Will the Texas Lutheran defense stand up to Mary Hardin-Baylor? (TLU athletics photo)
It’s that time of year when the air gets colder, the crowds get rowdier and the games get more meaningful.
To boil the action among 244 D-III teams down to a best-of list, Ryan Tipps, Pat Coleman and I sorted through dozens of games, including three clashes between top 25 teams. It’s also not too early to start discussing playoff implications, and we highlight teams that will give themselves a boost this weekend, and those that will fall down a peg. And not to forget the teams outside the playoff chase, we highlight a few teams in the midst of rough seasons that fans can look to for a W on Saturday.
It’s late October. This season is just getting to the good part. Here are our picks for this week.
— Keith McMillan
Game of the week
Keith’s take: No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor at Texas Lutheran. We hear this all the time: “You guys don’t give us any respect.” “No love for my team in the top 25?” Here’s the thing: Respect is earned, not given. That’s the difference right now between the two 6-0 teams in Texas, but what a giant opportunity this is for Texas Lutheran, which was 0-10 before coach Danny Padron was hired in 2010 following a highly successful run coaching in high school. UMHB is one of the five most successful programs in D-III over the past 10 or 15 years, and this year’s squad is well worth its No. 2 ranking. Both teams come in top 5 nationally in scoring offense, averaging more than 49 points per game. Defense is where the separation is; UMHB allows 11.5 points per game, TLU 26.3. That puts the spotlight on a Bulldogs defense led by DBs Drake Dowling and Michael Wall, although seniors Adam McGuire, Joey Meza and Ethan Powell have a chance to leave a mark. The crazy thing is TLU doesn’t even have to win to earn respect, move up in the top 25 or preserve its playoff hopes. They’re in front of their home crowd, and UMHB is expected to win, and maybe win big. It’s an opportunity.
Ryan’s take: No. 12 North Central at No. 19 Wheaton. In the ATN Podcast this past week, there was some talk about how Wheaton has dispelled some of its early-season hiccups and shown that it truly is a Top 25 team. Sorry Thunder fans, but I’m not yet convinced. The conference slate so far has consisted of the bottom three CCIW teams, and two of the nonconference opponents currently have a combined record of 1-11. That means two things: 1) I don’t know that Wheaton is ready to face a North Central team that became battle-tested in nonconference play (though the Cardinals’ CCIW games have also been against a weak slate); and 2) a loss here by Wheaton, coupled with that nonconference schedule, could mean that the team lacks the strength of schedule to be a real Pool C contender. For North Central, a loss Saturday would be its second of the year, also creating a gray area on the Pool C front. Perhaps the playoffs are in the back of these players’ minds – or perhaps just the fact that it’s the Little Brass Bell rivalry game is motivation enough.
Pat’s take: No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor at Texas Lutheran. Sorry, I have to repeat Keith’s pick here because it’s just a game that can swing a lot of things: UMHB’s hopes at a top seed, Texas Lutheran’s playoff hopes (and perhaps the hopes of others) as well as rankings for both of them. Texas Lutheran has been through a few changes recently: leaving the ASC for the SCAC, leaving a local high school stadium for a more intimate stadium of its own on campus … oh, and it’s started winning more games. TLU has a lot of former Mary Hardin-Baylor players and coaches on its sidelines as well, in case anyone needs any extra motivation.
Surprisingly close game
Keith’s take: Berry at Birmingham Southern. A few seasons ago, B-SC started 5-0 for the second consecutive year and was a legitimate playoff contender, while Berry football didn’t exist. If you’re a fan of a conference that never crosses paths with these teams, now part of the SAA, you might be surprised to learn that they both come into Saturday’s matchup with two wins. The Vikings have won two out of three, their first wins in history, and are trending upward offensively. B-SC is 2-1 in the SAA but allows 30.4 points per game. The more established program might still win, but Berry should make it interesting.
Ryan’s take: Washington U. at Chicago. These teams are having very different kinds of seasons, but Wash U. has found its groove at times this year, even if the team’s record doesn’t necessarily reflect that fact. If the Bears can muster up one of their better games, they’ll be able to hang with Chicago.
Pat’s take: East Texas Baptist at Louisiana College. I think this is a great game waiting to happen. I already expected it to be close, but I really want to spotlight it here. I expect a classic game of the “Little 12” type we’ve been talking about on the podcast the past couple of years. One of many exciting games as we’ve come to expect from the American Southwest Conference.
Most likely Top 25 team to be upset
Keith’s take: No. 11 Bethel. The category is “most likely,” not “definitely will be.” A loss to No. 22 St. Thomas wouldn’t be a major upset either, but we’ve sort of forgotten the once-dominant Tommies since a late-September loss to St. John’s. With the Royals allowing 15 points per game and the Tommies 16.5, expect a slugfest that could go either way, have major impact on the MIAC race and possibly result in an upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 16 Widener. It wouldn’t be an earth-shattering upset if Lycoming wins this one, but it will be telling to learn what the Warriors did with their bye week after losing to Delaware Valley on Oct. 11, a loss that knocked them out of the Top 25. A win for Widener, however, would give a lot of credibility to the Pride’s success this season.
Pat’s take: No. 13 UW-Platteville. Again, not overly likely but I can only say “none” once or twice a season, even if this has been a season in which none’s the word. The Stout team I saw a couple weeks ago has more than a fighting chance in this game, and for Platteville, this game comes sandwiched in between contests vs. UW-Stevens Point and UW-Whitewater.
Which team revives its conference title and/or playoff hopes?
Keith’s take: Endicott. Because the Gulls opened up with non-conference losses to 2013 playoff teams Framingham State (20-17) and Hobart (28-18), it’s been easy to view the NEFC race as Western New England vs. MIT. But after winning at Coast Guard on Saturday, Endicott players on the bus ride back from Connecticut can refresh the scoreboard for updates on the the Golden Bears-Engineers 5 p.m. Saturday clash in Cambridge. When one loses, the Gulls will know whether to circle next week’s home MIT game or the one at WNEU in two weeks as their chance to take control of the NEFC.
Ryan’s take: Albion. Lycoming, which I talked about in my answer to the previous question, would definitely fit this category, but Triple Take is best when it uses the spread. In the MIAA, Albion is traveling to current conference leader Trine. Both teams are coming off of losses from last Saturday, but only Albion’s was to another MIAA team. A win here won’t put the Britons in the driver’s seat for the conference title, but it will give them a big lift toward that goal. The game should be competitive, but I like that Albion has cut its teeth against some solid competition without getting blown out (the most notable of which is the 42-31 outing against UW-Stevens Point). That should translate well on the field against Trine on Saturday.
Pat’s take: Ithaca. The Bombers are going to need more than a little help, but if they beat Salisbury on Saturday they’ll have knocked off one of the one-loss teams ahead of them. They have yet to play St. John Fisher and they’ll need help from someone remaining on Buffalo State’s schedule to take down the Bengals. But as I alluded to in the podcast earlier this week, Butterfield Stadium is the place where the triple-option goes to die. Never get turf, Ithaca.
Which team can forget about the playoffs after Saturday?
Keith’s take: Lycoming. The Warriors need a home win against Widener or they might be looking at an ECAC bowl invite while the Pride and Aggies play for an NCAA spot in Week 11. A win puts them right back in the MAC race, which as a 5-0 team before a 52-42 loss to Del Val two weeks ago, is probably where they feel they belong. The Warriors had only allowed 50 points total before their last game, but Widener, in a strange twist, is a also a defensive juggernaut (No. 4 nationally in scoring defense) under new coach Mike Kelly. Widener also has one turnover all season. The Pride has four road wins already, which should reduce the effect of having to travel to Williamsport, and Lycoming is the team that can’t afford to stumble again.
Ryan’s take: Castleton State. The Spartans are going up against Husson, the only team who has a perfect record in conference play so far. I expect Husson to keep it that way. Week after week, the Eagles, who are 4-1 overall, have been more convincing than are the Spartans. Castleton State could have position itself for a postseason opportunity with a win here, but the teams just appear to be going in different directions.
Pat’s take: The University of Chicago. Chicago has the better record, by a significant margin, but Washington U. has played a much tougher schedule and will definitely come in prepared. This is a rivalry game, to boot, and kicks off the University Athletic Association portion of the teams’s schedules. But the Maroons cannot afford to take another loss.
Which team won’t be playing for any titles this season, but will win by 10 points or more?
Keith’s take: UW-River Falls. The Falcons have shot themselves in the foot more than any team in the country this season, with a national-worst 25 turnovers (12 fumbles, 13 interceptions). But they face the least-prolific offense in the nation in UW-Eau Claire (three touchdowns and three field goals in six games). Considering the UW-RF defense has held St. John’s, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Platteville below 30, it shouldn’t take a career day to outscore the Blugolds. But it would help if they hang on to the darn ball.
Ryan’s take: DePauw. The Tigers picked up conference loss No. 2 last weekend, effectively knocking them out of any playoff or title discussions. But as any fan of rivalries knows, seasons can be salvaged by that Week 11 game. But before then, there’s still a lot of football to play, and I see nothing slowing a DePauw team when it lines up against floundering Allegheny this weekend. The Gators have lost by more than 10 in each of their defeats this season, so it seems likely that DePauw will be able to use Allegheny as a way to take out some frustrations.
Pat’s take: Heidelberg. Perhaps an obvious choice, but a week after the Berg pulled Cartel Brooks from the game after eight carries vs. Mount Union, they’ll be looking to get him as many carries and yards as possible against Marietta. 10 points or much much more.
They’ll be on your radar
Keith’s take: Centre. Neck and neck with Carroll, also 6-0, for least-talked-about undefeated team, the Kentucky Colonels get a visit from 5-1 Rhodes this week. Two of the more alliterative and efficient quarterbacks in D-III face off in Centre’s Heath Haden and Rhodes’ Blake Box. But the big-picture interest here is how each team needs to beat the other for a notch on its playoff resume, and how Centre’s continued success could affect Pool B, which also features unbeaten Wesley and Texas Lutheran and 5-1 Framingham State, whose only loss is to Rowan.
Ryan’s take: Salisbury. The E8 is notoriously hard to get a handle on, and Salisbury’s performances have a big role to play in that. Mix a big loss to Wesley and a close loss to Buffalo State with wins over St. John Fisher and Utica, and we now have a team that might be climbing out of the hole it dug for itself early in the season. No team is spotless in the conference, meaning Salisbury has a real shot to claw into the postseason if it can extend its three-game win streak.
Pat’s take: Macalester. The Scots are likely to improve to 6-1 this week as they host Lawrence. They aren’t going to win by 60-plus points like Carroll did last week because Mac isn’t trying to impress anyone, but they should win and set up the showdown next week with Carroll for the lead in the Midwest Conference North Division.
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.