September 23, 2010

Septembers to remember

More news about: Hardin-Simmons | Linfield | Thiel | UW-Eau Claire
UW-Eau Claire over St. John's
UW-Eau Claire's tough early-season scheduling has paid off so far and continues this week.
UW-Eau Claire photo by Bill Hoepner

There are quite a few theories behind early-season scheduling.

There’s the ‘get a win under your belt’ model. There’s the ‘play whoever is nearby and has a corresponding open date’ idea. And then there’s what Hardin-Simmons likes to do.

“We try hard to get quality Division III schools on our schedule,” says longtime Cowboys coach Jimmie Keeling. “We’re not afraid. Maybe we’re dumb, I don’t know.”

Though loading up September Saturdays with the most powerful opponents available has at times backfired on Hardin-Simmons, it’s rooted in a smart concept.

“We want to play teams that show us our weaknesses,” says UW-Eau Claire’s Todd Glaser, whose program approaches September like Keeling’s does.

“If you play really good people, they’re going to sure point out what you need to work on,” Keeling said.

The Cowboys and Blugolds share more than a scheduling philosophy.

Hardin-Simmons is one of 32 3-0 teams in Division III, while UW-Eau Claire is one of 25 at 2-0. And of those 57 teams, no others have a victory against a top 25 team already in the bag, with another game this Saturday against an unbeaten top 25 squad.

The eighth-ranked Cowboys are preparing for their annual clash with ASC rival and national No. 5 Mary Hardin-Baylor, which was outgained by 272 in Week 3 but managed to get to 2-0. The 17th-ranked Blugolds are traveling to No. 11 North Central, which is one of six unbeaten teams in the CCIW.

With UW-Eau Claire preparing for a season in the WIAC, Kickoff 2010’s top-ranked conference among the 27 in D-III, and Hardin-Simmons already underway in the fourth-ranked ASC, the need for an early push is crucial.

“I think you need to learn from each game, whether you win or lose,” Glaser said. “You need to see how your team responds to different schemes and different personnel, and you don’t see it in practices. You can only see it in games.”

So UW-Eau Claire scheduled NAIA Bethel (Tenn.), MIAC power St. John’s and North Central in advance of its seven WIAC contests. For similar reasons, among a handful, the Cowboys booked a trip to Spokane, Wash. and Whitworth for their opener, then hosted the Pirates’ NWC rival, Willamette, in Week 2. Last Saturday, HSU opened up the ASC slate against defending conference champion Mississippi College.

“We really feel like that when we play good people, the flaws we have – and everybody’s got some – they’re sure going to point those out,” Keeling said. “If we’re coaching like we’re supposed to, we’ll go back and correct them.

Then he laughs, and adds, “We don’t want them to point [the flaws] out so much that we get our tail kicked.”

Justin Feaster of Hardin-Simmons
The return of Justin Feaster and ZaVious Robbins (more in this week's Around the South) makes this year's season-opening schedule a little easier to face for Hardin-Simmons.
Photo by Josh Bowerman

Hardin-Simmons has a history of playing top competition. Part of it is from necessity – besides its conference rivals, there are only two D-III teams in Texas to try to schedule (Trinity and Austin). In the bordering states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Lousiana, there are none.

Keeling proudly recalls beating Asuza Pacific, which went on to win the NAIA title in 1998. But now, he says the Cowboys, with help from athletic director John Neese, search far and wide for Division III teams to play.

The Cowboys have been to Wisconsin four times, as a result of facing UW-Whitewater in 1999-2000, UW-Stout in 2003, UW-Stevens Point in 2005-06 and UW-La Crosse in 2007-08. They also have been to Oregon and Washington – states Keeling figures some of his players might otherwise never visit – as they wrapped up a four-game series with Linfield last year, played Whitworth for a second time this year, and added Willamette to the 2010 schedule.

Though they dial up just about any team who will answer, opponents eager to schedule a perennial top 25 team aren’t exactly a phone call away.

“It gets difficult to get games,” Keeling allows. “We pretty much have to go outside our region. But it’s okay with us from the standpoint of, in the long run, we feel like there’s more positive than negative to it.”

That’s much easier to say this year with the Cowboys 3-0, following a convincing 27-7 win against Whitworth, a 31-22 victory against then-No. 13 Willamette and last Saturday’s 45-10 pounding of then-No. 19 Mississippi College. The Cowboys allowed the Pirates’ Adam Anderson to carry 22 times for 97 yards in the opener, and limited eight Bearcats ballcarriers to 96 yards on 32 carries the following week. Facing such top-notch backs and rush offenses can only help in preparation for UMHB, which is traditionally one of Division III’s best running teams.

“Hopefully that helps us prepare,” Keeling said. “We’ll know a lot more on Saturday.”

Though HSU has played four WIAC teams in the past decade, UW-Eau Claire has not been one, partly because of the running early-September series with St. John’s. The Blugolds and Johnnies met each season between 1998 and 2006, and resumed playing in 2009 and ’10. Proximity, says Glaser, is one reason the schools like the matchup. But both sides also know it’s a pre-conference push that sharpens the players’ efforts.

“It teaches your kids that they have to be focused for four quarters against teams like that,” Glaser said, “Or it’s going to be a long afternoon. You have to play at a high level. If you make mistakes, they’ll make you pay.”

It was the Blugolds, with a gutsy call in overtime, who made the then-No. 9 Johnnies pay two weeks ago. And that’s exactly what teams seem to be afraid of when WIAC schools call around looking for games. That situation, coupled with financial worries, led to the conference instituting a plan for each team to play one WIAC opponent twice each year, in order to guarantee a non-conference game against a D-III team and not requiring an overnight stay.

That, Glaser said, “is what it is. It isn’t something that’s great. But it’s a game. And it’s unfair to our kids to play nine when they can play 10.”

Glaser called North Central’s willingness to play “refreshing” and said he hoped the teams could meet again in 2012 or later. The Cardinals have been a member of the early-season clash club in the past, scheduling Ohio Northern. This season, their wins are against Olivet and Cornell, who were a combined 2-18 in 2009.

Wittenberg is also in the top 25 and has played Olivet. The Tigers, who get between one and three tough challenges per regular season, depending on whether NCAC rivals Wooster or Allegheny join Wabash as contenders, have gone 3-0 against teams who combined to go 7-23 last season. Wittenberg, ranked sixth, has beaten Olivet, Ohio Wesleyan and Washington U. by a score of 137-13.

On the flipside, No. 13 Delaware Valley is firmly in the Blugolds/Cowboys camp. After being assigned perennial PAC champ Washington & Jefferson in the MAC-PAC Challenge and winning, 27-0, they played at No. 3 Wesley and lost, 21-17.

No. 7 Central, which takes on No. 9 Coe on Saturday, played UW-Oshkosh of the WIAC and Augustana of the CCIW to get ready for its IIAC slate. Willamette travled to Wisconsin to take on then-No. 16 UW-Stevens Point, and to Texas the next week for then-No. 9 Hardin-Simmons.

In other words, there are as many ways to approach early-season scheduling as there are teams.

Keeling keeps one truism in mind.

“You gotta play good people if you’re gonna be good,” he said.

Back to school

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked, and I quote, “ Who would win a football game between Central Catholic High School and Thiel College, a Division III team that has finished above .500 twice since 1976?.”

It’s a loaded question when asked that way, but what the heck. There’s such a clear answer, ATN will bite. (We’ll even overlook that picking on Thiel is in poor taste, after a freshman defensive end died last weekend.)

First, let’s address the general question, ‘Can a high school team beat a D-III team?’ Absolutely, it could happen. But it would have to be a fairly top-notch outfit against someone like Maranatha Baptist, which came ranked 238th of 238 teams in Kickoff ’10, largely because only 45 players reported to camp, and that’s considered good. The Coast Guard team I saw last week (No. 217 in Kickoff) would put a hurting on 99 percent of the high school teams in country. And here’s why:

A college team is basically a high-school all-star team. Every program, from junior college and NAIA throughout the NCAA, plucks the few players from each high school who move on to college football – certainly few if any send all their starters to college football – and then assembles a roster. They repeat the process four times over, separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, to assemble a roster of 75 to 100 or more players.

College starters are full-grown men, often 21 or 22. High school juniors and seniors are 16 or 17. Personally, I weighed 165 my last year in high school and 195 my last season in college. Not only have collegiate players been given more time to grow into their frames, but they’re also more developed emotionally. I’m not citing any journals of psychology here, but ask yourself if you needed help with an important task, who’d you’d take if given the choice between a group of 17-year-olds and a group of 22-year-olds?

Along the same lines, collegians have practiced the game for four more years than the corresponding high schooler. For redshirts, it can be a five- or six-year difference. A college player’s ability to recognize, process and react to game situations is generally better than a player who has had less experience at it.

A football team is often only as strong as its weakest link. Unlike in baseball, where a dominant pitching performance or timely home run can win a game, or in basketball, where a skilled big man or hot three-point shooter can tip the scales, 11-on-11 games give less of an advantage to a single exceptional talent. Depth is rewarded, as all 11 must properly execute for many plays to succeed. Further, a good college football team has between two and three dozen key contributors, including specialists and substitutions in various packages. College players almost never go both ways, though some high schoolers still do. Not that I need to rehash my has-been career anymore, but maybe personalizing the story will help. In my first year at Randolph-Macon, the local high school, Patrick Henry, was in the midst of a state-championship run in Virginia’s second-largest classification. That team featured Damien Woody, currently a starting lineman for the New York Jets, Erron Kinney, a Tennessee Titans tight end for several years, and a total of six Division I players. R-MC had lost much of its 1993 ODAC championship team and was in transition, and yet there’s zero doubt in my mind PH would have had little chance in a game against those Yellow Jackets. Even if all six Division I talents were better in high school than a Division III starter – no given, but let’s assume – that still leaves R-MC with an advantage at 16 of the 22 starting positions. To get the high school team even a slight edge (12-10), all six players would have to go both ways and have the skill and amazing stamina to outplay a full-grown man on each side of the ball. And this is a once-in-a-lifetime high school team against a middling, 4-5 D-III we’re talking about.

The college team is running more advanced schemes, with physically more developed men who are devoting more time to the game, through single-sport and single-position specializing, and 7-day-a-week work in longer practices, film sessions and weightlifting workouts.

As for the Post-Gazette’s particular question, Central Catholic is a nice program that’s had some good years and won a state championship in 2007, but is no De La Salle. This season, Central Catholic is 3-0, outscoring its opponents by an average of 35-7, and is ranked No. 1 by the Post-Gazette. In 2008, it sent 13 of its players to college teams, and while none went to BCS schools, players did end up at Mount Union, John Carroll, Williams and SUNY-Maritime. ATN could ask those players if they’re better now than they were in 2008, but I’m pretty sure they’d all give the same answer.

But let’s say Central Catholic cast its net all around Pittsburgh and brought in the best high schoolers it could recruit. Thiel, even in its worst year (and at 0-3, it might be on its way), is a Western Pennsylvania all-star team made up of players who are a year or more removed – and improved most likely – from being the best high schoolers a team could recruit.

Put another way, in a good year, the high school team sends 13 players to college. All 111 players on Thiel's roster played in high school.

(The poll ran 393 to 344 in favor of Thiel before @D3football gave the poll a boost on Twitter.  As of this writing, Thiel led the voting 545 to 410, or 57 percent to 43. Polling ended on the 22nd.)

Poll positions

If after the third week of games, it’s okay for the AFCA to put out its first poll (we kid, we kid), it’s okay for ATN to dip into these waters. Let’s take a quick look at the art/science of top 25 polling.

Here’s the question of the week: Why is Linfield ranked?

Cal Lutheran’s defeat of the then-No. 4 Wildcats, followed by the Kingsmen’s loss to unranked Pacific Lutheran cast doubt upon the whole West Coast. If CLU rose up to 15, then dropped to 24th after the loss, how can Linfield be any higher than 25? And by that logic, PLU (2-0) should be somewhere in the poll as well.

Whether or not a pollster votes for No. 16 Linfield, now 0-1, depends on methodology. If voting for the top 25 teams at this very moment, based on what we know only of 2010, then it’s fair to drop the Wildcats right out of the top 25. They have a loss, to a team that lost to an unranked team, and no wins to offset it.

But some voters believe no team should drop from No. 4 to ‘also receiving votes’ because of a single game.

I never like to look at polls as one-week deals. Our top 25 is an organism evolving as the teams do each season. Teams rarely stick to the script, consistently producing the same output each week, so why should we? Plus, one could very well believe that Linfield, even with a loss, is still one of the 25 best teams in the country.

I think in the end they will be, but as of this week, I didn’t vote for them. I didn't have any grounds to do so, even though two weeks ago they were in my top 5.

But here's where polls are tricky: But do I really believe Trine (No. 14) would beat Linfield if they played this week? What's the right way to judge what we know, based on recent results, and what we suspect, based on historical strength? Should we take last week's ranking into account, or start fresh from the top every week? Certainly a team isn't owed a spot in this week's poll because it was ranked last week. Yet we often wonder how a certain result can produce so much movement in a single week.

A loss like Cal Lutheran's to Pacific Lutheran can produce a ripple effect for a team like Linfield, even though later in the year the Wildcats might defeat the Lutes and render that triangle of results mostly useless.

The week ahead

ATN’s five games of note in Week 4:

No. 3 Wesley at Capital: Looked more intriguing before the Crusaders split a pair of 10-7 games.

No. 8 Hardin-Simmons at No. 5 Mary Hardin-Baylor: The Cowboys have never seemed more ready for the Cru.

No. 7 Central at No. 9 Coe: Alert me if the Dutch don’t pull off some late escape.

No. 11 North Central at No. 17 UW-Eau Claire: A big step up from Olivet and Cornell for Cardinals.

No. 25 Alfred at Springfield: Two of the Empire 8’s four unbeaten teams square off.

Want a much more in-depth primer for Week 4? How about Games of the Week, teams on the radars of Ryan Tipps, Pat Coleman and I, and the most likely top 25 teams to get upset? Every Friday morning in Triple Take. Last week, Triple Take predicted three 0-2 teams (Wooster, Millsaps and St. Norbert) each getting its first win and projected Cal Lutheran to struggle with Pacific Lutheran. The 15th-ranked Kingsmen lost to the Lutes, 35-21.

Who are those guys?

Conference play begins in earnest in Week 4, so inter-classfication matchups drop from a dozen or two to just a handful. And a random handful it is.

The Missouri S&T Miners have made a habit of scheduling WIAC teams over the years. Asuza Pacific usually plays several D-III teams a year, and like Chapman is an independent and in Southern California. And then you have a couple open-date marriages, in a Michigan school playing in Kentucky and a Kansas school playing in Illinois.

Here’s the Week 4 schedule:

vs. Division I, FCS (1-0 in Week 2, 1-1 in 2010)

None

vs. Division II (1-0 in Week 3, 1-2 in 2010)

UW-La Crosse at Missouri S&T (Great Lakes Football Conference)

Alma at Kentucky Wesleyan (Great Lakes Football Conference)

vs. NAIA (5-3 in Week 3, 18-10 in 2010)

Bethany (Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference) at MacMurray

No. 17 Asuza Pacific (independent) at Chapman

(NAIA rankings from NAIA.org coaches poll)

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

Updates: This week's Poll Positions item, clarified around 3:15 p.m. on Thursday what was originally published at 12:15. Also added a line to the 'back to school' item on Friday at 10:30 a.m.

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, 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.

Already this season, ATN is seeking suggestions for road trips in October and November (ATN especially likes non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time).

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.

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