Week 10: The clock ticks down on the 2015 season

Week 10. Here’s where the fun really begins. And for four-fifths of Division III, it’s 10 days from ending.

We won’t forget about all the teams who won’t make the field of 32 or participate in an ECAC bowl game in our weekly picks below. But do understand that most of the fun of the final two Saturdays of the D-III season revolves around the chase for those playoff spots, and around great rivalry games. A few of those rivals begin slugging it out this weekend, although most of the premier D-III rivalries are played in Week 11.

We’ve got regional rankings out now, and 24 of 25 automatic bids still to be clinched. This is the most wonderful time of our season. We want to you take it all in, to enjoy it. And the best way Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I can assist in that is by highlighting the games across the country that you should be paying attention to, beyond the one you’ll be participating in or following. So without further ado, here are our seven-point primers for one of the best weeks of the D-III season.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take:
No. 7 Wheaton at No. 22 Illinois Wesleyan. There are other games this week that are huge for both teams playing, but none that will cause the ripple effect that Thunder-Titans will. Not only will No. 16 North Central be feeling for its playoff pulse either during or immediately after its game at Augustana, but Pool C hopefuls nationwide have a vested interest in Wheaton, since a win would knock IWU out of the mix. NCC is plus-10 (18-point win, eight-point loss) in the potential scores-among-tied-teams three-way tiebreaker, so a close Illinois Wesleyan victory could hand the CCIW lead to the Cardinals and push both Wheaton and IWU into the pool of teams in good shape for at-large bid consideration. A Wheaton loss might also indirectly affect, say, Wabash, which could draw better matchups in the postseason if it remains unbeaten and Wheaton picks up a loss. All that and I haven’t mentioned a single thing about the game itself. IWU is certainly smarting after bad snaps led to nine North Central points last week. Wheaton only needed seven completions from QB Andrew Bowers in the driving rain, but it got 101 rushing yards. The forecast for Saturday in Bloomington is sunny with highs of 54 degrees, so this game won’t likely resemble either of last week’s.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 25 St. Lawrence at Hobart. Even last year, when Hobart was in its prime, this matchup was a nail-biter. This season, the spotlight is on the Saints, who have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since their infamous 5-5 regular season in 2010. They are a team chock full of playmakers, not the least of which is All-American cornerback Leondre Simmon, who was featured in my Around the Nation column this week as a dual-sport athlete. Though he’s primarily a cornerback (with five interceptions this year), he plays both sides of the ball. As a wide receiver, he has seven catches in the past five games — impressive primarily because five of those catches were for touchdowns. St. Lawrence has kept most opponents comfortably at bay, and the Saints are simply playing better football than Hobart right now.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Albright at Stevenson. Now that we have regional rankings and a pecking order for potential at-large teams, there are few opportunities for teams to improve their stock. Albright’s SOS needs the boost. (You know, or Stevenson’s, but Albright is the higher-ranked team.) The winner has a shot at being the first team on the board to be selected as an at-large from the East Region if Delaware Valley wins out, and that’s an important position to be in. There’s no guarantee that an East Region team would get an at-large bid, but it’s key to be first in line.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Salisbury at No. 4 Wesley and No. 13 St. John’s at Bethel. I’m definitely swayed by the historical competitiveness of these rivalries more than how the teams match up this year. And while history doesn’t always matter, familiarity between coaches does, and the staffs of Sherman Wood and Mike Drass have been going at it for as long as I can remember, just like Steve Johnson and Gary Fasching, even when the latter was part of John Gagliardi’s staff. The Sea Gulls rush for a second-best-in-the-nation 376 yards a game, and Bethel goes for 247 per. The Wolverines allow a shade more than three yards per carry, and so do the Johnnies. The game may well be won in the trenches, which gives both underdogs a chance to keep it respectable.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Kalamazoo at Adrian. There’s so much focus on the top of the MIAA and the potential for a three-way tie that it’s easy to overlook the teams deeper down. Adrian is at 5-3, while K-zoo is only 2-6. However, K-zoo has played two of the conference’s tougher teams in recent weeks and should be well prepared to stand strong against Adrian. The Hornets may well benefit from their balance on offense to keep the defense guessing, which differs from Adrian’s heavy run game.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Austin College at No. 20 Texas Lutheran. The Roos haven’t had a winning season since 2000. Austin College needs a win in either of the last two games, vs. Texas Lutheran or Trinity, to pull that off. That may be enough to inspire AC to give the Bulldogs a battle.

Most likely top-25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 12 Thomas More. I’ll swing for the fences yet again in this category, and perhaps incur some troll’s wrath. I don’t know that anyone would have given No. 18 Case Western Reserve much of a shot against the Saints a few weeks back, but wins over W&J and Wash. U. have been eye-openers. The Spartans, who might be undefeated if not for missing a PAT with five minutes left in a 31-30 Week 1 loss at Chicago, have had no problem scoring behind QB Rob Cuda, WR Bryan Erb and the gang. But they’re also 10th nationally against the run (73.3 yds/game) and had six interceptions last week, while Thomas More has been flip-flopping quarterbacks. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints won big, but it’s probably time to take CWRU seriously.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: None. I haven’t played the “none” card in Triple Take yet this season, so I’m taking the opportunity. Maybe this is a testament to thinking that the poll has it right, and the teams that are currently ranked are there deservedly so. That’s not always the case earlier in the season. While Salisbury/Wesley, Hardin-Simmons/East Texas Baptist, St. John’s/Bethel and Concordia-Moorhead/Gustavus Adolphus (and others) have the potential to be competitive, I don’t see any of the bigger dogs falling this week.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 23 Concordia-Moorhead. I mean, I have to keep picking Gustavus Adolphus until they win one of these last four games. (I mean, this week or bust — it won’t be next week vs. St. Thomas.) We picked Gustavus to go 7-3 in Kickoff and goshdarnit, that’s what’s going to happen. Only issue is that this wouldn’t be a huge upset — MIAC No. 5 over MIAC No. 3.

Pick a team that will help its postseason chances this weekend

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Albion. The dream for the Britons, as laid out in a Kickoff ’15 Q&A, was to win the MIAA and dodge the first-round fate of weaker-conference champions: Getting sent to Mount Union or Wheaton or some such place in Round 1. The Britons’ strength of schedule might have earned them a home game if 10-0. That ship sailed with 55-51 loss to Trine, but the conference championship and automatic playoff bid are still Albion’s for the taking, because virtually every scenario breaks its way. All it has to do is take care of Alma on Saturday. The bad news? The Scots, after six wins in the previous four seasons, are looking for win No. 6.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Berry. I gotta hand it to this young team, it’s been exciting to see how they have rebounded from an opening-week nonconference loss to sweep through the SAA thus far. A win at Birmingham-Southern means the Vikings are in the playoffs in just their third season as a team. The Panthers have a sub-.500 record and have struggled in conference play, so Berry should be able to secure their postseason spot by the close of business on Saturday.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 2 Linfield. The Wildcats need one win to wrap up the Northwest Conference automatic bid and they’ll get it this week vs. Puget Sound. Not sure exactly what went into last week’s game vs. George Fox, which was the poster child for “surprisingly close,” but if Linfield needed a wake-up call in any way, that was certainly a candidate. That, and being ranked third in the regional rankings.

Pick a team that will not help its playoff chances this weekend

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Cortland State. Pat used my first idea, so I landed on a team that doesn’t even have a game. The Red Dragons (7-2, 5-2) get a break from the 11-week whirlwind that is the Empire 8 while Alfred (6-2, 4-2) and St. John Fisher (5-3, 4-2) attempt to keep pace, facing Utica (4-4, 3-3) and Hartwick (3-5, 1-5). Cortland State’s season will again come down to the Cortaca Jug game, and struggling Ithaca should have no problem getting amped up to spoil it for their rival and send good fortune either the Cardinals’ or Saxons’ way. But those teams have to play, and since this is the E8, risk defeat this week. Cortland can kick back and watching knowing that it’ll still be in the conference-title hunt in Week 11.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Stevenson. The Mustangs line up against Albright, and the pair make up two-thirds of the one-loss teams in the MAC. This weekend, we’ll get to see some separation in the pack. Though both of these teams lost to Delaware Valley, the Aggies have a loss to a bottom-rung MAC team, which means the playoff chances for both Stevenson and Albright are alive if they can win out and DelVal stumbles yet again. But first and foremost, Stevenson and Albright, as I said, must win out to stay alive, and that’s an impossibility after this weekend. Albright has been the overall more impressive team this season and will stay in the hunt, which effectively means Stevenson’s hopes will vanish.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Monmouth. There’s nothing Monmouth can do this weekend to help its playoff chances. All the Scots can do is go out and beat Knox and retain the Bronze Turkey for the 17th consecutive season. It has no impact on their position in the Midwest Conference title game and Monmouth doesn’t have a real shot at an at-large bid, so this game is essentially meaningless for playoff purposes. It’s just their biggest rivalry, that’s all.

In a game outside the playoff chase, pick a winner

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Amherst. There’s a clash of unbeaten teams in Massachusetts on Saturday, with one of the most fun-to-watch offenses in D-III taking on a traditionally great defensive team. (Trinity, Conn. has allowed six touchdowns all season, the same number as Linfield in one fewer game.) Does anyone outside the NESCAC’s circle care? The NESCAC is fine playing in its own sandbox (or in the house with its own robotic erector set, as it were) and we’re fine with it too. But if the conference was in Week 10 instead of Week 7 and played non-conference foes, this would be a matchup of top-25 teams with an automatic bid on the line. As it is, voters are just guessing at where or whether to place these teams, and fans from outside the circle are indifferent. And given that Johns Hopkins, Washington & Lee and Case Western Reserve are all currently proving that it’s possible to be in the top 20 of U.S. News & World Report and at the same time, and it’s disappointing that there’s no framework to appreciate this game within the overall fabric of D-III.

[For a preview of the game, check out our friends at]

Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Trinity (Texas). In Kickoff 2015, I picked Trinity as the team to most improve its record over 2014. While the Tigers are two games ahead of last year’s record already, I expect them to be able to run the table in these final weeks (Saturday vs. Southwestern and then at Austin) and officially double last fall’s win total. Of course, that probably won’t put them as the nation’s most improved team overall; that honor (I believe) will go to Washington and Lee, which was 2-8 last year and is 8-0 so far this year. (Kudos to Adam Turer on picking W&L in Kickoff!)
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Misericordia. I’m going to pick the Cougars here on Saturday vs. Wilkes. Miseri and Wilkes have played everyone pretty similarly all season, and after last week’s narrow loss to FDU-Florham, here’s a chance for the Cougars to get their first win of the season. The build has been slow for Miseri, and they haven’t had the Year Four surge that many new programs have had.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 8 Hardin-Simmons. So you’ve finally vanquished the UMHB demon. You know who doesn’t care? East Texas Baptist, which is surprisingly 6-2, gains 491 yards per game and is within sniffing distance of its first ASC title since 2003. So if the Cowboys are worthy of their ranking and a team we should expect to play a playoff game outside the Texas border, they must handle business on Saturday. I’ll be watching (from afar).
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: The Maryville at Huntingdon game. I didn’t have any other available spot in this list game, and this game is too big for USA South playoff implications not to mention. Huntingdon can secure its spot in the postseason, and Maryville can get there by winning both this week and next week. Both teams are having very solid seasons that would be even more impressive without each having a somewhat-surprising slipup (read: both teams should be undefeated right now). More notably, these are the only two teams in the conference that have records above .500, and there will be a lot of eyes on them to see how well they can represent the USAC now as well as in 15 days.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Berry at Birmingham-Southern. Once again, this will be on visual, not on radar. This is the game I’ll be at on Saturday, to see if Berry can clinch the Southern Athletic Association’s automatic bid. When I saw the Vikings slog through a losing battle with Millsaps last year, I would never have envisioned they could be in this position a year later. Also, let’s keep the rain away. Thanks.

We invite you to add your predictions in the comments below. Download the Around the Nation podcast on Mondays, where Pat and Keith review the picks that were prescient, and those that were terribly off base.

After the SCAC shuffle, what’s next?

Trinity athletics photo

As a football conference in the Division III model, the SCAC never made sense. The geographic footprint, from Colorado to Indiana to Alabama to Texas, created a demand on travel costs that small-college budgets usually find unnecessary.

Colorado College realized this and abruptly dropped football after the 2008 season. But they weren’t the only outlier. Rose-Hulman left after the 2006 season to join the HCAC, which is Indiana and Ohio-based. DePauw, finding a group of schools with similar academic cache in closer proximity, decided this year to join Indiana rival Wabash in the NCAC, beginning in 2012.

That left seven football members behind in the SCAC, enough to maintain its automatic bid to the 32-team playoff field. Schools from coast to coast – LaGrange, Cornell and Chapman – announced new conference affiliations this offseason. But nothing shakes up the national picture like seven schools withdrawing from a 12-school conference; of the seven football-playing members, five are forming a new conference that will require less travel but would need to add two football programs and then wait two years to get an automatic bid. Trinity and Austin retain the SCAC name and history but need five football-playing members — and two “core” members in all sports — to keep their AQ.

The SCAC has been very explicit in news stories and press releases that it intends to continue on, and potential new members have been contacted.

Who exactly might those be? What ripple effects can Division III expect?

With the remaining SCAC schools mostly Texas-based, this would seem to be a ripe opportunity for any school in the ASC that feels it either isn’t competitive or wants to align itself with Trinity and Austin (which left the ASC and took Rose-Hulman’s place in the SCAC) to make the leap. Texas Lutheran comes to mind, while Howard Payne and East Texas Baptist wouldn’t be total shocks.

It also means any NAIA school, particularly those in the Mid-South Conference and perhaps the KCAC, which eyes the NCAA’s financial stability has its opening. There are also four NAIA schools in Oklahoma, two independents in Florida and another independent, Southern Virginia, which has expressed interest in moving to Division III. Those schools might not all fit in the SCAC, but might come into play if teams begin shuffling their affiliations.

Centenary (La.) has moved from Division I to III, and joined the ASC, but doesn’t yet offer football.

Then of course, there’s the obvious: Huntingdon, one of the last football independents in D-III, has eagerly sought out a conference. The Hawks joined the SLIAC for one season, then the conference dropped football. The SCAC-7 (those schools that just broke off from the SCAC) appear to have not been interested in the Hawks, but the SCAC-5 might take them out of necessity. They’d be a core member.

That’s an example of the tough spot the SCAC is in. With 50 years of history and a reputation for academic prestige, the conference – whose commissioner of 16 years, Dwyane Hanberry, is staying on – would probably like to maintain how it is perceived. We might hear a lot of talk about being “excited for the future” or schools that “fit the SCAC profile,” but from an outsider’s view, it’s hard to see how the SCAC-5 isn’t desperate.

The SCAC-5, remember, has just two football schools. Colorado College recently dropped the sport, and Southwestern and U. of Dallas don’t seem to be on track to add it. Huntingdon would be a third. If the SCAC stole more than two from the nine-member ASC, then that conference’s automatic bid would be in jeopardy.

The odd thing is Division III had narrowed itself down to just three football independents, and only two with scheduling problems. Huntingdon is one. Wesley, which is a competitive fit for the NJAC but as a private school can’t afford to play by that conference’s rules, such as 100-player roster limits, might look to revive talks of football in its all-sports conference, the CAC. The third, Macalester, is independent by choice, having left the MIAC in the early part of the decade. The St. Paul-based school also has 14 potential opponents in Minnesota, plus dozens more nearby in Iowa and Illinois.

A former independent, LaGrange already made its move this offseason, to the USAC, where former football-only affiliate Maryville and non-football Piedmont joined this offseason, All three were members of the GSAC in other sports. Shenandoah announced plans to leave the USAC for the ODAC in all sports –- citing reduced travel as a reason – last fall.

The USAC moves leave few Division III schools in the south looking to move. A GSAC/SCAC-5 merger doesn’t make much sense for football because of the four women’s schools and the distance from Southwest Virginia to Colorado. Rust (Holly Springs, Miss.) is in no shape to add the sport.

The USAC might not have seen its last shuffle either. Averett, N.C. Wesleyan and Christopher Newport could join Wesley in the CAC, which currently doesn’t sponsor football. Salisbury and Frostburg State, which joined the Empire 8 as a football-only affiliates for access to an automatic bid and because Norwich had left the E8 one member short, could come back home and give the CAC six football playing members. Two sources have told that Neumann (Pa.) is considering adding football, which could be a potential seventh, as could Marymount (Va.) if it added the sport. Catholic, a former member of the CAC, competes in the ODAC for football and the non-football Landmark conference for other sports.

Another potential seventh member, Stevenson, which plays its first football game this season, recently left the CAC for the MAC.

So why all the movement?

First, access to automatic bids, especially in sports like football where at-large bids are scarce, is key. But schools prefer being in conferences for ease of scheduling, formation of natural rivalries, an enhanced athletic experience (i.e. all-conference awards, etc.) and association. Schools like being aligned with certain peers, because of the perceptions it creates.

The SCAC certainly did that. But perhaps the main reason Division III schools like their conferences are something the SCAC-5 still doesn’t care about: containing travel costs.

That would open the door for Westminster (Utah), an NAIA member whose name was mentioned in The Colorado Springs Gazette as a potential member. They’d be the third Westminster in D-III, joining the ones in Missouri (UMAC) and Pennsylanvia (PAC).

If Trinity and Austin can’t save the SCAC’s football automatic bid, they might be forced elsewhere to look for affliate membership. Or, they could dangle their bid and entice others – perhaps the four schools in the UAA (Case Western Reserve, Chicago, Carnegie Mellon and Wash U.) could join to create a who-cares-about-travel-costs football league. It certainly would be prestigious, but it would need a seventh member to keep the AQ.

The perfect seventh member, Rochester, figured something out long ago. Flying a football team across the country four or five times a season is cost-prohibitive. The Yellowjackets, a member of the UAA in other sports, are in the New York-based Liberty League for football.

Game day: Welcome, the rest of you

After today the only teams that won’t have played are in the NESCAC, so the Division III football season will be in full swing.

I’ll be at St. John’s, where the No. 11 Johnnies host UW-Eau Claire. Keith McMillan is in Massachusetts, where Curry will play host to Widener. And you’ll be wherever you are, of course, so keep us up to date, even if it’s in front of your computer surfing through games. (That’s also one of my favorite places from which to track Division III football.)

We went through the other big games yesterday in the Triple Take, so I won’t repeat. But there are intriguing games in the Liberty League, especially, with Hobart traveling to Dickinson, Union hosting No. 8 Ithaca, and RPI opening its brand-new Division III football palace.

Elsewhere, I’ll be interested to see the results of “Air Raid vs. Wishbone” as McMurry hosts Austin College. DePauw’s tumultuous offseason finally comes to an end when the Tigers travel to Anderson. Could this year’s Augsburg/Wartburg game live up to the last two years? That seems hard to imagine, but it’s one of a handful of intriguing night games, along with McMurry/Austin, East Texas Baptist/Redlands, UW-Platteville/Dubuque, Buffalo State/St. John Fisher and even Carroll/Beloit.

Chime in with what you know, plus follow us on Twitter, since we’ll be following everyone else and passing along the most interesting tidbits that way.