November 17, 2011

Playoff picks, surprises, disappointments

More news about: Illinois Wesleyan | Linfield | Mary Hardin-Baylor | Mount Union | North Central (Ill.) | St. Thomas | UW-Whitewater | Wesley
North Central is on a bit of a roll since losing its opener at Redlands.
North Central athletics photo by Steve Woltmann

The emotion of the first week of the playoffs envelopes the national fanbase in three waves.

The initial wave began Sunday night, when the first geographically mixed 32-team playoff bracket in modern Division III history was revealed. Brackets have either officially or unofficially broken down by north, south, east and west. No longer, and that plus a couple of surprise Pool C selections gave us all something to talk about for the past few days.

The final wave starts with Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I setting final score expectations for the 16 first-round games in Triple Take, and ends with the cascade of final scores from all the simultaneous noon kickoffs on Saturday. We process everything we’ve learned and graduate on to Round 2.

But here we are in midweek, where we’re past the initial surprise of the field and the matchups being revealed, but not yet close enough to kickoff to let raw excitement take over. And so D3football.com will satisfy your cravings with 32 team capsules and a handful of Road to Salem features, but we also trot out four perspectives on where this whole thing is heading.

For several seasons, Union broadcaster and In The HuddLLe co-host Frank Rossi, senior writer and Around the mid-Atlantic columnist Ryan Tipps, executive editor Pat Coleman and myself have analyzed the bracket from a unique perspective. We look at the entire field in four quadrants – maybe more necessary this season than in the past – to find where can we expect to see teams perform beyond expectations, who might come up short, and who will be the semifinalist left standing when the games of Dec. 3 go in the books.

Our surprises and disappointments go deeper into the bracket than just that first-round matchup you’re focused on, yet we’re not skipping all the way ahead to Salem.

I crunched some numbers as I looked at the field overall, and there’s a lot more intrigue here than initially met the eye. Once the shock of the mixed-up pod system wore off, here are some things I noticed:

There are the two purple powers, Mount Union and UW-Whitewater, those of the six consecutive Stagg Bowls, at opposite ends of the brackets. There are the five teams Kickoff ’11 deemed most likely to break the string – St. Thomas, Wesley, North Central, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Linfield – all in the field and well positioned. There are record-breaking offensive players and potential Gagliardi Trophy nominees – Monmouth quarterback Alex Tanney, Dubuque wide receiver Michael Zweifel and UW-Whitewater running back Levell Coppage all in the field. Offenses like McMurry’s ‘Air Raid’ and Salisbury’s ground-based triple option have put up staggering numbers and garnered national attention.

But don’t defenses still win championships?

Well, at least at the conference level they do. All but one of the top 11 scoring defenses nationally in the regular season is in the playoffs – No. 1 Mount Union, No. 3 Trinity (Texas), No. 4 (tie) St. Thomas & Wabash, No. 6 Wesley, No. 7 North Central, No. 8 Illinois Wesleyan, No. 9 Linfield, No. 10 Johns Hopkins and No. 11 UW-Whitewater are each in the field and play in Round 1 at home. Sorted by total defense (yardage), teams like Delaware Valley, Western New England, Hobart and Salisbury were also in the nation’s top 22 through 11 weeks.

In fact, almost everybody in the playoffs was proficient on defense. All but six playoff teams were in the top 100 of 239 nationally in total defense (No. 115 Norwich, No. 127 Dubuque, No. 136 Franklin, No. 141 Monmouth, No. 176 Redlands and No. 200 Hampden-Sydney), and all but three were among the best at scoring D (No. 149 Hampden-Sydney, No. 151 McMurry and No. 185 Illinois College).

It’s no shock that the teams who were shaky on D won with a bunch of offense. All but four of the top 16 total offenses in the country are in the field, and all but three of the top 20 in scoring offenses are in. Only Norwich fields a defense that is sub-100 and isn’t backed by a top-25 offense.

It might not surprise you that the teams that score the most and allow the fewest points win the most. But these stats do give us an extra context with which to examine these brackets. Rather than going on name recognition or conference background alone, take a look at some of the power defense vs. power offense clashes scheduled for Saturday:

McMurry (No. 13 total offense, 471 yards per game) at Trinity (No. 3 scoring defense, 9.3 points/gm).

Illinois College (No. 5 total offense, 499 yds/gm) at Wabash (No. 4 scoring defense, 10 pts/gm)

Dubuque (No. 2 total offense, 507 yds/gm) at North Central (No. 7 scoring defense, 10.9 pts/gm)

Monmouth (No. 1 total offense, 556 yards/gm, and scoring offense, 49.3 pts/gm) at Illinois Wesleyan (No. 8 scoring defense, 11.3 pts/gm)

All that is perhaps a long way of saying don’t just focus on what’s flashy when you look at the bracket. Of course Monmouth and McMurry and Salisbury and Dubuque are surprise candidates because they can score. But it might be who can stop those offenses, and those of a few purple-clad teams you might have heard of, that truly stands out on the way to Salem.

Also, if we don’t pick your team to advance, it doesn’t mean we don’t think they can. By nature, every playoff team comes in with a lot to like. Having to sort out the really great from the extraordinary isn’t easy. There are a handful of teams who could lose in the first round or go on a three-week run. It’s the playoffs – we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Without further ado, here’s our foursome – which has not consulted with one another (though one pretty clearly read everyone else's picks first):

UW-WHITEWATER BRACKET

Surprises

Keith: Salisbury. And by surprise I mean give UW-Whitewater a game. Sure, the Kean heads on Twitter will feel slighted yet again, but the Sea Gulls have an advantage no other team in the bracket does: A powerfully efficient option offense that is hard to prepare for on short notice. Only Wesley, which sees it every year, has been able to stop it this season, and the Wolverines are clear on the other side of the bracket. If Salisbury can mix in a few big-play passes along the way, I could see them leading UW-Whitewater in the second half of a quarterfinal matchup.

Ryan: Salisbury. The No. 2 seed in the bracket suits the Gulls well, though perhaps a little surprising considering Kean (which beat Wesley and Montclair State) and Franklin (whose only loss is in a non-region game to UW-Whitewater) are also in the bracket. Salisbury’s ultra-heavy run offense led by quarterback Dan Griffin often catches unfamiliar teams off guard, so seeing the Gulls playing in December is a good bet.

Frank: UW-Whitewater vs. an East or South third-round opponent. Normally, this type of situation is reserved if Mary Hardin-Baylor is moved into the West-centric bracket with Whitewater present. This year, a whole different bunch of characters without a history against Whitewater are playing for a chance to see just how raucous and snowy Whitewater's stadium can be in early December.

Pat: I’m going to try Thomas More. Let’s throw a bit of spotlight to freshman quarterback Luke Magness, who came in for the final three quarters of the Week 11 game against Mount St. Joseph. The Saints found a little bit of spark on offense and perhaps they could continue to do so.

Disappointments

Keith: Thomas More. Without a win at Franklin and a major upset at UW-Whitewater, the Saints’ program will have reached a plateau: Good enough to dominate the PAC and get into the postseason, but not good enough to cause a real ruckus once there.

Ryan: UW-Whitewater’s opposition. The Warhawks should skate to the regional finals without much of a challenge. Nobody seems likely to fill the roles Willamette and Trine have played in recent years.

Frank: Potential Salisbury/Christopher Newport second-round rematch. Some early rematches are unavoidable based on geography. Others happen simply because it's not a conference rematch. I'm still not a fan of rematches when they are avoidable -- and Christopher Newport most likely could have safely been placed elsewhere to avoid it here.

Pat: Kean. Not necessarily this week, but I think when Salisbury comes around, it’ll be a different story.

Champion

Keith: UW-Whitewater. Have to go with the wear-them-down Warhawks until somebody proves it can stand up to a fourth quarter of the rock being pounded.

Ryan: Defending national champion UW-Whitewater. As scary as ever.

Frank: UW-Whitewater. There's just not enough strength in any one team to give Whitewater a challenge -- although, that fact could cause the Warhawks to become lethargic entering a major semifinal game.

Pat: It’s purple, royally. I mean UW-Whitewater, in case there was a question.

DELAWARE VALLEY BRACKET

Surprises

Keith: Illinois Wesleyan. The last time a CCIW runner-up got out of the considerable shadow Mount Union casts over North Region teams, Wheaton won three games and was a 2008 semifinalist. The Titans will have their hands full from the first snap against Monmouth and might not survive the first round, but there’s not a team here it can’t match up with. An upset at St. Thomas and a win out East is possible.

Ryan: St. John Fisher. As a two-loss Pool C team, they could certainly validate the committee’s decision with a first-round win against Johns Hopkins. JHU has stumbled (but not fallen) the last two weeks against teams with lackluster records, most recently against McDaniel, which, like St. John Fisher, is best when able to move the ball on the ground. But some of JHU’s issues at the end of the regular season could be attributed to getting caught looking ahead to the playoffs. JHU will need to step up its rushing defense if it hopes to survive the home game with a win.

Frank: Four undefeated teams. With all the shuffling with regions that we saw, was there really a need to place four undefeated teams in the same bracket?  I understand the St. Scholastica perception, but we still have to give some iota of credence to their record. Okay, that's long enough. It just seems like the bracket was unnecessarily stuffed with perfection. One of those games could have rolled up to the UW-Whitewater bracket to distribute the strength.

Pat: St. John Fisher. I think they’re going to be a lot more physical than Johns Hopkins is used to. The question is whether having the better passing quarterback, heck, the better overall quarterback, is enough of a difference for the Blue Jays. And Frank, that’s one iota too much. You’re wasting my editing time!

Disappointments

Keith: Delaware Valley. Depends how disappointment is defined though. I don’t think the Aggies live up to their top-seed status, but I do think going 10-0 with an incredibly young offense represents a positive step for the program. They’ve found a QB in freshman Aaron Wilmer. They will last more than a week in the playoffs. But I find it hard to envision the Aggies as one of the four best teams in the country.

Ryan: St. Thomas not being the No. 1 seed in the bracket. However, I’m not sure that it really matters in the end. Both St. Thomas and the bracket’s top seed, Delaware Valley, have equally tough roads to travel, but the MIAC has a strong reputation for deep playoff runs, including last year’s regional final matchup between St. Thomas and Bethel. The committee said this year that they were going to give some weight in the seedings to past playoff performance. They missed it in this case, but as noted earlier, it’s probably moot.

Frank: Keith McMillan's disappointment in St. John Fisher's selection. Yes, Keith, I do read your columns, listen to your podcasts, appreciate your fashion sense and bless the ground you walk on. That said, we were Fisher fans last year when others weren't. This year, you abandoned me. Look, the team had one of the best strengths of schedule for a team with a winning record, and the two losses were "quality" losses. More importantly, they played some reasonable out-of-conference opponents despite the 36-point Hobart loss. Did you really want to reward a team that played all NEFC teams all season? Was a team that lost to Rochester really deserving of the spot? Could you really differentiate the other two-loss teams in a way to stack them above Fisher's resume? I don't think so.  Reboard the bus, my friend -- there's plenty of room.

Pat: I’m going to try Illinois Wesleyan here. The Titans haven’t put together a lot of offense. Now, admittedly, the defense is darn good, and Monmouth hasn’t faced a lot of top-flight competition. But in a shootout, I find myself wondering how much ammunition Illinois Wesleyan has.

Champion

Keith: St. Thomas. The Tommies have given up just 27 points since Oct. 1, they’ve been nearly impossible to run on, and it’s going to take a tremendous effort by an opposing offense to bounce them from the postseason.

Ryan: Illinois Wesleyan. Almost every season, we have a team in the playoffs that surprises us. This year, I think that team will be Titans. Their weakness is a clear lack of a solid run game, but they do have a defense that has already faced the likes of North Central and Wheaton. Perhaps it’s a testament to how strong I think the CCIW is, but I don’t see IWU facing any challenge greater than what they’ve already encountered this fall.

Frank: St. Thomas. No Bethel to stop them this year. The Tommies are on a real roll the last couple seasons -- so, it may be their time to shine.

Pat: St. Thomas. But I’m looking forward to that quarterfinal, whether it’s against Delaware Valley, St. John Fisher or Johns Hopkins.

MARY HARDIN-BAYLOR BRACKET

Surprises

Keith: The strength of this group. Maybe we should have made a bigger stink about including Mary Hardin-Baylor, Linfield and Wesley in one bracket, and sending both SCIAC teams on the road. According to my ballot, it’s the only bracket featuring exclusively top 25 teams, including five of my top 10. According to the overall top 25, only Hobart is unranked. The Statesmen are the only team I can’t see advancing. In terms of surprise teams, the McMurry/Trinity winner could be a problem for UMHB in Round 2.

Ryan: The national nature of this bracket. From New York to Delaware to Texas to California to Oregon. That kind of journey has the makings of a bad country song, but it’s a pretty smart setup. There was bound to be a flight after Round 1 in certain regions anyway, so it was wise to organize the pairings this way. The downside is piling Linfield, Cal Lutheran, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Wesley all in one bracket. It’s certainly the most stacked of the four brackets.

Frank: The most expensive bracket ever. Look, the diversity of teams has already been chronicled. However, let's quantify the expense we'll be witnessing. There are seven games in this bracket.  Of the four first-round games, one is a guaranteed flight (Redlands at Mary Hardin-Baylor). Of the two second-round games, one is an obvious guaranteed flight (Hobart/Wesley winner vs. Cal Lutheran/Linfield winner -- with one team flying across the country). Yet, there is another guaranteed flight. If Redlands beats Mary Hardin-Baylor, the second-round matchup against a Texas team is another flight. If Mary Hardin-Baylor beats Redlands, we have all Texas teams left in that pod. That would guarantee a third-round flight. So, again, there will be either three or four flights in this seven-game bracket. I can't ever remember anything close to this possibility in the past.

Pat: McMurry, with or without Jake Mullin. I feel like Stephen Warren is a pretty good quarterback too, enough to get them to the second round. Did I miss the memo? At least someone picked a team.

Disappointments

Keith: Redlands. A season that started with an upset of highly touted North Central probably ends in Round 1 at UMHB. And while the playoff bid and the games against other top teams make this a seminal season in Bulldogs football history, the second half against Cal Lutheran cost them a home game and a more favorable matchup. Getting through the West gauntlet is always going to be tough; it’s too bad Redlands made it tougher on themselves. At 10-0 with a selection committee thinking outside the box, who knows what their path to Salem would’ve looked like.

Ryan: The Cal Lutheran-Linfield rematch. However, this could play well for Cal Lutheran, which has steamrolled through its conference slate after falling to the Wildcats in the opener. An upset brewing? You bet. Daniel Mosier and a couple of other workhorses in the running back ranks will chip away at the Linfield defense. And the Kingsmen have the passing arsenal to keep the defenders guessing.

Frank: Lack of seedings. I've heard an argument since the release of the brackets that somehow 8-2 St. John Fisher, with a 36-point loss to Hobart, was seeded higher than 7-1 Hobart despite the head-to-head loss by Fisher. That, according to these people, is why Fisher drew Johns Hopkins and Hobart drew Wesley. Yet, the South’s regional rankings from four days earlier would suggest that Hopkins was above Wesley. You know what could settle this, right? Yes, a release of the seedings and/or the final regional rankings. We understand that all games don't follow the 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5 convention. It would just help people understand how certain wins and losses could affect the rankings and seedings.

Pat: Oof, tough call. I don’t see any “higher seeded” team here likely to lose at home, aside from what I said above. I’m just disappointed we can’t have some kind of round-robin between Linfield, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Wesley. What a great bunch of games that would be.

Champion

Keith: Mary Hardin-Baylor. It’s sort of lame to pick chalk in such a loaded bracket, but the Crusaders have a lot going for them, not the least of which is playing in Texas should it draw Linfield or Wesley. The Cru was also tested in the first half the season, had no scares against inferior teams in the second half and is more than just a one-dimesional, 300-yard-a-game rushing attack.

Ryan: Mary Hardin-Baylor. Against the run and pass, UMHB’s defense has stopped it all this season. And couple that with an offense that has plenty of running room to do maximum damage on the scoreboard, there’s little doubt the kind of threat this team poses to opponents.

Frank: Mary Hardin-Baylor. I said this last year. I was wrong. I don't mind being wrong. That's why I participate in this column every year. This is the most wide-open bracket to me, so my dartboard was effective for confirming this choice.

Pat: I like all three of those teams, but have to go with ... the Linfield-Wesley winner. I’m sure that’s why at least some of the rest of the guys picked Mary Hardin-Baylor, because we can’t predict this other toss-up game, especially without knowing where it will be played (Dover).

MOUNT UNION BRACKET

Surprises

Keith: The offense/defense contrast in these matchups. Dubuque, Illinois College and Hampden-Sydney are among the most potent offenses in the country. North Central, Wabash and Mount Union are some of the best defenses. If the Tigers-Purple Raiders matchup happens in Round 2, we’ll see three defenses snuff out three powerful offenses.

Ryan: Wabash. This is the most solid Little Giants football team in at least half a decade – and it’s because there’s more to it than just the offense. First-year defensive coordinator B.J. Hammer, a former Wabash standout himself, has tailored a defense around All-American CJ Gum that is both quick and physical. And special teams benefit from the best kicking and punting in years, while having one of the nation’s fiercest return threats in Wes Chamblee. This is more than just Wabash’s best team in recent memory; it’s also the most complete. They will challenge for a deep run.

Frank: Mount Union's competition. Coach Larry Kerhes should be pretty upset with Widener right now. You see, Delaware Valley being undefeated took away Mount Union's East Region Club membership for one year. With that loss of privileges comes a very challenging Round 2 matchup (either Centre or Hampden-Sydney) and Round 3 matchup (likely either Wabash or Dubuque). Purple Raider fans have a right to believe they have the toughest No. 1 seed road to the semifinals. However, Delaware Valley could face two undefeated teams during their road, making the “hardest road” argument somewhat in doubt.

Pat: The last time anyone in Alliance was upset with Widener, they put an extra score on them and made it 70. I am sure they don’t care who they face. As far as a surprise, is it fair to take North Central? They’re the higher-ranked team in our poll but not in the NCAA’s mind. I like.

Disappointments

Keith: Mount Union. You thought I was cheating up there by not picking a surprise team? As we know, anything less than winning in Salem is a disappointment for the Purple Raiders. Every few years they cycle down and then a new generation of dominance begins. Nick Driskill and Charles Dieuseul lead the nation’s top defense, which might be good enough to get them to Salem alone. But the transcendent offensive player has yet to emerge, which means the Purple Raiders could be vulnerable in a low-scoring game. The only reservation I have here is something Larry Kehres said after last year’s Stagg Bowl, when it was noted that UW-Whitewater had won three of the past four in Salem: “They’re kind of ticking me off. I might have to come back and win three of the next four,” he said. Probably a bad idea to doubt the most successful coach of all time.

Ryan: Dubuque. A Pool A team like the Spartans, which plowed through a tough Iowa conference and lost just one game, by three points, has to go on the road while a Pool C team like Centre gets to host. Geography reigns when setting up the brackets, I know, but there was hardly a tougher first-round draw for the Spartans than having to face North Central – a team that, with the right bounces, could give Mount Union a run for a spot in the national semifinals. Throwing a little personal subjectivity into the objective criteria, Dubuque played well enough to earn itself an easier path to Round 2.

Frank: Illinois College. After reviewing the West Regional Rankings from four days before the Selection Show, it just looks like the West subcommittee was inconsistent on the subjective treatment of conferences. How else can you explain undefeated St. Scholastica basically being a No. 7 seed (facing St. Thomas) while Illinois College still was able to stay second in the Pool C list in the West? We know the UMAC, through its new-ness, is a weaker conference. Yet, the MWC is viewed as one of the weakest West Region conferences overall. It would have been acceptable to see St. Olaf above Illinois College based on the better objective strength of schedule and, in this case, better subjective strength of schedule (losses to St. Thomas and St. John's).

Pat: That Centre/Hampden-Sydney matchup. I’m not entirely sure where I can quite slide those teams in elsewhere, but something about this pairing doesn’t seem right. But then again, the winner has to go to Mount Union, so perhaps it’s alright. And Frank, this isn’t 2003. Four teams beat St. John’s. St. Olaf could have too.

Champion

Keith: North Central. One of these seasons, a new power is going to emerge. This is probably not the best Cardinals team, and somebody else might be the next national power, but North Central is in prime position to pull a shocker. The defense, led by Valente Garza and Willie Hayes up front, surrendered just 34 points in seven CCIW games, including only seven against Illinois Wesleyan and Wheaton. They are built to win a low-scoring struggle with Mount Union, if the unit can limit Dubuque and Wabash enough to get that far.

Ryan: Mount Union. Despite some of the close calls the Purple Raiders have had this season, they’ve been No. 1 on my ballot since the preseason. No reason to get off the UMU bus now.

Frank: Mount Union. Baldwin-Wallace was a wake-up call. Kehres knows no snooze button.

Pat: Mount Union.

And after breaking down all four regions, Frank throws this nugget in for good measure:

Overall Champion: Mount Union. Complain all you want about their road to the Semifinals, Mount Union fans. The tests will make them battle-tested before the most pivotal of games. The Purple Raiders win the rubber match of the seven-game series.

ATN calendar

Your team might be eliminated from championship contention, but it isn’t the last time we’ll feature players, as all-Region and all-American teams, all-star games and Gagliardi Trophy presentation are among the reasons not to tune out.
 
Sat. Nov. 19: Playoffs, Round 1 (32 teams), ECAC bowl games (12 teams)
Following week: ATN podcast on Mondays, D3football.com regional wrap-ups and Road to Salem feature stories.
Sat. Nov. 26: Playoffs, Round 2
Following week: Gagliardi trophy finalists named, D3football.com Road to Salem features, ATN podcast
Sat. Dec. 3: 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.
Fri. Dec. 9: D-III Senior Classic all-star game in Salem, 7 p.m. kickoff.
Sat. Dec. 10: National semifinals (four teams), live webcast with ESPN regional or syndicated coverage possible.
Wed. Dec. 14: Gagliardi Trophy presentation, live webcast
Thu. Dec. 15: Stagg Bowl luncheon, pregame festivities in Salem/Roanoke
Fri. Dec. 16: Stagg Bowl 39, 7 p.m., D3football.com all-Americans announced during pregame broadcast, wall-to-wall coverage of the championship, ATN’s year-in-review column
Mon. Jan. 9: Liberty Mutual coach of the year award winner announced.

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

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