, but when Wesley got taken down a peg,...
September 22, 2013
Snap judgments: Week 3
The Tommie-Johnnie rivalry is back, UMHB's defensive line is pretty darn good, the MIAA has a better...
September 19, 2013
History lesson: Wesley vs. Mary Hardin-Baylor
Now that longtime rivals Wabash and DePauw are both in the North Coast, and Mount Union and...
September 18, 2013
Poll positions: There's some movement coming
The top of the poll didn't change much last week but Saturday's games could have a significant...
September 17, 2013
Off the beaten path
Just because a team isn't in the Top 25 running or mentioned in the podcast or doesn't have a Play...
September 11, 2013
Poll positions: Why teams shuffle
In Around the Nation, Keith McMillan discusses a nonstandard way of assembling the ballot after Week...
September 8, 2013
Snap judgments
Keith McMillan's Around the Nation column returns. You'll see ATN several times a week, including on...

Other Columnists