October 20, 2011

SCAC's last gasp is one for the history books

Centre could come away with the last SCAC automatic bid before all seven football teams enter playoff uncertainty.
Centre athletics photo

Scan Division III’s 27 conference races. There’s no better mix, as we head into Week 8, of top 25-worthy teams running neck-and-neck, or of longtime powerhouses and new kids on the block, than in the SCAC.

After a 4-6 season in which Rhodes, Millsaps and Centre got to take out years of frustration, perennial conference champion Trinity (Texas) is 6-0, and back in the rankings at No. 23. Five of six opponents have scored in the single digits against the Tigers, with Texas Lutheran managing 14 in a 29-point loss.

Clashes in San Antonio loom against Birmingham-Southern (Oct. 29), which is 5-1 and eligible for the SCAC automatic playoff bid for the first time after four years of provisional status while moving from Division I and restarting football. The Panthers hit No. 24 nationally before last Saturday’s 45-20 loss to Centre, a program that has had five seasons of seven or more wins since 2001 but hasn’t played a postseason game. The Colonels are now 5-0 and soon to crack the top 25.

Even Sewanee, which won three games the past three seasons, has three wins already, and Millsaps is alive in the SCAC title chase despite being just 4-3 overall.

“It’s definitely exciting,” says Dwayne Hanberry, who started as the conference’s sports information director in 1995 and has been its full-time commissioner since 2008. “It’s added an element to our race that we haven’t had in quite some time … top to bottom, in terms of quality play, the league is as strong as its been since I’ve been here.”

Which makes it all the more disappointing that what could be the best SCAC football season in years is set against the backdrop of the schools going their separate ways after the season.

“It’s definitely a little bittersweet,” says Hanberry, “because we know we’re losing five of our seven football schools. It’s not something we wanted to happen. It’s not something we’re looking forward to happening. But it’s reality.”

B-SC, Centre, Millsaps, Rhodes and Sewanee announced in June that they would join non-football schools Berry, Hendrix and Oglethorpe in a new breakaway conference. The conference picked the name Southern Athletic Association in August.

Trinity and Austin remain in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, which will be a six-team conference for most sports. But Colorado College dropped football after 2008, Southwestern doesn’t sponsor it, and neither do new members University of Dallas or Centenary, which switched allegiances from the ASC to the SCAC in September.

That leaves the conference in good shape for all sports but football and men’s lacrosse, Hanberry said. With just two football-playing members – two short of the four core members a conference needs to recruit football-only affliates to reach the seven it needs to retain an automatic bid – tough times are ahead on the gridiron.

“It’s disheartening that the conference is breaking up,” said Andy Frye, in his 13th year as Centre’s football coach. “Over 20 years, it has really developed into a stronger conference.”

Trinity won 13 consecutive conference titles, from 1993 to 2005, and went to the Stagg Bowl in 2002.

“That really helped raise the bar of the other teams,” said Frye. “Because if you didn’t get better, you were gonna get whopped by ’em.”

Because it had teams in Colorado, Indiana, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama at one point, the SCAC became the only full D-III football conference where air travel was the norm. There were some rugged bus trips as well, but the SCAC schools embraced the travel and their high academic standing and sold that unique mix to potential student-athletes.

“I think that was one thing that heightened the experience of playing here,” Frye said. “The SCAC used that in recruiting.”

The travel costs apparently became too much to bear. Though football sends the biggest contingent on the road, it’s once a week, and always on Saturdays. Other sports that play more often and require more trips might have been more of a problem, and the new SAA mentioned “contiguous states” and a Friday-Saturday basketball schedule as reasons for the move.

It could not, however, have come at a worse time.

The move will cost all seven teams access to an automatic playoff bid in 2012 and for at least two more years after that. For Birmingham-Southern, which endured a four-year wait to finally get a shot at a conference title and the playoffs this season, it’s a real kick in the teeth.

“Both sides are in that netherworld,” Hanberry said. “Though we all agreed to keep our schedules intact for 2012, there won’t be an AQ.”

The move also breaks up what had nearly been a fully conferenced D-III (I wrote about the potential trickle-down effects during the summer, and not much has changed). Among this season’s six independents, former SCAC member DePauw is headed to the NCAC, Chapman is headed to the SCIAC, LaGrange is headed to the USAC and Macalester is comfortably aligned with the MIAC, playing football as an independent but having plenty of Minnesota schools available and willing to fill out their schedule. Only Wesley and Huntingdon foray into the future without a conference alignment planned.

“It didn’t happen at the most opportune time,” Hanberry admits. “We came in at the back end. There some schools sitting out there who had shown interest over the years, and had decided to go elsewhere.”

Hanberry says he aware of the travel rumblings from the SAA schools, and the SCAC had been pursuing expansion and a split to a divisional format when the other dominoes fell.

The SAA expects to find out whether Berry is interested in starting football in the next week or so, says Jay Gardiner, Oglethorpe’s AD and the new conference’s acting commissioner. Hendrix plans to start football, and two new schools would bring the SAA to seven. The conference would have to wait two seasons from when the seventh school joins to qualify for an automatic bid, and it would be quite a cycle before it’s as strong a conference as the SCAC is now, but at least the SAA’s long-term future would be secured. The same cannot be said for the schools left in the lurch, Trinity and Austin.

Hanberry says he could have left to go with the SAA, but stayed to rebuild the SCAC. He is candid about the near future for the conference: It will be a six-team league in 2012, with two football-playing members. Unless it can win an appeal with the NCAA, it will lose its AQ, and then be treated like any new conference starting from scratch: It would need four core (all-sports) members playing football and at least seven total, and would need to wait two seasons before being awarded an AQ.

But the SCAC has endured membership changes over its history and survived. Washington & Lee, Washington U., Rose-Hulman and DePauw were all once members. Some of those could again find themselves aligned with each other.

The UAA is an academically prestigious all-sports conference stretching from New York to Illinois to Georgia – similar to the SCAC. For football, four schools – Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, Wash. U. and Case Western Reserve compete as a conference while Rochester, a member in other sports, competes in the Liberty League. They do not have access to an automatic bid, but with Trinity and Austin in the mix, they’d be close.

“If the UAA called us, we’d welcome that,” Hanberry said. “If that meant playing football under their umbrella, there are no egos involved here. We just want to do the best thing for our student-athletes.”

The problem is even with Trinity and Austin joining the UAA four, there’d be a two-year wait and need for a seventh school to gain an AQ. The SCAC already has an AQ, but can’t add the UAA four under its banner unless it had two core members to join Trinity and Austin. That would, however, make an eight-team conference.

“It’s almost a situation where we have to get our own house in order first,” Hanberry said.

The SCAC sat down after the SAA news broke and examined its future. To be able to recruit potential members, the conference had to know what it wanted to be. Hanberry says the SCAC looked at inviting Division II and NAIA schools, and looked at remaining a high-travel, high-academics conference.

“I think the preference is to do our best to stay in line with our academic mission,” he said. “But we can’t invent D-III schools in our part of the country … I don’t think we’re going to get to dictate the terms [of what we do going forward] as much as some people might think.”

Hanberry says the SCAC has not thrown in the towel on football. But the conference also wouldn’t force new members to sponsor the sport, nor would it try to hurry schools along so it can slap together a conference in time to save its AQs in football and men’s lacrosse.

“We’re not going to throw caution to the wind,” he said.

The automatic qualifier is important to the remaining university presidents, but not the driving force.

Hanberry, as you might guess, declined to name any schools who are interested in SCAC membership. “Most of the people we’re talking to are affiliated with someone else,” he said.

But he did say this: The SCAC is primarily looking to add schools that are already D-III. Beyond Centenary’s acceptance of an offer to join, no invitations are on the table. Even with a change in presidents, Colorado College does not seem interested in reviving football. The short-term goal is to become an eight-team conference, but 10 or 12 at some point is a possibility.

Also, Hanberry said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with a much tighter geographic footprint.”

In plain terms, it looks like the SCAC will not rush to redefine itself. It might relax its standards a bit to add a core member, but is still looking for a fit. I wouldn’t expect to see a team poached from NAIA or D-II until after the D-III core is solidified. And while maybe an ASC school or two will jump ship, I don’t see Austin or Trinity going the other way.

The two football programs, however, have to do whatever is necessary to ensure they can schedule at least nine games each and have access to an AQ. They would have to consider affiliate invites from the ASC, but Austin just left that conference in 2006. Wesley and Huntingdon would likely be open to scheduling games. Huntingdon could be a desirable new member for the SCAC or SAA (attempts to reach Trinity and Huntingdon were unsuccessful).

All seven current SCAC football programs will be dumped into Pool B as soon as next season. With the four UAA schools, Wesley and Huntingdon, that still makes only 13, which means we might not see an increase in Pool B bids. But even if, say, the Wolverines wrapped up the Pool B bid easily, the former SCAC teams would be eligible for at-large bids. Still, that’s not as advantageous as having one guaranteed to the champion of your group of seven.

As murky as the future appears, the present in the SCAC is still bright.

“You really don’t think ‘Gosh, this is the last time the SCAC is going to have an AQ,” says Frye, whose team hosts Sewanee on Saturday. “Right now we all have our heads down trying to win this week.”

This season, Frye knows exactly what he’s chasing. Even if Centre loses one of its next four games, it can get enough help to win the SCAC and get in. He’s competing against six teams, not every playoff-worthy one in D-III.

And that alone is why the SAA’s attempt to help its student-athletes and its school’s bottom lines might end up robbing them of a priceless experience.

Rivalry spotlight
I gave this some more thought, and realized I haven't been clearly articulating or researching what would most enlighten Around the Nation's readers.

Thanks to everyone who has e-mailed in with additions to the list of rivalries. I've compiled your submissions, and the list will reside on D3boards.com, on the Division III football rivalries thread.

That will give us three lists of rivalry games. The NCAA D-III record book has a list of 52 trophy games on Page 39. Just above that are the 15 most-played rivalries in D-III – everyone at 110 games or more. The longest, as most of us know, at 125 games, is Amherst-Williams, which embodies everything we consider to be great about a rivalry. The second most-played game, Albion-Kalamazoo at 124, has literally never been mentioned to me as a standout game in 12 seasons writing this column.

Length alone does not make a great rivalry. Neither does the presence of a trophy, or a name for the game.

Rivalries are the games that matter more than others. No matter how much your coach tries to tell you it's just another game, it isn't. Because that week alumni stop by practice. Professors who never show an interest in athletics ask you if you're going to win. Ex-players who skipped homecoming tell you they wouldn't miss this game for the world.

I wrote after attending the 2010 Secretaries' Cup game at Coast Guard that I didn't want to rank D-III's rivalries anymore. I need to rank the top 25, and the conferences, and make the hard decisions that give those things credibility. But with a rivalry game, it's not important whether it's fourth-best or sixth-best. It's only important that we demonstrate to those who have no idea what it's like what in fact goes on.

So I turn to you, loyal ATN readers.

To nominate your favorite game for the Rivalry Spotlight, tell us one on-the-field and one off-the-field story about the heated clash in question. The rivalries themselves are old, but ATN needs something new, a fresh take. You were there. You heard it first-hand. Your stories are key. (If you're a bad storyteller, point me in the right direction, and I'll do the legwork.)

Pool C watch
Our good friend Ralph Turner has started the discussion on which six teams will earn the at-large bids after the 25 automatic qualifiers and the one Pool B team earn playoff spots.

Join in here, on D3boards:
http://www.d3boards.com/index.php?topic=7502.30

It's early of course, and in many seasons teams play their way out of this group. In some years, so many teams play their way out that everybody who's picked up an additional loss ends up back in.

At the moment, Illinois Wesleyan (if it loses to North Central), Redlands, the Trinity/Centre loser, the Wittenberg/Wabash loser and McMurry look like viable candidates for the six spots. UW-Oshkosh could push UW-Whitewater into the group this Saturday, but the Titans with only two losses – to Mount Union and the Warhawks – could create an unprecedented scenario where a two-loss team could be one of the first at-large bids taken. Elsewhere, Endicott and WNEC are headed for a showdown, and that’s before the NEFC title game. Lewis & Clark or Pacific Lutheran could cause issues by upsetting Linfield, and a team like Widener, if it still has one loss on Nov. 12, could unexpectedly bump Delaware Valley into Pool C.

There’s no way to project the six now, as there’s always potential for unexpected change – such as Baldwin-Wallace knocking Mount Union into Pool C, Linfield not winning the NWC or St. John Fisher overtaking Salisbury for the Empire 8 AQ – that would change the dynamics. In a week or two, we might be able to play the “if the season ended today” game, but not yet. But that does bring us to the …

Showdown watch

I’ve compiled this handy, if not comprehensive, list of games that will greatly impact conference titles. No point in keeping it to myself.

• Saturday (Week 8): CCIW, No. 6 North Central at No. 15 Illinois Wesleyan; MIAC, No. 3 St. Thomas at No. 10 Bethel; NWC, Pacific Lutheran at No. 5 Linfield, WIAC, No. 1 UW-Whitewater at No. 20 UW-Oshkosh; CC, No. 18 Johns Hopkins at Gettysburg.

• Oct 29 (Week 9): NathCon, Lakeland at Benedictine; NEFC Boyd, Endicott at WNEC; CC, Johns Hopkins at Ursinus.

• Nov. 5 (Week 10): USAC, Christopher Newport at Ferrum; SCAC, Centre at Trinity; NCAC, Wittenberg at Wabash; IIAC, Dubuque at Coe; ECFC, Norwich at SUNY-Maritime; E8, St. John Fisher at Salisbury; NEFC Bogan, Framingham State at Worcester State; NESCAC, Trinity at Amherst; OAC, Baldwin-Wallace at Mount Union; ODAC, Washington & Lee at Hampden-Sydney; ASC, McMurry at La. Coll.;

• Nov. 12 (Week 11): HCAC, Franklin at Hanover. (more to come)

Unbeaten watch

In any given season, a dozen or so of our 239 teams finish the regular season without a loss. But unless they win the Stagg Bowl or are from the NESCAC, they don’t finish that way. So perhaps now’s the time to appreciate the feat.

• Through Week 7’s games, three teams are 7-0 (No. 3 St. Thomas, No. 14 Delaware Valley, Endicott).

• Twelve are 6-0 (No. 1 UW-Whitewater, No. 2 Mount Union, No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor, No. 8 Thomas More, No. 9 Montclair State, No. 11 Wabash, No. 14 Salisbury, No. 15 Illinois Wesleyan, No. 18 Johns Hopkins, No. 23 Trinity (Texas), Adrian and St. Scholastica)

• Three are 5-0 (No. 5 Linfield, Centre and Lewis & Clark) and three are 4-0 (No. 25 Hobart, Amherst and Trinity, Conn.), for a total of 21 remaining unbeatens.

Winless watch

The flipside of the unbeaten watch is the teams that are deep into October and haven’t yet experienced the thrill of victory. Twenty-four teams are still waiting on the first win as well as their first loss. Here’s a look at those teams, along with their best opportunities for a win.

At 0-7: Nichols, which has its best chance on Nov. 5 against 1-5 MIT.

Along with Knox, there are three one-win teams in the MWC. Two of them have earned their lone win by beating the Prarie Fire. An Oct. 29 home game against Lake Forest is the best opportunity to avoid 0-10.

Earlham is in trouble. The Quakers haven’t scored more than 14 points in a game, and face Mt. St. Joseph (3-3), Franklin (6-1) and Rose-Hulman (3-3).

At 0-6: Eightteen teams are stuck here, but eight of them play one another -- six on the final day of the season -- and therefore can’t finish winless. On Oct. 29, Puget Sound goes to Pacific. On Nov. 12, MacMurray goes to UMAC foe Crown, the ECFC’s Anna Maria travels to Husson and Grove City goes to Thiel in the PAC.

Kenyon is Hiram’s only win, but hosts 1-5 Ohio Wesleyan Oct. 29.

Juniata has scored all but 13 of its 54 points in two losses; they play at 1-5 McDaniel and 1-5 Moravian in back-to-back weeks.

FDU-Florham has games against first-year Stevenson (1-5) and at King’s (1-4) left in Weeks 9 and 10.

For Western Connecticut, this week’s game against Brockport State is an opportunity, but the Golden Eagles might be confident from getting their first win of the season, over top-25-ranked Kean, last Saturday.

Wilmington’s season-ending game at Otterbein now appears to be its only shot at avoiding a second consecutive 0-10, 0-9 year. Offense is an issue, with only 23 points scored in its past four games.

Austin is struggling. Former leaguemate DePauw was nobody’s whipping boy in the SCAC, but at 1-4 and traveling from Indiana to Texas on Oct. 29, they represent the best chance at a Kangaroos win.

Rockford might not be expected to win, but Nov. 12 at Maranatha Baptist – which has lost four straight since a 2-0 start – is their best shot.

Greensboro scored 21 points through four games, but has averaged 20 per the past two. They’ve got two shots, at Maryville at Nov. 5 and against Methodist on Nov. 12. Both are 1-5.

I don’t like UW-River Falls’ chances of picking up a win. Left on the schedule are 3-3 UW-Stout and 2-4 UW-La Crosse, but the 31 points the Falcons gave up on Saturday against UW-Stevens Point topped their previous best by seven.

Hamline has been shut out in five of six games. The Pipers have 965 yards of offense – 160.8 per game. And they’ve played the beatable MIAC teams, as well as Macalester, already. Concordia-Moorhead (5-2), St. Olaf (5-1), Bethel (5-1) and St. John’s (2-4) left on the schedule. I’d be stunned if Hamline didn’t finish 0-10.

At 0-5: Pomona-Pitzer: The Sagehens play at 1-5 Whittier on Oct. 29, and against 1-5 LaVerne on Nov. 5.

At 0-4: In the NESCAC, Colby plays at Tufts Nov. 5.

Awards watch
• The Gagliardi Trophy will again be hosting all four finalists in Salem for the presentation of the most prestigious award a D-III football player can win. For the first time, the presentation will be on a Wednesday evening. The Stagg Bowl, you might recall, is on Friday night instead of Saturday this season.

• I’m not exactly sure what All-Star Football Challenge is or what FRS, the folks who sponsor it do, but for two weeks now they’ve nominated D-III players for an award whose winners are announced on ESPN on Feb. 3.

Last week it was Montclair State running back Chris D’Andrea, and after that, the organizers approached D3football.com looking for promotion and future player suggestions. Pat Coleman’s suggestion this week was pretty obvious: McMurry’s Jake Mullin. The quarterback’s 614-yard passing day didn’t break the D-III record of 730, but he did help the War Hawks set an all-time total offense mark of 848 in the 60-16 win against Texas Lutheran. You can vote for him or Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill. I’m sure he had a good game, but considering there are a gabillion Aggie fans who will vote for him without even considering Mullin, D-III fans need not be encouraged to vote Tannehill. You know what to do: vote here, via Facebook.

• The Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award now has a Coaches Leaderboard, sortable by divison. Wittenberg’s Joe Fincham (1240 votes) and Bethel’s Steve Johnson (1,198) are far and away the leaders, with 610 being the third-highest total as of Wednesday evening. I’m not sure the current top 10 is reflective of the most impressive coaching jobs across D-III this season, or just the 10 schools who are promoting the fan voting best. But there’s plenty of time to get your school’s coach recognized, and you can use the link above to get started. Facebook, Twitter … it’s all there.

Thirty D-III players are still in the running to win the William V. Campbell trophy for student-athlete excellence.

All-star game watch
• The Tazon de Estrellas could find itself with increased interest from back here in the states, as the annual clash of D-III stars with Mexican players has Sat. Dec. 17 all to itself. The game usually coincides with the Stagg Bowl, but will play in the “temple of pain” in Puebla, Mexico the day afterward this season.

“The No. 1 thing I remember was how crazy the crowd was and it being a bunch of college guys down in Mexico,” said former Coe and current Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson of the experience. “There is always going to be great camaraderie with that."
 
• The D-III Senior Classic is scheduled for early December in Salem again this season. Looking at their preseason teams, I was amused to see Alex Tanney, Levell Coppage and Mike Zweifel all on the North squad. Geography could create a pretty loaded team, but then again, at least one of them will probably be unavailable due to a playoff game that day.

Games of the week

Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I identify the games to watch among the 100 or so each Saturday across the nation, providing three distinct looks at what’s ahead in Triple Take. This week’s we take a stab at which teams will do a 180 from last week, which two-loss teams are worth watching, which top 25 teams will be upset and more.

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: Looking for your rivalry stories, as mentioned above. Also thinking about how I should approach future columns on transfers into D-III (know any good examples?) and the limitations that make D-III as diverse as it is. Each schools has its own set of unique challenges to overcome. Besides roster limits, academic restrictions, cost limitations and the specific pools of student-athletes certain schools look to draw from, are there any I’ve missed?

For the Love of the Game: Show your love everywhere you go:

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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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.

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