Triple Take: Week of big clashes

Three clashes between ranked teams take place this weekend, and a handful of other games involve undefeated schools. That gives us a lot to talk about and to look forward to on game day.

Conference races will be clarified, and, harder for some teams to swallow, playoff hopes will erode.

Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps bring you a rundown of some of these make-‘em or break-‘em matchups. And, as always, we welcome comments from readers. Give us your perspective on games we missed or predictions you think we have backwards. We want to hear from you.

Game of the Week.
Ryan’s take: No. 7 Wheaton at Illinois Wesleyan.
What I love about the CCIW is how it’s more than just an impressively strong conference, it’s also an unpredictable one. Three different teams have been in the playoffs the past two seasons, and two of those teams are currently undefeated Wheaton and Illinois Wesleyan. Both come into Saturday playing a so-so nonconference slate that leaves many questions to be sorted out. Is IWU as strong against the pass as they seem? Will Wheaton bring more to the table than just offense? It’s a game worth watching — and watching closely.
Keith’s take: No. 13 Redlands at No. 20 Cal Lutheran: Based on their non-conference results against North Central, Linfield and Pacific Lutheran, I’m bullish on the SCIAC powers. If the Kingsmen defend the brand new turf at William Rolland Stadium, it could be a boon for the conference. Two playoff bids could be in the offing. Wins at East Texas Baptist and against Whitworth weren’t enough for Redlands to overcome a 24-22 loss to CLU last season. But an 8-1 finish this year with a win against North Central, assuming the Cardinals finish strong, should get the Bulldogs in. If they win in Thousand Oaks, of course, they’ll be the front-runner for the automatic bid and not chasing an at-large. More on this game in ATN.
Pat’s take: No. 19 Louisiana College at No. 4 Mary-Hardin Baylor. I think these teams are much closer together than their 15 spots’ distance in the rankings suggests. I would favor Louisiana College at home, would think about it on a neutral field, and would not be at all surprised if the Wildcats pulled off the road win. The tests have been getting better for Louisiana College in the past week but the issue in my mind is whether they can protect the ball.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Guilford at Washington and Lee.
The Quakers are standing with just a 1-2 record, but that’s not because teams have been able to run all over them. And that’s what W&L does: Run. A lot. And then some more. Best of all for Guilford is that they should be able to respond and put some points on the board, keeping this matchup against the defending ODAC champion within reach.
Keith’s take: Mount St. Joseph at Franklin. The Grizzlies have become the face of the HCAC, and get the national attention. They’re even one of the best at filing D3Reports. The Lions’ 3-0 start, however, has barely been mentioned. So allow me to rectify that. Beating Wilmington, Anderson and Bluffton isn’t overwhelming, but they’ve done it by rushing for 246 yards a game, leading the nation in kick returns and generating turnovers. Franklin has scored 49, 49 and 52 aside from being shut out by No. 1 UW-Whitewater, so MSJ’s defense has its hands full. The Griz would seem to be a big favorite, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they won by seven or 10.
Pat’s take: St. John’s at St. Thomas. You have to figure the Johnnies come in fired up for this game. If not for two plays at the end of the game … or St. John’s inexplicable failure to go for two on its touchdown in the final minute … the Johnnies’ season would have a different look about it. The last three games in this series have come down to the final play, and even in a 3-7 season in 2003, the Tommies nearly derailed the Johnnies’ dream season, one which ended in an unbeaten run and Stagg Bowl near-rout of Mount Union. This game won’t disappoint, at least not neutral fans.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: Trine.
Adrian and Trine each enter Saturday’s game with an undefeated record. The difference, though, is that a Thunder victory isn’t as much of a foregone conclusion as it’s been in the past. In fact, I’d say the 20-game winning streak comes to an end. Trine’s not bad this year, but they’re also short of the greatness they’ve gotten used to. That shortcoming is going to prevent them from breaking through the defense that has gotten Adrian so far already this season. The Bulldogs are top in the conference in sacks and will put pressure on Trine quarterback Ryan Hargraves, essentially nullifying his impressive accuracy. The conference race will be decided Saturday.
Keith’s take: No. 7 Wheaton. The choices are cruddy. Toss out the six teams playing other top 25 teams; those are hardly upsets (although No. 24 Ohio Northern beating No. 2 Mount Union would be a shock). Then you’ve got teams playing Thiel, Kenyon, Oberlin, Morrisville State, Cornell, Juniata. No disrespect, but not exactly a murderer’s row to top 25 teams. So I’m left with really the only unranked team I think has a good chance at an upset: IWU, which has given up points in just 1 of 12 quarters so far (1st nationally in scoring defense). The Titans will have to figure out how to slow down the Thunder (484 yards a game so far; 437 in a 29-19 Wheaton win last season.)
Pat’s take: No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor. I gave my reasons above and I don’t usually repeat games like this but it’s my best bet.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: Muskingum.
How can they not be a team to talk about after toppling Ohio Northern last Saturday? The question is: Did the Muskies (highlighted in this week’s Around the Great Lakes) just get the better of ONU that day or is this the start of something bigger and better for the team out of New Concord? They are off to a 3-0 start, and it’s likely to continue through this week’s game with Wilmington. But the back end of the conference schedule will be their toughest.
Keith’s take: Centre. I’d like to see UW-Platteville be competitive against Whitewater, but I’m more curious about the Colonels. They’ve scored nearly 42 points per game in a 3-0 start, rushing for 201 yards per game and passing for 177. DePauw, meanwhile, is down after a 1-2 start, able to score less than 16 points per game. Centre can continue building its case for national recognition by putting a hurting on a team that was often atop the SCAC.
Pat’s take: Albright. Or at least, they could be. They definitely have the opportunity, coming into a game at Lycoming at 4-0. Even a close loss qualifies them for the radar because it might bode well for the following games against Lebanon Valley and Delaware Valley.

Team most likely to salvage a bad season.
Ryan’s take: Hardin-Simmons.
We all had our eye on HSU after their opening-week win over Coe. Even without graduated quarterback Justin Feaster and his go-to guy ZaVious Robbins, the Cowboys galloped past their first two opponents convincingly. What followed were two big losses and with them, gone was any hope of a trip to the playoffs. HSU has four games (including this week against East Texas Baptist) to rebuild their confidence and their focus before finishing with the McMurry rivalry and with ranked Louisiana College. The salvaging starts Saturday.
Keith’s take: St. John’s. No need for a long explanation here. No. 3 St. Thomas is no easy W. But I never dreamed of the day the Johnnies could have three losses on Oct. 1, and I’m sure no one recruited to play in Collegeville did either. If there’s any soul, any Johnnie pride left, they’ve got to somehow go into a more talented team’s home and win. Would add a chapter to the storied rivalry.
Pat’s take: Wesley. I mean, a Division I FCS opponent isn’t supposed to have an impact on a team’s playoff hopes, but with just one Pool B bid available and a loss already on the books, Wesley doesn’t have any margin for error. Charleston Southern is 0-4, including a loss to D-I non-scholarship Jacksonville. Wesley can take these guys.

Conference race most likely to get some clarity.
Ryan’s take: SCIAC.
Because of the conference’s shorter-than-usual schedule, we haven’t seen as much from either Redlands or Cal Lutheran as we’d like. But there have been some solid glimmers of excitement, not least of which was Redlands’ win over North Central. It’s unlikely that any SCIAC opponent can challenge these two teams, making this matchup a big one in terms of foreshadowing the conference’s playoff representative.
Keith’s take: CCIW. Conference play begins with four teams at 3-0 and three more at 2-1. Beyond Wheaton-IWU, North Central goes to Carthage in a matchup of a team that’s scored 156 points in its past two wins (that’s not a typo; 70 and 86) against a team that’s allowed three in its past two.
Pat’s take: IIAC. The Coe-Central game is an intriguing one, with two programs with playoff experience who have their back against the wall. Central has beaten an ordinary team handily, lost to two Top 40 teams and beaten Augustana by eight (a last-minute touchdown made that closer). Coe’s resume is pretty well known. One of a handful of games that is needed to get this conference race figured out, but a Coe win will essentially end Central’s chances of winning the league.

Quarterback most likely to pass for 400 yards.
Ryan’s take: Wittenberg’s Ben Zoeller.
The senior signal-caller hasn’t topped 400 yards since his team’s win over Capital in Week 1. But up strides Oberlin, a team that’s improved this year but not enough to slow Zoeller and his favorite receiving pair of Michael Cooper and Josh McKee. Wittenberg is famously dangerous at home, and that’s right where they’ll be Saturday.
Keith’s take: Illinois College’s Michael Bates. There’s a shootout brewin’ in Appleton. Bates, a freshman, has passed for 1,257 yards in four starts. His per-game average of 314 puts him two spots behind MWC conference cohort Alex Tanney (Monmouth), and two in front of Lawrence sophomore Luke Barthelmess. He’s Bates’ opponent Saturday, and although he’s got a shot at hitting 400 himself (IC is 3-1 despite being 214th nationally in pass efficiency defense, 219th in total defense and 229th against the pass, at 306 yards per game), his defense probably won’t help much. Lawrence could actually be more porous, at 221st in pass efficiency defense and 236th in total defense.
Pat’s take: Travis Lane, Hampden-Sydney. Unless Catholic’s defense got completely revamped over the bye week, the Cardinals will be in trouble. There won’t be a fourth-quarter comeback this time, but Catholic and Greg Cordivari will score enough points to keep the Tigers in a passing mode, where Lane will have his share of success.

ATN Podcast: Comparing conferences

Greg Ford diving touchdown catchThree weeks into the season a fair amount of the non-conference schedule is in the books, games that provide the basis for much of what we do in terms of ranking conferences twice a season. This week Keith and Pat discuss not only the big games from the past weekend but also take a snapshot of which conferences exceeded expectations and which underperformed.

Click the play button below to listen.

You can load the podcast page in iTunes or 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

Conference rankings

Keith and I rank the conferences every summer and they get tweaked after we get through the bulk of non-conference play. We don’t have comments on the Around the Nation page yet (probably a 2009 item) but I thought we’d bring them over here to see what people thought.

1. WISCONSIN INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (WIAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 1st of 27
Non-conference record so far: 14-7
Verdict: Still at the top of the heap, given the depth (La Crosse and River Falls have accounted for five of the seven non-conference losses) and caliber of play and players. Whatever Northwestern (Minn.)’s win over River Falls took away in respect, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh’s wins over top 10 NAIA programs St. Xavier and Ohio Dominican restored.

2. OHIO ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (OAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 2nd
Non-conference record so far: 7-3
Verdict: Heidelberg, Otterbein adding weight to OAC’s usually tough top half, but conference still can’t match the WIAC’s strength from top to bottom.

3. AMERICAN SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE (ASC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 3rd
Non-conference record so far: 8-8
Verdict: Hardin-Simmons’ early resurgence keeps ASC up high, though Mississippi College’s loss to Millsaps was a bad one.

4. COLLEGE CONFERENCE OF ILLINOIS AND WISCONSIN (CCIW)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 5th
Non-conference record so far: 19-5
Verdict: Wheaton, North Central, Elmhurst and Illinois Wesleyan are a combined 12-0 and only 1-2 North Park has a losing record. The Thunder beat Bethel and the Cardinals beat Ohio Northern in the most significant non-conference games.

5. EMPIRE 8 (E8)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 4th
Non-conference record so far: 10-8
Verdict: St. John Fisher’s 33-3 loss to Mount Union of the OAC is the only significant non-conference result, but this is the same conference that sent three teams to the playoffs last season, so it holds its ground for the most part.

6. MINNESOTA INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (MIAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 7th
Non-conference record so far: 13-2
Verdict: Only non-conference losses have been to now-ranked teams (Concordia-Moorhead to Willamette, Bethel to Wheaton). Depth, as seven of nine teams are off to winning starts.

7. NORTHWEST CONFERENCE (NWC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 6th
Non-conference record so far: 11-10
Verdict: Championship days of 2004 and 1999 looking more distant, but first automatic playoff bid should keep conference play spirited. In key non-conference matchups, NWC went 1-1 vs. MIAC, 0-2 vs. WIAC and 0-1 vs. ASC. Redlands of the SCIAC also dealt Whitworth a convincing defeat.

8. NEW JERSEY ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (NJAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 8th
Non-conference record so far: 3-4
Verdict: Top team no longer an automatic Stagg Bowl contender, but conference is stronger top to bottom, even with new additions.

9. MIDDLE ATLANTIC CONFERENCE (MAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 15th
Non-conference record so far: 13-11
Verdict: Big move up the rankings is a bit deceiving, since middle group of conferences are very evenly matched. MAC gets the edge by virtue of its record so far, including a 4-2 record vs. the ACFC, including Delaware Valley’s two big wins over then-top-10 Wesley and Salisbury. Six 2-1 teams have helped MAC go 2-2 vs. Centennial. Against the ODAC, USAC and NJAC, the MAC is 2-1 vs. each, plus 1-0 vs. the Liberty League but 0-3 vs. the Empire 8.

10. ATLANTIC CENTRAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE (ACFC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 9th
Non-conference record so far: 6-6
Verdict: ACFC goes as Wesley and Salisbury go, and each has a key MAC win (Widener, Albright) and loss (Del Val).

11. CENTENNIAL CONFERENCE (CC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 11th
Non-conference record so far: 10-8
Verdict: Four of the eight losses are by the bottom two teams, Gettysburg and Juniata. Illustrating the parity among middle conferences, CC is 8-8 combined against the MAC, ODAC and Liberty League.

12. OLD DOMINION ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (ODAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 12th
Non-conference record so far: 14-9
Verdict: Success came early in non-conference schedule, with five wins against the USAC in Week 1. ODAC is 3-2 vs. Centennial, but the CC took the even matchups (Franklin & Marshall 24, Washington & Lee 0; Johns Hopkins 39, Randolph-Macon 31, 3OT).

13. LIBERTY LEAGUE (LL)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 13th
Non-conference record so far: 10-10
Verdict: In the middle of the 27 ranked conferences, LL is .500 against modest competition so far. Hobart’s win over Carnegie Mellon kept the LL in front of the UAA.

14. UNIVERSITY ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION (UAA)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 14th
Non-conference record so far: 8-5
Verdict: Four-team UAA is 5-2 in the first season of its scheduling agreement with the NCAC, with Chicago accounting for both defeats. Washington U.’s 30-27 win against Wittenberg of the NCAC is a significant non-conference win.

15. SOUTHERN COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (SCAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 18th
Non-conference record so far: 9-6
Verdict: Trinity and Millsaps account for three of the wins in a 4-1 mark vs. the ASC, and the ASC teams beaten have a combined 2-10 record. The rest of the SCAC’s non-conference wins have come against teams from the HCAC, SLIAC and outside Division III.

16. IOWA INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (IIAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 10th
Non-conference record so far: 6-8
Verdict: Slow start and lack of a dominant top 25 team hurt the IIAC more than any other conference in our re-ranking, but there’s still not much difference in strength among the middle third of Division III conferences. The IIAC could get credit for much of its damage coming against the MIAC (0-4) and CCIW (1-1), but it was only 1-2 against the MWC. The other four wins were against the Northern Athletics Conference, the UMAC and a non-division team.

17. PRESIDENTS’ ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (PAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 17th
Non-conference record so far: 8-10
Verdict: For a nine-team conference, the depth isn’t there in terms of power teams. It’s Washington & Jefferson and the occasional challenge. PAC teams are 0-4 vs. the OAC, 0-2 vs. the CC and 1-1 vs. the ACFC. The wins are against teams from the NCAC, HCAC, UAA plus an independent and a non-Division III.

18. USA SOUTH ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (USAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 16th
Non-conference record so far: 10-12
Verdict: Bulk of where they’re placed is the result of a 5-7 record against ODAC teams. Three wins came against independents or non-Division III teams, while the USAC is 1-2 vs. the MAC and 0-2 vs. the SLIAC.

19. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (SCIAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 21st
Non-conference record so far: 8-6
Verdict: A 5-6 mark vs. the NWC is decent, and Redlands has bowled a couple non-conference strikes, against Dubuque of the IIAC (46-9) and Whitworth of the NWC (38-7). But three of the SCIAC’s non-conference wins have come against Lewis & Clark and Principia, who haven’t beaten a Division III team other than each other since 2004.

20. NORTH COAST ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (NCAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 19th
Non-conference record so far: 7-11
Verdict: Beyond the top teams, the strength is questionable, and even the numbers back it up: 2-5 vs. the UAA, 1-3 vs. the PAC. The two wins against the MIAA were Wittenberg beating defending champ Olivet and Denison beating Kalamazoo.

21. MICHIGAN INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION (MIAA)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 22nd
Non-conference record so far: 11-16
Verdict: It wasn’t just Trine’s win against HCAC champ Franklin that moved the conference up a spot. MIAA teams are 6-2 against the HCAC this season. They are also 0-7 against the CCIW and winless against the PAC, IIAC, OAC and WIAC.

22. HEARTLAND COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (HCAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 20th
Non-conference record so far: 10-12
Verdict: The rise of Franklin to give Mount St. Joseph a consistent challenger and top 25 threat helped last season, but re-ranking was not as kind. The 2-6 MIAA mark was offset by a 2-1 mark against the OAC, but the overall win total is less impressive than it looks. Its three wins against the NCAC were all against struggling Earlham.

23. MIDWEST CONFERENCE (MWC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 23rd
Non-conference record so far: 5-4
Verdict: Monmouth’s win against Loras of the IIAC was intriguing, but the MWC is judged by its most successful team, St. Norbert. Wartburg defeated the Green Knights 44-20 in the MWC’s most significant chance to make a move upward.

24. NEW ENGLAND FOOTBALL CONFERENCE (NEFC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 24th
Non-conference record so far: 0-6
Verdict: The good vibes from Curry’s playoff win against the Empire 8 champion last season can only go so far; One of the other 15 teams must win a non-conference game at some point, although chances are few.

25. UPPER MIDWEST ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (UMAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 27th
Non-conference record so far: 7-6
Verdict: Down to five teams, including brand new St. Scholastica, Northwestern (Minn.)’s defeat of UW-River Falls of the WIAC is alone enough for a bump up a couple notches.

26. ST. LOUIS INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE (SLIAC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 26th
Non-conference record so far: 8-13
Verdict: The addition of former independents LaGrange and Huntingdon give conference travel budgets a boost, but it’s done the same for the SLIAC’s profile in its first season back on the football field since 1999. The other six teams, however, are just 4-12 in non-conference action.

27. NORTHERN ATHLETICS CONFERENCE (NATHC)
Kickoff ’08 ranking: 25th
Non-conference record so far: 4-20
Verdict: With five teams at 0-3 and only 2-1 Aurora with a winning record, this new mix of former Illini-Badger Football Conference, UMAC and MIAA teams has a long way to climb.