Around the Nation

Our playoff surprises, disappointments

Noah Dodd running the ball for Wartburg
As we look for teams who could surprise or disappoint, should one consider Wartburg a favorite or an underdog?
Wartburg athletics photo by Julie Drewes 

By Adam Turer

The regular season brought us plenty of surprises, up to and including the final game played in Week 11. 

That result, UW-Oshkosh knocking off UW-Whitewater to earn the WIAC’s Pool A playoff berth, led to disappointment for John Carroll and Susquehanna players, coaches, and fans. 

It’s understandable to feel disappointed and frustrated. But if you’re surprised by the bracket, you weren’t following this site closely enough during the season. Podcasts, regional rankings notes, mock playoff brackets — we had a good feeling this is how the bracket would shake out. 

SUNY-Maritime’s playoff berth as the ECFC’s automatic qualifier at 5-5 is a surprise to many. To some of us, the fact that they salvaged a 5-5 season by defeating Mount St. Joseph in Week 11 was the bigger surprise. 

The field of 32 is set, and there’s no changing it now. It’s time to look ahead. 

To do that, we enlist a panel of experts to break down each region of the bracket. Which team will surprise us in the tournament, the way Randolph-Macon, RPI, and Johns Hopkins did in 2018? Which team will fall short of expectations, or fail to live up to its regular season performance? 

If you’re wondering why we haven’t talked much about your team on the site yet this season, consider it a compliment. Over the next five weeks, expect more features on the teams who dominated during the regular season and were expected to be playing in Week 12 and beyond. 

Shenandoah, Tex. served as a most gracious host for the championship game last season. Pressure is on the local team to get back there and win it all again, but there appears to be a deep field of worthy challengers on both sides of the bracket. 

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. 20. On Friday’s edition of Quick Hits, we will predict not just winners, but final scores for every first-round matchup. 

Our postseason panel consists of Publisher and Executive Editor Pat Coleman, Managing Editor and National Columnist Emeritus Keith McMillan, In the Huddle Broadcaster and Stagg Bowl Sideline Reporter Frank Rossi, Senior Editor Ryan Tipps, Bracketologist Greg Thomas, and me, the Senior Editor and 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 that will disappoint, and one that will make it through to the national semifinals. The lack of consensus just goes to show you how exciting the 2019 postseason is going to be. Read on to find out what us “experts” predict, and chime in with your own predictions in the comments.

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. 



Ryan: Wartburg. Uncertainty this season in the ARC has meant that those teams have somewhat flown under the radar this fall. The playoffs, though, are where those kinds of impressions change. The Knights can advance through Round 1 and have a good shot at making some noise when they pair up against UW-Whitewater in Round 2. 

Greg: Wartburg. Doesn't seem to be a lot of room for surprises in this quadrant — a UMHB/UWW quarterfinal seems inevitable. The Knights probably have the best chance to win on the road and outperform their seed. 

Frank: Wartburg. The loss to Central built this team’s character, as shown by their impossible comeback. The miracle two-point conversion by the Dutch gave them the win, but the game itself gave Wartburg the needed wake-up call to make a run.

Keith: Hope. The Flying Dutchmen are playing at home, and have a chance to make their name resonate beyond Michigan with a win against Wartburg, one of the last few teams in the field. Meantime, the Knights might feel the glare from Cleveland, Ohio and Selinsgrove, Pa. if they don't put their Pool C spot to good use.

Adam: UW-Whitewater. The Warhawks are coming off of a loss that cost them a conference title, but didn’t cost them a home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Warhawks have the balance in all three phases to prevent a national champion repeat. 

Pat: Hope. Even as a higher seed, they have to be considered an underdog based on ranking, but they can certainly pull off the first-round win behind Mason Opple.



Ryan: Redlands. It seems like every year there’s either a West Coast or a Texas team in this spot, being listed as a disappointment over the raw deal it gets because of the NCAA’s travel decisions. Outsiders normally wouldn’t lament a SCIAC runner-up having to face the defending national champion, but Redlands’ SOS (.548) has them looking quite good and deserving of something better.

Greg: Redlands. Difficult draw for the West region's No. 3 team. The Bulldogs (and Crusaders, frankly) deserved better.  

Frank: Berry. The Vikings haven’t been the strong team many have expected. Huntingdon could take them down in Round 1, and I wouldn’t be shocked.

Keith: Redlands. Even when the committee tries to do right by the West Coast and Texas teams, it can't. Redlands will never know how far it could have gone had it drawn a Framingham State or a Brockport or Case Western Reserve in Round 1. But nobody said the playoffs would be easy. Someone once said they are a cold business, and that'll be exemplified by the Cru-tiful end of a Bulldogs season that could have lasted another week or two without geographic constraints.

Adam: Redlands. The Bulldogs deserved a much better first-round draw than traveling to Texas to face the defending champions. The biggest first-round matchup disappointment of all. Maybe the NCAA is the real disappointment here. 

Pat: Redlands. This is generally where I throw out the term “penny pinching.”


Last team standing

Ryan: Mary Hardin-Baylor. They’ve been at the top of my ballot all season long.

Greg: Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Cru have had moments of vulnerability this year, but it's hard to have watched UW-W throw five interceptions at Oshkosh last week and think the Warhawks are going to throw their way through the UMHB defense and into the semis.  

Frank: Mary Hardin-Baylor. Until proven otherwise, they are the defending champs for a reason.

Keith: Mary Hardin-Baylor. If there's anything but another UMHB/UW-Whitewater game on Dec. 7, color us all stunned. But both teams have looked more vulnerable than your average Stagg Bowl contender, so it's hard to confidently lean into either one here. The Warhawks have played six games decided by 10 points or fewer, and might be ready for a quarterback change after Zach Oles' four interceptions in Week 11. UMHB is always ready for a quarterback change, but by Whitewater time, it probably won't be playing Jase Hammack, Luke Poorman and Tommy Bowden in the first half. Whitewater is equipped to win a slugfest, but we have to go with the defending champion Crusaders until we are shown otherwise.

Adam: Mary Hardin-Baylor. Somehow, someway, Pete Fredenburg gets his squad playing its best football in November and December. The Cru can erase all the regular-season doubts and question marks and earn another trip to its home state Stagg Bowl. 

Pat: Mary Hardin-Baylor. These guys are looking like they are back running on all cylinders.




Ryan: Linfield. In any given year, it’s rare to think of the Wildcats as a surprise team in the playoffs, but the early-season blues seem to be gone and they’re peaking at the right time. And they’ll be showing off their stuff on the road.

Greg: Chapman. Despite being the No. 1-ranked West region team, the Panthers are likely underdogs in their first two games. But the Chapman defense is geared toward disrupting pass-first offenses (like those they would see in the first two rounds). A quarterfinal trip isn't out of the question.  

Frank: Linfield. Linfield is on a hot streak overall, and it might be enough to take down this undefeated Chapman squad.

Keith: Aurora. St. John's has been a top-five team most of the season, so expecting anything out of Aurora normally would be insane. But Don Beebe's crew, whose only loss is by two at fellow playoff participant Hope, puts up crazy offense. The Spartans are sixth nationally at 518 yards per game. The problem? The Johnnies, at 521, are fifth — and also boast the No. 12 defense.

Adam: UW-Oshkosh. A freshman quarterback playing with confidence, momentum from winning the nation’s toughest conference, and upperclassmen ecstatic to return to the postseason. The Titans have a recipe for postseason success, even though they’ll need to win away from the friendly confines of Titan Stadium. 

Pat: UW-Oshkosh. These guys have the ability to win a road game if they continue to play at the level they have in previous weeks.



Ryan: UW-Oshkosh. While the Titans have certainly found their groove through November, many were disappointed to see them with a road game to kick off the playoffs. After all, they were the WIAC champs. (Not at all relevant to the playoffs, but UW-O is also more highly ranked in the poll than Central.) Still, this is a winnable game for Central, a team that brings a lot of offensive balance to the table, and we very well could see an untimely postseason departure for Oshkosh.

Greg: Central. The ARC champs have been paired off with the WIAC champs and that looks like a pretty rough matchup for Blaine Hawkins and the Dutch.  

Frank: Central. If UW-Oshkosh can handle UW-Whitewater, then the Dutch are in trouble.

Keith: Chapman. Wheaton/Oshkosh and Linfield/St. John's would be some all-time great second-round matchups for this quadrant, which means you can take your pick at who's more disappointed between Central and Chapman. The Panthers have been proving the proverbial naysayers wrong all season, but Linfield, then St. John's, then Wheaton or Oshkosh is a tough ask.

Adam: Chapman. The Panthers had a great season. But Linfield is the classic story of an experienced team that suffered an early-season loss, went into playoff mode in September, and grew stronger each week. The Wildcats are a tougher test than Chapman deserves in the first round. 

Pat: Linfield. It is so hard to believe in Chapman after what the SCIAC has done in the past decade of playoffs, but I will let my faith in our Top 25 poll provide here.


Last team standing

Ryan: Wheaton. This is a team that is absolutely crushing every aspect of game play, from their top-notch defense to an offense powered by a 2,000-yard quarterback, a pair of dynamic receivers, and a running back who has crested 1,200 yards … not to mention a kicker who connected with a 46-yarder just last week. All the boxes are checked.

Greg: Wheaton. The Thunder, miraculously, dodged both Mount Union and Whitewater. This isn't an easy region to get out of by any stretch, but if Wheaton is going to return to the semis, they aren't going to get a better opportunity than this.  

Frank: St. John’s. I think enough attrition could occur in this bracket to help clear the way for the Johnnies.

Keith: Wheaton. If we're not gonna ride the lightning Thunder now, when the road to Shenandoah for a North Region team won't even require a visit to Alliance, when will we do it? Sure, the quadrant is loaded, but so is Wheaton.

Adam: St. John’s. Jackson Erdmann does whatever it takes to get another shot at Mary Hardin-Baylor and avenge last year’s heartbreak. The path won’t be easy, but it’s manageable. They’ll need to win a memorable thriller or two along the way to get there, but have the talent and pedigree to pull out a postseason classic. 

Pat: Wheaton. Those guys up front are just incredible for Wheaton. They put Broc Rutter on his back seven times and Dan Greenheck can only block one of those guys.




Ryan: Muhlenberg. Last year’s Centennial Conference playoff performance (standup outings by both Muhlenberg and Johns Hopkins) has given me and others a better impression of what the CC is capable of on a national scale. Michael Hnatkowsky has been on fire this season, massively increasing his completion rate while dropping his turnover rate significantly. Couple that with a defense that’s great against the run, and the Mules have a real opportunity to shut down Salisbury’s potent triple-option attack if the teams meet in the regional finals.

Greg: Brockport. Western New England has an explosive offense, but Brockport does have an elite defense that is going to disrupt the Golden Bears a bit. Brockport has the potential to go a couple of rounds here if they can find enough offense.  

Frank: Western New England. Brockport may have a problem coming up, as the Golden Bears have found a running back in Jamyre Soberanis (he’s broken the century mark five times in a row) to help open up Alec Coleman’s pass game. This will be a good game either way.

Keith: SUNY-Maritime. Case Western Reserve is the likeliest to pull an upset, but SUNY-Maritime could surprise by staying competitive for a half with Salisbury and showing its presence in this tournament is not a complete waste of time.

Adam: Union. The Dutchmen defense has locked down all challengers this season. Every time I think Union is going to lose its first game of the season, they not only surprise with a win but do it in convincing fashion. 

Pat: Brockport. Even without a healthy No. 1 quarterback, Brockport still has that defense that has allowed fewer rushing yards per game than it takes me to get to my car in the morning. It will give Western New England fits.



Ryan: Brockport. Until very recently, the Golden Eagles were a ranked and very highly regarded team. But their final regular-season performance showed just how much they can struggle, from converting just 2 of their 13 third-down attempts to turning the ball over four times. Every year, we have at least one or two teams from “weaker” conferences come up and stun their more recognizable brethren. Brockport could easily be a one-and-done at the hands of Western New England.

Greg: Salisbury. The Sea Gulls feel like the most vulnerable top seed in the bracket. Union just keeps finding ways to beat ranked teams and Muhlenberg has the playoff experience from last year.  

Frank: Salisbury. They’ll get through Maritime, but the winner of Union/CWRU I think has the horses to beat the Sea Gulls.

Keith. Western New England. The Bears get a home game and a visit from an 8-2 team, which is usually a recipe for moving on. But Brockport isn't any ol' 8-2 — it's one with playoff experience on the roster, an overtime comeback in its pocket, and three games against eight-win teams already this season, plus four more .500 or better. There aren't too many scenarios in which a road team coming off a Week 11 loss likes its chances, but this is one.

Adam: Brockport. The Golden Eagles need to do a lot of soul searching this week if they want to bounce back from a disappointing Week 11 loss and make a postseason run. Even if they can shake it off, they’ll likely have to face Muhlenberg in the second round. 

Pat: Union. They are stuck in a tough part of the bracket, where they won’t have a reasonable shot at two wins, which is what a 3 seed should have.


Last team standing

Ryan: Muhlenberg. The Centennial represents in the national semis now two years in a row.

Greg: Muhlenberg. With that quarterfinal experience from one year ago and no Mount Union standing in the way, the Mules will seize this golden opportunity to reach the final four. 

Frank: Muhlenberg. Not much to Mull over here ... They’re playing great football and have one of the easier roads to the semifinals.

Keith: Salisbury. There are eight undefeated teams in the playoffs (the ninth, Middlebury, isn't participating), and three of them are in this quadrant. Yet there's no national power in this group of eight either, so it's the hardest last team standing to pick. I'm going with Salisbury, because of the way it handled both Wesley and UW-Oshkosh, but if we were doing this with confidence levels, mine would be like 55%.

Adam: Muhlenberg. Last year’s postseason experience, culminating in a competitive showdown with Mount Union, will be measured by how far the Mules advance over the next five weeks. Muhlenberg has the recipe, with talent and experience on both sides of the ball. The Mules are confident and have a deserved swagger heading into the postseason.

Pat: Salisbury. I just feel like this particular group of Sea Gulls has it put together and has enough balance to make playoff noise. 



Ryan: Delaware Valley. Having one of the best defenses in the nation (statistically No. 2, giving up only 182.5 yards per game), combined with being in a tough conference, the Aggies have a shot to go deeper than normal for a road team. And a Round 1 win against Bridgewater lines them up for an exciting rematch against Wesley, the team that gave DelVal its only 2019 blemish — by just a one-score margin, in four overtimes.

Greg: Framingham State. The Rams are no stranger to higher-level East region competition, so they shouldn't be surprised or overwhelmed by a team of Wesley's caliber. The Wolverines have been living dangerously all year against playoff and non-playoff-level teams, making this a prime opportunity for a first-round upset. 

Frank: Delaware Valley. After not getting hosting rights in the first round, the Aggies feel disrespected as the East’s third-ranked team. Can’t say I blame them, despite my view that Union should have surged to No. 2, above them. The Aggies will make a deeper-than-expected run until the Mount Union game.

Keith: Framingham State. The Rams have a chance to pull off a monumental surprise, but then again, so will North Central in Round 2. The Rams have won eight straight since early-season losses to Endicott and Brockport, and the common Endicott result with Wesley makes this one ripe for the picking. Wesley is at home, has traditionally crushed Northeastern teams and has thid year played five one-score games, but none since October. If a surprise going to happen in Round 1 in this quadrant, it's here.

Adam: Bridgewater. I’ve been high on the Eagles all season, and not because I’m an ODAC homer. The Eagles dominated opponents and look like one of the most complete teams in the nation. Their weakness has not yet been exposed. Randolph-Macon proved last year that an ODAC champion can make noise in the postseason. The Eagles keep that streak alive by advancing a round or two this year. 

Pat: North Central. Mount Union will need to be firing on all cylinders to get past these guys. Glad for an interesting second-round matchup.



Ryan: North Central. Not that the Cardinals won’t play up to every bit of potential they have, but it’ll be disappointing to see a nationally-ranked top-five team exit the playoffs so early in Round 2. A better placement could have given them a shot to go deep.

Greg: North Central. Per the seeding, going out in Round 2 to Mount Union is expected, but our Top 25 has had North Central very highly ranked all year and an early exit would be somewhat unjust. 

Frank: Wesley. The Wolverines remain unranked on my Top 25 ballot with five close games out of nine D-III games this year (including the Salisbury loss). They’ve lived by the sword too much, and this could be a quick exit if they’re not careful.

Keith: Bridgewater. The Bridgewater/Delaware Valley loser is a team that probably envisions itself playing a quarterfinal at Mount Union in a few weeks, but one season ends by 4 p.m. Saturday. The Eagles have had a remarkable revival, and have big receiving targets, a gritty quarterback and a linebacker worth keeping an eye on. The Aggies have a couple Nobiles you should know. A Del Val road win wouldn't be a surprise by rankings, and would put a disappointing end to the best Bridgewater season in almost 15 years.

Adam: Wesley. The Wolverines turned their fortunes around by winning close games this year that they failed to escape in 2018. But the fact that they played so many nailbiters is not convincing. Wesley looks like it’s still a year away from getting back in the national semifinal conversation. 

Pat: Wesley. Better than last year by not losing the close games, but winning the close games instead of blowing teams out doesn’t bode well for a deep postseason run.


Last team standing

Ryan: Mount Union. Despite North Central being in the path, there’s no real reason to suspect MUC to get upset in this quadrant.

Greg: Mount Union. North Central is the only team in this quadrant that may pose a threat, but I do expect the Purple Raiders to get through that obstacle and breeze through to the semis.  

Frank: Mount Union. It’s like flipping a coin and being given both heads and tails, with the only loss being if the coin lands on its edge. The Purple Raiders go back to the semifinals.

Keith: Mount Union. We barely talk about Mount Union regular seasons because we know they're good to get to the semifinals, at least. Some year a Purple Raiders team will stumble before then, but this is not that year. North Central looks like a second-round test, but the Purple Raiders have all the key offensive playmakers healthy, backed by a smothering defense.

Adam: Mount Union. We probably won’t write much about the Purple Raiders until December. Their dominant performances speak for themselves. 

Pat: Mount Union. While they will get pushed harder than perhaps in previous second- and third-round games, they won’t be pushed out.

Read the rest of this column


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 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.


Previous Columns