March 3, 2014

Analyzing the NJAC and E8's big moves

Christopher Newport, which has been successful in the USA South, will likely find this new NJAC a bigger challenge.
CNU athletics photo by Jesse Hutchenson

That rumble Monday morning was a seismic shift in D-III's Eastern football landscape.

In 2012, Wesley, Salisbury, Rowan and Christopher Newport made the 32-team playoffs, the Wolverines as a powerhouse independent, and the others representing three different conferences.

In 2015, they’ll be competing for one automatic bid.

The move to combine five core New Jersey Athletic Conference schools with five Capital Athletic Conference affiliate members from Delaware, Maryland and Virginia under the NJAC banner creates a 10-team power conference in the mid-Atlantic. The corresponding move of Morrisville State to the Empire 8, the last of four state schools in New York to transition from the NJAC, makes the E8 a nine-team conference with just as much claim to the title of most powerful Eastern football league.

“Sometimes when these moves happen, they weaken one conference or the other,” said E8 commissioner Chuck Mitrano, who along with the NJAC’s Terry Small will preside over a lineup that better follows geographic logic. “This is a win-win.”

It’s a win not just for both conferences, but for D-III and for common sense. Of the 245 schools expected to be playing football in 2015, all but two will be in conferences, and all but six will have access to the playoffs via an automatic bid.

Still, it’s the new NJAC lineup that’s going to open eyes.

“I think [the NJAC] is going to be a great football conference,” said Mike Drass, the football coach and athletic director at Wesley, which like CNU, Salisbury, Frostburg State and Southern Virginia, is a member of the CAC in other sports. “You have the New Jersey teams who traditionally have been strong and real physical. You have the Capital teams who have been all over the place, but Salisbury’s had a lot of success, Christopher Newport’s had a lot of success.”

Outside of Mount Union and UW-Whitewater, nobody’s had more success than Wesley, which has advanced at least to the national quarterfinals seven times in the past eight seasons.

Wesley hasn’t lost more than three games in a season in a decade, but among those rare defeats are road games against Rowan in 2013 and Kean in 2011, and a home loss to Montclair State in 2007. All three will become Wesley's conference rivals.

The forces combining in the NJAC have quite a playoff pedigree. Wesley’s been a national power, Christopher Newport has won or shared nine USA South titles since 2001, Salisbury joined the Empire 8 in 2011 and won it in its first two go-rounds, and four of the New Jersey five – Rowan, Kean, Montclair State, TCNJ and William Paterson – have been to the playoffs since 2007.

Of the 10 schools who will be in the NJAC in 2015, four made the playoffs in 2012, 2011 and 2010. On the other side of the ledger, the Empire 8 remains the only conference to send three teams to the playoffs in a season, when Hartwick, St. John Fisher and Ithaca went in 2007.

Of the 19 schools that now make up the two conferences, nine have been to the playoffs in the past five years. It’s 11 if you go back to 2007, when TCNJ and Hartwick were in the field.

What’s more, in those nine teams’ 23 playoff appearances since 2009, they advanced out of the first round 19 times. They won multiple playoff games eight times – five by Wesley. And with three exceptions for losses to MAC teams, they always were bounced by one of the other nine teams – like when Kean lost 49-47 to Salisbury in three OTs in 2011 – or by a national power like Mount Union, UW-Whitewater, Mary Hardin-Baylor or St. Thomas.

D-III now has two Eastern power conferences capable of sending a team – or, quite possibly more than one – weeks into the postseason.

“I think both conferences are positioned very well to get two bids,” Mitrano said. “[The NJAC] might be a little more top heavy, and we might be a little more consistent throughout. It probably puts us back up to where we were when Ithaca was dominant.”

Buffalo State, which jumped from the NJAC to the E8 in 2012, immediately pulled off a nation-shocking win at UW-Whitewater two weeks into 2013. Brockport State, which makes the jump this season, was an eight-win team in 2013. So Mitrano has a point about the depth.

The Empire 8 announced earlier this offseason that Cortland would be joining its archrival Ithaca in the conference.
Cortland athletics photo by Darl Zehr Photography

Cortland State, which is headed to the Empire 8 in 2015, has represented the NJAC in the playoffs twice in the past four years. Salisbury, which is headed to the NJAC, has represented the E8 twice, and went in 2010 as a member of the now-defunct ACFC.

“Losing Salisbury,” Mitrano said, “it’s tough to replace a team of that quality. But you bring in Cortland, and there’s not much difference.”

Mitrano said the New York-based Empire 8 teams enjoyed having Salisbury as part of the conference, along with Frostburg State. It gave the E8 a competitive, playoff-caliber team to go against during the season, and a result – because the Sea Gulls played Wesley and others – that provided a good score to compare when it came time to hand out at-large (Pool C) playoff bids.

“They really liked playing Salisbury,” he said “… Part of the reason our teams have been so successful once they get in is that they were really well tested in the regular season.”

With the four SUNY schools – Morrisville, Brockport, Buffalo and Cortland – in the fold alongside St. John Fisher, Ithaca, Alfred, Hartwick and Utica, every game is an in-state rivalry clash. That’s good for buzz, attendance and recruiting. Plus, since Alfred picked up Rochester’s spot in the Courage Bowl against St. John Fisher last season, that and the annual Cortaca Jug clash become conference games.

The moves should help the travel budgets in the Empire 8, with no more trips to Maryland on the schedules. NJAC schools no longer have to travel to Rochester and Buffalo, but they’ll replace their upstate trips with jaunts deep into Virginia. According to Small, Southern Virginia is between 400 and 412 miles from Kean, Montclair State and William Paterson, and between 389 and 407 to Christopher Newport. Those will be overnight trips, but they wouldn’t even meet the 500-mile playoff flight threshold.

“It’s gonna be awkward for us,” said Drass, who is taking Delaware-based Wesley to California, Alabama and North Carolina for games in 2014, the Wolverines’ final season as an independent. “Terry Small did a mileage chart, and we’re the most centrally located team. We got a chuckle out of that.”

Wesley’s life as an independent had meant games in Indiana against DePauw, California against Menlo and in the deep south against Huntington, Birmingham-Southern, Louisiana College and next year’s opponent, NAIA Concordia-Selma.

In 2015, they’ll play nine NJAC games, and plan to keep the series with LC going. With a made schedule, Drass has no idea what he’ll do with all the free time in the offseason.

For Wesley, joining the NJAC means no more worrying about the Pool B picture, and no more dominating the strength of schedule playoff selection criterion. By keeping the LC game, it also means playing 10 D-III opponents.

“The schedule has been a major issue for us,” Drass said. Wesley has enjoyed playing up – the 2013 win over first-year scholarship program UNC Charlotte was particularly sweet – and has embraced its role as roving D-III mercenary. But the better the Wolverines got, the harder it got to get teams to fill those open dates.

Nine members leave the E8 with four conference games and an odd team out each week. That could mean late-season byes, or trouble finding non-conference games, especially now that everyone else is conferenced up.

Alfred State is a logical place to look to fill the 10th game, but it’s not yet safe to assume the former junior college that began its transition to D-III in 2013 will become the 10th E8 member.

“We’d like to be at 10,” Mitrano said. “We’d like it to be with the right institution. We’ll still be selective.”

Morrisville State, the newest Empire 8 member, made a similar transition from NJCAA to Division III beginning in 2006.

For the NJAC, the moves were necessary. When Cortland State in January announced that it would become the third New York school to defect to the E8, and following Western Connecticut’s move to the MASCAC in 2013, the NJAC was set to drop below the seven members needed to retain automatic bid in football beyond 2015.

Meantime, Salisbury and Frostburg State were Maryland schools in a New York conference. Wesley had no conference. Christopher Newport announced its intention to withdraw the only conference its football team had ever known, the USAC, for the CAC in 2012. CNU had planned to remain in the USAC as a football affiliate, which potentially meant trips to Tennessee to play Maryville, Georgia to face 2012 new member LaGrange and Alabama, home of 2013 new member Huntingdon.

While transitioning from NAIA, Southern Virginia had joined the CAC. But with no football option, they’d announced the intention to become the NJAC’s seventh member.

The CAC couldn’t pursue its own football automatic bid with just five teams. The NJAC would need to hang on to Morrisville to stay at seven. When the chips started to fall into place for Wesley, CNU and Frostburg State to join the NJAC, it didn’t take long for Salisbury, apart from its CAC brethren in the Empire 8, and Morrisville, apart from the SUNY schools in the NJAC, to see the wisdom in switching spots. Last week, school presidents came to agreements, and the two conferences began to consider their new alignments.

One key compromise made the deal palatable for the CAC five: The NJAC’s 100-man roster limit will loosen up a bit. The limit stays in place for varsity rosters, but 25 more members of the football program can participate in practices and JV games.

Now, both the NJAC and E8 feel they’re built to last; no more conference hopping for teams and no more worries about future departures or loss of an AQ.

“This isn’t a quick fix for anybody,” Drass said.

“I think it’s right for all parties involved,” Mitrano said. “We should be stable for a long time because our affliate members are geographically in our footprint. … I think we’ll probably see a bit of stablization.”

Drass, the coach of a national power and AD, said the credit belonged above his pay grade.

“I think these presidents wanted to set something up that had longevity.”

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Keith McMillan

Keith McMilllan, who has been a columnist for D3football.com since 2000, has provided color commentary on D3football.com's national broadcasts of the Stagg Bowls. He played at Randolph-Macon in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference for four years and covered it for two more.

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