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ATN Podcast: Breaking down the conference races

We started our deep dive into the playoffs on last week’s edition and we know we had a lot of new listeners — now we have to really talk about some of the automatic bids. Some conferences have pretty interesting races here in the final two weeks of the regular season and Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan look closely at the PAC, where two teams could finish unbeaten and never play each other, along with the NACC, NCAC, NJAC and the American Southwest Conference. Plus, even though this never has any playoff relevance, Pat and Keith debate whether you can rank a NESCAC team in the Top 25.

The Around the Nation Podcast is a weekly conversation between Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan covering the wide range of Division III football. It drops on Monday morning weekly throughout the season.

Hit play, or subscribe to get this podcast on your mobile device. 
You can subscribe to the Around the Nation Podcast in iTunes. You can also get this and any of our future Around the Nation podcasts automatically by subscribing to this RSS feed: http://www.d3blogs.com/d3football/?feed=podcast
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Triple Take, Week 3: The competition gets rougher

In quite a few places from coast to coast this weekend, the time for mismatches is over. Whether conference play is getting underway like it is in the Empire 8 and OAC, or teams are looking for one more good non-conference test, like our games of the week below, teams are getting on their levels.

By that I mean they’re beginning to play the contests that will define them this season, the ones they’ll look back on with pride if they emerge victorious. Players don’t care about rivalries nearly as much as the alumni. They love the games that push them until the fourth quarter, until sweat drips down between their helmets and faces, and they can put their hands on their knees or hips and exhale, knowing that was tough. We’ve got a bevy of those in Week 3.

All of us who aren’t putting on pads this weekend get the benefit of watching. Since many of our 247 teams are in action, Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I provide a seven-point primer on where to look for this weekend’s highlights. Enjoy.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 13 North Central at No. 22 Platteville. Here’s where we find out if these Cardinals and Pioneers are living off the reputations their predecessors built, or if they deserve their spots in the top 25. UW-Platteville outscored Buena Vista and Dubuque 80-20, and has the North Central game as a rugged warmup for a conference opener with No. 1 UW-Whitewater next week. QB Tom Kelly is completing 78 percent of his passes so far. North Central, meantime, rushed for 269 yards in its opener at 5.6 per carry, and hosts No. 5 Wesley next week. The road gets easier for neither, and a win here would be one to savor (and file away in case it is needed to convince the selection committee of at-large playoff spot worthiness).
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 16 Hobart at No. 24 Ithaca. Despite going through a realignment and seeing traditional power St. John Fisher manhandled in Week 1, the Empire 8 looks to have maintained much of the top-to-bottom power it has shown in recent seasons. What hasn’t truly emerged, in my mind, is a front-runner. Ithaca has broken into the top 25, but Cortland State, Morrisville State, Alfred and Fisher are all getting votes. I think voters are uncertain which of them will break into the top of the pack. Ithaca, with a winning performance against Hobart, could set itself apart. Hobart, on the other hand, hasn’t moved much so far this year, but that could change (for better or for worse) based on the outcome of this game.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Maryville at Emory and Henry. These teams have played a string of good to great games each of the past three seasons, even as the relative fortunes of the two programs have shifted a couple of times. Last year this was an early-season low-scoring game, but it ended up being the only time E&H was held under 27 points. These are both teams who we expect to contend for their respective conference titles, and a good non-conference test for each.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Fitchburg State at Framingham State. If you follow the national scene, you’ll know that the hosts have been knocking on the top 25/could-win-a-playoff-game-or-two door for three years. The visitors are the team you probably mistake for Framingham, unless  you’re familiar with Massachusetts. The Falcons surged from 2-8 in 2013 to 6-4 last year by winning close games, although they trailed 35-6 during a 42-21 loss to Framingham last season. Fitchburg is 2-0 but hasn’t played nearly the level of competition that Framingham has, so I might have talked myself out of this being surprisingly close. I probably should have picked Endicott at St. Lawrence, based solely on the Gulls staying close to Hobart last week and their new head man knowing the Saints from having coached previously with the rival Statesmen.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Ohio Wesleyan at No. 17 Wittenberg. I almost picked this as my top 25 upset game but I couldn’t justify to myself that an upset would actually happen. After all, Witt’s margin of victory was 36 points last year and 38 points two years ago, and the Tigers are darn good again this season. I do feel that Witt will win, but I don’t think it will be as egregiously lopsided.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Widener at Albright. In fact, this is another candidate for me for game of the week. Albright is 1-0 after its comeback win vs. Salisbury on Opening Friday and Widener lost to Rowan, then pulled away from King’s with a big third quarter last week. I suspect Widener would be a slight favorite on the road here but I’m making this pick primarily to tell people not to rule Albright out.

Most likely top-25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 8 St. John’s, at Concordia-Moorhead. Because it’s his home base, Minnesota games are usually Pat’s department. But I’m taking this because it’s the right pick, and because I get to pontificate. D-III isn’t always fair. Certain teams just get a raw deal. Four straight seasons, Louisiana College went 7-3 and missed the playoffs by a hair. When they finally went 8-2, with losses only to Wesley and UMHB, their reward was a first-round exit at UMHB. The Wildcats and Concordia-Moorhead are my ‘best teams with the least to show for it’ over the past 10 years. The Cobbers have gone 8-2 with a win against St. John’s each of the past three seasons, and haven’t made the playoffs. With the Johnnies back in the top 10, and St. Thomas and Bethel also ranked, the MIAC is as brutal as ever. The Cobbers won their first two games 41-17 and 41-7, while St. John’s won by 36 and 49. This is the first stiff test for both, so I don’t know that the first two games give any indication about which way this will go.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 10 John Carroll. I’ve mentioned in an Around the Nation column that I’m more skeptical of JCU than it seems other top 25 voters are. Heidelberg (along with Ohio Northern in two weeks) poses one of the few hurdles to the Blue Streaks until they play Mount Union in Week 11. I would be okay being proven wrong by a strong John Carroll performance, but I’m not seeing it play out that way.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 18 Centre. I think this is another week that is relatively devoid of upsets but the Colonels had a lot of things go right last year on the way to going 10-0. Wash. U., on the other hand, is an opponent that Centre could be convinced to take lightly based on the fact that the Colonels won 50-20 last year. I’m not super convinced, but I didn’t think I could get away with saying “nobody” for all 11 weeks of the season. (By the way, Keith, pontificate all you want. I think the Cobbers’ streak ends here.)

Which team gets its first win this weekend?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Pacific Lutheran. After the Lutes more or less gave one away, albeit kindly to their Lutheran brethren from California, they have to face 2-0 Trinity (Texas). The Tigers’ struggles last season included a 38-14 home loss to PLU, but their 2-0 start this year includes a convincing 35-6 win against Willamette, the Lutes’ conference rival. But if Pacific Lutheran plays more like the team that built the 26-10 halftime lead at Cal Lutheran and less like the one that blew it, they’ll get their first win.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Capital. This pick is more a testament to a solid showing the Crusaders had in Week 1 against Wittenberg than it is to the fact that they’re playing Wilmington this week. Against Witt, Capital had a furious never-give-up type of rally in the fourth quarter, and that kind of determination will lead them to a solid season. Wilmington is 1-0 for the first time since 2002, a win that helped them snap a 23-game losing streak. While the Quakers should be feeling good about themselves because of it, they likely won’t be able to hang with Capital.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Lewis and Clark. One of the fun things about some of these games between teams elsewhere in the rankings is they can be wide-open, high-scoring, entertaining affairs, and that’s why I picked this game out. Roger Caron is hanging on in his tenure at Pomona-Pitzer, while Lewis and Clark hired former Linfield national champion coach Jay Locey. This game might not remain competitive in future years but right now, a game between two teams that have lost 27 of their past 28 games still has promise to be exciting. I attended this game six short years ago and it was fantastically entertaining.

Which team bounces back from a tough loss?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Augustana. I could have picked Salisbury at Montclair State and automatically have been correct, since both were hard-luck losers to MAC teams in their openers two weeks ago but one is bound to win. Yet the Vikings, who led Albion twice in the fourth quarter and scored 49 points, were even harder-luck losers. They have a chance to rebound against Loras, which scored 42 in a 10-point loss to UW-Stout and is facing a CCIW team for the second time in three weeks.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Muhlenberg. Yes, last week I picked the Mules to be one of the top 25 upsets, and they were. But I also see potential in this team, and I think they will use this week against McDaniel to regain their confidence and iron out their kinks ahead of the Johns Hopkins game on Sept. 26.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: St. John Fisher at Cortland State. I just have to envision that St. John Fisher used its bye week to correct some of the many things that apparently went wrong two weeks ago in that dismal loss at Thomas More. Now, unfortunately for the Cardinals, Cortland has spent the past two weeks winning games against teams in the top quarter of Division III, and doing it with either of their quarterbacks, so St. John Fisher has its work cut out for it. I just can’t imagine Fisher laying another egg.

Pick a team with a funny name but serious game this weekend.

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Alfred.  The school with a name that sounds like your grandfather hosts an Empire 8 clash with Buffalo State. I originally wrote the question intending “serious game” to mean a team that’s going to play well, but every Empire 8 matchup this week looks serious, from a competitive perspective. Alfred has beaten Husson and RPI, while the Bengals have been off since shutting out Otterbein in the opener. Unrelated, I’m amused by four of the five water schools (the three Maritimes, Merchant Marine and Coast Guard) matching up this weekend.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Concordia-Moorhead Cobbers. The school’s Web site quotes ESPN saying, “How fierce can a corncob be? But that’s what makes the Cobber special — it symbolizes not only Concordia’s athletic spirit, but its overall good sense of humor.” We will see how fierce indeed as the team takes on No. 8 St. John’s on Saturday. The Johnnies have lost this matchup three years running.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: FDU-Florham. More about the school name than the rather pedestrian “Devils” nickname, but this is because the school used to refer to itself as FDU-Madison and it’s actually in Madison, N.J. But I guess “Florham” sounds better. If you can’t beat ’em, Florham. One more pun — that’s what the Devils’ passing offense has been doing the past two games, flooring ’em with lots of passes to Malik Pressley. We’ll see how King’s chooses to defend against him.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Becker and Nichols. Becker, which played its first game in 2005, has never won more than three games in a season and has only twice has had back-to-back wins. Nichols has won four games in the past five seasons. Both won convincingly last week, and by late Friday night, either the Hawks or Bison will be 2-1 and on a winning streak where fans have seen few.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Montclair State. I had the Red Hawks on my top 25 ballot at the beginning of the season, before they lost to Delaware Valley. They’re no longer there, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention. I’m most curious to see how they fare against the triple-option from NJAC newcomer Salisbury. That offense is a beast unlike anything Montclair State is used to.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Albion. Mostly I’m keeping my eye on this game to see if Albion, which hosts Lakeland, can significantly cut into that 50.5 points allowed per game. If the Britons can’t keep the Muskies down, then there might not be any hope for them defensively and they will have to rely on winning a shootout every week.

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.

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Around the Nation podcast: Surprises?

W&J athletics photo by Martin Santek photography

W&J athletics file photo by Martin Santek photography

It’s not a surprise that Washington and Jefferson beat Thomas More, but the margin of victory? Definitely surprising. And perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Salisbury beat St. John Fisher, considering the Sea Gulls had done so in each of the five previous meetings.

Those various elements of surprise open the Around the Nation podcast. Meanwhile, Pat and Keith each give out their game balls, look beyond the obvious games to some underappreciated highlights and much more.

Hit play, or subscribe to get this podcast on your phone or portable device.

You can subscribe to the Around the Nation Podcast in iTunes. You can also get this and any of our future Around the Nation podcasts automatically by subscribing to this RSS feed: http://www.d3blogs.com/d3football/?feed=podcast

Plus, all the highlights and interviews from around Division III in the postgame show: