September 30, 2010

Ranking the conferences

Ithaca isn't unbeaten, but its loss to Lycoming is one of just two non-conference losses for the Empire 8 this season. More photos like this.
Photo by Matt Milless, d3photography.com

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.

As much effort as we put into getting those right, four weeks of mostly non-conference play provide ATN enough data to revisit these rankings, updating them with what we know now. And with 10-team conferences like the OAC, NJAC and MWC well into their league schedule, and with others, like the WIAC, CCIW and ODAC beginning in earnest this week, the rankings won’t change much again until the playoffs. Here’s a look who’s moved in September and why:

1. WISCONSIN INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (WIAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 1st of 27
Non-conference record to date: 11-12, including 5-2 against non-Division III teams; one out-of-conference game remains
Verdict: How can the WIAC hold the top spot with a below-.500 non-conference mark? Look at who the eight teams have played: No. 2 Mount Union, St. Thomas, Mary Hardin-Baylor, North Central, Ohio Northern, Central, St. John’s, Trine, Willamette. And when an average (Buena Vista, a 31-2 loser to UW-Platteville) or weak (Eureka, a 63-0 loser to UW-Stout) opponent was on the schedule, the WIAC team generally handled business. Plus, it’s home to the No. 1 team in the country and defending champion, UW-Whitewater.

2. OHIO ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (OAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 2nd
Non-conference record: 7-3
Verdict: For the longest time, the type of depth that made the WIAC great only went about halfway down the OAC standings. But beyond Mount Union, college football’s most successful program of the past 20 years, the conference had often been home to a second playoff team that mowed through opponents until being eliminated by MUC in the playoffs. The No. 2 ranking wasn’t automatic; the 7-3 record came against teams from eight conferences, and Capital’s 42-21 loss to third-ranked Wesley didn’t help. Mount Union and Ohio Northern each beat WIAC teams, but the last time the WIAC’s best met the OAC’s best in the Stagg Bowl, the WIAC won.

3. AMERICAN SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE (ASC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 4th
Non-conference record to date: 9-6, including 4-2 vs. non-D-IIIs; two out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: The ASC puts a tenuous hold on third place, by virtue of a 4-0 record vs. the WIAC and NWC, though three of the wins came from the conference powers, Hardin-Simmons and Mary Hardin-Baylor. The conference has shown good depth, with middle-tier East Texas Baptist beating UW-La Crosse, 33-20, and losing to SCIAC power Redlands, 21-10. The ASC has gone 4-1 against NAIA teams, and its three other D-III losses each came by six points.

4. COLLEGE CONFERENCE OF ILLINOIS AND WISCONSIN (CCIW)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 6th
Non-conference record: 22-2
Verdict: Six of the conference’s eight teams are 3-0 right now, and the other two are 2-1, with CCIW play set to begin Saturday. The 22 victories have come against teams from eight conferences, including an 8-0 record vs. the MIAA and 5-1 vs. the NathCon. But given chances to shine against power conferences, the CCIW holds up; North Central beat UW-Eau Claire, 20-6, Wheaton beat UW-Platteville, 51-14, and Augustana lost to nationally ranked Central, 28-23.

5. EMPIRE 8 (E8)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 7th
Non-conference record to date: 18-2; nine out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: The only conference to send three teams to the playoffs in one season in the automatic-bid era still has three unbeatens. Hartwick, at 2-1, has the “worst” record and its only bad loss; 42-27 against Norwich. Lycoming beat Ithaca on a last-second field goal, giving the MAC its only win in six games against the six teams left in the Empire 8. The conference is also 6-0 vs. the Liberty League, including wins against Hobart and Union, and 3-0 vs. the NJAC.

6. NORTHWEST CONFERENCE (NWC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 3rd
Non-conference record to date: 7-8, incl. 0-1 vs. non-D-III; six out-of-conference games remain, all against former member Menlo.
Verdict: The slide from third is partially due to a 4-6 record against the SCIAC, including last season’s class-of-the-conference Linfield losing, 47-42, to Cal Lutheran. Pacific Lutheran turned around and beat the Kingsmen. Willamette’s win at UW-Stevens Point shows the NWC’s best can still compete with other conferences’ best, but Hardin-Simmons’s victories against Whitworth and Willamette knock the NWC down a notch. Adding first-year Pacific in place of Menlo doesn’t change much, while Lewis & Clark becoming a respectable opponent and Puget Sound rebuilding after a winless season provide hope for balance in a top-heavy conference.

Dakota Tracy
Dakota Tracy and St. Thomas have given the MIAC credibility as a league beyond St. John's.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com

7. MINNESOTA INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (MIAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 5th
Non-conference record to date: 10-4, incl. 1-1 vs. non-D-III; two out-of-conference games remain, both against Macalester.
Verdict: The MIAC is capable of producing a national semifinalist in any given season, and this year there might be three playoff-worthy teams at the top. A touchdown in Hamline’s 27-20 loss to PLU and a field goal in St. John’s 23-20 overtime defeat against UW-Eau Claire might have moved the conference up a few notches.

8. IOWA INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (IIAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 8th
Non-conference record: 10-8, incl. 3-0 vs. non-D-III
Verdict: IIAC teams were 1-3 against the MIAC and 1-2 against both the WIAC and CCIW, and the wins came from top teams Central and Wartburg. Still, they’re wins, which is enough to let the IIAC mingle with the power conferences, even though they probably aren’t that close to the MIAC, top to bottom. It’s often a three-team race at the top, and there’s often only one not-competitive team, so the IIAC is sort of the definition of middle-tier.

9. NEW JERSEY ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (NJAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 9th
Non-conference record to date: 3-5; two out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: While the NJAC’s best are still capable of being good enough to have a playoff bracket built around them if undefeated, the watered-down, 10-team NJAC also has some teams at the bottom that cost it some high ground. The conference has gone from the lower elite tier to the top of D-III’s middle tier, and going 0-3 vs. the Empire 8 but 2-1 against the MAC places it here.

10. MIDDLE ATLANTIC CONFERENCE (MAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 11th
Non-conference record: 12-12
Verdict: The 6-2 record in the first year of the MAC-PAC challenge keeps the Middle Atlantic near the top of the middle group of conferences, but a 1-5 showing against the Empire 8 proves it doesn’t belong any higher. MAC teams were 1-2 vs. the NJAC, 2-2 vs the Centennial and 1-0 vs. the ODAC. Delaware Valley pushing Wesley to the brink in a 21-17 loss earns the conference respect, but MAC teams being outscored 167-31 in five E8 losses puts some distance between the two.

11. OLD DOMINION ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (ODAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 16th
Non-conference record to date: 18-7; two out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: Perhaps the highest riser based on early non-conference play, the ODAC has three undefeated teams partially because of a 10-4 record against the stumbling USAC. But there’s also Hampden-Sydney’s win against Salisbury and Randolph-Macon’s defeat of Johns Hopkins to bolster the resume. This is also where the conference begin to run together; the distance between the ODAC at 11 and the SCAC at 15 is minimal compared to the distance between, say, No. 5 and No. 9.

12. CENTENNIAL CONFERENCE (CC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 12th
Non-conference record to date: 4-4; two out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: Pretty much the ODAC’s cousin when it comes to being competitive nationally. Capable of producing a team every few years that can make a deep playoff run, but usually is a league more filled with parity than dominant teams. Dickinson’s 31-point loss to Hobart probably negates Ursinus’s win against Albright and Gettysburg’s against Lebanon Valley, in terms of impact.

13. ATLANTIC CENTRAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE (ACFC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 10th
Non-conference record to date: 8-6; 12 out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: The presence of Wesley, consistently in the nation’s top 5, is one-fourth of the conference makeup. Salisbury can embarrass a team that can’t stop its option – it’s already put up 58 and 80 points. But Frostburg State and Newport News don’t bring enough to the table in the form of key wins. The Bobcats’ 33-31 win against Christopher Newport would look better if the normally strong Captains weren’t 0-3. In all, ACFC is 5-0 vs. USAC and 0-3 vs. ODAC this year.

14. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (SCIAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 21st
Non-conference record to date: 7-7, incl. 0-3 vs. non-D-III; seven out-of-conference games remain, all against Chapman.
Verdict: Nearly the entire slate is against the NWC, and at 6-4 against a power conference, the SCIAC had to shoot up the list. The other win is Redlands against ETBU of the ASC, meaning all seven of the conference’s non-conference wins come against teams from top-tier leagues. But only the Linfield victory by CLU goes down as a big one. SCIAC play begins Saturday, with one team a week taking on independent Chapman, making for an easy four games among eight teams each week the rest of the year.

15. SOUTHERN COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (SCAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 15th
Non-conference record to date: 7-6, incl. 1-0 vs. non-D-III; seven out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: None of the SCAC’s top teams appear dominant this year, and against Mississippi College, Hanover and Hampden-Sydney, conference teams faltered. In fact, none of the seven wins has any national impact, part of the reason why the league is the first in our bottom half (though still very much middle tier). The SCAC has transitioned from dominant Trinity and everyone else to a handful of decent teams contending for a title in what will be fun to follow, but won’t be fun come playoff time.

16. LIBERTY LEAGUE (LL)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 13th
Non-conference record to date: 6-11; seven out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: The 0-6 against the Empire 8 (Ithaca twice, St. John Fisher twice, plus Alfred and Utica) is somewhat understandable. But 2-2 against both the NEFC and ECFC is not good for a conference that one reached the top 10 in these rankings. Susquehanna won the conference last year, then left for the Centennial. RPI has fallen from its perch. Even some of the LL’s six wins (Merchant Marine, by a point against Gallaudet and RPI by a field goal against Endicott) have been by the smallest of margins. Hobart’s 14-point win against Carnegie Mellon beats Case Western Reserve’s four-point win against Rochester, keeping the LL a shade in front of the UAA.

The re-emergence of Wittenberg helps the NCAC, which is dragged down by its bottom teams.
Photo by David Rich, d3photography.com

17. NORTH COAST ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (NCAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 18th
Non-conference record to date: 6-4; 14 out-of-conference games remain, including 13 against UAA.
Verdict: As many as six of the NCAC’s teams aren’t competitive with its top 25 stalwarts in Wittenberg and Wabash, making it one of the nation’s most have/have-not groups. This season’s six non-conference wins don’t include any teams with records above .500, and two are against 0-4 teams. A slight 3-2 edge vs. the UAA bumps the NCAC above its counterpart. The LL might not have as impressive a top two as the NCAC, but its teams have played more competition of consequence.

18. UNIVERSITY ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION (UAA)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 17th
Non-conference record to date: 9-6; 13 out-of-conference games remaining, all against NCAC.
Verdict: It’s still not clear if Case Western Reserve (3-0) will take a step back post-Dan Whalen, and with everybody else at 2-2, the only positive in the UAA’s non-conference results is that the losses are to nationally-recognized Wabash, Wittenberg and Hobart, plus Elmhurst, Allegheny and Rhodes. Only CWRU’s 30-13 win in the opener against the OAC’s John Carroll stands up as a key non-conference victory though.

19. PRESIDENTS' ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (PAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 14th
Non-conference record to date: 7-12, including Geneva’s 2-2 record; Three out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: The 2-6 performance in the MAC-PAC Challenge and Washington & Jefferson’s 27-0 loss to Delaware Valley are on the bad side of the ledger, but Thomas More’s thorough win (56-12) against Hanover and Grove City’s 17-14 upset of Lebanon Valley are on the good.

20. HEARTLAND COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (HCAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 20th
Non-conference record to date: 6-11, incl. 1-1 vs. non-D-III; one out-of-conference game remains
Verdict: In comparison to the MIAA, three of its teams were hammered by Trine or Adrian, but three of them beat Kalamazoo. Franklin hung with Carthage, and Hanover stunned Centre. But otherwise it’s three wins against Kalamazoo and another against Wilmington, by Mount St. Joseph. At least the HCAC has three teams with winning records and another at .500; In the MIAA, behind Trine, everyone’s 1-2 or worse.

21. MICHIGAN INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION (MIAA)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 23rd
Non-conference record to date: 7-19; two out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: Hard to say; Conference teams stayed within 14 points of Wheaton, Augustana and Illinois Wesleyan, but also got roughed up by 35 or more against UW-Whitewater, North Central, Wittenberg and UW-Stevens Point. Trine is clearly the class of the conference, and its 35-14 defeat of still-winless UW-River Falls is the best non-conference result. The emergence of a solid challenger or two would give the conference needed depth.

Rob Berger, St. Norbert
St. Norbert had a playoff run earlier in the decade, including one of the MWC's two post-expansion playoff wins, but lost ground to Monmouth.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com

22. MIDWEST CONFERENCE (MWC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 19th
Non-conference record: 3-7
Verdict: The stunning, slow-for-them starts of St. Norbert and Monmouth, both 2-2, might leave the conference without any playoff punch. Both teams must play 4-0 Ripon in October.


23. USA SOUTH ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (USAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 22nd
Non-conference record: 6-18
Verdict: Longtime power Christopher Newport is 0-3, against teams from the ACFC. The rest of the conference is 4-10 vs. the ODAC, which Shenandoah declared its intention to join this week. Three conference teams went 0-3 in non-league play, and four more went 1-2, leaving Averett – with wins against Guilford and Washington & Lee – as the only USAC team with a winnng record.

24. NEW ENGLAND FOOTBALL CONFERENCE (NEFC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 24th
Non-conference record: 7-8, incl. 0-1 vs. non-D-III
Verdict: The respectable record was built mostly (5-3) against the ECFC. Until a NEFC team can duplicate what Curry did in the ’08 playoffs by beating a good team from a high-profile conference, the NEFC will have a tough time climbing the rankings. With a shot at proving itself against NJAC power Montclair State, the NEFC’s Westfield State was blanked, 34-0, in Week 2.

25. EASTERN COLLEGIATE FOOTBALL CONFERENCE (ECFC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 27th
Non-conference record: 7-13, incl. 0-1 vs. non-D-III
Verdict: SUNY-Maritime scored a big victory for the fledgling conference over the NJAC’s Western Connecticut State in Week 2, and Mount Ida’s 41-16 win against Plymouth State in Week 4 was eye-opening. But so was Husson losing its three non-conference games, against Otterbein, Springfield and Salisbury, by a combined 173-7. Becker lost 78-19 to Utica and 55-0 to WPI. Anna Maria lost 69-0 to Malone and 47-0 to Maine Maritime. Norwich’s 3-0 start includes a win over the Empire 8’s Hartwick, but it will take time before some of the ECFC’s young programs can truly compete.

Crown
Crown had a non-conference season to shout about but the UMAC still has a ways to go overall.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com

26. NORTHERN ATHLETICS CONFERENCE (NATHC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 25th
Non-conference record: 8-16
Verdict: Aside from Maranatha Baptist, which has a unique set of challenges in trying to field a team, and Concordia (Wis.), which has been outscored 167-23 in its 0-3 start, conference teams have been respectable, even in defeat. Lakeland lost to Carthage by a point and Aurora lost to Illinois Wesleyan by a touchdown. In six games against the UMAC, Maranatha Baptist was the only team to lose.

27. UPPER MIDWEST ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (UMAC)
Kickoff '10 ranking: 26th
Non-conference record to date: 7-16, incl. 1-1 vs. non-D-III; two out-of-conference games remain
Verdict: Crown’s 49-35 win against Carleton (MIAC) and Westminster beating Rhodes, 20-17, made for a nice Week 1. A 1-7 record against the MIAC, CCIW and WIAC is to be expected. But an overall mark below .333, including 2-4 against the Northern Athletics Conference, means the conference still has a way to go.

The NESCAC, which does not participate in non-conference games, is not ranked, nor are the four independents, Huntingdon, LaGrange, Chapman and Macalester. ATN believes the level of talent in the NESCAC compares to the Liberty League, Centennial, North Coast, UAA and SCIAC, but without any non-conference games, it’s impossible to slot them fairly.

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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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