10 games to watch for 2016

Tight end Drew Neuville is one of the top offensive players returning for Bethel.
d3photography.com photo

Sept. 3 – Bethel at Dubuque. After finishing .500 last season, Bethel appears ready to climb back up the MIAC standings. But before the Royals even get to conference play, they will be tested by reigning IIAC champs Dubuque. This game should serve as a great measuring stick to see how strong Bethel and the MIAC will be this season and if Dubuque is poised to defend its league title. Both teams are receiving votes in the preseason Top 25. A convincing win, for either team, could launch them into the rankings and into the nation’s focus.

Sept. 3 – John Carroll at UW-Oshkosh. The first big non-conference game of the year pits No. 6 UW-Oshkosh against No. 18 John Carroll. The Titans are coming off a WIAC championship and a trip to the national quarterfinals while John Carroll is looking to rebound after missing out on a third consecutive trip to the postseason. The Blue Streaks will have their hands full with junior quarterback Brett Kasper, the reigning WIAC player of the year, and a veteran Titans defense. The game will serve as a good test for UW-Oshkosh, which will face the Nos. 3 and 12 ranked teams while traversing its challenging conference schedule.

Sept. 17 – Linfield at Mary Hardin-Baylor. A top-five matchup in September? What’s not to love? Division III fans all across the country will be paying attention when All-American QB Sam Riddle and the second-ranked Wildcats head to Belton to take on the No. 5 Crusaders in a rematch of a 2015 national quarterfinal. Linfield won that meeting, 38-35, and MHB defensive starts Teidrick Smith and Baylor Mullins will be tasked with slowing down Riddle, running back Spencer Payne and Co. Even though this game will be played in Week 3, it will be discussed all season – especially as the playoffs approach.

Sept. 24 – St. Thomas at St. John’s. Death, taxes and big attendance marks at the Johnnie-Tommie game. The best rivalry in Division III football caps off what should be an exciting September of Division III football. Last year, 17,327 people – the highest attendance ever recorded at a D-III game – packed Clemens Stadium to watch St. Thomas beat St. John’s, 35-14. The 2015 attendance bettered the turnout for the two teams’ 2010 matchup at St. John’s when 16,421 came to SJU’s campus. The MIAC rivals now hold five of the top 11 recorded attendance figures on record. Expect another big crowd as All-American running back Jordan Roberts and the fourth-ranked Tommies are coming off a Stagg Bowl appearance and the No. 9 Johnnies are buoyed by a talented crop of transfers.

Sept. 24 – Morningside at UW-Whitewater. This game pits the Warhawks, ranked No. 3 in Division III, against the NAIA’s third-ranked program. Whitewater won a 33-30 nail-biter last season at Sioux City, Iowa, when the teams were both ranked No. 1 at their respective levels of football. This year, Chris Nelson and UW-Whitewater host the Mustangs in what will be the first of three-consecutive tests against formidable opponents (see below). Second-year head coach Kevin Bullis wants to see progress from last year, and this matchup will be the team’s first opportunity to demonstrate its improvement.

Oct. 8 – UW-Oshkosh at UW-Whitewater. The Warhawks finish running a gauntlet of ranked foes when defending WIAC champ UW-Oshkosh visits Perkins Stadium. No. 3 UW-Whitewater will be coming off consecutive games against Morningside – ranked No. 3 in the NAIA – and No. 12 UW-Platteville. No. 6 UW-Oshkosh won the regular season meeting, 10-7, thanks to a blocked field goal in the waning moments. However, the Warhawks got the better of the Titans in the national quarterfinals, 31-29. Count on another close game when the teams meet this year, and the winner will get the inside track to the 2016 WIAC crown.

Oct. 15 – Cal Lutheran at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. The senior-laden Stags, who are receiving votes in the Preseason Top 25, appear to be the favorite to win a wide-open SCIAC. They’ll be tested at home when Cal Lutheran – winner of four straight SCIAC titles from 2009 to 2012 – visits. If Claremont-Mudd-Scripps gets past the Kingsmen, they will go to Redlands the following week with an opportunity to take a big lead in the conference race.

Oct. 22 – Linfield at Whitworth. If second-ranked Linfield is going to be challenged in the Northwest Conference, that test will come from No. 19 Whitworth. The Pirates made the playoffs last season, only to lose to Linfield for a second time. Meanwhile the Wildcats is loaded and ready to record its 61st consecutive winning season. Unless Whitworth steps up, Linfield looks poised to add an eighth straight Northwest Conference title to the trophy case.

Oct. 29 – Wartburg at Dubuque. These two teams have combined to win five of the last IIAC conference titles, and they appear to be the favorites to win the 2016 crown. Both the Knights and defending champion Spartans are receiving votes in the Preseason Top 25. Wartburg sophomore quarterback Matt Sacia will be leading the team after a number of veterans graduated while Dubuque’s offensive line will need to keep new starting quarterback Conor Feckley upright. This preseason unknowns around each team make this matchup intriguing, and the rivalry between the programs should help the meeting live up to the billing.

Nov. 5 – Greenville at St. Scholastica. This will be the Saints’ biggest test other than a Week 1 matchup at No. 9 St. John’s. St. Scholastica has won at least a share of the last five UMAC titles, claiming the last three outright. Greenville will turn to safety Nicholas Morrow and the defense to slow down the Saints. But CSS and senior quarterback Kyle Stepka have their eyes on another league championship.

Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith has covered Division III sports for more than five years. He writes for multiple publications, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and lives in southern Wisconsin near UW-Whitewater, where he graduated with a degree in print journalism.

2011-12 columns: Jason Galleske
2010: Tim Walsh
2003-09: Adam Johnson
1999-2000: Don Stoner 

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