September 13, 2012

There's no right way to schedule games

Coe has been an interesting study in non-conference scheduling in recent seasons.
Coe athletics photo

As we prepare for a Saturday when No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor travels to No. 3 Wesley for a regular-season clash that might well be a round-of-eight regional final in December, and No. 5 Linfield goes to No. 10 Cal Lutheran, No. 6 St. Thomas plays at rival and perennial MIAC power St. John’s, and more, a thought occurred to me.

All these years, we’ve trumpeted the merits of aggressive non-conference scheduling. We written features on coaches who claim it prepares their teams for the tough teams they’ll play later in the season.

But in the 32-team playoff era, does it really help?

Could it be that we’ve promoted the strong-schedule theory out of purely selfish reasons, a desire to see games like No. 13 North Central at UW-Stout, No. 23 Centre at Washington & Lee and Pacific Lutheran at No. 25 Redlands? There have already been a handful of great non-conference games this season, like the St. John Fisher-Thomas More overtime squabble in Week 1, and SJF’s comeback against the Saints’ PAC rival Washington & Jefferson in Week 2.

But if the ultimate goal is to get into the playoffs and win, and not provide entertainment value or games which help fans figure out which Division III conferences are strongest, does it make more sense to be No. 8 Wabash playing Denison this week, or No. 12 Bethel hosting Buena Vista or No. 19 Wheaton going to Luther?

Wheaton and Bethel have scheduled aggressively in the past, and sometimes each other. Wabash, with so many NCAC games to play, has little control over its schedule. Still, I began to dig through the results of past seasons’ non-conference games to look for a correlation between top 25 teams playing each other, and playoff success.

Also in this column

  • Keith's Top 50
  • Longest playoff droughts

With the Around the Region columnists doing such a good job of reporting, I didn’t have to. I could hunker down with a notepad, a stack of past D-III playoff results and crunch numbers. Besides, what more is there for coaches to say on this? Either they believe playing tough teams early in the season gets their teams ready to win their conferences and win again in the playoffs, or they believe winning builds confidence, and they should regularly schedule “like institutions.”

The only way to break new ground on this topic was with research.

But all it did was reveal there is no right answer on how to approach non-conference scheduling.

Take, for instance North Central. The Cardinals have been trying to break into the national elite, and are doing it from the North Region, which means they have to go through Mount Union or UW-Whitewater to earn a national semifinal performance. Their deepest playoff run came in 2010, when they lost to the eventual champion Warhawks, 20-10, after leading 10-7 in the fourth quarter.

That season, the Cardinals opened up with road games at Cornell and Olivet, and combined to outscore them, 93-16. The Rams and Comets each went 0-10. In seasons before and since, North Central has played a playoff-caliber team off the bat (Ohio Northern in ’08 and ’09; Redlands in ’11 and ’12).

So it pays to schedule weak teams early, right? Unless that just happened to be North Central’s best team or most favorable playoff draw.

On the flipside, let’s look at Hobart, a traditional like-institutions scheduler. The last time it won a playoff game, in 2008, the non-conference opponents were Dickinson and Carnegie Mellon. Hobart has had long-running series with each. They won those games, and the Liberty League, and went on to beat Lycoming in the first round, 33-15, before losing at Mount Union, 42-7.

By 2010, Hobart had added St. John Fisher to the schedule, a perennial contender in the stronger Empire 8, and a manageable upstate New York road trip. They lost at home, 34-14, but bounced back in 2011 to win at St. John Fisher, 56-20. The Statesmen lost in the first round of the playoffs, though, while the Cardinals made it as an at-large and won two games before losing at St. Thomas.

The playoff results in that case, though, are less a residual effect of the teams scheduling each other during the season, and more luck of the draw. Hobart faced perennial national No. 3 Wesley, and acquitted itself well in a 35-28 loss. St. John Fisher beat two undefeated teams in Johns Hopkins and Delaware Valley, but neither of them was Wesley-good.

The irony in 2011, was that Hobart was reportedly supposed to play Wesley in the regular season but went with eight games instead. The 7-1 Statesmen got in by virtue of winning the Liberty League, and were seeded low, so an early-season loss to Wesley would not have hurt them much. And the playoff game the two played suggested that they might have beaten Wesley had they played.

Coe is another example. In 2009, the Kohawks were IIAC runners up, and upset St. John’s in the first round of the playoffs before losing to St. Thomas and finishing 10-2. Their non-conference opponents were Augustana and Gustavus Adolphus, but got weaker in 2010, when they outscored NAIA Iowa Wesleyan and Olivet Nazarene 93-28. In 2011, the Kohawks opened up in Texas at Hardin-Simmons, and lost 41-14. They lost at Olivet Nazarene the following week, and went 6-2 in the IIAC after consecutive 7-1 years. Their 6-4 record was a steep drop from the seasons before, but do we attribute it to taking the HSU game and stumbling the following week, or an improved IIAC with Dubuque’s rise, or both? Maybe it just wasn’t Coe’s best team.

This season, Coe crushed NWC power Monmouth, 33-3, and rival Cornell, 34-14. That’s one part aggressive scheduling, and one part scheduling by necessity, as Cornell moved from the IIAC to the MWC but has played Coe for 122 years. And neither of those teams are a tougher matchup than Hardin-Simmons.

So what does it say? NWC and ASC teams face off against each other all the time, mostly out of necessity because it’s tough to find D-III teams to play in Texas, Oregon and Washington. The WIAC had so much trouble getting schools to play its teams that they went to an eighth game against a conference opponent – it doesn’t count in the standings, but it fills a hole on the schedule so nobody had to play Missouri Science & Tech or Campbellsville.

Wesley schedules good teams in the East because without a conference, it has to. This year, though, their six D-III opponents are rival Salisbury, No. 7 nationally, and the best teams the South Region has to offer: Mary Hardin-Baylor, Louisiana College, Birmingham-Southern, Huntingdon and East Texas Baptist. Teams on both sides of these coins have playoff hopes and are scheduling aggressively in the hopes it will help them on Selection Saturday night.

Wabash, on the other hand, played one of its weakest schedules in memory last season, and won two playoff games, including one against North Central, and nearly knocked off Mount Union.

The MAC and PAC and NJAC have has its top teams overlap for years. Delaware Valley-Washington & Jefferson and Rowan-Lycoming results tell us little about where the teams are headed though. I could bore you with numbers and graphs – I went back over two-plus seasons of great early-season matchups before realizing there was not going to be a correlation one way or the other.

As long as there’s no definitive answer on whether playing early-season competition helps or hinders, let’s be glad some teams value the experience of playing the toughest opponents they can find – or at least ones that look tough when the agreements are made -- and enjoy the shows.

Playoff droughts for the ages

I’ve gone on record suggesting Elmhurst, Heidelberg, Louisiana College and Wisconsin Lutheran would earn playoff bids this season. All four teams are undefeated, with three 2-0 and Heidelberg having just one 45-0 win under its belt.

A playoff bid would be the first for all four teams. As it would be for Birmingham-Southern, Gallaudet, Salve Regina and UW-Platteville. But four teams making the postseason for the first time would not be a first: Centre, Illinois College, Kean and Western New England did it last season, with Dubuque making it for the first time since 1980.

Here are the longest current playoff droughts in D-III, dating from 1973, with NESCAC teams excluded. I was surprised to see Franklin & Marshall, Grove City and Ripon on the list of teams that have never been to the playoffs as they have all had successful seasons. But before 1999, there were no automatic bids, and even a 9-1 year guaranteed nothing.

Playoff drought of 10 years (last made it in 2002): John Carroll, King’s, Lake Forest, MacMurray, Mass-Dartmouth.

11 years (’01) – Defiance, Pacific Lutheran, Western Connecticut, Westfield State.
12 years (’00) – Bridgewater State, Emory & Henry, McDaniel, Millikin, UW-Stout.
13 years (’99) – Buffalo State, Catholic, Ursinus, Wash U.
15 years (’97) – Augsburg, Coast Guard.
16 years (’96) – UW-River Falls.
18 years (’94) – LaVerne, Merchant Marine.
19 years (’93) – Anderson, Frostburg State, Moravian, William Paterson.
20 years (’92) – Carleton, WPI.
23 years (’88) – Adrian, Rhodes.
24 years (’87) – Gustavus Adolphus, Hiram, Rochester.
25 years (’86) – Buena Vista.
26 years (’85) – Denison, Gettysburg.
30 years (’81) – Lawrence, Minnesota-Morris.
31 years (’80) – Bethany.
33 years (’78) – St. Olaf
35 years (’76) – Carroll.
38 years (’73) – Juniata, which lost to Wittenberg 41-0 in the Stagg Bowl after beating Bridgeport (N.Y.), 35-14, in the first round of the four-team bracket. Wittenberg beat San Diego, 21-14.

Never made the playoffs (62 teams) – Austin, Beloit, Bluffton, Chapman, Chicago, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Concordia-Chicago, Cornell, Crown, Earlham, Elmhurst, Eureka, FDU-Florham, Fitchburg State, Framingham State, Franklin & Marshall, Greensboro, Greenville, Grinnel, Grove City, Guilford, Hamline, Heidelberg, Howard Payne, Kalamazoo, Kenyon, Knox, Lebanon Valley, Lewis & Clark, Loras, Luther, Macalester, Manchester, Maranatha Baptist, Marietta, Martin Luther, Maryville, Mass. Maritime, Methodist, MIT, Muskingum, Nichols, North Park, Northwestern (Minn.), Norwich, Oberlin, Ohio Wesleyan, Pomona-Pitzer, Puget Sound, Ripon, Rose-Hulman, Salve Regina, Sewanee, Sul Ross State, Texas Lutheran, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Platteville, Westminster (Mo.), Westminster (Pa.), Whittier, Wilmington and Worcester State.

Program started/revived in 1999 or later, and never made the playoffs (19 teams) – Anna Maria, Averett, Becker, Birmingham-Southern, Castleton State, Geneva, Gallaudet, Husson, Louisiana College, Misericordia, Morrisville State, Mount Ida, Pacific, Presentation, Rockford, St. Vincent, Stevenson, Utica, Wisconsin Lutheran.

So now you have the knowledge you need to go out and make history.

The ATN top 50

If you saw the 50 last week, you know the drill. It’s my personal top 25 ballot, but 25 teams of overflow, to account for the size of the division and to give you something of a top 25 watch list. The other 24 poll voters don’t necessarily agree with me, and until the AFCA poll comes out after Week 3, the is the only poll going (although the fans do it on D3boards). When you need more than a top 25, ATN has got you.

1. UW-Whitewater.
2. Mount Union.
3. Wesley: OMG we can’t wait for this Saturday vs. UMHB.
4. Mary Hardin-Baylor: Kudos for playing No. 3; No. 2 and No. 1 won’t schedule each other.
5. Linfield.
6. St. Thomas.
7. Salisbury. Another year, another close loss to Wesley.
8. Wabash: Fifteen penalties but big win in opener.
9. Bethel: Shutting out Wartburg team that scored 73 was impressive.
10. Cal Lutheran.
11. Heidelberg.
12. St. John Fisher: Shaky start, great comeback.
13. Thomas More.
14. Louisiana College.
15. Birmingham-Southern
17. Hampden-Sydney
18. UW-Platteville: Jumped a few spots after 52-35 win vs. Dubuque.
19. North Central: Back in my top 20 after beating Redlands.
20. Franklin: Two losses against teams it was expected to lose to.
21. Rowan.
22. Hobart.
22. Johns Hopkins.
23. Trinity (Texas): Only 14 points allowed vs. two ASC opponents.
24. Elmhurst.
25. Centre.
26. Widener: Won’t get a serious challenge until Week 4 or 5.
27. UW-Oshkosh.
28. Willamette.
29. Wittenberg.
30. Coe.
31. Amherst.
32. Illinois Wesleyan.
33. UW-La Crosse.
34. St. John’s.
35. Washington & Jefferson: Impressive first half against St. John Fisher.
36. Baldwin Wallace: Won with ease in Week 1.
37. UW-Eau Claire.
38. Brockport State: Looks very solid following Buffalo State win.
39. Albion: Moves in after beating Wheaton
40. Redlands
41. John Carroll.
43. Trinity (Conn.)
43. Huntingdon.
44. Wheaton
45. Illinois College
46. Bridgewater State
47. Salve Regina
48. Waynesburg.
49. St. Olaf
50. Muhlenberg.

Rivalry watch

Back in 2010, ATN compiled a list of the highest reported single-game attendance figures in D-III history. The Tommie-Johnnie game in Collegeville in 2010 drew 16,421, believed to be a record. Worth a look this week to see if that can be challenged.

Hard to believe the Backyard Brawl, Soup Bowl, Secretaries’ Cup and Coe-Cornell have already been played, and now it’s already Tommie-Johnnie Week.

Three takes on Week 3

For a preview from a national perspective on the Week 3 clashes, check out this week’s Triple Take Friday morning on the Daily Dose, where Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I dig through this week’s slate of games and give you a look at where to look. Upsets happen every week, but if you’re a Triple Take reader, you see some of them coming.

Five ways to Saturday

If you’re missing the conversation on Twitter, especially on game days, you’re missing the best ATN and have to offer. Follow along!

You can also follow 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, @D3MidAtlantic (Tipps), @AdamTurer, @Andrew_Lovell and several others.

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

The press box

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Ryan Tipps

Ryan is's Senior Editor and began as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011, has worked on the preseason Kickoff publication since 2006 and has covered the Stagg Bowl in Salem for more than a decade. Ryan, a Wabash graduate, worked in newspapers as a writer and editor for 15 years before his current full-time job as editor of a magazine in Virginia.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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