October 20, 2013

Snap judgments: Cycling up

Jamie Owen leads Maryville in tackles for loss and sacks, helping them sit in first place in the USA South.
Maryville athletics photo

Of the teams that started the season ranked in the top 5, three of them are splitting the first-place votes, and could not have looked much better. On Saturday, the other two each picked up their second loss.

Perhaps in D-III we've been spoiled by watching dominant teams do it year in and year out, as though it's easy. It never has been, and the fact it still isn't might be best illustrated by Stagg Bowl runner-up St. Thomas. The No. 2 team in the country last year is now in fifth place in the MIAC, at 4-2, 2-2. The MIAC is an elite conference capable of producing a national champion, and the Tommies might not be a much worse team than they were last season. They lost two close games, catching a pass interference penalty on third-and-6 to set up Bethel's winning score, and hooking a game-winning field goal attempt in a loss to St. John's.

Suddenly the playoffs look like a long shot for the Tommies. With Bethel out in front in the MIAC and St. John's in second place (the teams meet Nov. 16 in Collegeville), and only five Pool C bids available this season for runners up in automatic qualifier conferences, St. Thomas's chances are slim.

The WIAC, OAC and CCIW each have three 6-0 teams at the moment, while the NWC has two unbeatens and a 5-1 PLU team whose only loss is to Linfield. Those conferences could eat up four of the five Pool C bids, if not more. The Empire 8, with Salisbury, St. John Fisher and Ithaca, could claim the fifth.

The reason there are fewer Pool C bids than usual is because of Pool B's growth. The number of bids set aside for non-AQ leagues should rise to three this year, with the advent of the SAA and MASCAC, among other leagues. It used to be you could pencil in Wesley for a spot, but the Wolverines' loss to Rowan puts Wesley's streak of playoff appearances (guessing every year since 2005, without looking it up) in jeopardy.

If Pool B's three playoff teams were named today, unbeaten Texas Lutheran and Millsaps would have inside tracks on bids. Centre, Rhodes, Chicago and Framingham State are all 5-1 and would, in theory, be up for the third spot before Wesley. The Wolverines' schedule contains only six D-III opponents, so with losses to UMHB and Rowan, they're going to be in trouble in primary criteria for the selection committee, although their strength of schedule figure will remain one of the country's strongest.

Other quick, unresearched observations (a.k.a. snap judgments) that popped into my head regarding Saturday's results:

• Always interesting to see new teams cycle up and enjoy some success. Maryville's win over Christopher Newport left it alone in first place in the USAC, and I can't remember the last time we said that this late in a season. The run-heavy Scots could have a big showdown Nov. 16 with pass-happy Huntingdon, though they lost to LaGrange, 44-40, on Saturday means.

• TCNJ also sits alone atop a conference, which would not have been many folks' first guess at the beginning of the month, much less the season. But a team that started the season with losses to Ursinus and FDU-Florham and has won four straight, none by more than five points, is currently in the driver's seat. Not bad for all that offseason upheaval.

• Husson at Gallaudet on Saturday, among the unlikely showdowns for first place. The Eagles had three wins the past three seasons but already have four this year.

• Mississippi College started the year with bad losses to Millsaps and Huntingdon, but is currently tied atop the ASC. I don't think they're really a first-place contender -- Louisiana College and UMHB are their final two games. But they have won three straight after starting with three losses, which is a nice turnaround.

• We've talked a bunch about the John Carroll defense, and they've still allowed only 23 points all year. But UW-Whitewater isn't far behind, and even though we don't think of UW-W and UMU as the dominant two anymore, they could meet again in Salem. At least if UW-W keeps playing defense the way they are. There's a lot to come before that, starting with UW-Oshkosh on the road on Saturday.

• The 26th is shaping up to be a day of showdowns all over. Everyone from ranked teams, like Illinois Wesleyan and Wheaton, and off-the-radar battles like Guilford and Randolph-Macon will make next Saturday perhaps the best of the year so far. (Isn't next Saturday always the best?)

• Adrian moved to 6-1, and their loss to Pacific, which fell to 5-1 with a one-point loss to No. 17 PLU, doesn't look so bad anymore.

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