October 3, 2013

Re-ranking the conferences

UW-River Falls is often our poster child for the strength of the WIAC. The Falcons are often the worst team in the conference yet have been competitive with teams in the middle to upper tiers of other conferences.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

The beginning of October brings along with it the last handful of teams in automatic qualifier conferences (seven teams or more, established for two or more years) who have to yet to begin league play. And with non-conference games mostly in the books, it’s also time for an annual ATN staple: revisiting Kickoff’s exclusive conference rankings.

In our preseason preview edition this August, we looked at how each of the 29 conferences and independents compared. After a month of crossover play, the new data changes some perceptions, especially in the middle group of Division III conferences where not much separates them.

Pat Coleman and I based the preseason ranking on subjective factors, but we also threw a forward-looking, math-based twist in. We averaged each conference’s teams’ ranking in the 1-244 from Kickoff, and let that influence the order. This time around, it’s just me and subjectivity. I crunch the numbers to back up each ranking, of course, and now that we have comments, feel free to disagree below. Maybe you see something I don't.

One thing that won’t change is the exclusion of a ranking for the NESCAC. With no non-conference games, there’s no result-based basis for comparision, although if there were, they’d fall in close to where the SCIAC, UAA and Liberty League are. There are also five independents this season (Wesley, Southern Virginia, Macalester, Alfred State and Maranatha Baptist) who aren’t reflected in these rankings.

Before I unveil the no-surprise-here No. 1 conference, here are a couple references: Last year's end-of-September re-rank, and a table I compiled then with every conference ranking in D3football.com history shown. 

1. WISCONSIN INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (WIAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 1st of 28 conferences ranked
Non-conference record: 13-11
Most telling result: Pacific Lutheran 21, UW-Eau Claire 19.
Verdict: We gave knocking the WIAC from No. 1 some thought, with UW-Whitewater no longer the defending champion, and with three teams going 0-3 in non-conference play. But look who WIAC teams face: No. 4 North Central three times, No. 6 St. Thomas twice, No. 10 Pacific Lutheran, Division II Missouri S&T, defending NAIA champ Marian. St. John’s twice, Dubuque twice, Central. In short, even going a shade over.500 against the best the rest of the nation has to offer says a lot. When an 0-3 team loses by two to the No. 10 team in the country, it’s a league with serious depth. So even though the WIAC has come closer to the pack, and the gap between it and some of the other top conference isn’t what it was at the height of the Warhawks’ power, nobody put together a compelling enough set of results against a strong enough schedule to vault into the No. 1 spot.

2. MINNESOTA INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (MIAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 3rd
Non-conference record: 13-1
Most telling results: St. John’s 17, UW-Eau Claire 14; Bethel 30, Wartburg 17.
Verdict: The record against non-MIAC teams is outstanding, enough for No. 1-spot consideration, but it’s also a bit misleading. Even while going 3-0 against the WIAC and 4-1 against the IIAC, the non-conference matchups are often top programs against lower-tier programs from other conferences. St. Thomas beating UW-River Falls is a matchup of the best MIAC program vs. the worst in the WIAC, so it doesn’t tell us much about relative strength. With two programs among the first six in the top 25, and two more receiving votes, there is strength at the top. Put together with 13-1, and there’s depth throughout.

3. NORTHWEST CONFERENCE (NWC)

Pacific's 3-0 September was kick-started by a win far on the road.
Photo by Eric Kelley, d3photography.com 

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 4th
Non-conference record: 15-6
Most telling results: Pacific Lutheran 31, Cal Lutheran 24; Pacific 20, Adrian 10
Verdict: The NWC, by virtue of its geographic isolation and seven-team size, give us a lot to work with, almost all of it good. The NWC’s record features quite a few wins over upper-tier teams from other conferences: No. 10 PLU and No. 2 Linfield over CLU, PLU over Redlands, Pacific over Adrian, Whitworth over St. Scholastica. Willamette beat Hardin-Simmons by 30 and East Texas Baptist by 20. Whitworth’s losses to LaVerne and Chapman are offset a bit by Puget Sound beating Chapman, in the NWC-SCIAC faceoff. Similarly, Lewis & Clark’s coast-to-coast struggles are offset by the rise of Pacific, one of four 3-0 teams.

4. OHIO ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (OAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 2nd
Non-conference record: 5-5
Most telling result: St. John Fisher 28, Otterbein 0
Verdict: It’s the same old story in the OAC: Mount Union and whoever makes the top half of the conference is strong, and the bottom half is very shaky. In a 10-team conference, nine league games are built in, so there’s only one non-conference result for each team. That leaves us little to work with, besides history. But what there is to work with, paints a confusing picture – Otterbein and Capital with shutout losses to top teams from the Empire 8 and PAC, John Carroll and Heidelberg with blowout wins, and Mount Union needing a fourth-quarter drive to beat perennial HCAC champ Franklin, 30-27. The OAC used to have a trump card – occasional NFL talent, and coming out of Ohio Northern, Heidelberg and John Carroll, not just Mount Union. But even that seemed to vanish last season.

5. EMPIRE 8 CONFERENCE (E8)

Tyler Fenti and St. John Fisher had no trouble holding off Otterbein in Week 1.
Photo by Eric Kelley, d3photography.com 

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 7th
Non-conference record: 16-7
Most telling results: St. John Fisher 33, Cortland State 25; Christopher Newport 17, Salisbury 10.
Verdict: All but one game played to date has been non-conference, and it’s a pretty wide swath. E8 teams have faced off against the WIAC, NWC, OAC and UAA among 11 conferences, but the most impressive part is what gives the conference East Coast supremacy. Empire 8 teams have gone 6-0 against the NJAC, with upper-, middle- and lower-tier wins (SJFC over Cortland State, Buffalo State over Brockport State as well as Hartwick over Morrisville State). Salisbury lost to CNU but nearly beat Wesley, and the conference is just 1-2 against the PAC and 2-2 vs. the LL.

6. COLLEGE CONFERENCE OF ILLINOIS AND WISCONSIN (CCIW)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 5th
Non-conference record: 14-10
Most telling results: Trine 16, Elmhurst 7; Central 38, Augustana 13
Verdict: Four teams with winning records and four games over .500 is actually a down season compared to what the CCIW, which starts conference play Saturday, normally does non-conference. Going 3-2 vs. the IIAC and 3-5 vs. the MIAA shows that the CCIW doesn’t have its normal overall depth, but North Central went 3-0 by itself against WIAC teams. While the Cardinals chose to schedule up, Wheaton – perhaps tired of going 8-2 and missing the postseason – beat Benedictine, Albion and Luther by a combined 152-39 without going more than 10 miles from campus. Elmhurst, after an offseason of losses, is 1-2 and struggling as expected. Illinois Wesleyan’s 14-7 home win against Hope either says a lot about what the 3-1 Flying Dutchmen have this season, or it says the CCIW isn’t matching its usual standard of play.

7. AMERICAN SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE (ASC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 6th
Non-conference record: 10-11
Most telling result: Huntingdon 34, Louisiana College 27
Verdict: With only one conference game played to date, the down-to-seven-teams ASC has compiled a lot to judge by. But separate out national No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor, which thumped Redlands, Kean and Wesley, and the results aren’t that great. The ASC is missing a convincing No. 2, following Huntingdon’s wins over LC and Mississippi College, and Hardin-Simmons’s losses to Willamette and Linfield by a total of 80 points. The teams that could fill the void, such as Howard Payne (47-29 vs. Trinity) and East Texas Baptist (45-25 vs. Willamette) have bad losses as well.

8. LIBERTY LEAGUE (LL)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 9th
Non-conference record: 15-6
Most telling results: RPI 24, Alfred 21; Springfield 49, Western New England 40
Verdict: The Liberty League went 6-0 in Week 1 and 11-2 the first two weeks before beginning conference play last weekend. The keys have been a 6-2 mark against the ECFC and a 4-1 record against the NEFC, but the truth is undeniable. Union (0-3) is the only sub-.500 team in the conference, and five teams exited September with three wins.

9. OLD DOMINION ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (ODAC)

Willie Logan has led Bridgewater to an unbeaten start but against little competition.
Photo by Peggy Erwin, d3photography.com 

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 10th
Non-conference record: 17-7
Most telling result: Washington & Lee 14, Franklin & Marshall 13; Shenandoah 43, Ferrum 29.
Verdict: The ODAC, which begins conference play this week, is most often matched up against the USA South and the Centennial. Depsite Christopher Newport’s 17-7 win over Hampden-Sydney, the ODAC went 9-4 against the USAC and 2-1 against the CC, with the blemish Johns Hopkins’ 38-14 win over Randolph-Macon. With three teams at 3-0 and three more at 2-1 in the non-conference slate, the ODAC is likely to maintain its reputation as the most competitive and difficult-to-predict conference in D-III.

10. MIDDLE ATLANTIC CONFERENCE (MAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 13th
Non-conference record: 7-3
Most telling result: Brockport State 30, Lycoming 2.
Verdict: The bulk of the non-conference wins came in the MAC-NJAC challenge, in which the conference went 5-2. But the MAC’s top teams split, with Delaware Valley beating Rowan and Albright beating Kean, but Lycoming losing badly against Brockport State and Widener giving up 644 yards to Wesley. Lycoming beat Widener last week and hosts Del Val on Saturday. If the Warriors take the lead, that’s good for them and bad for the conference’s reputation, given the Brockport result. But the MAC does have a solid middle with Stevenson and Lebanon Valley in the mix at 3-1, 2-1.

11. NEW JERSEY ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (NJAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 8th
Non-conference record: 8-14
Most telling result:
Verdict: With Buffalo State and Western Connecticut gone, it’s a tighter eight-team conference now. But it’s also one in a down cycle. Rowan (2-1) is the only team above .500 or with fewer than two losses, which means anyone besides the Profs would likely have to sweep the conference to get top 25 consideration and win it to make the playoffs. Though NJAC teams have gone 3-1 against upper-tier teams from New England, it’s their 2-5 record in the MAC-NJAC challenge and 0-6 mark against the Empire 8 that sunk their ranking.

12. CENTENNIAL CONFERENCE (CC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 11th
Non-conference record: 5-5
Most telling result: Ursinus 28, TCNJ 20.
Verdict: The CC has grown into its shoes as a 10-team conference, and as such, is into conference play by Sept. 14. At exactly .500, beating teams from the NJAC, MAC, PAC and ODAC, and going 0-2 vs. the LL, the Centennial is right about where it normally is. No. 16 Johns Hopkins is the standard-bearer, and doesn’t play 4-0 Ursinus until Nov. 2.

13. IOWA INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (IIAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 12th
Non-conference record: 12-12
Most telling results: UW-Oshkosh 24, Central 20; Dubuque 35, UW-La Crosse 24.
Verdict: Conference play begins Saturday, and it does so with a clear split. The top four teams (3-0 Coe and 2-1 Central, Simpson and Wartburg) combined to go 9-3 out of conference, and the bottom four (1-2 Dubuque, Luther and Loras, and 0-3 Buena Vista) went 3-9. But Iowa gets a boost for who its 12-12 record came against: Two games each against No. 5 Bethel and No. 9 UW-Platteville, one against No. 8 UW-Oshkosh (in which the Titans needed to rally to beat Central) and one against No. 15 Wheaton. Sure, Luther lost to former D-III member Presentation and Coe squeaked past Monmouth,  but Dubuque’s only win is at La Crosse. Overall, the IIAC went 2-3 vs. both the WIAC and CCIW, and 1-4 vs. the MIAC.

14. UNIVERSITY ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION (UAA)

When Wash U has been successful this season, it's been on defense.
Photo by Darryl Tessmann, d3photography.com 

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 15th
Non-conference record: 9-7
Most telling results: UW-Whitewater 17, Wash U. 7; Chicago 10, Elmhurst 0.
Verdict: A premier eight-team conference in some sports, the UAA is a football oddball. Rochester plays its football in the Liberty League to stay closer to home, and Brandeis, Emory and NYU don’t play at all. That leaves a four-team conference hungry for games. The UAA’s scheduling agreement with the NCAC expired, and Case Western Reserve and Carnegie Mellon don’t join the PAC until 2014. Wash. U. and Chicago join the SAA as affiliates in 2015. Meantime, UAA teams are traveling to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Washington D.C. and Maryland for games, while CWRU had the lovely opportunity this past Saturday to host a D-III power from Oregon. In all, it’s a respectable start when you consider that 4-0 Chicago has faced two 2012 playoff teams, Wash. U. has played No. 12 UW-Whitewater and No. 20 Coe, and CWRU has played No. 2 Linfield.

15. USA SOUTH ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (USAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 17th
Non-conference record: 11-14
Most telling results: Christopher Newport 17, Salisbury 10; Huntingdon 34, Lousiana College 27.
Verdict: Quite the dichotomy here. CNU has beaten perhaps the best program in both the Empire 8 and ODAC. Huntingdon, new to the conference and not scheduled to play CNU this year, has scored two wins over ASC teams. Take away the Hawks and Captains’ five non-conference wins, and the other seven USAC teams are winning at a .300 clip (6-14). So while on one hand the USAC should move up for having its top teams beat other top teams, as a whole the conference is still 4-9 against the ODAC, so there’s a limit on how high it can rise.

16. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (SCIAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 18th
Non-conference record: 5-11
Most telling result: MIT 28, Pomona-Pitzer 26; Pacific Lutheran 31, Cal Lutheran 24.
Verdict: The SCIAC, which begins conference play Saturday, is below .500 non-conference. But had its two best teams, Cal Lutheran and Redlands, scheduled patsies or “like institutions” (like, say the PAC or NCAC), their 0-2 records could be flipped and the conference as a whole would be 9-7. Instead, CLU played No. 2 Linfield and No. 10 PLU, and Redlands played No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor and PLU. So instead of punishing their ambition, we should recognize it. Below the SCIAC’s top two, there are some cross-conference results of interest: Occidental hosting and beating the SCAC’s Austin, the SAA’s Rhodes winning at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and LaVerne defeating the NWC’s Whitworth. Overall, the SCIAC went 4-6 against the NWC, nearly snatching the West Coast title.

17. SOUTHERN ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION (SAA)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 19th
Non-conference record: 13-8
Most telling results: Centre 37, Washington & Lee 28; W&L 35, Sewanee 24.
Verdict: The SAA and its precursor, the SCAC, has been as high as eighth and as low as 19th. With two brand new programs, in Hendrix and Berry, the conference could be in a worse position. But four teams won three games in September, and even though Birmingham Southern got run out of its own stadium in a 37-point opening quarter from Wesley, the other core members have been competitive. Sewanee rushed for 375 yards in a 34-21 loss at Willamette, for instance.

18. MICHIGAN INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION (MIAA)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 20th
Non-conference record: 17-11
Most telling results: Ilinois Wesleyan 14, Hope 7; Trine 47, Concordia (Wis.) 41.
Verdict: This is the best start in years for the MIAA, even better when you consider that the 17-11 record includes 0-4 from Alma, who has lost to No. 8 UW-Oshkosh, No. 13 Heidelberg and just-outside-the-top-25 Illinois Wesleyan. The MIAA transitions into three conference games a week and one team on bye starting this Saturday. Its teams went 5-0 against the HCAC, 6-2 against the NACC – all but one of those games coming in the Sept. 21 MIAA-NACC challenge – and 5-3 against the CCIW.

19. PRESIDENTS’ ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (PAC)

Washington and Jefferson looks like it might be bouncing back a little bit in 2013.
Photo by Eric Kelley, d3photography.com 

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 14th
Non-conference record: 6-8
Most telling results: Hiram 23, Westminster 19; Rochester 28, Thiel 27.
Verdict: There’s a decent top three with Thomas More, Washington and Jefferson and Waynesburg. Geneva looked promising after three home wins, but lost at Carnegie Mellon, which has four PAC teams on its schedule, this past Saturday. In all, a 2-0 mark vs. the OAC and a 2-1 vs. the Empire 8 looks nice. But when you look more closely, the PAC’s non-conference wins are against Frostburg State (twice), Capital, Muskingum, Carnegie Mellon and Wooster, which will land a nine-team conference here.

20. NORTH COAST ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (NCAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 16th
Non-conference record: 5-5
Most telling results: Butler 49, Wittenberg 24; Sewanee 10, DePauw 7.
Verdict: The conference is still Wabash and Wittenberg at the top, and as Ohio Wesleyan, Kenyon and Denison have risen, Allegheny (0-4 and outscored 148-14) and DePauw (0-3 and 83-33) have fallen. There’s not a lot to compare in the non-conference schedule, but the wins are against Bluffton, Earlham, Hanover, Case Western Reserve and Westminster (Pa.). The losses to Sewanee, Earlham and Carnegie Mellon don’t help much either. Wooster scheduled W&J but lost 58-21, and Wittenberg scheduled FCS program Butler and lost big as well.

21. MASSACHUSETTS STATE COLLEGE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (MASCAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 26th
Non-conference record: 10-6
Most telling result: Framingham State 14, Western Connecticut 12
Verdict: The MASCAC has clearly gotten the better of the 16-team NEFC’s split into two, with a 5-2 mark against the NEFC this season. The conference is 3-3 against the ECFC as well. But perhaps the most telling measure of conference strength is that Western Connecticut, 1-28 the past three seasons as a member of the NJAC, comes in and wins its first two games (against the NEFC’s Nichols and MASCAC’s Plymouth State) by a combined 79-10, then goes toe-to-toe with the top team in the conference, losing by two to the Rams this past Saturday.

22. SOUTHERN COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (SCAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 22nd
Non-conference record: 3-7
Most telling result: Rhodes 24, Austin 21, OT.
Verdict: The only surprise in a conference made up of a brand new team, two perennial also-rans and a fading power is that it’s 2-0 Texas Lutheran out in front, by virtue of an early 42-38 win against Trinity.

Not scoring against John Carroll isn't exactly the end of the world for St. Norbert.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com 

23. MIDWEST CONFERENCE (MWC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 25th
Non-conference record: 4-6
Most telling result: None.
Verdict: As an 11-team conference set to become 12 when Macalester joins as a football affiliate next season, there’s only one week for teams to test themselves outside the MWC. The results are all over the board, with Illinois College winning by 36, St. Norbert losing 41-0 to John Carroll and Lawrence playing 10 MWC opponents and not even getting a game outside the conference. Basically, the conference’s good teams won or lost to teams we expect to be better, and the not-so-good teams lost. Not sure non-conference play told us much at all about this year’s MWC, but when 4-0 Lake Forest goes to 3-0 Illinois College on Oct. 12, we’ll have an idea who the MWC playoff representative could be.

24. NEW ENGLAND FOOTBALL CONFERENCE (NEFC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 24th
Non-conference record: 5-13
Most telling result: Framingham State 35, Endicott 23
Verdict: The private-school half of the NEFC split is off to a slow start, but it could be just because it lacks a dominant team this year. The schedules have opened up, and they’re improved – Hampden-Sydney, Montclair State and Springfield were all early opponents. But NEFC teams went 2-5 against the MASCAC, 0-5 vs. the LL and 2-1 vs. the ECFC. 

25. NORTHERN ATHLETICS COLLEGIATE CONFERENCE (NACC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 21st
Non-conference record: 4-15
Most telling result: Olivet 14, Wisconsin Lutheran 10.
Verdict: The 4-15 should say it all, especially since it no longer includes Maranatha Baptist, who plays a NACC team each week from here on out but is an independent. The 2-6 record against the MIAA doesn’t help, and neither did the 0-7 Week 1, in which five teams gave up at least 45 points and only one managed to keep the margin within a touchdown and two-point conversion.

26. HEARTLAND COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (HCAC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 23rd
Non-conference record: 1-16
Most telling result: Illinois College 49, Hanover 13.
Verdict: Well, 1-16 should also say it all. As close as Franklin came to winning at Mount Union in Week 1, the rest of the conference is far from successful when they aren’t playing each other. The HCAC, which is two weeks into conference play, went 0-9 non-conference in Week 1. It was also 0-5 vs. the MIAA and 1-4 vs. the NCAC.

27. EASTERN COLLEGIATE FOOTBALL CONFERENCE (ECFC)

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 27th
Non-conference record: 9-15
Most telling result: RPI 23, Castleton State 8
Verdict: Well, uh, Gallaudet is off to a nice start. The Bison are 3-0, six teams are 1-2 and SUNY-Maritime is 0-3. Bad losses to lower-tier teams from other conferences -- Hartwick’s 33-7 win over Husson, Catholic’s 49-0 win over Anna Maria and William Paterson’s 49-23 win over SUNY-Maritime -- tell us what we need to know.

28. UPPER MIDWEST ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (UMAC)

 

Kickoff ’13 ranking: 28th
Non-conference record: 2-8
Most telling result: Hendrix 46, Westminster (Mo.) 44; Hamline 41, Minn.-Morris 33
Verdict: Week 1 is the UMAC’s only non-conference week. Greenville beat Millikin, but the Blue Jays lost to a team playing its first game since reviving its program, and the Cougars lost to a MIAC team that had won two of its past 30. And Martin Luther lost to Maranatha Baptist, which had gone 0-10 three times in five years. In short, there’s still a long way to go for the UMAC as a whole to be a competitive group top to bottom.

Crown opened a new stadium, which could help the program raise its profile.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com 

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