|Both UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh in the Final Four? The bracket makes it possible. Our experts say ...
Photo by Daryl Tessmann, d3photography.com
|The Mary Hardin-Baylor ground attack is in full force again this year, with Duane Thompson a key component.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
This is the year that anything can happen.
When the Chicago Cubs break the curse, when the city of Cleveland reigns supreme, when the Purple Raiders lose a regular season game, it gives hope to sports fans from all corners of the country that anything truly is possible.
The current D-III climate is unlike anything I’ve seen in my ten seasons contributing to D3football.com. The defending champions enter the playoffs on a losing note, with a quarterback who will be making just his sixth career start in his first-round game. The top-ranked team in the country hasn’t been to Salem since 2004 and will have to defeat one of its two highly ranked opponents for the second time this season just to make it to the quarterfinals. One of those teams is a popular preseason pick who has ended No. 1 Mary Hardin-Baylor’s past two seasons with three-point playoff wins. If Linfield makes it to Salem, it will be one of the most impressive tournament runs in recent memory.
This is the kind of season that can keep D-III fans of non-playoff teams intrigued through each round. There were cheers throughout the nation when the selection committee sent Mount Union on the road to Hobart for a first-round meeting. The window is open wider than it has been in years past, and this may be the first time many D-III fans see a team other than Mount Union, UW-Whitewater, or St. Thomas in Salem. With the Tommies and Warhawks on the same side of the bracket and the Purple Raiders headed on the road in the playoffs for the first time since 1996, this could be the year for a different program to break through.
That takes us back to 2004, the last time none of those three purple powers made it to the Stagg Bowl. The two teams who played in Salem that year are two of the favorites to make it back there this year. But, Linfield and Mary Hardin-Baylor are on course to play each other in the second round. That can only happen if Linfield can get past a very strong Hardin-Simmons team on the road in Round One, far from a given.
The first-round matchups are as intriguing as ever, too. This is not one of those years when you can pick four teams and wait around until they play in the semifinals before tuning in. We could have chaos right off the bat in Round One. Only a handful of the 16 opening round matchups appear to be sure things (although fans of the underdogs would disagree).
Welcome to the playoffs, Stevenson, Rose-Hulman, and Northwestern (Minn.). These three programs are making their first appearance in the tournament. Stevenson only had to wait six years and Northwestern made it in the program’s 12th season as a Division III member; Rose-Hulman has been playing football for 118 years.
We have plenty of pages for you to bookmark now and keep an eye on as we guide you to the Stagg Bowl on Dec. 16. Don’t forget to make your picks in the bracket challenge by 11 a.m. ET on Saturday. On Friday will be our first Quick Hits of the postseason, where we predict not just winners, but final scores.
Your postseason Quick Hits panel consists of Publisher and Executive Editor Pat Coleman, Managing Editor and National Columnist Emeritus Keith McMillan, Around the West Columnist Josh Smith, In The HuddLLe Broadcaster and Stagg Bowl Sideline Reporter Frank Rossi, Senior Editor Ryan Tipps, and me, the Senior Editor and current Around the Nation Columnist. Before we get to our specific game predictions on Friday, we took a deep look at each quadrant of the bracket.
For each region, we picked one team that will surprise, one team that will disappoint, and one team that will make it through to the national semifinals. The lack of consensus just goes to show you how exciting the 2016 postseason is going to be. Read on to find out what us “experts” predict, and chime in with your own predictions in the comments. And make fun of the idiot who picked against the Purple Raiders, but keep in mind that he was the only panelist to correctly predict Mount Union’s 2015 national title last year.
Nobody on the panel consulted with one another; each person did his part independently. The panelists are spread out across the four administrative regions, so hopefully any perception of bias balances out.
Mary Hardin-Baylor Bracket
Adam: Huntingdon. The Hawks have the offensive firepower to put pressure on Wheaton in the opening round. I haven’t been sold on the Thunder all year. The defense is great, but you’ve got to score points to advance in the postseason. I think the Hawks can pull off the upset.
Frank: Linfield. There's something in the Sam Riddle story that seems unfinished right now. I'm not saying they'll beat UMHB, but they will exorcise the demons of how bad their loss was earlier in the season by first beating the Cowboys and playing the Cru to a barn-burning result.
Josh: North Central. They may not have enough to reach the national semifinals, but North Central’s defense – which recorded a program-record 49 quarterback sacks this season – could slow Mary Hardin-Baylor’s potent offense enough to make this quarterfinal matchup intriguing. The score will be tighter than many suspect.
Keith: North Central. In a quadrant with perennial top teams Mary Hardin-Baylor, Linfield, Wheaton and Hardin-Simmons, there's been hardly a peep about the Cardinals. No team has stayed within 10 points of them, and quarterback Broc Rutter is not any old freshman -- he was on scholarship-level Indiana State's roster last year. Picking Huntingdon to upset Wheaton would be more of a "surprise" pick than going with the No. 5 team in the country, but the Cardinals have been so little discussed that they qualify here. And if Hardin-Simmons or Linfield knocks off UMHB and NCC can play its quarterfinal at home, they could really stun us.
Ryan: Huntingdon. With the talent that the Hawks had coming into the season, I was a little surprised that they notched the loss they did. But they’ve relied heavily on their offense, and that will only take them so far in games, particularly in the postseason. The stock of their first opponent, Wheaton, has slipped several times over the past 11 weeks. One win for Huntingdon will be impressive, especially against a CCIW team. And it’s within reach. However, I don’t realistically expect them to get through two teams from that conference.
Pat: Linfield. People have been hung up on the score of the game at UMHB back in September, which was not indicative of the way the game was played. Yes, UMHB was clearly at least three scores better ... but not 39 points. If all you do is form your opinion based on the final score, you'll be surprised at how Linfield will perform.
Adam: Linfield. What a tough draw for my preseason pick to win it all. Even if the Wildcats make it past one Texas power in the first round, it will be very difficult to flip the script from Linfield’s lone 2016 loss against Mary Hardin-Baylor in Round Two.
Frank: Hardin-Simmons. In an ironic twist, the Cowboys' fate may have been better if they faced UMHB in the first round. They may get caught looking ahead here a bit -- and Linfield has learned a lot since their first jaunt to Texas this season. I still appreciate the lack of an instant Cru/Cowboys rematch here!
Josh: Linfield. The Wildcats rolled through their Northwest Conference schedule. But it’s hard to shake the image of Linfield losing to Mary Hardin-Baylor, 66-27, back in September. Between a first-round matchup with Hardin-Simmons and a potential second-round meeting with Mary Hardin-Baylor, it’s going to be tough sledding for the Wildcats to make the quarterfinals.
Keith: Linfield. In a year when so many top contenders were flip-flopping between quarterbacks, or relying on freshmen or sophomores, Linfield is led by a senior who's thrown 96 touchdown passes in 36 games. No team is better equipped for a long playoff run at quarterback than the Wildcats are with Riddle, but their route to the title could take them through the No. 11 team in Texas, No. 1 in Texas, No. 5 in Illinois, No. 7 either at home or in Ohio, and then through the No. 2, 3, 4 or 6th-ranked team in Salem. The road to the Stagg Bowl from the West is never easy, and if you're really national champion, then you can beat them all. But it's such a tough road, it's hard to imagine it not ending in disappointment somewhere along the way.
Ryan: Linfield. Even if they do get through Hardin-Simmons (to which there’s no guarantee), the Wildcats will be up against the UMHB team that steamrolled them in September. This is going to be a disappointing finish for a team that had legitimate title aspirations going into the fall.
Pat: Huntingdon. While not expected to win, as a lower-seeded team, the Hawks drew a matchup that will expose them, in my opinion. Wheaton is too good defensively to allow Huntingdon to get much accomplished here.
LAST TEAM STANDING
Adam: Mary Hardin-Baylor. I’ve been ranking them at the top of my poll since the win over Linfield. The Cru looks like the team to beat on the Road to Salem.
Frank: Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Cru will indeed be challenged in their second-round game, and likely by either Wheaton or North Central in the quarterfinals. But they're not my No. 1 team on my Top 25 ballot for nothin'. Just don't expect any 39-point routs in those games.
Josh: Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Cru is ranked No. 1 in the D3football.com Top 25 for a reason. Averaging 56.3 points per game this season, Mary Hardin-Baylor looks poised for a trip to Salem.
Keith: Mary Hardin-Baylor. I moved the Crusaders to No. 1 in Week 3, and went back and forth with UW-Whitewater for a few weeks, but I'm not going to back off UMHB now. I think they're the team to beat in this tournament because unlike many of the other contenders, they are experienced at quarterback (with Blake Jackson) and have a defensive line that can cause havoc.
Ryan: Mary Hardin-Baylor. It’ll be little surprise if we see this team hoisting the Walnut & Bronze in December.
Pat: Mary Hardin-Baylor. Tough bracket, but UMHB won't have to leave Texas to win it, so that helps. But Jackson and the offense are firing on all cylinders.
Adam: Johns Hopkins. I’ve been hyping the Blue Jays since the preseason, ranking them in my top ten all season long. I think this is the year the program finally breaks through after recent playoff heartbreakers. Of course, it will take unseating the defending champs in Round Two. But at home, it can be done.
Frank: Husson. It wasn't an accident that the Eagles played Alfred close in the first game of the season. They have scored at least 27 points in each game, and they refused to take their foot off the pedal even after clinching a week early. The NCAA best reserve some extra money for a flight to Alfred for the Eagles, and the Saxons best dust off the game film from their first close meeting.
Josh: Mount Union. Predicting the Purple Raiders to win playoff games isn’t much of a stunner. But the fact they will have to win on the road is surprising. The shock of Mount Union losing a regular-season game should wear off when the Purple Raiders reel off a couple of signature playoff victories.
Keith: Johns Hopkins. The only juggernaut we've spent less time on than North Central is Johns Hopkins. Since 2013, the Blue Jays have twice lost playoff games to Wesley by five points, showing they're not athletically overmatched against nationally elite teams. Johns Hopkins also has quarterback experience with Jonathan Germano, who leads the nation's No. 7 offense to 521 yards per game. Kickoff '16 cover boy Jack Toner has seven interceptions. With Mount Union not having as much playoff experience at is usually does, I don't think we can just pencil in an easy victory over the Blue Jays, especially if the game takes place in Baltimore.
Ryan: Alfred. It’s been five years since someone ran that table in the ultra-tough Empire 8 -- and it’s been even longer since a conference team has finished the season 10-0. The E8 schedules tough outside the conference and plays each other tough inside it. Much respect to the Saxons for their 2016 regular-season run. It will be a fun game to see them line up against Mount in three weeks.
Pat: Mount Union. Sorry, folks -- the eulogy for the Purple Raiders is premature. They're still good enough to win this bracket, perhaps going away. Only question will be whether going on the road is a factor for this fairly young team.
Adam: Mount Union. On the flip side, the Purple Raiders will exit earlier than they ever have in the D3football.com era. The Purple Raiders fall short of Salem for the first time since 2004.
Frank: Johns Hopkins. Hopkins seemed like an untested team for most of the second half of the season, making a chance for a first-round upset even a remote possibility. Even if they make it through Randolph-Macon, I don't foresee good results the following week, when an unlikely visitor pops in to say hello.
Josh: Johns Hopkins. Through no fault of their own, the Blue Jays are destined for a second-round matchup with a Mount Union team that has something to prove. Normally a 10-0 season and corner position on the bracket would be a prime opportunity for a deep run, but not in 2016 when a Pool C team like Mount Union is lurking.
Keith: Alfred is in a four-team pod with the champions of the No. 23, 24 and 27 ranked conferences, of 27, so the undefeated champion of the No. 3-ranked conference should advance two rounds. But after that, if Mount Union or someone else awaits, being the No. 1 seed in your quadrant carries weighty expectations. The Saxons, who run for 246 yards per game and allow 91, should get to the quarterfinals. But as the 10-0 champion of a top conference, the goal should be set well beyond that.
Ryan: Johns Hopkins. One win, sure, but I think Mount Union’s Round One game against Hobart will be more competitive than the Round Two matchup against JHU. This is the fourth time in the past five years that Hopkins has drawn either Wesley or Mount Union in Round Two. Eek, that’s rough!
Pat: Alfred. And that's hard to say, because I think Tyler Johnson is a pretty dynamic quarterback and it would be fun to see the Saxons go on a deep run. Even though Alfred will be lined up with two favorable opponents, I don't see them getting past the quarterfinals.
LAST TEAM STANDING
Adam: Johns Hopkins. The Blue Jays will be riding high after taking down Mount Union, but will remain focused enough to get past undefeated Alfred in a classic quarterfinal game.
Frank: Mount Union. I'm about to make personal history here, picking a No. 4 regionally-ranked team in a bracket in which Mount Union resides. So stop the presses and here we go: Mount Union wins this part of the bracket. Shocking, I know ...
Josh: Mount Union. Even if the road to Salem doesn’t go through Alliance, the path still has Purple Raiders on it. Mount Union will make the semifinals before running into trouble.
Keith: Mount Union. Teams are never going to get a better chance to beat Mount Union in a playoff game than they have now. Their quarterback has made five (mostly excellent) starts. There is not a transcendent Purple Raiders defensive player like there have been on so many past teams, at least not yet. But the scary part is Mount Union is embracing the idea of being the underdog, the road warrior. Given the bracket the Purple Raiders are in, I'll have to see someone beat them to believe it.
Ryan: Mount Union. They prove exactly why they deserved their Pool C bid despite a weak SOS.
Pat: Mount Union. Still.
St. Thomas Bracket
Adam: UW-Platteville. All those 9-1 teams left on the wrong side of the bubble will be quieted when the Pioneers knock off 9-1 Pool C foe St. John’s in Round One and push 9-1 Pool C opponent UW-Oshkosh to the brink in Round Two. This is a deserving two-loss tourney team.
Frank: UW-Platteville. Normally, the team pegged as the final Pool C selection would just be "happy to be here," but the Pioneers have the capability to shock St. John's and beat UW-Oshkosh on the road. Don't overlook this team.
Josh: UW-Platteville. Although a third-place team in the WIAC, the UW-Platteville offense has a lot of firepower. The 8-2 Pioneers prove they belong in the playoff field by advancing to set up a rematch with conference foe UW-Oshkosh.
Keith: Monmouth. There's potential for a surprise, if Coe wins at St. Thomas in Round 2, or the St. John's/UW-Platteville winner knocks off UW-Oshkosh. But I don't see a surprise team in this bracket I can really wrap my arms around. But since I need to pick someone, keep an eye on Monmouth at Coe in Round 1. The Scots have been known for offense over the years, but their strong suit this year is the nation's No. 3 defense, sandwiched between St. John's and St. Thomas in the rankings. Their 199 yards and 1.1 touchdowns allowed per game didn't come against the kind of competition they'll see in the postseason, but it might be enough to pull off a win at Coe.
Ryan: Washington U. I’m not predicting a win here, but I am predicting some new respect for an SAA team (an “academic” team, at that) in how it holds up against one of the nation’s best. Washington has a pass offense that can keep them moving the ball and scoring even late in the game against Oshkosh.
Pat: UW-Platteville. There's more than enough firepower here to get the Pioneers into the second round. The battle with St. John's will definitely be worthy of two highly ranked teams, though, and there's no shame in going out in the first round. Pretend you're from Texas.
Adam: Monmouth. The Scots have had one of the nation’s most dominant defenses, but that defense hasn’t faced an offense the caliber of Coe’s yet. How will the Scots respond when Coe’s workhorse running back Trevor Heitland hits them in the mouth again, and again, and again?
Frank: Coe. Many folks think Monmouth's 10-0 record is based on poor competition more than team strength. However, both teams faced Wartburg, with similar results. Monmouth has a legitimate shot to advance here and give some new life to the MWC, abruptly ending a great Coe season.
Josh: St. John’s. If UW-Platteville is the surprise team in the bracket, then that means a very good St. John’s team doesn’t advance despite its 9-1 regular season record and runner-up finish in the MIAC.
Keith: The St. John's/UW-Platteville loser. Perhaps both should be glad they're in the field at all after not winning their conferences, but it's such an odd predicament: The winner could barely win, then go several rounds deep. In a perfect 32-team tournament, the No. 9 and No. 12 teams would both be favored to advance out of Round 1. As it stands, one won't, just like one won't in the 8-11 matchup in Abilene. The pressure is on the Pioneers to justify their slot as an 8-2 at-large team when five 9-1 teams were left out. A first-round loss, even to the top-10 Johnnies, would be a disappointment they all could share.
Ryan: UW-Platteville. Despite having these guys higher on my ballot than St. John’s, it’ll be easy for the Pioneers to be checking around the corner where Oshkosh is lurking in Week 2. That will make for an ugly Round 1 game and a letdown at the end of the season.
Pat: Monmouthcoe. The more I think about this matchup, the more I wonder why they are playing each other and not having one play UW-Platteville and the other play St. John's. These teams are all in the West so the final regional rankings suggest this is the wrong pairing. Hmm ...
LAST TEAM STANDING
Adam: St. Thomas. This probably the toughest region in the tournament, but the Tommies have the easiest path to the semifinals. After the WIAC teams beat each other up, St. Thomas takes advantage and continues its path back to Salem.
Frank: St. Thomas. Whoever advances from the bottom half of this bracket into the Quarterfinals will be bruised and battered. The Tommies will be in much better shape and win a return trip to the national semifinals.
Josh: St. Thomas. This was the toughest region to pick because UW-Oshkosh is a legitimate Stagg Bowl contender. But St. Thomas has been able to overcome losses due to graduation and injury, and the Tommies continue to look impressive on both sides of the ball.
Keith: UW-Oshkosh is one of the few teams that could go toe-to-toe with St. Thomas and prevail, perhaps in a game that goes down as the best of the tournament.
Ryan: UW-Oshkosh. Something about the team that beat the team that beat The Machine just draws me in. Still, there’s no doubt that the Titans have a tough path even to get to the regional final.
Pat: UW-Oshkosh. I've been silently a little extra bullish on the Titans here over the past few weeks. I think they play enough defense to stand up to the top teams in this bracket and offensively they can definitely compete on this level.
Adam: John Carroll. The Blue Streaks are riding high after breaking Mount Union’s streak, but without that win, they’re at home after not looking too impressive through the season’s first nine weeks. Now, John Carroll gets to prove that it was more than a one-hit wonder this season and does so, advancing to at least the quarterfinals.
Frank: Wesley. Yes, it's a stretch to call this team a "surprise" per se, but the Wolverines looked dead in the water after the first third of the season. Now, I see them reaching the quarterfinals against a UW-Whitewater team that has struggled late in the season. Anything is possible here -- and I would not be absolutely shocked if Wesley advanced to the national semifinals.
Josh: Wesley. The Wolverines were dismissed by many after losing two early season games. But Wesley strung together seven straight wins by an average margin of 31 points. The Wolverines will ride that momentum to a couple more wins and be the only two-loss squad in the quarterfinals
Keith: Thomas More/Wittenberg winner. Am I allowed to give John Carroll retroactive credit for their Week 11 surprise? I'm still surprised that they're a 2 seed, and a clash with Wesley in Round 2 would be one of the tournament's best toss-ups. But for pure surprise potential, given that UW-Whitewater played three close games and is still splitting time at quarterback, the Thomas More/Wittenberg winner is the choice here.
Ryan: Stevenson. I’m going out on a limb with this pick, because while Wesley is much evolved from the version of the team that lost twice in the first three games of the season, Stevenson will be their toughest test of the year. We could see a Round 1 upset here.
Pat: Wesley. We shouldn’t be surprised by a first-round home team in general, but they’re on an upswing and Stevenson is making its first-ever playoff appearance. There’s a lot of things that will be different and Wesley has that experience and knowledge from having been there before.
Adam: Stevenson. The Mustangs’ first playoff appearance is short-lived. This team peaked too soon and enters the postseason on the downswing with a tough matchup against a much more experienced Wesley squad.
Frank: Stevenson. Life would be so much different if the Mustangs didn't drop a game they should've never lost late in the season. They would be hosting. They wouldn't be facing Wesley. They would have a chance to dominate past the first round. Forget all that now -- Wesley is on a roll, and Stevenson has to travel to unfriendly territory. What a difference a month makes.
Josh: John Carroll. Potential meetings with a hot Wesley team and a perennially strong UW-Whitewater squad isn’t much of a prize for ending Mount Union’s string of consecutive OAC automatic playoff bids. The most exciting part of the Blue Streaks’ season may have already happened.
Keith: Whoever goes out in the first round in the Wesley/Stevenson game will have fallen short of expectations. The Wolverines perennially advance in the tournament, but it took several weeks to settle on Nick Falkenberg as Joe Callahan's successor under center. Stevenson, meantime was 8-0 and ranked 14th in Week 9, so a first-round exit, even in the program's first playoff game, would be finishing the season weakly.
Ryan: Thomas More. The Saints’ only two losses the past two seasons have come at the hands of teams from the NCAC and the HCAC -- which are two decidedly middle- to lower-tier conferences. Wittenberg has been on a tirade through its schedule since the stunning loss to Denison. For TMC, a one-and-done scenario at the hands of another NCAC team can easily happen.
Pat: John Carroll. Not in the first round, but this is a bracket that is winnable for the Blue Streaks. Need to be able to make a kick when needed, however, to win at a championship level.
LAST TEAM STANDING
Adam: UW-Whitewater. The Warhawks have continued to find ways to win all season long. They might be the most under-the-radar 10-0 team in the nation. Playing at home will help as the Warhawks get healthy in time to keep this ride going.
Frank: UW-Whitewater. It's a tough call, especially after seeing UW-Whitewater struggle to put teams away late in the season. However, I think the Committee did the Warhawks a major favor, giving them two very winnable games up front to help them get their momentum back before a strong quarterfinal matchup. We've seen the Warhawks play close games in prior seasons, only to win a national championship in those years -- so, I will give the benefit of the doubt for now.
Josh: UW-Whitewater. Despite surviving some close conference games and dealing with injuries, the Warhawks utilize their previous playoff experience to navigate their way through the bracket. Whoever comes out of the St. Thomas bracket though will be a challenge for UW-Whitewater.
Keith: UW-Whitewater at times looks like its dominant self, but for the most part, they're a young and beatable team, like its purple counterpart. Freshman running back Cam Maly is coming on strong, and senior defensive linemen John Flood and Brandon Tamsett have the potential to wreak havoc. The Warhawks are loaded with playoff experience, and Perkins Stadium, where UW-W has won 31 straight playoff games, has become one of D-III's toughest places to play. They'll be at home long enough to perhaps be the last team standing in this quadrant.
Ryan: UW-Whitewater. They spent most of the season as No. 1 on my ballot, but they’ve been dropped a spot because of recent injuries. If those injuries are mended, we can feel good about a trip to the national semifinals.
Pat: UW-Whitewater: Although this is pretty shaky for me until they can show they have enough offense to go with that championship-level (passing yards allowed excluded) defense.
Catch up on the final week of Around the Region columns, which looked at playoff-bound teams. Quick Hits is coming on Friday. We’ll have Road to Salem feature columns beginning next week. Around the Nation will return in December for our annual Year in Review. Pat and Keith’s Around the Nation podcast continues each week, leading up to our expansive pre- and post-game shows in Salem. Drop me a note if you’ll be joining us in Salem for what is sure to be another exciting Stagg Bowl.