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Triple Take, Week 5: October is here, and so are conference rumbles

Believe it or not, the first month of the season has gone by. And as the calendar flips from September to October, the Dubuque at Pacific and Wesley at North Central matchups turn to the more familar: Central at Wartburg, Washington & Jefferson at Thomas More and the like.

Of course, as the CCIW, ECFC, IIAC, MIAA, NACC, NWC, ODAC, SCIAC, USAC and the WIAC get conference play underway, there are some unfamiliar matchups as well. In the ASC, which along with the MWC has had just one league game played, Belhaven at Mary Hardin-Baylor is a conference clash. Rowan at Christopher Newport is now an NJAC game.

The four-team SCAC aside, league games in Division III’s 28 conferences will be underway as of this week. It’s not normal to follow that many conferences, so our abormal prognosticators — Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I — provide our seven-point primers in hopes of making sense of it all. Add your picks in the comment section below.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 13 Washington and Jefferson at No. 12 Thomas More. The WIAC clash could earn top bill here, but that has more of a defined favorite, and less on the line, since UW-Platteville has already scored a big non-conference win. The PAC teams might have more at stake; Thomas More missed the playoffs at 9-1 in 2013. It then upgraded the schedule by adding Wesley, lost, and missed the field at 8-2 last season. Both years included big losses to W&J (45-21 and 51-28). This season, if the Saints still can’t stop the Presidents, they at least look like a better bet to keep pace. You might know TMC from their All-American running back the past few years, but QB Jensen Gephardt is the nation’s third most-efficient passer. Look for his throws to Goose Cohorn, and either team’s defense generating turnovers as the difference in the game.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 13 Washington and Jefferson at No. 12 Thomas More. The Saints, which average almost 60 points a game, have the second-best scoring offense in the nation. But W&J isn’t far behind on the list with 43 points a game. This will be a game that has the potential to see some wild offense come alive, and it would be of little surprise for it to be a back-and-forth slugfest. TMC holds the edge going into this one with more muscle and more balance on both sides of the ball. Yet all it takes is a well-timed turnover to shift the momentum of a matchup.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: What they said. But also No. 14 UW-Platteville at No. 1 UW-Whitewater. Just to get in some info on another game here. Last week’s game couldn’t have come at a better time for Whitewater. The adjustment in terms of speed of game and quality of opponent for Whitewater last week was pretty necessary to prepare the Warhawks for the conference schedule. It took a while for the passing game to come around, but if Whitewater comes out ready to fire on Saturday, they should be in good shape. On the other hand, Platteville has to come out with a lot of confidence after the success it had in the non-conference schedule, and the Pioneers have had two weeks to prepare for this game.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 19 Ithaca at Utica. While the Bombers have the ranking and the name recognition, the Pioneers are still under the radar. (See what I did there? Bombers. Radar. Eh?) The case for Utica is that they’re 2-2, but with seven-point losses at Ohio Northern and at Cortland State surrounding an impressive win against Morrisville State. The Pioneers are back at home, and while Ithaca’s scores might lead one to believe they’re a little more offensively inclined than usual, Utica can keep pace, and Ithaca is still top 10 in passing efficiency defense and top 20 in rushing defense. Plus, it’s the Empire 8, so anything can happen.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 18 Hardin-Simmons at Trinity. I’m high on Trinity’s potential this year, but the reality of it is that the Tigers haven’t been tested much. Trinity’s opponents are 1-10 this season, and the margins haven’t been what we’d expect to see from a team that can compete with the top of the ASC. What could keep Trinity in this one, though, is the defense — with pick-master Jai Boatman in the secondary, Luke Packard coming off D3football.com Team of the Week honors and linebacker Julian Turner averaging 14 tackles a game. Confidence should be high that they can at least slow this HSU squad.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Any game in the path of Hurricane Joaquin. The potential of torrential rain makes this weekend interesting on the field. (And please, everyone, be safe off of it.) Rainy weather will favor the teams which run the ball well and play good defense, and if you need a real-world reminder, just review the UW-Whitewater/Morningside game. Option teams will have less of an advantage because of the way they pitch the ball around. Keep an eye out for results that look odd on paper. Paper is hard to read when it gets wet.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 18 Hardin-Simmons. The Cowboys sneaked into the top 25, largely because of their Week 2 win at Texas Lutheran. But we don’t really know how good they are. Weston Garner, Jessie Ramos and company have another chance to prove it Saturday at Trinity (Texas), which is surprisingly 4-0. As Pat remarked on the podcast, this takes us back to the early 2000s when these two teams were national powers.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Bethel. If only because the top of the MIAC is so good that teams are vulnerable week after week. Opponent Concordia-Moorhead’s only blemish is to St. John’s, while Bethel has a loss only to Wartburg. No matter who comes away with the victory here, it’ll be the team’s first upper-tier win of the season.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 11 John Carroll. Not to keep sounding this horn week after week. I’ll just leave the team name here and hope that I don’t need to say anything else.

Pick a team that will win a shootout

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 23 Guilford, at Washington & Lee. The nation’s No. 4 passing offense (the Quakers average 384.7 yards a game) and No. 3 total offense (639.3) meet the No. 1 rushing offense (509.7) and No. 10 total offense (562.3). Those numbers should come down a bit as the ODAC rivals face tougher competition in one another, but they do what they do. Guilford QB Matt Pawlowski will complete passes to Adam Smith, Daniel Woodruff and Rontavious Miller, and W&L counterpart Charlie Nelson will hand off to Duncan Maxwell or one of three other ballcarriers or keep it himself as the Generals whiz past in every direction. Whichever team can muster enough defense to slow the other probably pulls this one out.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Mass-Dartmouth, at Framingham State. The MASCAC hasn’t been known for defense this fall, and shootouts seem to be commonplace. That will be no less likely when the conference’s only 3-1 teams meet. The Corsairs average more than 500 yards a game, while the Rams are just behind that with 472. The Rams’ weakness, though, is that their offense is one-dimensional — lots of passing, little run. The Corsairs will be more likely to make Framingham’s defense work for the win by spicing up the offensive approach and keeping the Rams guessing.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 17 UW-Oshkosh at UW-Stout. Stout has proven the ability to put points on the board this season against good teams (see Bethel, Wartburg) and UW-Oshkosh will score as well. As long as Stout’s offense remains healthy, it’ll be able to put up points against a good number of teams. Last year, that group was so debilitated that you can’t judge the Blue Devils based on those results.

Pick a team that will win a defensive battle

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 15 Rowan, at Christopher Newport. Pat and I had the same idea, except what I would put in this category he used under surprisingly close (although I don’t know what’s surprising about unpredictably close games in hurricane weather). In the interest of singling one team out, the Profs are already strong defensively — they’ve allowed just 20 points in three games, two on the road and two against teams that won eight or more games last season. Rowan is on the road again, in Newport News, which might not get the brunt of the hurricane, but will be sloppy by the time the game kicks off at 6 p.m. Saturday, if it stays on schedule. Look for Darren Dungee, Josh Popper and Anthony Rizzolo to add to their defensive stats in a low-scoring affair.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: RPI, vs. Merchant Marine. Both teams are coming off shaky games and will be looking to re-establish themselves on the field. Not only are both of these teams’ strengths in their defensive units, but their offenses leave a little to be desired. RPI should pull this one out, but it would be no surprise to see a finish in the vicinity of 17-13.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Pacific, vs. Pacific Lutheran. PLU has only played twice in the first four weeks of the season, while Pacific has an extra game under its belt. I’m looking for this game to qualify as a low-scoring one. What qualifies as low-scoring in college football these days?

Which team will win a challenging conference opener?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 1 UW-Whitewater. If we’re being totally honest, the Warhawks are ranked No. 1 because of what they’ve accomplished under Lance Leipold. However, new coach Kevin Bullis is off to a 3-0 start, including an impressive win over then-NAIA No. 1 Morningside. Now we’ve got a WIAC opponent, and a tough one at that. But if we’re being totally honest, the Pioneers are fortunate to be undefeated, as North Central had them on the ropes and just didn’t deliver the knockout blow. So it’s a bit of a prove-it game for both, and since Bullis (a longtime WIAC assistant) and his charges are no stranger to what they’ll be facing, and the Warhawks get to play at The Perk, one has to assume they’ll do what they do. But in a wise bit of scheduling, Mike Emendorfer’s team has had two weeks to prepare for UW-Whitewater.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Finlandia, vs. Maranatha Baptist. I know I’m stretching the definition of “conference” since the independents aren’t technically one. Regardless, the upstart from the Upper Peninsula has been throttled week after week — opponents have put up 272 points; the Lions have scored just nine. Finlandia did notch  its first touchdown of the season last week, so that’s a perk. Going into this week, the team can expect to see something totally different than what it’s dealt with in recent weeks — a team not from the WIAC. In fact, if Finlandia has a winnable game on its schedule, it’s this one against Maranatha Baptist. The Sabercats haven’t been through the meat grinder against the kind of competition Finlandia has faced, so if Finlandia is healthy, they should be prepared for this one. But, I also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that every game in a startup’s season is going to be challenging.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Adrian, at Olivet. One of the key games of the MIAA season is this one, right out of the gate. There’s not much in the way of common opponents to judge these teams on, so I’ll be taking the team that has played the stronger schedule so far, even if that’s picking against the team that has the home-field advantage.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Widener. So I’m still not sure what to make of the Pride, but at 2-2 and 2-1 in the MAC, they have to have this game at Wilkes, which aside from its 12-7 upset of Delaware Valley has lost every game. What’s surprising is Widener is second in the nation in passing yards allowed, seventh in getting off the field on third downs and top 2o in total defense. It is also even in turnover margin, so either the stats are lying or Widener is a breakout team lying in wait. Which means now against the Colonels and next week against Misericordia are the times to show it, because 4-0 Stevenson follows them.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Centre. The Colonels had won 14 straight regular-season games, and there were high hopes for another sweep through the SAA. Chicago ruined that streak with a 49-30 outing last weekend. But the test of a good team is how well it bounces back after defeat. Centre’s opponent, Hendrix, is 2-1 to start the season, and both teams have quarterbacks who excel — expect a lot of offense. I’ll be on site in Danville, Ky., on Saturday to personally see how this one plays out.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Hendrix. I’m actually going to take the opposite side of this game from my colleague. Hendrix is on the upswing here and will go as far as quarterback Seth Peters can carry them. What the program lacks so far, though, is an ability to win on the road. They can put that struggle behind them in a memorable way on Saturday. But if they don’t, it will still be one more step on the road to growing a program.

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: A great week for D-III football

Let’s see — the No. 1 Division III team beat the NAIA’s No. 1 team, SportsCenter spent significant time on two Division III campuses and we had a great, gutsy schedule of a non-conference game turn into a fantastic contest that was worth the price of admission. We look at those stories, plus, which are the teams on the rise? What key highlights happened below the radar? Pat and Keith answer those questions, plus hand out their game balls, on this week’s Around the Nation Podcast.

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
Photo by Tim Ward, d3photography.com
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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.