Games to watch for 2013

Franklin will get the first crack at the Mount Union team not coached by Larry Kehres.
Franklin athletics photo

Over the next 11 weeks, there will be certain games that will define a team's entire season on their way to a championship, or a hill they failed grab to move on to the next level.

Sometimes, those games are hard to determine as new teams rise from the bottom of their conferences and old champions fall. Then, there are programs that year after year seemed to always produce quality teams prepared to chase a conference title and beyond.

Here are the 10 contests I've tried to narrow down in the Midwest that I think by the end of the season, we will look back and say "that game mattered."

No. 19 Franklin at No. 1 Mount Union, Sept. 7: My hat goes off to Franklin. The Grizzlies have aspirations of being a perennial top 10 Division III program. To do that, they have to play the best and Franklin has not been shy about playing the absolute best in D-III. The Grizzlies just finished a series with UW-Whitewater before taking on Mount Union. After this game, the Grizzlies will take on FCS non-scholarship Butler. Every coach wants to win the big game, but for Franklin, this is preparation for the road ahead in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference and another trip to the playoffs. We'll all get to see how much Franklin has improved with some outstanding weapons on offense.

Carroll at St. Norbert, Sept. 28: Since MWC power St. Norbert doesn't play conference favorite Illinois College this year, the game against Carroll will be the Green Knights' best way to gum up the works. St. Norbert will be fielding one of its younger teams with only four players returning on defense and six on the offensive side of the ball. Carroll, which went 8-2 last year, returns one of the league's top offensive weapons in running back Lamont Williams (1,267 yards, 24 TDs in 2012). Carroll will hope to avenge a 28-21 loss to St. Norbert last year. More importantly, the momentum is on the side of the Pioneers, fielding a senior group that has gone 8-2, 7-3 and 7-3 over the past three seasons. They see this season at their shot.

Concordia (Wis.) at Concordia-Chicago, Oct. 19: Defending Northern Athletic Conference champions Concordia-Chicago went undefeated and played in its first playoff game. But Cougars, though, are faced with returning only three starters on offense and defense and breaking in a new coach. In contrast, Concordia (Wis.) will have one of best teams and are tagged as the NACC favorite. Big question is can Concordia-Chicago rebuilt to maintain its recent winning ways in its first huge conference test and can Concordia (Wis.) live up to its billing as the team to beat?

No. 15 Wheaton at Illinois Wesleyan, Oct. 26: Consider this an elimination game. Illinois Wesleyan is blessed with the advantage of getting both of the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin's nationally-ranked teams at home. A nationally ranked Wheaton team fell to Illinois Wesleyan 24-19 the last time the Thunder showed up in Bloomington, Ill. in 2011. The Titans haven't forgotten about it and you can bet Wheaton hasn't either. Expect an exciting game with the winner moving on challenge North Central for the conference crown in the weeks to follow.

Case Western Reserve at Washington U., Nov. 9: Washington returns the vast majority of their starters (seven offense, 10 defense) on a team that captured the University Athletic Association title last season. Expect this game to have UAA title implications, with the edge going to Washington at home.

No. 6 North Central at Illinois Wesleyan, Nov. 9: If the Titans can get by No. 15 Wheaton, this will be a huge game with CCIW and playoff implications. The Cardinals, though, have had their way with Illinois Wesleyan the past two contest, but the Titans could be hungry enough (along with home field advantage) to make this an interesting contest.

Manchester at Hanover, Nov. 9: There is a new challenger rising in the HCAC in the Manchester Spartans, which went 6-2 in conference play a year ago and 6-4 overall. The Spartans stunned Hanover 35-34 last year and were a two-point loss to Rose-Hulman from a 7-3 season and finishing alone in second place in the HCAC. Manchester has eight returners on offense and seven more on defense from a team that got their first taste of success. The challenge is Manchester won't be able to sneak up on anyone last year when they closed the season with six straight wins. Still will be a good test to see if Hanover can keep itself from looking ahead to the Victory Bell game.

Illinois College at Carroll, Nov. 16: While St. Norbert is always lurking in the shadows; this could be the big game to watch in the Midwest Conference. Illinois College (8-2 last season) will not play St. Norbert in league play this season, meaning a win against upstart Carroll would be the road to a league title. The Blueboys arguably will have the MWC's best 1-2 punch offensively in quarterback Michael Bates and running back Cecil Brimmage. They hope to finish the job they came so close to last year in capturing the MWC title.

Concordia (Wis.) at Wisconsin Lutheran, Nov. 16: Wisconsin Lutheran could get a legitimate shot at the Northern Athletic Conference title after coming up short in big games the past could of years, but the Falcons are hoping to return to title contention this season after going 7-3 and 6-1 a year ago. Concordia returns eight players on offense, including quarterback Austin Damaschke.

No. 19 Franklin at Hanover, Nov. 16: If there is one player to watch in this annual backyard battle for the Victory Bell in southern Indiana is Hanover quarterback Dexter Britt. Britt is a gifted three-year starter for Hanover who has never beaten Franklin. The pressure will be on Britt in his final regular season game of his career at home against the school's biggest rival, which could produce a big game. The HCAC title could very well be in the line as well.

One more for the road:

No. 6 North Central at No. 15 Wheaton: I just couldn't leave out the battle for the Little Brass Bell. This game will, as always, have CCIW and national playoff implications written all over it. It will also be the last shot for a CCIW team to dethrone the D-III power from its conference throne. This backyard rival between suburban Chicago schools is always hard-hitting, intense and full of tradition. ... And depending on how both teams fare on the road against Illinois Wesleyan, could come into this contest both undefeated.