September 29, 2011

Open October with a bang

More news about: Cal Lutheran | St. Norbert
Redlands
Redlands and Cal Lutheran will square off in the conference opener that could decide the SCIAC.
Redlands, CLU athletics photos 

There’s nothing like the sight of fans wearing their warmest sweatshirts emblazoned with team logos lined up around the edges of a field or piled into a stadium to watch two evenly matched Division III teams go at it for bragging rights, first place in the conference and a playoff berth.

But what about when that game takes place in front of fans still wearing their summer t-shirts?

Week 5 of the D-III season marks the very start of October, and features no fewer than 15 games with major conference title implications. Some, like No. 19 Louisiana College at No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor, or Catholic at Hampden-Sydney, are surprisingly among this group.

Others, such as Monmouth at St. Norbert or Linfield at Willamette, we could see coming a mile away.

“In our situation, the way we approach it is to keep it as similar as possible to one of our other conference games,” says Cal Lutheran coach Ben McEnroe, whose 20th-ranked team opens a brand new stadium and its SCIAC slate by hosting No. 13 Redlands. “We’re from a conference that doesn’t traditionally get a second team in the postseason, so we’ve always approached our conference schedule as the beginning of the playoffs.”

How then, if the first day of October also holds the key to your team’s postseason fate, does a team avoid looking ahead to this game, or beyond it once it’s over?

“We can’t afford to have those thoughts,” says St. Norbert coach Jim Purtill, pointing out that his team beat Monmouth last season and made the playoffs, yet lost four of its 11 games.

The winner of the St. Norbert-Monmouth game has won the MWC title and taken its lone playoff bid in each of the past eight seasons. Whenever the Green Knights have lost to the Scots, they’ve finished second, except for in 2008, when Ripon edged them.

 Yet, said, Purtill, whose team lost at Beloit and against Illinois College last year, winning this game guarantees nothing except sole possession of first place for a week.

From an outsider’s point of view, it seems Saturday is more or less a playoff play-in game. Either the Scots or Green Knights win and go on to win the MWC.

“I would not make that assumption,” Purtill said.

Purtill’s team opened up with a 20-7 loss to St. Thomas, currently ranked No. 3 overall and facing its own early-season clash, hosting rival St. John’s. McEnroe’s Cal Lutheran team did something similar, losing 24-14 to No. 6 Linfield, and then beating Pacific Lutheran, which went 8-1 last season.

“We’re front-loaded as far as nationally ranked teams, teams that are pretty strong,” McEnroe said. “You’re crazy if you’re in our program and you’re looking ahead.”

But with the big week here, certainly we can now focus on the matchups. Here’s some brief insight on the biggest clashes:

Redlands at Cal Lutheran: The Kingsmen’s Eric Rogers averages a whopping 25 yards per reception and the Bulldogs are ranked 189th in the country in passing defense and 149th in passing efficiency defense. On offense, 18 of Redlands quarterback Chad Hurst’s 48 completions have gone to Taylor Irwin.

Monmouth at St. Norbert: Scots quarterback Alex Tanney didn’t play in last season’s game, a 48-2 Green Knights beatdown. But in ’09, Monmouth hung 52 on St. Norbert, and Tanney is currently leading the nation’s No. 1 offense.

Adrian at No. 17 Trine: This is the first big test in the MIAA, to see if Trine’s evolved into an elite program, or if they were built to peak last season. Adrian won three straight on the road in its 4-0 start to the season, while the Thunder play their third straight home game.

No. 6 Linfield at Willamette: In the NWC, this has become the prime clash. The Bearcats are 1-2, but against teams from the WIAC, ASC and NAIA. Linfield has the win against Cal Lutheran, and another over La Verne that wasn’t much of a test. The Wildcats are known for their 4-2-5 defense and their passing attack; Willamette is famous for its fly offense. The Bearcats, playing their fourth of five consecutive home games to start the season, rushed for 229 yards per game. Linfield allows 103. (If you’re going, check out CatdomeAlumni’s game-day primer.)

St. John’s at No. 3 St. Thomas: The Johnnies expect to contend every season, but at 2-2 (with the MIAC win over Concordia-Moorhead coming in overtime) already, there’s only one way to salvage the season: Beat the rival Tommies. For that to happen, St. John’s must clean up a defense allowing 414 yards per game (189th nationally). St. Thomas allows just 280 yards per game (42nd) with a stifling run defense (35 yards per game; second nationally). MIAC rival Bethel, which goes to St. John’s in Week 6 and hosts St. Thomas in Week 8, is the nation’s No. 1 total defense and No. 2 scoring defense.

No. 19 Louisiana College at No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor: Against their two D-III opponents so far, the Wildcats have put up gaudy offensive numbers: 597 yards and 56 points against Millsaps, and 589/52 against Mississippi. But doing the grunt work makes that possible; LC allowed just 61 and 65 rushing yards in those games. UMHB, whose 262 rush yards a game actually seems a little low for the run-based powerhouse, will likely go over 65. But how much success the Cru has in establishing its offense will go a long way toward dictating the tempo of the game. LC, in three consecutive 7-3 seasons, hasn’t been able to get over the UMHB hump, but last season it took last-minute defense by UMHB to hang on to a 42-38 win in Pineville, so the ‘Cats could be confident it’s their time.

Williams at Trinity (Conn.): No playoff implications here of course, but two of the three usual contenders in the NESCAC meet in the second week of action. The Ephs looked more pedestrian than usual in a 24-21 season-opening win at Bowdoin, though they did rush for 219 yards, with four ballcarriers getting between nine and 13 carries. Trinity ran for 185 yards and its 28 points were the most any NESCAC team scored. The winner of this game has gone on to win eight of the past 10 titles. (For more, check out the Bantam blog.)

Others to watch: UW-Platteville at No. 1 UW-Whitewater, No. 2 Mount Union at No. 24 Ohio Northern, No. 14 Alfred at St. John Fisher, Coe at Central, No. 7 Wheaton at Illinois Wesleyan, Catholic at Hampden-Sydney, Endicott at Curry.

Of these teams, keep a close eye on IWU, which boasts the No. 1 scoring defense in the country, allowing nine points and pitching two shutouts in its pre-CCIW schedule. Ryan Tipps, Pat Coleman and I take a closer look at the week that will be in Friday morning’s Triple Take.

While it’s exciting to be play the all-on-the-line games in Week 11 – in the Eastern states, we associate the iconic images of fall with these clashes – there are some benefits to playing it early.

“When you play good people,” says St. Norbert’s Purtill, in reference to both the season-opening St. Thomas game and Saturday’s Monmouth clash, “the kids rise up. And the kids get excited for it more.”

So do the alumni, says Cal Lutheran’s McEnroe, who said in about a 15-minute span of watching video with offensive staff midweek, his phone was “blowing up.” Turns out it was alumni e-mailing encouragement for the Redlands game back and forth, with McEnroe on the list.

Because it’s early in the season, McEnroe finds on those videos a lot for his team to improve on. He thinks the Kingsmen haven’t played their best game yet, letting opportunities get away against both Linfield and PLU.

“We’ve got plenty of things to focus on without focusing on the magnitude of this game,” he says.

There’s another added benefit. Just as with going first in overtime, a team knows what it has to do the rest of the way.

With a win, it jumps out in front in the conference race, and can’t slip up the rest of the season. With a loss, the team must regroup quickly and dedicate itself to winning the rest of the games, waiting for that slip up to get back in the mix.

“It helps us stay focused against some of the teams we traditionally have success against,” McEnroe says.

McEnroe points out that Redlands has the edge on CLU in the Rose Bowl tiebreaker, meaning the Bulldogs would have to lose twice for the Kingsmen to overcome a defeat on Saturday.

In the stratified Midwest Conference, points out St. Norbert SID Dan Lukes, hoping for help from another team hasn’t often panned out. And that’s why Saturday’s games are so big.

“We just want to be in control of our own destiny,” McEnroe says.

Even if to outsiders it’s the biggest game on the schedule, it’s still just one game.

“I guess in a sense that’s part of it,” Purtill says of the big game playing a role in deciding the conference race. “Without trying to overlook anybody we still have to play here, though. There are some tough teams, and it’s only Week 5

“Whoever wins Saturday is in first place alone, so that’s a good place to be.”

Re-ranking the conferences

I’m going to try something new this year, partially because we had to break this column last year into two pieces. But it’s also time we accepted something about conference rankings: They’re fluid, and probably better grouped in tiers than ranked 1 to 26, with the NESCAC set aside. So let’s look at them through this prism:

Championship tier: WIAC, OAC

As much as we point out that the bottom half of the OAC isn’t as strong as the top half, or that the WIAC’s weak teams can be beaten, here’s the remaining truth: These two conferences spit out a good portion of D-III’s pro successes and  their non-conference results beyond the Stagg Bowl teams bear out the strength. Taking this year alone into account, the OAC nearly had a team lose to Gallaudet of the ECFC. But it didn’t lose, and OAC teams went 7-3 with wins against teams from the WIAC, PAC, NCAC, HCAC, USAC, MIAC and ECFC, and losses to top teams in the UAA, NCAC and HCAC. The WIAC didn’t have quite the non-conference record (9-6, not counting the non-conference WIAC-on-WIAC games) but it played No. 2 Mount Union, No. 3 St. Thomas, No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor, No. 7 Wheaton, No. 17 Trine, plus St. John’s, Franklin, Willamette and Central. The bottom line is this: Lop Mount Union and UW-Whitewater off the top of these conferences, and you have roughly the CCIW or Empire 8: a conference that could still send its champion a round or three into the playoffs.

Once-in-a-while tier: MIAC, NWC, ASC

These consistently good conferences are dragged down by the lack of success at the bottom end, but often have multiple playoff-worthy teams in a given season, and are capable of sending teams to the semifinals or Stagg Bowl fairly consistently, or at least once in a while. These three conferences also play each other and the WIAC when possible, risking defeat for the chance to get better by playing better competition. These are also the conferences most likely to produce a champion if one of the purple powers ever falters.

Deep strength tier: CCIW, Empire 8

No conference’s teams beat up on their regional opponents like these two. And the E8 remains the only team to send three to the playoffs in a given season, and that was before adding Salisbury. The E8 went 15-0 before losing three games in Week 4, including St. John Fisher’s 56-20 shellacking by Hobart (LL). The CCIW is 18-6 in non-conference play, including a 7-1 Week 2 when six of its teams scored 38 or more, and four won by 38 or more. But since playoff participants from these conferences haven’t been able to break through to Salem, they get their own tier.

Lower upper half tier: NJAC, IIAC, MAC

Sorry I don’t have a better name for this tier, but it’s where we draw the line between the strongest conferences and the middle tier. The NJAC and MAC have been grouped with stronger conferences in the past, while the IIAC fits the bill of being able to field multiple top 25 or playoff in a given year. There’s often a jumble at the top of these conferences, a tribute to their competitiveness, but it also often results in quick exits from the postseason. This year the MAC is 11-5, including 5-1 against the PAC and 4-1 against the Centennial. The NJAC has three teams ranked between 10 and 18 in the top 25. The IIAC is 8-10 non-conference, and of the eight losses to D-III teams, seven come against conferences ranked in higher tiers (MIAC, WIAC, ASC, CCIW)

Gained respect tier: SCIAC

The conference is here alone, and would be the biggest mover -- not so much from the Kickoff ’11 rankings (14th), but from previous seasons, where they were low teens and early 20s. The truth is, after Redlands beat North Central to start this season and Cal Lutheran beat Linfield last season and lost 24-14 this year, the SCIAC’s best have proven they can play with the nation’s best. But the teams in the conference who’ve lost early games 52-3, 51-3 and 34-7 hold the SCIAC back from moving higher up the ladder.

Interchangeable tier: ODAC, CC

There’s very little distinction between the quality of the teams from these conferences. They’re consistently competitive one tier above and beat up on tiers below. And then they beat up on each other, often making for great drama extending into November. Unless you’re from the Mid-Atlantic or a frequent reader of Ryan Tipps’ columns, the long-term accomplishments of most ODAC and CC teams might seem indistinguishable. This season, though, the ODAC is a whopping 19-6, including 10-3 against the USA South. The CC went 2-8 in non-conference play, putting its membership in this tier in grave danger going forward. Also, this is about where I’d put the NESCAC in a non-exceptional year for that conference.

Middle tier: PAC, LL, SCAC, NCAC, UAA

These are conferences capable of producing a top-end champion, but as a whole struggle to consistently perform in non-conference play. Thomas More has emerged in the PAC as a consistent Top 25 team, and Wabash and Wittenberg still represent the NCAC well. But both of those conferences have more teams that struggle than perform; the NCAC is 6-8 non-conference without the Little Giants’ and Tigers’ three wins. The PAC is 5-10 when you include the Saints. The LL, SCAC and UAA, on the other hand, used to be conferences that could get close to the top ten, but have had some falloff among its storied winning programs and not enough improvement elsewhere to compensate. Hobart (2-0) has shown signs of being a non-conference threat again, but otherwise the LL is just 4-11 out of league. The UAA is 7-6. The SCAC is 11-7, and with Trinity, Birmingham-Southern and Centre all off to good starts, the SCAC is regaining its national respect just in time for it to splinter next season.

Looking for respect tier: MIAA, HCAC, MWC

Top teams from these conferences (Trine, Franklin, Monmouth, St. Norbert) have been on the verge of raising the reputations of these conferences, through aggressive non-conference scheduling and performing in the playoffs. But they haven’t gotten a lot of support. The HCAC is 3-14 non-conference, with six teams each losing two to combine for an 0-12 mark. The MWC is 4-5 with Lake Forest’s game against Concordia (Ill.) postponed with the Foresters leading, 28-26. The MIAA is exactly .500, with Adrian’s 4-0 matched by Olivet’s 0-4, Trine’s 3-0 matched by Albion’s 0-3, Kalamazoo’s 3-1 reflected in Alma’s 1-1, and Hope at 2-2.

Still building tier: USAC, NEFC, NATHC, ECFC, UMAC

With young programs, new conferences (including new playoff bids for the ECFC and UMAC this season), it takes time to make the inroads in recruiting and program tradition, and put forth what it takes to compete with the country’s best. There have been moments in past seasons, but not enough of them. This year, Gallaudet nearly beat Otterbein and Salve Regina kept it respectable against Montclair State. But playing top-conference teams tough isn’t the same as winning.

Without a tier: I marked where I think the NESCAC would slot, though it’s too early this season to tell what kind of strength the conference is. Also, if independents were a conference, Wesley and DePauw would seem to be the front-runners, but it’s Huntingdon, which beat Hampden-Sydney in Week 4, that has scored the most impressive victory.

Got gripes with the tiers? Feel there was an oversight? Air them on the ATN message board thread preferably (so we can all discuss), or via Twitter or e-mail.

Tweet your question, get an answer

Send specific inquiries during the week to @D3Keith on Twitter, and I’ll pick a handful of questions to answer in the column, if not sooner.

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. It’s also the best way to directly converse with the column’s author.

• On Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board. That’s the next 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.

On Saturdays, The Daily Dose features a running game day thread and live chat, for real-time reactions from across the country.

The press box

Crowd sourcing: Still looking for your input on the best team names/mascots. I need your insight on how to define “best.” Is it most unique? Best character? Or just coolest-sounding name?

Tweet or e-mail your thoughts on what they mean to us and why we care. Here are a few that stand out: Poets, Lord Jeffs, Yeomen and Student Princes. There are Choctaws and Profs and Britons. We’ve got White Mules, Green Terror and Purple Raiders.

Also looking for fish-out-of-water tales. What’s it like being a certain race or religion on a campus and a team full of people completely unlike you? What’s it like being the team that thinks one way, playing a whole bunch of other teams who operate differently. Send thoughts or ideas by e-mail or Twitter, and I’ll help you flesh them out.

For the Love of the Game: Send us a picture of you wearing one of the shirts below, and we’ll feature it in Around the Nation:

Tailgaters: ATN is seeking a title sponsor to help defray the costs of travel and buying food for its proposed Stone Station vs. Griz Zone vs. Stiftungsfest challenge. We need solid commitment from the tailgaters, plus anyone else who wants to join. Participants can decide if the money will be winner-take-all or split evenly, in the D-III spirit of community. We’ll also need official tasters to be judges.

E-mail your interest to keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com and put “tailgate” in the subject line.

Alumni: Let’s put a new twist on the Stagg Bowl weekend alumni football game. If we can’t recruit enough ex-players from any school to show up in Salem and play, we can always do fans vs. alumni.

These ideas are only as good as the people who want to participate, so e-mail your thoughts. We’ll set up the format, decide flag or touch and draw up the rules once we have the interest. Fields and start time can all be decided later too.

Readers: 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, 12331 Midsummer Lane A102, Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

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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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