We’ve passed the midway point of the season and it’s hard to believe that there are only four weeks remaining in the regular season. Around the South hasn’t done midseason awards in a couple of years, and it maybe a week or two late since quite a few teams have already played seven games. But, this week seems to be the perfect time to take stock of what’s happened this season and look ahead to the next four weeks as the conference champions are determined and quite a few teams still are in the running for Pool C (at large bids) to the NCAA D-III football playoffs.
Best team: Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Crusaders, currently 6-0 and ranked fourth in the nation, have gained steam since tight early victories against McMurry (28-27) and UW-La Crosse (27-20.) Though they give up some passing yards, the defense has been the key allowing just 89 rushing yards a game while forcing 19 turnovers. The turnover bug bit the offense early, but their powerful run game remains behind tailback Darius Wilson and quarterback LiDarral Bailey. Despite nine interceptions, Bailey is completing 64 percent of his passes and has talented receivers to work with, including Damian Davis. Honorable mention: Trinity (6-0), Centre (5-0), Louisiana College (5-1), McMurry (5-2) and Birmingham-Southern (5-1), Huntingdon (5-2).
Best game: UMHB 28, McMurry 27. McMurry scored first but the Crusaders rolled off 28 striaght points in about seven minutes from late in the first through midway through the second quarter. Then lightning struck, literally, delaying the game for nearly an hour. The War Hawks rallied in the second half pulling to within a point with 1:47 to go in the game. But Jake Mullin’s two-point conversion pass was intercepted by Javicz Jones and the Cru survived an onside kick attempt that was recovered by McMurry. The recovery was erased by a penalty and UMHB. The War Hawks got the ball back with 24 seconds left but an Eric Nelson interception at midfield sealed then victory for UMHB.
Biggest Comebacks: Birmingham-Southern 35, Huntingdon 29. The Panthers rallied from 21-2 down in the third quarter to defeat the Hawks. Shawn Morris’ nine-yard run in overtime clinched the win for BSC, while quarterback Jimmy Stainback rushed for 116 yards and passed for 233. East Texas Baptist 26, Hardin-Simmons 22. The Tigers trailed 22-6 in the third quarter, but scored three touchdowns to take the lead by early in the fourth. The ETBU defense then allowed just one first down in three fourth-quarter Cowboy possessions to seal the victory, allowing just 270 yards in the game. Quarterback Sed Harris, whose 58-yard touchdown scamper started the comeback, rushed for 130 yards and passed for 123. Running back Jair Stover added 158 on the ground and the go-ahead score.
Biggest surprise: Sewanee. The Tennessee Tigers, who had won just one game in the past two seasons, have started the year 3-4 with wins over DePauw, Earlham and Puget Sound. They also led in the fourth quarter against SCAC contenders Millsaps and BSC. If they can win two of their last three, with Centre, Rhodes and Austin left on the schedule, they’ll have their first .500 season since 2005. Win all three and they’ll finish with a winning record for the first time since 2000.
Biggest disappointment: Hardin-Simmons. Ranked eighth in the country after an impressive pair of nonconference victories over Coe and Willamette to start the season, the Cowboys dropped their first three ASC games. They have since rallied to win two straight. But at 4-3 and with tough games remaining against McMurry and Louisiana College, the Cowboys could be facing the first non-winning season since 1991.
Best offensive player: McMurry quarterback Jake Mullin. The junior has completed 67 percent of his passes for 2343 yards with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season. He has also rushed for over 200 yards if you don’t count his sack yardage. Mullin also wins the award for top individual game performance after last week’s 614-yard, four-touchdown performance against Texas Lutheran last week. He also rushed for 43 yards, while completing 43-of-47 passes. Honorable mention: Darius Wilson, RB, UMHB, Shawn Morris, RB, BSC, Tyler Osterman, QB, Centre and Nyk McKissic, QB, Trinity.
Best defensive player: UMHB linebacker Javicz Jones. The senior maybe undersized at 6-foot, 200 pounds, but speedy linebacker is a play-maker in the tradition from Cru linebackers Jarrell Freeman and Eric Henri. He has posted 4.5 sacks, 11 tackles for losses, with two interceptions and a blocked kick. Honorable mention: McMurry safety Will Morris, BSC safety Andrew Shannon.
Best rookie: Tough pick here. Howard Payne freshman defensive end J.D. King leads the ASC in sacks with 5.5 and has added 12 tackles for losses. Louisiana College kicker Adan Olivares has hit all 26 of his PAT attempts while knocking through 4-of-5 field goal attempts. Are there any great young offensive linemen out there?
Best all-purpose: Trevor Manuel, running back/returner. The Huntingdon junior ranks 14th in the nation in all-purpose yards this season. A starter in the backfield, for the nation’s seventh-ranked offense, Manuel averages over 100 rushing yards a game while adding 221 receiving yards, 160 kickoff return yards and 107 punt return yards. He’s also scored 12 touchdowns. Honorable mention: Mississippi College runner Steven Knight, Centre runner Monte Scotton and Texas Lutheran freshman Lewis Williams.
Best comebacks from injury: Three players have made bid impacts on their teams after suffering season-ending injuries last year. Darius Wilson of UMHB leads the ASC in rushing yards (748 yards). Steven Knight of Mississippi College helped the Choctaws to the NCAA playoffs in 2009 and has amassed 780 all-purpose yards. Linebacker Nicholas Darling of Trinity has played a huge role in the turnaround at Trinity this season. The Tigers are coming off their first losing campaign in nearly 20 years but are unbeaten so far this season. He leads Trinity with 44 tackles (four for loss) and has added an interception and two forced fumbles for a defense that ranks seventh in total (226 ypg)and fifth in scoring (7.8).
The winner of the ASC will be: Mary-Hardin Baylor. It hard to see the unbeaten Crusaders losing to Howard Payne, Sul Ross or Texas Lutheran if they get past East Texas Baptist. That would probably get them the top seed in NCAA South Bracket.
The winner of the SCAC will be: Trinity. The Tigers have the most favorable schedule of the two unbeaten teams in the SCAC. They’ve already beaten Millsaps and will host Birmingham-Southern and Centre in back-to-back weeks. Centre, also unbeaten, will have to travel to Millsaps and Trinity sandwiched between home contests against improved Sewanee and annual SCAC-spoiler Rhodes. One-SCAC loss Birmingham-Southern and Millsaps would both need help. The Panthers could beat Trinity but then hope someone beats Centre. Millsaps needs to beat Centre and hope Trinity gets beaten to force a tie. Don’t ask me to explain a tie-breaker yet.
The teams that could get a Pool C bid are: Can both the SCAC and the ASC get teams into the playoffs that don’t win the Pool A (automatic qualifier) bid? Assuming they take care of business in their other games, the winner of the Louisiana College/McMurry game on Nov. 5 would have a strong resume. Their only D-III lose would be to UMHB. Again assuming they win out (never a safe assumption), the loser of the Trinity/Centre game would have a good argument as well. Birmingham-Southern could win out and have a pretty good argument too.
What about Pool B? Huntingdon’s loss to Trinity last week damaged its hopes to earn the spot reserved in the playoff field for D-III independents or conferences without an AQ. The Hawks still have hope, however. If they can win out, which would include a victory over seventh-ranked Wesley, and get a loss from UAA member (and Pool B-eligible) Case Western Reserve, they have a shot.
This Week’s Games
Trinity (6-0, 3-0 SCAC) at La Grange (2-4, IND). This could be a trap game for the Tigers as they have to travel all the way to Callaway Stadium in Georgia after a big win last week and before a big SCAC conference next week. Plus there’s the distraction of coach Steve Mohr not making the trip because of illness. Still, the Panthers, who have lost their last two games by a touchdown (Rhodes and Trine,) just haven’t been able to generate much offense this season. The rank in the 200’s in total offense, scoring offense and pass offense. Trinity has been able to stuff the run, ranking 14th in D-III.
Sewanee (3-4, 0-3 SCAC) at Centre (5-0, 2-0). Though the Tigers have three wins, they are still searching for their first SCAC victory since 2008. They were the third SCAC team to beat now departed two-time champ DePauw this season. Still I can’t see a veteran group of Colonels allowing them to be the SCAC team they beat.
Austin (0-6, 0-3 SCAC) at Rhodes (2-3, 0-2). One of these two teams gets their first conference win this week. The Lynx had a second quarter lead on Millsaps but couldn’t hold on losing 44-36. The Roos fell to the Majors the week before by 33-27. Looks like it could be a close one.
East Texas Baptist (3-4, 2-3 ASC) at Mary Hardin-Baylor (6-0, 5-0). This is most likely the last team on the Crusaders schedule that has a shot at beating them before the playoffs begin. Last season, the Tigers held and early lead at home and left some points early in the game before falling at home in overtime. They won’t be in playoff consideration, but beating Hardin-Simmons and UMHB in the same season could get them out of the 5-5 cycle they’ve been recently.
Texas Lutheran (4-2, 3-1 ASC) at Hardin-Simmons (4-3, 2-3). The Bulldogs have beaten the teams that probably should have but a win against a traditional ASC power would show quantitative evidence of progress over last year.
Howard Payne (1-6, 1-4) at Mississippi College (2-4, 1-3). The Choctaws have lost three straight after winning two of their first three. A .500 season is still in reach though and the climb starts this week. HPU just can’t score any points.
Sul Ross State (1-5, 0-4 ASC) at Louisiana College (5-1, 3-1). The Wildcats are sneaking back up the rankings after the disappointing loss in Belton a few weeks ago. After this week it gets a whole lot tougher the last three weeks.
Webber International (1-5) at Huntingdon (5-2, IND). The Hawks return home looking to bounce back from their disappointing trip to San Antonio. The Warriors of Lake Wales, Fla., are coming off their first victory of the year over fellow NAIA foe Edward Waters.
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