Triple Take, Week 1: Welcome to a new season

Though Week 1 features only one game between Top 25 teams, polling is hardly the only way to pick which games could be among the most significant and interesting.

From battles halfway across the country to cross-town rivalries, every team opening this weekend enters the season with the highest expectations. For some, such as Mount Union, those expectations are nothing short of a national championship. For others, such as Wittenberg, they may include trying to make it though the season injury-free. And yet others, such as Millsaps, might be anxious to see how they perform after graduating a superstar athlete.

Each week, Friday’s Triple Take — which will feature a roundtable of panelists consisting of Editor and Publisher Pat Coleman, Managing Editor and National Columnist Keith McMillan, and Senior Editor and Mid-Atlantic Columnist Ryan Tipps — will try to predict some what’s to come on Saturday, while rooting out unique games and teams to keep an eye on, among other things.

The bar is at different levels for different teams; success can be found in many forms. Not every team this year will fall in line with their expectations, but the fun part is watching them try.

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— Ryan Tipps

Game of the Week
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Christopher Newport at No. 9 Wesley.
The threat of tropical weather ended last year’s meeting before it ever got started. The anticipation, though, remains. Wesley graduated many of its stars from the past couple of years, including three 2008 starting linebackers. What’s that mean for CNU? Well, the window may be open just enough to squeeze in an upset, especially with a bigger, stronger Tunde Ogun at running back.
Keith’s take: Whitworth at No. 5 Hardin-Simmons. I don’t really like to suggest a Week 1 game is must-win or has playoff implications, but with the visiting Pirates following the opener with games against Redlands (7-2 in ‘08), No. 8 Willamette (11-1) and Linfield (6-3) among its first six, and with the Cowboys going to Linfield next, then playing Louisiana College (7-3), Mississippi College (5-5 with star QB injured) and No. 3 UMHB (12-2), the winner here banks a key victory. The loser faces an uphill climb.
Pat’s take: Millsaps at Mississippi College. I’m looking forward to a good chapter in the Backyard Brawl history books, with Mississippi College having the upper hand in terms of experience this time around.

Surprisingly close game
Ryan’s take: Thomas More at John Carroll.
The 41-14 drubbing enjoyed by the Blue Streaks last year likely won’t be repeated. And it’s not because JCU is too much worse for wear. Instead, it’s because the Saints have a lot of returners who got a sampling of the postseason in 2008 and have a renewed drive to get back there in ‘09.
Keith’s take: Morrisville State at Hartwick. The Mustangs were 1-9 last season and the Hawks were 7-3, but Hartwick is bound to look different without quarterback Jason Boltus and wide receiver Jack Phelan powering the nation’s second-most-prolific offense. Morrisville State returns seven starters from a defense that can only be better after giving up 38.2 points per game this season. The Hawks might sputter a little as new quarterback Brian Radley gets his feet wet.
Pat’s take: No. 8 Willamette at Concordia-Moorhead. This is a game I really wish I could be at. I could make the 480-mile round trip, but I did that sort of thing last year a lot and I was pretty burnt out by the time the playoffs rolled around. Got to pace myself better this year. In terms of this game, Willamette has to win some games to prove to me that it can do it without Merben Woo, and perhaps more importantly, Grant Leslie. The guy threw 19 touchdowns last year and just three interceptions and Ryan Whitcomb, this year’s starter, threw three TD passes in 2007 when the team went 4-6.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset
Ryan’s take: No. 19 Franklin.
It’s a grisly prospect for the Grizzlies. All-America quarterback Chad Rupp is gone — along with more than half of last year’s starters on offense. The defensive depletion is even gloomier. This is not the team I’d prefer to take into a game against any OAC team, let alone Baldwin-Wallace.
Keith’s take: No. 19 Franklin. I don’t mean it as a knock on the strength of the Grizzlies’ potential longevity, as recruiting is generally pretty fertile after consecutive playoff appearances. But I’d be doing a disservice by ignoring how talented the seniors Franklin lost were and just assuming the program picks up where it left off.
Pat’s take: I might have given it away earlier, but No. 8 Willamette.

They’ll be on your radar
Ryan’s take: Hardin-Simmons.
The Cowboys have the potential to be an undefeated team this regular season — and well into the playoffs. Getting there won’t be easy (starting this weekend against Whitworth), but if the offensive line comes together and gives quarterback Justin Feaster time to make decisions, this will be a tough team to corral.
Keith’s take: No. 17 Wartburg. Iowa’s orange and black-clad Knights head north to take on their Green brethren at St. Norbert. And while Wartburg has opened with a top MWC team (either Monmouth or SNC) three seasons running and has yet to win by fewer than 20, in the opener I’d still like to see a team closer to the one that pushed UW-Whitewater in last season’s playoffs than the one that needed overtime to beat 2-8 Dubuque.
Pat’s take: Adrian. Wins against OAC teams are hard to come by in the non-conference schedule. Adrian will have to do it without two-time MIAA offensive MVP Troy Niblock, but has an experienced replacement at quarterback and a good number back on defense going into the opener at home against Capital.

Which 2008 playoff team will have the rockiest opening week?
Ryan’s take: Willamette.
For an NWC team, traveling far and wide is hardly foreign. But going 1,500 miles in Week 1 can’t be easy. Plus, with how much the Bearcats will have to reload, beating Concordia-Moorhead could be a challenge.
Keith’s take: LaGrange. It’s worth noting that Trine needed a fourth-quarter rally to win its opener at Manchester on Thursday night, because if not, the Thunder might already have this one sewn up. I look at the Panthers here because of the internal struggle players have to respect their opponents. It’s easy for LaGrange to think of itself as a 9-2 team from last year and B-SC as a 3-7 group and forget it needed two late Drew Carter-to-Devin Bilings touchdown passes, the last with 23 seconds left, to beat those Panthers, 34-31, in last year’s opener.
Pat’s take: Curry. They’re a little paranoid up in Milton, Mass., where they wouldn’t even commit to a style of offense on the record or off the record two weeks before the season started. They must think Bentley is pretty good.

Which bubble team has the best chance of breaking into the next Top 25 poll?
Ryan’s take: Delaware Valley.
I’m a little surprised the Aggies aren’t part of the top two bits already. A win against Johns Hopkins, one of the favorites to win the Centennial, should give Del Val the kind of credibility that was so sporadic (and, ultimately, elusive) in ‘08. With the Blue Jays able to crow about a highly potent run game, led on the line by a preseason All-American, a Del Val win would truly be sweet success.
Keith’s take: Millsaps. St. John Fisher is also receiving votes at “No. 31” and would be a lock to surge into the top 25 with an upset of No. 1 Mount Union, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that by “best chance” we mean “most realistic chance.” In which case, a Majors win and one ranked team’s loss would seem to move them in from the 26 spot.
Pat’s take: Trinity (Texas). I actually don’t feel strongly about any of the teams in the 26-32 range. Trine has already struggled this week, I think Millsaps may well lose, Salisbury is playing a team it should beat and beyond that, I think teams are pretty far off.

Most significant game against a non-Division III opponent.
Ryan’s take: Curry at Bentley.
The Colonels raised eyebrows last year with a postseason win for the perennially discounted NEFC. Have fortunes faded since that November day? A test will come against Division II’s Bentley, which already has one game — a win — under its belt this season. A victory for Curry should not be taken lightly.
Keith’s take: Pace at Salisbury. The Gulls take on a team picked to finish in the mid-to-lower part of the Division II Northeast-10, as do Curry, Plymouth State and Worcester State. The difference in significance for Salisbury, however, is that without an automatic playoff bid to chase, and with six Division III perennial winners on the schedule, a strong start is imperative.
Pat’s take: No. 2 UW-Whitewater at Dickinson State. The Blue Hawks were a preseason No. 15 in the NAIA coaches poll, though they lost to Rocky Mountain College last week. That gives them a game under their belts and a home game while Whitewater takes a 12-hour bus ride since no D-III team will play them. This could spell trouble for our defending runner-up.