October 18, 2012

In Division III, there's a whole lot of special

Ten Division III defenders have racked up more than 20 tackles in a game this season, with Grant DePalma of Rose-Hulman leading the way with 18 solo stops.
Rose-Hulman athletics photo

You spend your days taking the same classes as your fellow students, then dedicate hours perfecting your craft, with not a dime of athletic scholarship money as a reward. Most of your games are in front of crowds of 5,000 or fewer, and you can probably walk around off campus and not be recognized.

So you already know you’re playing football in the hardest division. There are players who are bigger, faster and stronger, but no student-athletes participate in college football at a higher level.

While your average TV show or couch-bound fan doesn’t appreciate it, you can at least count on D3football.com to give you recognition. Except when you can’t.

Salve Regina and Waynesburg are the only two 7-0 teams in the country. On the  most rudimentary level, one might assume best records equal the best teams. But you don’t have to be a Division III expert to know that there’s not enough interplay to go by records only. Still, you’d figure with the Seahawks and Yellow Jackets having their best seasons in years, they’d have cracked the top 25 by now.

Nope.

And as wrong as it might seem, Around the Nation can show you why it’s right.

D-III is hard in its own right. But maybe nothing makes it more difficult than its sheer size, where you can win all of your games and not be tested enough to survive a playoff game.

We number-drop around here often, so you probably know there are 239 D-III teams and 27 conferences. That compares with 120 and 11 in the D-I Bowl Subdivision, 122 and 13 in FCS, 167 (up from 156 last year) and 15 in D-II and 85 and seven in NAIA.

So nobody that’s all-American or Top 25 at any other level has to be the cream that rises above that much crop. And nobody else has to win five straight games – a whole half a season, sometimes entirely on the road – to crown itself champion, unless you’re an FCS school that wins one of the play-in games.

That’s not to diminish the significance of any accomplishments. But it is to remind D-III players who earn those honors how special they are, and to remind those D-III players that the accolades – while we appreciate that you crave them – aren’t the only way you should seek validation. You achieve when you meet or surpass the goals you set for yourself. Awards and such are gravy. D-III is just too enormous to judge success of failure that way.

There’s a Top 25. Nineteen teams are still unbeaten; Salve Regina and Waynesburg are 7-0; Coe, Concordia-Chicago, Heidelberg, Hobart, Illinois Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Mount Union, Ohio Wesleyan, St. Thomas, UW-Oshkosh, Widener and Willamette are the 13 teams at 6-0. Linfield is 5-0 and Middlebury, Trinity (Conn.) and Wesleyan are 4-0.

Just rank those 19 and the six best one-loss teams? If only it were that easy. Ten teams’ only loss is to a ranked team, and there’s the old theory about expectations. If a team loses to a top 10 team, that’s what it should do, so it wouldn’t preclude it from being ranked, say, 20th.

Wesley (seven-point loss to No. 2 UMHB), Cal Lutheran (three-point loss to No. 3 Linfield), Bethel (No. 4 St. Thomas), Salisbury (No. 6 Wesley), Elmhurst (No. 9 North Central), Carnegie Mellon and Wittenberg (No. 13 Wabash), Augsburg and Concordia-Moorhead (both by one point to No. 15 Bethel), Millsaps (No. 18 Huntingdon) could all be undefeated too if they just hadn’t run into a highly ranked opponent yet. It’s not fair to look at all records equally if all schedules aren’t equal – Widener is No. 224 in the NCAA’s strength of schedule (which only takes into account regional opponents), Mount Union 217, Heidelberg 216, Waynesburg 203, Ohio Wesleyan 187.

So now we’ve got 19 unbeaten teams plus 10 whose sole losses are to teams ranked 18th or higher, for a total of 29 teams to consider for the top 25. (I realize I’m using the rankings to help determine the rankings, but bear with). Huntingdon could be an 11th team in that group if Birmingham-Southern, ranked 16th last week, hadn’t been upset by Trinity.

On top of these 30 teams, there’s Rowan, whose only loss is to D-II Merrimack and for our purposes is effectively unbeaten. There’s Franklin, who lost to No. 1 Mount Union and D-I FCS Butler. And there’s Sul Ross State, which has three losses, including competitive games against D-II Eastern and Western New Mexico, and a non-competitive loss to No. 2 UMHB.

Then there are a handful of teams who have lost twice, both to ranked teams: Louisiana College (No. 2 UMHB, No. 6 Wesley), Pacific Lutheran (No. 3 Linfield, No. 8 Cal Lutheran), UW-Platteville (No. 5 UW-Whitewater, No. 10 UW-Oshkosh) and Hardin-Simmons and Whitworth (both lost to each No. 3 Linfield and No. 22 Willamette). We’ll draw the line before we get to Randolph-Macon (No. 16 Johns Hopkins and also-receiving-votes Washington & Lee). You get the picture.

Voters often must look at who a team has beaten, not just who it has lost to. But there’s a case to be made that some teams’ 4-2 and 5-2 marks are more impressive than some 6-0 and 7-0 marks because of who they played. We have to ask ourselves, if Salve Regina or Illinois Wesleyan played Louisiana College or UW-Platteville’s schedule, would they have done any better? There aren’t concrete answers available, so voters make these judgment calls.

And when we’re looking at 35 or more teams for 25 spots, there are 10 teams convinced they “can’t get no love” from D3football.com.

A four-touchdown day is pretty much the pinnacle for an offensive player, often a day when everything is going right. It’s pretty special, one you’ll remember forever, not unlike Al Bundy and his four-TD game for Polk High. (Okay, maybe a little unlike that.)

It’s happened 29 times this season through Week 7, or an average of four times a week nationally. Well-established stars like UMHB running back Darius Wilson, Elmhurst running back Scottie Williams, Puget Sound wide receiver Adam Kniffin and Cal Lutheran wide receiver Eric Rogers have done it this season. So has Crown’s Amos Schmidt. Mount St. Joseph running back James Clay did it twice in September alone. W&L’s Luke Heinsohn has had three consecutive three-TD games where he’s kicked at least six extra points – kind of like adding a fourth TD in there.

And then there’s Sul Ross State’s Dominique Carson, who had one of the nation’s five five-touchdown games two weeks ago against Mississippi College, only to top it with an eight-TD game last week against Texas Lutheran.

So sure, a four-TD day is still special. It’s just that in D-III, there’s a whole lot of special going on.

There have been 12 games in which a player has rushed for 240 or more yards, and another 29 of 200 or more. Kean’s Darius Kinney has three 200-yard games – and he’s only the No. 7 rusher in the nation. Clay, the leading rusher with 1,310 yards, is averaging 218 yards per game.

Kickers have made four or more field goals in a game 12 times (Ohio Wesleyan’s Miles McKenzie and TLU’s Allen Cain have done it twice each). Fifteen players have had three interceptions in a game, though only Wesley’s Jared Morris has joined the four-pick club. Ten defensive players have been credited with 20-tackle games, including Rose-Hulman linebacker Grant DePalma’s 18-solo-tackle effort against Manchester, and another 14 came up one tackle short.

With 27 conferences, even if you’re the best strong safety in your conference, that makes you one of just 54 safeties across the country who’ll earn all-conference honors. Those players, plus at least some second- and third-teamers, are the ones who feed into our All-Region teams, where writers, school officials and others who have seen you play vote for six safeties – two each on the first, second and third teams. And from that pool of 24 (six safeties in each of four regions), all-Americans are chosen. Eight of the 478 or so starting safeties across the country (1.6 percent) can call themselves all-Americans. The rest of you are the 99 percent, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

We could put three quarterbacks, eight running backs, 10 wide receivers and 12 safeties on our all-American first team so more people could “get love,” but then it wouldn’t really be a team. (Unless you know somebody running the 4-3-12 defense.) And it waters down the honor.

When you accomplish something you set out to do, be it simply winning, or playing your best game, be proud. If it is also something rarely done in your program, be even more proud. If accolades come from your conference, print it out and save it to show your kids some day. And if, by chance, you are regarded as one of the best of 239, keep in mind that nobody in college football competes against as many for the same recognition. Wear the badge of honor proudly. And then get back to work, because there’s a giant heap of players who want exactly what you want, and who are studying and training like mad to get it.

Playoff primer

Like clockwork, it gets chilly, leaves turn, Halloween merchandise pops up in the stores and D-III playoff speculation begins. While we might still be a week from having enough information to project a speculative field of 32, that shouldn’t stop you from familiarizing yourself with the terms that will come up, if you aren’t already up on them.

Our FAQ answers almost everything, including what the heck people mean when they talk about AQs, Pools B and C and “the criteria.” If you’re feeling extra-wonky, the NCAA championship handbook usually becomes publicly available around this time.

Simply, there are 32 teams this season – 24 conference champions, one bid reserved for teams who do not have access to an automatic bid, and seven at-large bids for everyone left over. Games are on campus sites, except the Friday night national championship in Salem, Va., and higher

The NCAA selection committee is made up of D-III conference coaches, ADs and commissioners, not people who have no idea what’s what in D-III this season. When creating the bracket, the committee is directed to limit trips of more than 500 miles, because the NCAA picks up the tab for trips longer than that, so budget-conscious D-III schools can fly. Most of the committee’s work is done because of the automatic qualifying teams, so they select seven, with four teams – the best from each region – being discussed at any given time. Then they’ll seed the teams and create the first-round matchups. And although we colloquially refer to the brackets as North, South, East and West, there is no directive to build them that way, so if teams in a bracket are within 500 miles of Alliance, Ohio, then Mount Union can be the No. 1 seed “in the East” although it as a North Region team. No region is guaranteed to only play against teams from its own region to get to the final four.

We know this is new to some of you, especially schools that are contending for the first time in years, so please don’t hesitate to use the FAQ, and ask questions on our message board if you have queries beyond that.

Strength of schedule

There are several ways to determine who plays the toughest schedule in the country. When you hear us talk about it, as it relates to playoff selection, it means these numbers we calculate here. These calculations – two-thirds opponents winning percentage and one third opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage, taking into account only regional games – are the same ones that the selection committee will consider when finalizing the field.

If you don’t like what you see there, or want to filter by only games played to date or include games scheduled through Week 11, the NCAA’s stats package allows you to do that.

Pool B watch

The story in Pool B changed a little bit, when another one of the triumvirate of Wesley, Huntingdon and Birmingham-Southern picked up a loss outside of playing one another. B-SC has beaten Huntingdon and lost to Wesley, with the Wolverines and Hawks scheduled to meet at the end of October. But now Trinity (Texas) has an advantage over B-SC by virtue of Saturday’s win, and Carnegie Mellon is hanging in the mix as well.

Pool B is discussed frequently and in depth on our general football board. There’s one bid up for grabs, and after that, teams’ resumes must stack up against everyone else’s if they want to make the playoffs. With Pool B teams beating up on each other, that’s becoming less likely by the week.

Pool C watch

D3boards.com poster Wally Wabash has done a nice projection on the message boards, and that’s a great place to start if you’re wondering where your team stands as of now provided it doesn’t win the conference.

Last season, in the absence of early regional rankings, ATN did its own, and it’s likely those will be in next week’s column again. Meantime, there’s a place to project conference winners and discuss who’ll be left over, but once Saturday arrives, anything and everything can change.

The ATN top 50

Every couple weeks, ATN ranks teams past the top 25, so those of you on the cusp can get an idea of where you stand and what it will take to move up. The collective wisdom of the poll may trump my thoughts alone, but it can’t hurt to have a deeper ranking to look at when considering who belongs where.

1. Mount Union: Looking forward to see what happens when the Purple Raiders face a team with a winning record and an offensive star, in Otterbein wide receiver Trey Fairchild, this Saturday. The haven’t-given-up-a-touchdown-since-Week 1 streak likely to be broken.

2. Mary Hardin-Baylor.

3. Wesley: In the third spot for me because of strength of schedule. Loss is by 7 to UMHB.

4. Linfield: Wildcats have also played a remarkably strong schedule.

5. St. Thomas: I had dropped them to seventh, but moved them back up after the convincing win against Bethel.

6. Salisbury.

7. UW-Whitewater: Three-time defending champs fighting for their playoff lives this Saturday.

8. Cal Lutheran.

9. UW-Oshkosh: Becomes a candidate for a top seed in the playoffs by beating the Warhawks.

10. Heidelberg: Like Mount Union, still hasn’t faced the meat of its schedule, so 10th is perhaps a bit speculative on my part.

11. North Central.

12. Willamette: No. 1 passing offense in the country at 392 yards per game.

13. Hobart: Second to Mount Union in total defense, allowing 190 yards per game.

14. Johns Hopkins.

15. Louisiana College: Faulted them a bit for the bad second half and 30-3 loss to UMHB, but not many teams would keep it close with the Cru.

16. UW-Platteville: Last four WIAC opponents have combined record of 7-17, so 8-2 and playoff fringe still a possibility.

17. Wabash: Rebounded from Allegheny loss by handing Carnegie Mellon and Wittenberg their only defeats, then winning in St. Louis.

18. Rowan: Time to toss out the result against a scholarship school and group the Profs with the other D-III unbeatens in the East.

19. Widener: Like the Pride, for example.

20. Concordia-Moorhead: At Augsburg this week, hosting St. Thomas two weeks later.

21. Birmingham-Southern: Losses to Trinity (Texas) and at Wesley offset by win at Huntingdon.

22. Huntingdon: Won at Hampden-Sydney and Millsaps.

23. Illinois Wesleyan: Coming around on Titans, but three of final four: At Wheaton, at North Central, at Elmhurst.

24. Washington & Lee: Thumping of Randolph-Macon, fact Franklin & Marshall is 5-1 puts Week 1 loss in perspective.

25. RPI: Have to rank them before Alfred.

26. Bethel: Unimpressive vs. St. Thomas, but has one-point wins over Concordia-Moorhead and Augsburg.

27. Salve Regina. Teams keep leap-frogging the Seahawks, but they’ll crack the Top 25 if they keep winning, which they should.

28. Coe. Beating 5-1 Simpson would be the most impressive win to date.

29. Waynesburg.

30. Trinity (Conn.): Good defense as usual, but closing stretch of Middlebury, Amherst and Wesleyan looks more formidable this season than it usually does.

31. Franklin: Coming off consecutive road shutouts. Averaging 56.25 points in four HCAC wins.

32. Alfred: Wins against Ithaca, St. John Fisher and Buffalo State.

33. Wittenberg.

34. Augsburg.

35. Hardin-Simmons: Have hardly mentioned them, but they’re scoring 42 points per game, and 46.5 in the four wins since losing to Willamette and at Linfield.

36. Sul Ross State: Offense is dynamic, No. 1 in the country. Only D-III loss is to UMHB. Has beaten Trinity, but would really open eyes with all-around team play (not just a shootout win) against either LC this weekend or Hardin-Simmons the following week.

37. Elmhurst: Beating Wheaton makes them third in CCIW pecking order.

38. Otterbein.

39. Cortland State: Offense has been humming since Week 1 loss.

40. Carnegie Mellon: Lost at Wabash, beat Allegheny.

41. Kean.

42. Middlebury: Might well be the NESCAC champ when it’s over.

43. Baldwin Wallace

44. Concordia-Chicago: Win over 6-1 Lake Forest looking more and more impressive.

45. Lycoming: Wins over Delaware Valley, Lebanon Valley and Albright in five-game winning streak.

46. Adrian: Has given up just two field goals in the past three weeks.

47. Framingham State: Lights out defensively since bad loss to open the season vs. Endicott. 

48. Whitworth: Losses to Willamette and Linfield, has beaten 4-1 Chapman and 5-2 St. Scholastica.

49. Wheaton (Ill.).

50. Simpson.

Three takes on Week 8

UW-Oshkosh is calling it the biggest game of their lives. But probably only one of Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I will call the clash with No. 5 UW-Whitewater the game of the week, so check out our blog, the Daily Dose, on Friday morning as we shine our spotlight on the biggest games across the country. We’ll also look at some of the nation’s most impressive scholar-athletes and how their teams should fare on Saturday, plus two-loss teams to watch, teams expected to do a 180 and the normal slate of upset picks and surprisingly close games. It’s the primer on where to look to find the special in D-III this weekend: The Triple Take.

Six ways to Saturday

We’re more interconnected than ever, and the insight on each other’s games and scenes is unprecedented. I’d really like to see more D3Reports – they don’t have to be fancy, just a taste of the scene on your campus. We accept news-style, professional-looking wrap-ups, with stats, and we’d accept something speaking from the heart, without a bunch of numbers or a microphone, just letting us know what’s going on in your corner of the D-III world. Just film it horizontally with your smart phone, watch out for wind, and e-mail to us or upload to YouTube.

It’s one of the great ways to give the national audience a peek at what goes on where you play.

Other ways to stay connected to ATN …

• 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. There’s also @d3football and @D3MidAtlantic (Tipps), plus five of our regional columnists: @AdamTurer, @Andrew_Lovell, @BLester1993, @clydehughes and @kylerobarts.

If you want to get us to notice you, use hashtag #d3fb. On Saturdays, the ability to sort by hashtag on Twitter gives D-III football its own channel for live insights, in addition to our live scoreboards, which is home to instantaneous updates, plus all the live stats, audio and video links we’re aware of.

• 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 instagram, via @d3keith.

On Saturdays, our running game day conversation no longer lives on the Daily Dose, but on Twitter.

The press box

Crowd sourcing: I'm looking for your photos wearing D-III shirts or hats on vacations or at famous places around the world. It's for a future project, showing how we represent.

I’d also like to establish a D-III buzz index. If there is a way we could dump every Around the Nation into a computer, and have it determine how many times each team has been mentioned over the years, it could be pretty interesting what pops out. I always think about how ATN can reach places like Bethany and Lawrence and Howard Payne, which I feel like I so rarely write about.

And I’m still looking for ex-players and others willing to give testimonials about all-star games they’ve played in recruiting services they’ve used and more. Please e-mail for more details.

For the Love of the Game: Show your love everywhere you go with an original, high-quality, color-themed Division III shirt from zazzle.com/D3Keith.

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 e-mail 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, 12457 Manchester Way, 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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