ATN ranks the conferences

UW-Platteville's emergence in the past couple of years in the WIAC has helped balance the fall of UW-Eau Claire.
UW-Platteville athletics photo

For years, Around the Nation has aimed to solve an issue for which there is no answer elsewhere in Division III: Which conferences are stronger than others?

It comes up so often, in discussions of playoff seeding, strength of schedule and in subjective conjecture. We bring up conference strength when we talk about why certain teams schedule each other.

From a competitive standpoint, it's one of the most important rankings we do, and it's the only one that judges your team alongside its peers, against the rest of the 239 teams in the nation.

In 2012, ATN reviewed 10 years and 15 sets of conference rankings -- every one has produced, in both ATN and our preseason preview publication, Kickoff -- to provide high- and low-water marks for each conference, and an average conference ranking over the years. 

What ATN comes up with is admittedly a subjective ranking, but each time we do it, several factors are taken into account: head-to-head records against teams from other conferences (out-of-conference records), playoff performance, top-to-bottom depth and the success of players in the professional ranks and in other major accolades.

Pat Coleman and I consulted on nearly all of these rankings. When Around the Nation does them, the reasoning and records are presented for you to make your own judgments. The previous years' rankings that aren't stuck behind a Kickoff paywall are linked here in the table. (One note: In 2003, 2005 and 2009, there were no ATN conference rankings. In 2011, ATN did them in tiers, not by number).

What's important to remember is that these rankings are a tool for comparison. They help us understand why some teams have done or will do so well in the playoffs. They help us understand the movement in the top 25 and the national perceptions of certain wins and losses. They don't define individual teams or careers. Everyone who plays D-III by the rules and for the love of the game has accomplished something, even if it's in the 26th-ranked conference.

Ultimately though, it's a competitive game, and the teams and conferences that play the best football as a group are recognized below:


Kickoff '12 ranking: 1st of 26
High- and low-water marks: Ranked first in every attempt at this except in 2002, when it came in second.
Average ranking, 2002 through Kickoff ‘12: 1.07
Non-conference record: 8-8 (schedule complete)
Verdict: The WIAC’s case for No. 1 peaked as Whitewater rose to four-time champion and the rest of the conference took on the nation’s best, from Texas to Oregon to Illinois. This year’s 8-8 non-conference mark includes UW-Whitewater’s stunning upset loss against Buffalo State, but it also includes two losses to No. 5 St. Thomas and a 1-1 record against No. 11 North Central. UW-La Crosse beat the Cardinals and also played Division II Northern Michigan. UW-Stevens Point, which lost by a touchdown to NAIA No. 10 St. Francis (Ind.), beat defending IIAC champ Dubuque 55-14. In a 47-28 win against Central, UW-Oshkosh led 47-0 after the first drive of the third quarter. In short, this conference is much more than just UW-Whitewater. UW-Platteville and Oshkosh are in the top 25. UW-Eau Claire lost by but a field goal to both St. Thomas and St. John’s. UW-La Crosse, which might be an afterthought by the end of the season, scored the big Week 1 upset. Over the course of 10 seasons, the WIAC is still the top-to-bottom strongest collection of D-III football teams. Period.


Chris Denton has broken out as a receiver and return man for Mount Union this season.
Photo by Dan Poel for

Kickoff '12 ranking: 2nd
High- and low-water marks: Ranked 1st in 2002; 3rd in 2005 and 2nd in every ranking since.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 2.
Non-conference record: 5-5
Verdict: The discussion about the OAC usually starts with Mount Union. The Purple Raiders’ run of dominance – 15 Stagg Bowls and 10 championships since 1993, and every OAC title since 1994 – counts large in the conference’s favor. But it’s also the argument that people use against the conference’s strength as a whole. So when you cast the light on the entire OAC picture, the group behind Mount Union usually determines how strong the conference is at a given time. Right now Baldwin Wallace and Heidelberg lead that group. A turn at playing second fiddle has rotated through six of the nine non-Mount Union schools over the years, which shows how chasing the Purple Raiders has raised the bar for everyone else. But there are three schools, Marietta, Muskingum and Wilmington that count as part of the picture, and they have not risen to that just-behind-Mount Union level at any point over the years these rankings encompass. This season, they’re 0-3 non-conference and 0-9 overall. For the OAC as a whole, this year’s non-conference wins are Alma, Bluffton, Franklin, Gallaudet and St. Norbert, which isn’t an impressive lot. The OAC has churned out the best NFL talent in recent years – and not just Mount Union’s Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts, but also Heidelberg’s Mike Preston – which is great if you’re making a list of conferences that produce the best individuals. In this list though, we couldn’t see the OAC winning more than half of the games against the WIAC eight in a fairly distributed challenge.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 4th
High- and low-water marks: Third, right now; ninth in 2007.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 6.21
Non-conference record to date: 14-0
Verdict: The MIAC is both capable of producing a national championship contender, or semifinalist at least, and having top-to-bottom depth. The conference, which is finished non-MIAC games except for three against Macalester and Gustavus Adolphus’ date with NAIA Valley City State, went unbeaten out-of-conference this month. That feat, which as far as I can remember is unprecedented, warrants a move up from its Kickoff ’12 ranking of fourth. The 14-0 mark hasn’t exactly come against a murderers’ row, but it does include three wins against the WIAC and five against the IIAC. The MIAC’s .636 playoff winning percentage over the years is also third-best, behind the OAC and WIAC.

4. EMPIRE 8 (E8)

Kickoff '12 ranking: 3rd
High- and low-water marks: Third in 2012; 15th in 2002, when just starting out.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 6.71
Non-conference record to date: 17-5.
Verdict: Here’s what you need to know about D-III’s strongest East Coast conference: A new-to-the-conference Buffalo State team that went and beat defending champion UW-Whitewater on its home field got shellacked, 40-17, by Alfred in its first Empire 8 game. Frostburg State and Utica are on the rise, and core members St. John Fisher and Ithaca are always competitive. Football-only affiliate Salisbury has only made the conference stronger; The E8 was the only league to send two teams into last season’s playoff final eight. The E8 has beaten top teams from the NJAC, PAC, LL and UAA in the season’s early going.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 7th
High- and low-water marks: Second in 2005, seventh in 2012.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 4.5
Non-conference record to date: 14-5
Verdict: Solid wins from top to bottom, with Linfield beating both Hardin-Simmons (ASC) and Cal Lutheran (SCIAC), Pacific Lutheran beating Redlands (SCIAC) and Pacific beating Occidental (SCIAC). Willamette’s beaten two Texas teams, Whitworth has beaten St. Scholastica (UMAC), which went 10-1 last season. Except for Puget Sound, the entire conference has kicked in to the NWC’s strong non-league showing this September.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 6th
High- and low-water marks: Eighth in 2002; Third, several times.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 4.28
Non-conference record to date: 11-13
Verdict: It hasn’t been the strongest of starts for the ASC, but its teams will play all comers. A 1-2 record against No. 6 Wesley, a loss to No. 3 Linfield, a win over Kean and a 2-2 mark vs. Trinity (Texas) – all playoff teams last season – help the ASC’s rep as much as the record hurts it. ASC teams have also lost twice to Willamette and once to currently unbeaten Millsaps. And anecdotally, the ASC teams hold up well, putting less of an emphasis on the record itself. Be it because of geography or a hunger for competition, the ASC this season has bolstered its rep as a conference whose teams are willing to schedule almost anyone.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 5th
High- and low-water marks: Third in 2011, seventh in 2007.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 4.92
Non-conference record to date: 17-7
Verdict: It’s been a bit of a down September for the CCIW. There’s an always-solid non-conference record, but in marquee games, North Central has lost to UW-La Crosse, Augustana to Dubuque, Carthage to Wartburg and Wheaton was upset by Albion. Usually the CCIW is more dominant against a cross-section of top teams from the conferences in the Midwest and West.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 16th
High- and low-water marks: 11th in 2002; 18th in 2008.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 15.14
Non-conference record to date: 13-3
Verdict: It’s been a solid start for the SAA five, broken off from what was two seasons ago an SCAC eight. Birmingham-Southern’s win over Huntingdon impressed, and has it in the top 25. Centre’s 34-16 loss at Washington & Lee scores one for the ODAC, but the Colonels have wins over HCAC, PAC and MIAA teams. Sewanee (Puget Sound) and Rhodes (Claremont-Mudd-Scripps) have won matchups with similarly skilled West Coast teams and Millsaps beat rival Mississippi College (ASC) in the annual Backyard Brawl. I don’t think the SAA is always a top-10 conference, but it is at this moment in time.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 8th
High- and low-water marks: Fifth in 2002; Ninth in 2010.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 7.57
Non-conference record to date: 5-10 (two games remain)
Verdict: Aside from Rowan’s upset of Delaware Valley, this has been the worst September in memory for what was once the power conference in the East. Defending champion Kean was upset at home by Albright (MAC) and wasn’t competitive at No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor (ASC). Cortland State gave up 706 yards in a loss to departed NJAC member Buffalo State, Montclair lost to Salve Regina (NEFC) and Western Connecticut State’s overall losing streak reached 24 games. Brockport State has been a pleasant surprise. The good news is that the parity at the top of the conference should make each week in the NJAC a blast, now that conference round-robin play is underway.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 9th
High- and low-water marks: Eighth in 2010; 16th in 2008.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 10.78
Non-conference record to date: 10-14
Verdict: It hasn’t been a great opening month for the IIAC, who’s seen its teams fall to the best from the CCIW (Wheaton, Elmhurst), MIAC (Bethel), WIAC (UW-Plattevile, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Stevens Point) and even the MIAA (Albion). Buena Vista’s had the second-toughest schedule in the country to date, as UW-Platteville, Concordia-Moorhead and Bethel each remain unbeaten.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 11th
High- and low-water marks: Seventh in 2002-05; 15th in 2008.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 9.28
Non-conference record: 4-6
Verdict: Back up to a full 10 teams with Misericordia and Stevenson adding football and joining, their complete non-conference experience was the 9-on-9 MAC-NJAC challenge, and Stevenson’s loss to Shenandoah. Albright (Kean) and Lebanon Valley (Montclair State) scored impressive wins, but Widener (Western Conn. State) and Wilkes (Morrisville State) were the others.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 19th
High- and low-water marks: 11th in 2008; 19th in 2006.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 14.76
Non-conference record: 7-3
Verdict: Best non-conference wins are Washington & Lee and Randolph-Macon. Toughest losses are Hobart (LL) and Ithaca (E8). With a solid performance in limited action against other Mid-Atlantic conferences, the CC moves up a few spots. They are also the first conference in the middle pack of them, where quality of teams tends to be indistinguishable.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 15th
High- and low-water marks: 14th in 2008; 26th in 2002.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 18.28
Non-conference record to date: 9-7
Verdict: With just four teams, each teams influence on the conference’s strength is greater than in most conferences. In years when Case Western Reserve or Carnegie Mellon (off to a 4-0 start) has been playoff-worthy, that’s helped. But the UAA’s overall ranking is also helped by the fact that all four members usually post respectable finishes; Wash U. and Chicago are capable of winning seasons most years. The Bears are 1-3 out of the gate, but they scheduled UW-Whitewater, Coe and Wabash non-conference. Carnegie Mellon’s win over Catholic is all we have to go off of in comparing the UAA with the ODAC.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 13th
High- and low-water marks: Ninth in 2002; 19th in 2007.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 14.21
Non-conference record to date: 15-7
Verdict: As always with the ODAC, you have to examine how much of their non-conference record comes against the USAC. In 11 games, ODAC teams are 9-2. Also went 1-2 vs. CC and 2-0 vs. PAC. In high-profile games, Hampden-Sydney lost at home to Huntingdon and Randolph-Macon was beaten well in the opener against Johns Hopkins. Given those facts and the lack of recent playoff success, the ODAC ranks right in the middle. It is more even top to bottom than most conferences, the parity makes it fun to watch each year. But it’s hard to rank very high because of the lack of a single dominant team, which is what it had in Bridgewater back when it hit ninth in ATN’s 2002 conference ranking.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 10th
High- and low-water marks: 10th in 2012; 25th in 2002.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 18.5
Non-conference record to date: 2-12
Verdict: It’s a quick fall from grace for the conference the finally earned respect, with its top teams hanging in and occasionally beating the best of the West, and sending two teams to the playoffs last season. Chapman joined this year, but with Occidental on the downswing, the SCIAC still isn’t very deep. Cal Lutheran and Redlands are the title contenders, and so far the Bulldogs have struggled. The two non-conference wins are Whittier at Puget Sound (NWC) and Cal Lutheran over Pacific Lutheran (NWC). The conference is even 0-3 against former D-III member Menlo, now NAIA.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 12th
High- and low-water marks: Tenth in 2006; 19th in 2011.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 13.35
Non-conference record to date: 11-11
Verdict: Hobart picked up where it left off in last season’s playoffs, surging into the top 25 with convincing wins. But overall, the LL is 2-5 vs. the E8, 1-1 vs. the CC, 2-0 vs. the PAC, 2-3 vs. the NEFC and 4-2 vs. the ECFC. Springfield, which joined from the Empire 8, isn’t the team it was a few years ago, and lost its opener to Bridgewater State (NEFC). St. Lawrence, conference champion in 2010, scored just three TDs in its first three games. The LL has perhaps the most wild swings of any conference, capable of being in the top ten or bottom handful. It looks more like a down year for the conference, but RPI and Hobart combined to go 5-0 against non-LL teams.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 14th
High- and low-water marks: Twelfth in 2002; 22nd in 2009.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 17.21
Non-conference record to date: 6-8
Verdict: The question here is always ‘can anyone besides Wabash and Wittenberg compete?’ With a 1-5 non-conference record vs. the UAA but 3-1 vs. the HCAC, there are clear answers. The biggest September result is an in-conference upset, Allegheny beating Wabash. The other big question with the NCAC is that no matter how strong its top teams get, there’s always the matter of Hiram, Kenyon and Oberlin at the bottom. Those three teams are responsible for five of the eight non-conference losses to date, including three shutouts, but both Kenyon and Oberlin have contributed a win (against Earlham) as well.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 18th
High- and low-water marks: 20th in 2002; 10th in 2004.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 14.76
Non-conference record to date: 5-9
Verdict: The PAC has an odd non-conference profile: Games against the SAA, ODAC, UAA, HCAC, NCAC, E8, USAC, LL, CC and OAC, but no more than three contests against any single one. The PAC’s big moments so far are twice pushing Empire 8 contender St. John Fisher to the brink. Thomas More and Washington & Jefferson pulling out those wins might have made the conference’s rank a little different. Shaded behind the NCAC, which it went 1-1 against (St. Vincent lost to Wooster, but Westminster beat Hiram), because the North Coast’s top two are stronger right now.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 22nd
High- and low-water marks: 13th in 2006; 23rd in 2010.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 18
Non-conference record to date: 6-17
Verdict: It’s not just that the conference performs poorly in non-conference win-loss results. It’s the level of competitiveness; each loss is by 10 points or more. And for every sign of encouragement, like N.C. Wesleyan’s 16-13 win against the OAC’s Ohio Northern, there’s a sign of discouragement, like the Battling Bishops’ 69-6 loss to top-10 Salisbury. Until the USAC can get back to the times when it would split most games with the ODAC, which poached Shenandoah this season and has won nine of 11 head-to-head games, the ranking will lag. Adding Huntingdon next season will likely help raise the level.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 17th
High- and low-water marks: 17th in 2002, 2012; 23rd in 2007-08.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 20.76
Non-conference record: 2-8
Verdict: The wins are Illinois College, looking like the pride of the conference this season, against Hanover (HCAC) and Carroll over Lakeland (NATHC). Everyone else took it on the chin, and by that we mean Monmouth’s 33-3 loss to Coe (IIAC), St. Norbert’s 40-3 loss to John Carroll (OAC), Ripon’s 31-0 loss to Wisconsin Lutheran (NATHC) and Knox giving up an NCAA-record 736 passing yards to Eureka’s Sam Durley. These are not strong statements in favor of the MWC, which picked up Cornell this year from the IIAC. The MWC champ won a playoff game against the CCIW last season (it also got an at-large bid). It remains to be seen if that was the function of one exceptional player lifting a pretty good team, or if MWC champions are threats to knock other playoff teams off on a regular basis.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 24th
High- and low-water marks: 24th in 2012; 27th in 2008.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 25.14
Non-conference record to date: 10-14
Verdict: Rise in the rankings attributed almost solely to a 6-2 mark against the MIAA, which has a 5-0 mark against the HCAC. And it’s from the bottom (Rockford over Olivet) to the top (Benedictine over Albion). The NathCon, along with the UMAC and ECFC, has never had a team win a playoff game. Until then, the respect meter will only go so high. Still, this September has been a step in the right direction.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 20th
High- and low-water marks: 18th in 2002 and 2011; 24th in 2009.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 20.71
Non-conference record to date: 11-16
Verdict: MIAA teams tend to schedule aggressively, although that might be a function of geography as much as anything. Still, the conference’s respect level would skyrocket if it put up more results like Albion’s 22-21 upset of Wheaton this month. Unfortunately, there’s also a 70-9 UW-Oshkosh win against Alma to contrast with. In other marquee matchups, Trine lost to Elmhurst, Hope lost to Illinois Wesleyan, Kalamazoo lost to Centre and Adrian lost to Carthage, so the entire conference owns a piece of this ranking. In fact, among the D-III results, the MIAA has gone 2-6 vs. both the CCIW and NathCon, and 5-0 vs. the HCAC.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 26th
High- and low-water marks: 25th in ATN 2010; 27th in Kickoff ’10.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 25.8
Non-conference record to date: 11-10
Verdict: Earns its highest ranking after a 7-3 mark in crossover play against the NEFC. The ECFC is composed almost entirely of programs with no history earlier than 1999, so these signs of growth are good ones. Norwich, SUNY-Maritime and Gallaudet have begun to balance out the effect of the teams at the bottom of the conference like Husson. And with both Becker (Fitchburg State) and Anna Maria (Maine Maritime) beating NEFC opponents, the ECFC staked a claim to best playoff-eligible conference composed mostly of New England teams.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 23rd
High- and low-water marks: 23rd in 2012; 25th, several times.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 24.07
Non-conference record to date: 7-9
Verdict: Salve Regina beat Montclair State (NJAC) and Union (LL), which is a nice accomplishment. The Seahawks could not have scored those wins without taking the scheduling risk, which most NEFC teams either can’t afford or won’t do. And so the conference, which went 3-2 vs. the LL, 3-7 vs. the ECFC and 1-0 vs. the NJAC, languishes. With 16 teams, it needs to have more than just Salve’s feather to put in its cap. Bridgewater State beating Springfield was also noteworthy, especially given that the Pride have since won three straight. Yet the NEFC also lost key games, like Coast Guard falling to rival Merchant Marine and Western New England being edged by Norwich. The NEFC had been doing the rest of D-III a favor by taking only one of the playoff spots it’s theoretically entitled to based on its size. Next season, when the conference splits in two, and in 2015 when the eight departing schools plus Western Connecticut get their AQ in the MASCAC, it’ll be another opportunity for these schools to prove they can compete nationally. Unless it comes one more team that consistently gets beaten, if not blown out, in the first round.


Kickoff '12 ranking: 21st
High- and low-water marks: 18th in 2009; 22nd, several times.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 20.71
Non-conference record to date: 2-15
Verdict: The presence of Franklin, which scheduled Mount Union and has become a perennial top 25 team under Mike Leonard, keeps the conference out of the basement. After that though, there’s no defending a 2-15 mark in non-conference play. It’s as simple as that. The wins are Bluffton against Kenyon and Mt. St. Joseph against Wilmington (29 consecutive losses and just let coach go).


Kickoff '12 ranking: 25th
High- and low-water marks: 25th in 2012; 27th in 2008.
Average ranking, 2002-'12: 26.1
Non-conference record to date: 4-9
Verdict: Gave up at least 47 points in eight of the 13 non-conference games, including Crown’s 53-6 loss to independent Macalester, Northwestern’s 52-7 loss to St. John’s and MacMurray’s 73-0 loss to Wartburg. St. Scholastica was respectable in a two-touchdown defeat against Whitworth (NWC). The wins are against Knox, Rockford, Maranatha Baptist and Haskell Indian Nations. The conference as a whole will have better times than this past month.

On the NESCAC and Independents: The NESCAC, which does not participate in non-conference games, is not ranked, nor are the six independents. ATN believes the level of talent in the NESCAC compares to the Liberty League, Centennial, North Coast, UAA and SCIAC, but without any non-conference games, it’s impossible to slot them based on anything but a guess. The independents, because they are not a conference, can’t be ranked. But as a group, Wesley, Huntingdon, Trinity, Austin, Macalester and Presentation cover the gamut – their preseason rankings in Kickoff ‘12’s run from the Top 25 to the Bottom 25.

> Don’t like where your team landed? Got a disagreement with a factual basis? Head on over to the ATN thread on D3boards, and discuss the rankings with D-III’s most knowledgeable fans.

Three takes on Week 5

Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I combed through this week’s slate of games and found the teams most likely to salvage bad seasons, the undefeated teams most like to pick up their third losses, top 25 teams most likely to be upset and the predators to watch. Yes, predators. All in this week’s batch of predictions, the Triple Take.

Five ways to Saturday

If you’re missing the conversation, especially on game days, you’re missing the best ATN and have to offer, and you’ll end out of the loop. Here’s how you can keep up.

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, @kylerobarts, @BLester1993 and several others are also worth a follow.

• 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.

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