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Re-ranking the conferences for 2018

UW-Oshkosh celebrates during a season-opening victory against Carthage. (Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com)
UW-Oshkosh's season started with some issues on offense, but the Titans have looked stronger as teams head into October.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
 

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

Every year around this time, we revisit the preseason conference rankings from Kickoff.

Sometimes, the non-conference slate results in the standings holding pat. Other years, like 2017 for instance, non-conference results tip the scales in favor of certain conferences.

Recent conference rankings

2018 preseason *
2017 midseason
2017 preseason *
2016 midseason
2016 preseason *
2015 midseason

* subscription required

This year’s preseason rankings, which subscribers can still read in Kickoff, strongly resemble last year’s midseason re-rank. The NJAC and Centennial rose, while the Empire 8 and Liberty League slid. Weighing the quality of a conference from top to bottom is no easy task. Often times, the depth of the bottom — cough, HCAC, cough — can drag a league down even if it has two playoff-worthy teams putting up impressive numbers at the top.

Parity is not necessarily a negative. More good teams at the top, like the SAA has this year, is a good look for the conference even if there may not be a dominant team that could make a deep playoff run. There has already been some in-conference upheaval, as I wrote about on Sunday. When upstarts knock off perennial powers, conferences rise up the rankings. When conferences Make addItions of historicAlly struggling progrAms, they slide.

Seven out of the 27 D-III conferences are without a winless team: CCIW, NWC, ODAC, Liberty League, SAA, MASCAC, and WIAC. Eight conferences — the MIAC, MIAA, PAC, LL, OAC, NJAC, NCAC, and ASC — have multiple undefeated teams.

There are at least four conferences that can make a viable claim to be ranked at the top, or at least in the top two. One conference has been at the top of these rankings consistently for the past few years, but the runner-up is making a strong push to claim that top spot.

With so many ranked conference rivals squaring off this weekend, what better time to add some more fuel to the fire.

Without further ado, here is your conference re-rank, updated from Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan’s preseason rankings featured in Kickoff.  

1. Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 1
            Non-conference record: 14-9
            Signature win: UW-La Crosse 34, Illinois Wesleyan 31

Last season, the WIAC was represented in the playoffs by just one team, UW-Oshkosh. This league typically fields at least two playoff squads, and at least one of them usually advances to the Stagg Bowl or at least the semifinals. The rise of the Eagles gives the league more depth. A UW-Platteville win at Thomas More would have made this a no-brainer, but the Pioneers let a big early lead slip away.

 2. Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 2
            Non-conference record: 12-5
            Signature win: St. John’s 27, UW-Stout 0

Any conference that enters October with four unbeaten teams is going to rise up the rankings. The biggest non-conference test may not come until the season finale, when the Johnnies host Thomas More. St. Olaf’s 5-0 start is a nice surprise for a conference already top-heavy with Stagg Bowl contenders St. John’s and St. Thomas. MIAC teams did boast a 3-2 record against WIAC teams, but the bottom of the conference drags it down.

Ricardo Johnson III runs away from Luther defenders. (Photo by Kevin Healy, d3photography.com)
The early-season performance of St. Olaf helps solidify the MIAC's spot as the second-best conference in the land.
Photo by Kevin Healy, d3photography.com
 

3. Ohio Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 3
            Non-conference record: 9-1
            Signature win: John Carroll 45, UW-Stevens Point 21

We know the top of the league is as good as it gets. Seeing the resurgence of programs like Baldwin Wallace and Marietta only makes the conference stronger. With only one non-conference game per team, though, it’s hard to really evaluate the OAC against the rest of the nation. Before November and December, that is.

4. American Southwest Conference
            Kickoff ranking: 4
            Non-conference record: 4-6
            Signature win: Southwestern 42, Denison 21

Like the OAC, the ASC now has a nine-game conference slate.  The conference also has two straight Stagg Bowl appearances. East Texas Baptist jumping out to a big lead over UW-Platteville and hanging 44 on one of the WIAC’s top teams was impressive, even in defeat.

5. College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin

            Kickoff ranking: 7
            Non-conference record: 8-2
            Signature win: Millikin 25, Hope 21

Only one conference currently boasts a trio of Top 25 teams. The additions of Wash. U seems to have helped the conference’s strength, as the Bears are off to a 3-1 start. The competition at the top among those three top 25 programs is as exciting as any conference race in the country. Millikin’s improvement also adds depth in the middle.

6. New Jersey Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 5
            Non-conference record: 6-3
            Signature win: Wesley 34, Delaware Valley 10

The NJAC has four undefeated teams, but it also has three winless teams. Two teams ranked in the top six of the Top 25 poll could make deep postseason runs. Another league with just one non-conference game per team, making these rankings more difficult. Montclair State’s rebound is a nice addition.

7. Centennial Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 9
            Non-conference record: 6-3
            Signature win: Johns Hopkins 63, Randolph-Macon 31

Already, three Centennial teams have cracked the Top 25. Four teams are battling for the top spot, and Susquehanna has pushed two of them to overtime. Two winless teams are a drag, but this could be a two-bid league if the teams in the upper half don’t cannibalize one another and create a chaotic tie atop the standings.

8. Empire 8

            Kickoff ranking: 8
            Non-conference record: 12-9
            Signature win: Brockport 56, Hobart 7

Brockport is poised for another playoff push, and Alfred appears to be a worthy contender that could win many other conferences. The Golden Eagles and Saxons split against Ithaca in two closely contested games. The conference hasn’t done much else noteworthy so far, but a national semifinalist raises all conference mates.

9. Northwest Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 6
            Non-conference record: 11-8
            Signature win: Linfield 13, Redlands 0 

The perennially dominant national power is currently at the very bottom of the conference standings. Still, Linfield has the best non-conference win and its first loss of the season was to a non-D-III opponent. Every team has at least one win. Lewis & Clark has two, equaling its total from the past four years combined.

Puget Sound defenders wrap up a Redlands ballcarrier. (Photo by Andrew Glover, d3photography.com)
The NWC swept all eight games in its Week 3 challenge with the SCIAC, wherein last year's first- through eighth-place finishers in the two leagues each squared off.
File photo by Andrew Glover, d3photography.com
 

10. Presidents’ Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 10
            Non-conference record: 4-6
            Signature win: N/A 

This is about as balanced a conference as you’ll see. Two Top 25 playoff teams at the top, two winless teams at the bottom, and a bunch of mediocrity in the middle. The non-conference schedule was underwhelming, and the results were not impressive. The conference surely would have liked to claim Thomas More’s win over UW-Platteville. Then again, if the Saints were still in the PAC, that game doesn’t get scheduled.

11. Liberty League

            Kickoff ranking: 13
            Non-conference record: 15-10
            Signature win: Union 45, Springfield 10 

Two ranked teams, two unbeatens, and the best team currently has the third-best record. The Liberty League is one of two conferences yet to begin league play. The most impressive performance so far was Ithaca’s 13-7 loss to Brockport. Jeff Behrman has turned things around at Union, and Chad Martinovich is determined to do the same at Rochester. This is a conference on the rise.

12. Middle Atlantic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 14
            Non-conference record: 9-12
            Signature win: Alvernia 26, Gallaudet 21 

Misericordia and FDU-Florham have a combined seven wins. Wilkes has two wins after going winless last year. Alvernia won the first game in program history. But there are two winless teams, Delaware Valley looks to have taken a step back this season while remaining at the top of the MAC, and the non-conference results are skewed by the fact that many MAC teams played one another in “non-conference” games early this season.

13. Old Dominion Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 12
            Non-conference record: 11-6
            Signature win: Guilford 61, Methodist 35

The Quakers beat the Monarchs who beat Huntingdon. Does that settle the never-completed contested between Guilford and the Hawks? Probably not. The ODAC is on track to be wacky once again, with several potent offenses trying to find more balance, and defenses trying to get a stop. The addition of Ferrum appears to be a boost to the conference’s strength. 

Shenandoah defender bringing down a Ferrum ball-carrier. (Photo by Dan Hunter, d3photography.com)
Ferrum has hardly brought down the Old Dominion Athletic Conference.
Photo by Dan Hunter, d3photography.com
 

14. American Rivers Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 11
            Non-conference record: 9-9
            Signature win: Central 16, DePauw 10 

The what? We understand if this is your first time realizing that the American Rivers Conference exists. Just before the season began, the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference rebranded as the ARC. The Dutch are atop the standings, but face their biggest challengers late in the season. Wartburg has taken a step back after last year’s impressive playoff performance.

15. North Coast Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 15
            Non-conference record: 4-6
            Signature win: Wittenberg 34, Westminster (Pa.) 21 

Not much to evaluate in the non-conference slate. Wabash picked up a win over a WIAC team, which is always noteworthy. Aside from the two unbeatens at the top, every team already has multiple losses. The conference appears to have taken a step back overall, but has given us the most thrilling game of the season so far.

16. Southern Athletic Association

            Kickoff ranking: 16
            Non-conference record: 13-5
            Signature win: Birmingham-Southern 41, Huntingdon 35 

I think this league is strong, which is why I’ve now twice in Quick Hits predicted its top dog will fall, only to be proven wrong. Berry just keeps winning. But this year, the Vikings face pressure from not only Centre, but resurgent programs at Rhodes and Millsaps.

17. Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association

            Kickoff ranking: 19
            Non-conference record: 16-8
            Signature win: Albion 56, Franklin 35 

Three unbeatens is a good look, even if the non-conference scheduling has been short of ambitious. Adding Finlandia was supposed to drag the conference down, but that has been offset by Kalamazoo’s impressive 4-0 start. Trine was a worthy playoff representative last year and appears on track to again win the MIAA and possibly a playoff game.

Mike Miklusicak runs the ball for Hope against Wisconsin Lutheran. (Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com)
Hope isn't undefeated, but that has come from scheduling Millikin in non-conference action and having Trine be the first conference opponent.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
 

18. Midwest Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 18
            Non-conference record: 8-12
            Signature win: Monmouth 24, Wartburg 18 

The other conference yet to begin league play, and the only one with a true conference championship game, the MWC is tough to predict, especially since the conference has played 14 non-conference games against conference teams. Monmouth has proven capable of competing against Top 25 and playoff-caliber opponents. Beyond that, there’s not much we’ll know about the quality at the top until that conference title game in November.

19. New England Men’s and Women’s Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 17
            Non-conference record: 12-10
            Signature win: MIT 31, Endicott 29 

MIT is off to a 5-0 start under first-year head coach Brian Bubna. Springfield’s loss to Union was a disappointment. Who would have thought that Merchant Marine’s victory over Misericordia would look like a quality win at this point in the season? With Thomas More competing against the NEWMAC for that coveted Pool B bid, every week is crucial.

20. Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 20
            Non-conference record: 9-8
            Signature win: Framingham State 34, Endicott 13 

The conference’s signature win gives the Rams a transitive victory over Hobart. Western Connecticut is off to a 4-0 start. We have officially entered one-bid league territory now.

21. Commonwealth Coast Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 23
            Non-conference record: 11-15
            Signature win: Endicott 27, Hobart 24 

Western New England remains the team to beat. The Golden Bears haven’t lost a conference game since 2015. But they were doubled up on in the season opener by the NEWMAC’s defending champ. Endicott’s win over Hobart was impressive. Two winless teams and the head-to-head losses to the conference immediately above bring the CCC here.

22. USA South Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 21
            Non-conference record: 4-14
            Signature win: N.C. Wesleyan 35, Thomas More 28 

If Huntingdon was able to complete its game against Guilford, the conference would have another quality win. But the weather-shortened game was cancelled and does not count. N.C. Wesleyan’s victory over the Saints is looking like one of the season’s biggest surprises. Averett looked good in splitting its two games against ODAC opponents. Losing Ferrum hurts, but not as much as Huntingdon’s shocking 0-3 start.

Methodist players high-five each other at a home game. (Photo by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com)
There has been a little more to celebrate than usual for Methodist so far this season.
Photo by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com
 

23. Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 22
            Non-conference record: 6-12
            Signature win: Redlands 20, George Fox 12 

Three winless teams drag the conference toward the bottom. But after Saturday, either Occidental or Whittier will break a seasons-spanning losing streak. This Saturday also appears to be the de facto title game, as Redlands will try to avenge last year’s loss to Chapman. The Panthers and Bulldogs both acquitted themselves very well in non-conference losses to the top teams in the NWC.

24. Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 24
            Non-conference record: 2-16
            Signature win: Franklin 55, Benedictine 38 

The bottom of this conference is deeeeeep. Three of the lowest ranked teams in Kickoff play in the HCAC. No matter how good Franklin or Mount St. Joe are, or how many yards and points their quarterbacks produce, the national perspective of the conference is skewed due to the lack of competition within the league. Franklin’s win over Benedictine was better than MSJ’s win over Capital. Those were the HCAC’s only two non-conference wins to choose from.

25. Eastern Collegiate Football Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 26
            Non-conference record: 5-19
            Signature win: Castleton 34, Fitchburg State 13

No team in the conference has a winning record. The most impressive performance was Husson’s 31-28 loss to Western New England in a game that the Eagles should have won.

26. Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 25
            Non-conference record: 7-17
            Signature win: Concordia (Wis.) 26, Alma 15 

I wanted to slide the ECFC down, since it has no team above .500. But aside from the two teams atop the NACC, the other six teams are just 4-20. And although the Red Devils appear to be a welcome addition, undefeated Eureka’s three non-conference wins came against teams who have combined for just one win in 2018.

27. Upper Midwest Athletic Conference

            Kickoff ranking: 27
            Non-conference record: 1-14
            Signature win: Martin Luther 28, Rockford 24 

The 2017 conference champ plays in the NACC now. At least I didn’t have to worry about hurting any feelings when choosing this season’s signature non-conference win. 

We don't rank the NESCAC, because conference members do not play outside of the conference, leaving no basis for comparison with the rest of Division III.

That’s it. It was encouraging to see this year’s Kickoff predictions reflect last year’s midseason re-rank. Postseason performances will also inform 2019’s Kickoff rankings. Until then, enjoy the few remaining marquee non-conference matchups — have I mentioned Thomas More enough yet? They have a few more good ones coming up — and the exciting conference races. Before you know it, we’ll be predicting the field of 32.

What do you know? Do you know things? Let's find out!

There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com. Thanks for reading!

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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