Around the Nation podcast: Playoff picture takes place

Hardin-Simmons wasn’t a threat to Linfield, Willamette or UMHB but crushed Texas Lutheran.
Hardin-Simmons athletics photo

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So let’s see, John Carroll beat Heidelberg, handily, and Wittenberg handled Wabash. Meanwhile, Hardin-Simmons delivered a reality check to Texas Lutheran and Wesley beat a D-I FCS team. (You know, the level known as Division I-AA.) Did John Carroll play its way into the playoffs? Or perhaps we should give them more than just lip service next week vs. Mount Union. Keith talks about what he saw when he watched the John Carroll-Heidelberg game.

Keith and Pat look at the remaining 10 automatic bids and what it will take to win them. Plus a long look at Pool B and another long look at Pool C. That and Continue reading

Triple Take: A lot of running room left

Tyler Brown
Tyler Brown helps key a defense that has allowed just 177 yards per game.
Johns Hopkins athletics photo

We’re past the midway point in the season. Many conferences still have nearly half their teams in contention. Races are still wide open, but for the seasoned observer, conclusions are being drawn and expectations are being laid.

Less than one month from now, the final regular season game of 2011 will be played. The time has flown by, hasn’t it? But don’t look too far ahead because there are games right in your backyard that still matter, that still carry excitement and that still could buck your expectations.

Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps give you nearly two dozen games to mull over in this week’s Triple Take.

Game of the Week.
Ryan’s take: No. 2 Mount Union at Heidelberg.
I know that it’s always a gamble highlighting a regular-season Mount Union game because they so rarely are close enough to warrant this kind of hype. But Heidelberg is having a great year, and the past two weeks’ victories over Capital and Muskingum leave no doubt that they are a team to keep your eye on. Heidelberg is a team that starts fast, playing hard-nosed football on both sides of the ball, especially through the first half. So far this year, the Student Princes have given up nothing more than a field goal in the first quarter. That’s total, folks. And they’ve got a ground man averaging nearly 125 yards a game and a passer throwing for well over 200 a game. It’s the kind of dual offense they need to bring into the Mount Union game this weekend. Couple that attack with a defense that is plus-14 in the turnover ratio, and you’ve got a game that can be competitive.
Keith’s take: No. 18 Salisbury at No. 23 Alfred. Most of the top 25 are playing teams they should beat, but the Empire 8 gauntlet takes weeks to run through. Since a bye week, the Sea Gulls have averaged 67.5 points a game. They rush for 363 yards a game, while the Saxons allow just 98. Alfred’s defense is No. 15 nationally, while Salisbury passes enough to make its offense No. 9 in the country. After Alfred’s 17-3 loss to St. John Fisher, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Salisbury run away with it; then again, this is the Saxons’ chance to dig deep and have people take notice. Otherwise, we look ahead to SJF’s Nov. 5 trip to Maryland’s Eastern shore.
Pat’s take: Centre at Birmingham-Southern. This isn’t the only game either of them needs to win to take the SCAC, but it’s the first blow, with the winner needing to also beat Trinity (Texas) to avoid a three-way split and a tiebreaker situation. Centre hasn’t gotten much credit from our poll, probably because Washington & Lee, the Colonels’ best opponent, is unranked as well, but it’s safe to say they’re in the ballpark for consideration on a few ballots.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Trine at Alma.
A 4-1 team vs. a 1-5 is rarely a recipe for a close contest, but Alma this season has gone above and beyond by scheduling some of the toughest teams they could get their hands on. Of those five losses, the three nonconference games were against 4-1 Heidelberg, 5-0 Illinois Wesleyan and 5-1 Washington and Lee. And each was separated by eight points or less. The Thunder, on the other hand, have been winning this year but not by the big comfortable margins they’ve seen in the past couple of seasons. The Scots can put up a lot of yards and points. Expect them to do just that on Saturday.
Keith’s take: No. 8 Thomas More at St. Vincent. Outside of PAC country, you might think of the Saints as a top-10 program and the Bearcats as the conference pushover. But no longer; St. Vincent (3-2) is six points from being unbeaten, and just knocked off Washington & Jefferson last week. Kendall Owens is the name you know for Thomas More, but they’re getting efficient passing from Rob Kues and rushing contributions from Domonique Hayden, Luke Magness and Landon Savoy. St. Vincent has the PAC’s best rush defense at 104 yards allowed a game; Thomas More (196/game) has the PAC’s top rush offense.
Pat’s take: No. 9 Bethel at Gustavus Adolphus. Since convincingly dispatching with its first two opponents, Bethel has had a few results that were puzzling late in the game — a close home game against Carleton, a loss at home to St. Olaf and a game at St. John’s that was close throughout before two late scores. The 1-4 mark for Gustavus (26-21 loss at Wartburg) is certainly deceiving and this won’t be the kind of blowout you picture for a Top 10 team against a one-win opponent.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Johns Hopkins.
This is a stretch, though, as not many Top 25 games are looking good this week to call the upset. JHU is lining up against Dickinson, a team that’s coming off a win against a lost-its-luster Franklin and Marshall squad. Still, Dickinson is a team that’s certainly found itself down at times, but it’s rarely out. Turnovers are the potential game-changers here.
Keith’s take: No. 14 Delaware Valley. At 6-0 with three one-score victories, the Aggies might be one of the more fortunate teams in the top 15. They’re young on offense, but have been propped up by the nation’s No. 9 total defense (225 yards/game). Albright, which averaged more than 50 points per game the last three weeks of September to get to 4-0, has been held to 15 points per game in October losses to Lycoming and Lebanon Valley. Common opponents don’t explain much here; the Lions hung 65 on Wilkes and Delaware Valley scored 14. Lebanon Valley lost by 24 at Delaware Valley and won by seven at Albright. If the Lions can rediscover their September offense, there’s upset potential here. One would think going against the MAC’s toughest defense means struggle is ahead, but often knowing the challenge in advance makes for a more attentive, effort-filled week of practice, and teams rise to the occasion.
Pat’s take: No. 25 UW-Oshkosh. The Karner Rules (these are the ones that say a conference opponent can’t take an overnight trip, as opposed to the ones that say two conference teams must play one non-conference game against each other) prohibit a WIAC team from staying overnight for this trip, hence the 2 p.m. local kickoff time. Platteville is no slouch and if healthy, the Pioneers won’t necessarily go all Bo Ryan swing offense on the Titans, but should give them a heck of a game with the upset a distinct possibility. Hey, Saturday is the start of basketball practice. It has to make some sense somewhere.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: Baldwin-Wallace.
This is a team I had pegged in Kickoff as being the OAC’s No. 2, and that claim will be tested against Ohio Northern. Aside from a somewhat surprising loss against Capital earlier in the year, the Yellow Jackets have been winning — though not by dominating margins. While there are a handful of teams above ONU in the conference standings, toppling the Polar Bears would be as symbolic as it is significant.
Keith’s take: Framingham State. They’ve won three in a row since a 1-2 start to get to 4-2, but they need to win at Maine Maritime to stay on track in the NEFC Bogan division. They’ve got the perfect inspiration: The Mariners rushed for 523 yards on the Rams last year and handed them one of their two losses.
Pat’s take: Trinity (Texas). And I guess this is going to put me at odds with the pick by Ryan Tipps below me but here’s why I make this a split decision: Huntingdon has won two pretty impressive games at home, but going to Trinity is still a different story and has been since 1996. Last year the Tigers lost three games at home and it’s hard to see that happening again, although Trinity ends with Huntingdon, Centre and Birmingham-Southern at home, so it’s not at all unreasonable.

Of the Nos. 26-30 teams, which is most likely to win its way into the Top 25?
Ryan’s take: Huntingdon.
The Hawks are already in my Top 25, something I believe they’ve earned after wins over Hampden-Sydney and Wittenberg. This week’s opponent is undefeated Trinity (Texas), which has also flirted at times with being on my ballot. A win here will be a huge boost and will be the third time this season that they’ll have dealt a one-loss team that lone blemish.
Keith’s take: Huntingdon. It can only be the Hawks making a move this week; handing Trinity its first loss would be a third impressive win (along with Hampden-Sydney and Wittenberg). If Birmingham-Southern, the only team to beat the Hawks this season, also lodges a win against unbeaten Centre, there’ll be enough ammo for voters to feel comfortable bumping them up. With Cortland State playing Western Connecticut, Wittenberg facing Kenyon, St. Olaf battling rival Carleton and Hobart sitting idle, it’s the only choice.
Pat’s take: Anyone but Hobart. It’s hard to figure on what keeps Hobart so down in the coaches’ poll, with just nine votes out of 42 voters (.2 average), making the Statesmen’s 1.4-point average in the Top 25 seem laudatory. Are the coaches reacting to Hobart’s offseason sanctions, where they were placed on three years’ probation? But one thing which probably hurts Hobart’s reputation is after this week, some teams will have played seven games, most conferences serious about football will have played six … and Hobart will have played four. That’s what an eight-game non-NESCAC schedule looks like. Actually, also what a NESCAC schedule looks like.

Which team will be affected the most by injury?
Ryan’s take: Guilford.
The Quakers came into Week 1 with a new coach, a new strategy and new energy. But an injury here, and an injury there can create holes in that excitement. Starting quarterback Zac Halbert played sparingly in last week’s loss, and his health and ability to return to the field will be an important factor. But the field is littered with more spots where the depth chart is being raided. Prior to the season, Guilford should have expected to be sitting at 3-2 and going into a winnable game against Bridgewater. Now, they’re at 1-4, and a win on Saturday would be considered an upset.
Keith’s take: Uncertain. I’m afraid I’m going to have to forfeit my expert badge for this one. The injury that might most affect Saturday’s games might not have even happened yet. But I also don’t have a great feel for teams this season that have lost key guys, or a bunch of them. School me in the comments section below.
Pat’s take: Colby. Everyone is dealing with injuries seven weeks into the season, so it’s hard to see it as a valid excuse here. But even if maybe you don’t give Colby much of a chance at home against Amherst, linebacker Mike Hyatt’s injury has to affect more than the White Mules’ on-the-field play. This young man suffered his fourth concussion recently, his second in college football, and is not expected to play football again. In his final game two weeks ago against Middlebury, Hyatt recorded 18 tackles, nine solo, and recovered a fumble, but his absence will leave the White Mules’ linebacking corps pretty young.

Red, blue or green?
Ryan’s take: Blue (and gold) of Ithaca.
The Bombers are going to line up against Springfield on Saturday, at a spot in the season where they’re playing for pride more than they are for the Empire 8’s automatic qualifier. The two teams match up well against each other, and it’ll be interesting to see which offense (Springfield’s 379-yard-a-game rushing efforts or Ithaca’s mostly blended attack) will be able to put a chink in the opponent’s armor. Ithaca’s offense is pretty woeful in the red zone, where not converting means more than loss of points, it means loss of momentum.
Keith’s take: Blue of Concordia (Wis). The Falcons started 0-3, but have dominated the two Northern Athletics Conference teams its played. The game against Benedictine is to hang on to at least a share of first place in a conference where everyone has multiple overall losses, but gets an automatic bid just like anyone else. The Falcons, who have outscored Rockford and Maranatha Baptist 105-21, takes its conference-best defense and puts it up against Benedictine’s conference-best offense.
Pat’s take: Green (and gold) of Presentation. In Kickoff 2011, we predicted the first-year Saints would go 2-8, 1-8 in the UMAC. But we figured that win would be at MacMurray. The Saints surprised even our generous prediction by winning last week against Crown. A win at MacMurray, which has lost 17 in a row and (yikes!) 44 of 45 games, would give them three wins in their first season of football and be pretty impressive by any standard.

Triple Take: All conferences a go

Lousiana College
Louisiana College is looking for a chance to gain some national respectability.
Louisiana College athletics photo

For the first time all season, teams from every conference around the country will be competing. That’s because, on Saturday, we get to welcome teams from the NESCAC to the field. Those 10 schools play only an in-conference schedule.

We’ll take a look at some of them as well as other teams from coast to coast. Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps give you the breakdown.

Game of the Week.
Ryan’s take: No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor at No. 21 Hardin-Simmons.
There’s no question that, on a national scale, this is one of the most anticipated in-conference games each and every season. And HSU is coming off a surprising lopsided loss to Mississippi College last week. If the Cowboys are looking for a game to renew their spirits, this one won’t be it. HSU probably doesn’t have the run defense to stop UMHB’s 271-yard-a-game ground attack. The Cowboys will need a few big plays through the air to win Saturday’s shootout and will need to learn how to better stop its opponents in the red zone.
Keith’s take: No. 8 Thomas More at Washington & Jefferson. There are games matching more exciting teams perhaps, but nothing with more on the line this week. For all intents and purposes, the winner of this game wins the PAC and goes on to the playoffs. That’s how it’s been nearly every year since the Saints joined the Presidents’ conference. The games were 29-21 last year and 14-7 the year before, both in favor of Thomas More but close enough to irk W&J. The Saints bring a 42.5-point-per-game offense powered by RB Kendall Owens into the game, while the Presidents counter with QB Matt Bliss and a defense that’s played well for three games.
Pat’s take: No. 23 Mississippi College at Louisiana College. The Choctaws have to avoid a letdown after their big win last weekend at home against Hardin-Simmons. Meanwhile, Louisiana College is looking for a little respect after a triple-overtime win against NAIA Belhaven and a shellacking of Millsaps last week. The Wildcats offense certainly came alive last week in its second game since the graduation of quarterback Ben McLaughlin and if they can take care of the ball better than Hardin-Simmons last week, they should have a chance to be successful.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Randolph-Macon at Frostburg State.
It’s been four years since Frostburg won this matchup, and while the Bobcats have given up a lot of points so far this season, they may be able to zero in on how to stop Macon. That’s because R-MC has been surprisingly one-dimensional this year. Past years showed them to have the most balanced offense in the Old Dominion, but this year, they’ve struggled in the pass game (only 57 such yards last week). Over the past two weeks, R-MC hasn’t been able to really get out in front of its opponents, something that will need to happen to ward off a strong effort by Frostburg late in the game.
Keith’s take: Hobart at St. John Fisher. Hard to know what to make of these upstate New York teams from different conferences. Each is unbeaten, though Fisher’s wins are by 5 and 49 against seemingly the same level of competition. Hobart started out with a 33-9 win at Dickinson. Here’s the deal though: Where they once were near equals, the Empire 8’s reputation has gone through the roof the past five years, while the Liberty League just sent a 5-5 conference champion to the postseason. So you’d expect the top-flight E8 team to put a hurting on the LL team, especially at home, but I see a strong effort from Hobart and a tight finish.
Pat’s take: Coe at No. 10 Wartburg. This game has certainly lost its luster since the season began and now Wartburg has to be considered a favorite, but Coe and senior quarterback Brad Boyle have to sense the opportunity to give their conference title hopes a big boost. The Kohawks also need a win or a surprisingly close performance to remain the No. 2 team in the conference, rather than slipping behind Central and even Dubuque in the IIAC pecking order.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 24 Cortland State.
If the Red Dragons hope to rebound after last week’s loss to Kean, now’s the time to do. Though I’m really still waiting to see what Cortland State opponent Rowan is capable of this season. The Profs certainly haven’t yet hit their stride (where’s the offense?), so this game means as much to them as it does to Cortland State staying alive in the playoff hunt.
Keith’s take: No. 17 Wabash. Less a Little Giant dis than it is finally recognizing Dee Brizzolara and the Chicago Maroons. Every few years the UAA pushes out a team that’s playoff-worthy and good enough to beat top 25 teams, and this year’ Maroons have that feel.
Pat’s take: No. 14 Montclair State. I might be guilty of underanalyzing this game, but coming off of last week’s respective games, Buffalo State and Montclair State seem to have differing levels of momentum. I remember a particular Montclair State-Buffalo State we broadcast in 2000 that went to two overtimes — in addition, this was the last season Buff State had a national profile. If the Bengals win this one, they’ll be back on the scene for more than just blowing out Western Connecticut a couple times.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: Allegheny.
Why? Because I’m impressed the Gators are standing at 2-1 and have found a solid balance of both rushing and passing on offense. They’ve proven in the past two games that they can get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but the biggest test by far comes this weekend when they go up against conference kingpin Wittenberg. A good showing here will go a long way, and Witt is not invincible.
Keith’s take: Hampden-Sydney. The Tigers have looked dominant in a 3-0 start, but there are questions about the defense and the level of competition. A trip to Alabama to face Huntingdon (2-1, 37.3 points per game) should give us some answers.
Pat’s take: Dubuque. It’s been a long time since the Spartans beat Central (1987) but this is a good opportunity for Dubuque and the Zweifels. Other than last year, games recently have been close, including the three-overtime classic in 2007.

Which NESCAC game are you most looking forward to?
Ryan’s take: Trinity (Conn.) at Colby.
The Bantams are always a part of the NESCAC discussion, and this year, they should be able to harness their offensive strengths to again make a run at the conference title. The NESCAC is a pass-heavy conference, so seeing whether Trinity’s young defensive backfield can slow Colby (and ultimately other opponents this season) will be interesting.
Keith’s take: Williams at Bowdoin. I’ve got the Ephs in the top 25, but I need to see an indication that they deserve it. Just beating the Polar Bears might not be enough, and that’s a shame because any team can look shaky in its opener, and Bowdoin looked improved last season.
Pat’s take: Middlebury at Wesleyan. Having taken a step forward under Mike Whalen, the Cardinals have a change to get this season off on the right foot and perhaps break out of the middle of the nESCAC pack, where they have been the past two years.

Which team could get caught looking ahead?
Ryan’s take: Case Western Reserve.
Next week, Case faces Allegheny (who I discussed a couple of questions ago), but this week is Denison, which has proven itself to be a competitor above and beyond years past. The Big Red haven’t played the toughest teams, but they’ve won the past two games by wide margins and played another to within a field goal. The Spartans can’t look past this one, otherwise they’ll find themselves looking back on it next week and shaking their heads.
Keith’s take: No. 16 Alfred. Next week’s clash with St. John Fisher will help determine if the Saxons are headed back to the playoffs, or at least will have a shot at winning the Empire 8. But they have to deal with 2-0 Springfield and the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing offense (491 yards/game) first.
Pat’s take: No. 3 St. Thomas. The Tommies host St. John’s net week and while I’d like to give Glenn Caruso’s team the fullest benefit of the doubt, they do have to go to Concordia-Moorhead, and it’s not a great trip. The Cobbers are the best team St. Thomas has played so far this season. They might not get completely caught but another slow start like the ones against St. Norbert or UW-River Falls could have greater consequences. In considering this I looked at a whole bunch of teams who couldn’t get caught looking ahead — Mount Union playing Wilmington this week with Ohio Northern next week.

Game most likely to be decided by a 2-point conversion.
Ryan’s take: Puget Sound at Whittier. Both teams pass waaaaaay better than they run the ball. Note to defensive backs: Stay on your heels for the whole 60 minutes. Both teams enter this contest winless, and aside from it likely ending up a close-scoring game, look at it, too, as the last nonconference hurrah for them. Who’s bringing some momentum into conference play?
Keith’s take: Salve Regina at Endicott. Both teams are off to good starts, with the only blemish being Salve’s loss to top-25 Montclair State. When the Seahawks play, points could be scarce, and plus it took a 20-point fourth quarter Gulls rally for a 29-28 victory last year. The only way to top that is to have this year’s game in Newport, R.I. come down to a conversion attempt.
Pat’s take: McDaniel at Ursinus. I suggest this game because it’s likely to be a back-and-forth kind of game, one that could lead a coach to go for two. And the way McDaniel has given up fourth-quarter points, Tim Keating might want to stop the bleeding with a two-pointer.