ATN Podcast 179: Big games lead to playoff talk

All of a sudden we drop a few big games into the mix, set a couple of Top 25 ballots on fire, and then it’s not too early to talk about strength of schedule, and the playoffs, and how at-large bids might be even more at a premium this year than usual. Pat and Keith talk first about the games that caused all that upheaval, then later dive into a couple of playoff scenarios. Plus, find out who Keith thinks could stick around in the playoff bracket a little longer than normal this November or December.

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Pat and Keith hand out game balls, find the hidden highlights, the correct pronunciations (yep, again), the interesting stats and much more in the Around the Nation Podcast

The Around the Nation Podcast is a regular conversation between Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan and guests covering the wide range of Division III football. 

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Wesley, Delaware Valley file photos
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Triple Take predictions, Week 10: This is almost it!


Tyler Holmes and Wabash will try to keep the unbeaten run alive. (Wabash photo by Howard Hewitt)

Week 10. This is almost it.

For a handful of teams, this is it — their season will be over by Saturday evening. For another handful, this is it in the sense that the game that defines the season is this week. And for a few more, this is almost it — there’s one more shot next week, whether that shot is to score a win that influences the playoff selection committee, or just to head into the offseason on a high note.

With regional rankings out and selection Sunday nine days from now, Pat Coleman, Ryan Tipps and I focus on the top end of Division III in this week’s predictions, as a field of 32 will be chosen from the 230 or so that are playoff-eligible. Here are our predictions.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week
Keith’s take: Ithaca at No. 15 St. John Fisher. The clashes at the top of the MIAC and NCAC are bigger games, but we have a Wabash grad and Minnesota resident here more qualified to handle those. We might overdo the Empire 8 in Triple Take every week, yet this one is huge because it’s the difference between winning the conference and possibly a couple playoff games, as E8 winners have been known to do, and missing the field entirely. Salisbury game aside, the Cardinals have been pretty solid in total defense (275 yards/game, 25th nationally). Ithaca (294/34th) isn’t far behind, and after allowing 38 points to Frostburg State, have allowed just three TDs in two games. To top it off, the past three Bombers-Cardinals clashes have been decided by three, four and three points.
Ryan’s take: No. 9 Wabash at No. 14 Wittenberg. As a Wabash grad, I feel no pressure to *have* to pick this game; fact is, I *want* to pick it. Not only is this one of the two top-25 clashes this weekend, but it also features two teams that have grown into the fiercest of rivals when it comes to talking about the NCAC. Only once since 2004 has a team not named Wabash or Wittenberg won the conference title, and even that was a co-champion situation in which Witt still got the automatic qualifier. The Little Giants and Tigers are at the top of most major statistical categories in the conference, including scoring offense and scoring defense. Makes you wonder what kind of game we’re in for this weekend, huh?
Pat’s take: No. 10 Bethel at No. 18 St. John’s. The first time I saw these teams play was on another cold Week 10 Saturday, 11 years ago when St. John’s coach John Gagliardi came in with 408 career wins and needed one more to surpass legendary Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson to become the winningest coach in college football history. I don’t expect to see (or be) a member of the national media at this game, nor 14,000 people, but it still has the makings of a classic. The primary question in my mind is how well Bethel’s defense will contain St. John’s running back Sam Sura, and whether the Johnnies will continue to rip a page from the 2003 playbook and put their best receiver in the backfield in a big game. (I mean, if they’re going to throw the ball around 10 times per game, what else does Josh Bungum have to do?)

Surprisingly close game
Keith’s take: No. 13 Widener at King’s. For a 3-5 team, the Monarchs have pulled off some amazing feats, like managing to play both No. 19 Delaware Valley (24-21 loss last week) and 1-7 Misericordia (36-29 win) even. Three of King’s losses are by a touchdown or less, and they lost by two scores to Lycoming. All that bodes well for another game where they hang close to a superior team. Turnovers are even more key here than usual — Widener has just six giveaways all season, and King’s has 10.
Ryan’s take: Case Western Reserve at Thomas More. The newcomer vs. a PAC power. Case hasn’t been playing particularly well this season, but one bright spot is that they can handle an opponent’s run game reasonably well. That might not translate into a win against TMC, but it should keep the score somewhat in check.
Pat’s take: No. 25 Willamette at Pacific. Mostly because I don’t know what to do with this game and it should be mentioned. Willamette has to be favored, even though Pacific is in first place in the Northwest Conference at the moment. But Pacific needed overtime to beat Lewis and Clark last week and hasn’t played Linfield yet, so being in first place is cool for the program, but a little misleading at the moment.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset
Keith’s take: No. 7 Hobart. The discrepancy between the Statesmen’s No. 7 ranking and St. Lawrence’s two votes is the biggest in this week’s conference-title toss-ups. If it weren’t for the Saints’ puzzling 10-7 loss to Norwich early in the season, we’d be billing this as a matchup of 8-0 teams. But what makes the potential for upset here real is that both teams are equally adept at the rare skill of good defense. Hobart has held five opponents to 13 points or fewer, and the three times a team has gone over, it’s needed to get there with a TD in the final minute after the outcome has been decided. St. Lawrence, meantime, is sixth nationally in total defense (219 yards/game, 10 TDs allowed), just ahead of No. 10 Hobart (234/11), and neither team has more than nine turnovers this season. To pull the upset, Mike Lefflbine and the Saints’ offense will have to figure out how to score on Hobart, which might not be likely, but it’s more possible than the disparate rankings might make it seem.
Ryan’s take: No. 7 Hobart. St. Lawrence hasn’t been squeaking by most teams on the schedule; instead the Saints have been leaving few questions about who’s the best team on the field each week. SLU allows just 11 points a game — a mere 0.1 better than Hobart’s average in that category — and should be able to use its pass-leaning offense to keep the Statesmen on their toes. The winner of this will most likely end up being the Liberty League’s playoff representative. (Of course, if SLU wins, perhaps the LL would send two teams?)
Pat’s take: No. 21 Chapman. At some point we may well see Chapman take over the top dog spot in the SCIAC, possibly this year. But it’s easier to believe the previous champion will hang on to its throne, perhaps for one extra season.

Pinpoint a game that will decide a conference race this weekend
Keith’s take: No. 21 Chapman at Redlands, SCIAC. If Chapman wins, the conference would be wrapped up with a tidy bow. Redlands, however, can delay the crowning another week, because next week’s opponent, Occidental, isn’t eliminated yet, despite a 59-21 loss to Chapman in October. Redlands has been off the national radar since being outscored 72-3 in season-opening losses to No. 2 UMHB and No. 11 Linfield, which beat Chapman 21-14. The Panthers, who run for 253 yards a game and pass for 211, could lose and still end up winning the tiebreaker (Rose Bowl rule?) anyway. They could bypass the complications with a win.
Ryan’s take: Franklin at Defiance, HCAC. After misreading the schedule last week, I feel obligated to renew the spotlight I put on this game. The Grizzlies are undefeated in conference play and hold tiebreakers over every one- and two-loss team in the HCAC. Not that it will come to that. A win this weekend means that Franklin is in the playoffs no matter what happens elsewhere in the conference. Consider the conference decided.
Pat’s take: Illinois Wesleyan at Wheaton (Ill.), CCIW. This isn’t a winner-take-all game and probably won’t be much of a battle. But with a win, Wheaton will pick up its ninth victory for the first time since 2010 and clinch its first playoff bid since then as well. Illinois Wesleyan has struggled to find a quarterback this season, and Wheaton appears to have found its signal-caller.

Pinpoint a conference race that will not be decided this weekend
Keith’s take: ODAC. Guilford must win at Hampden-Sydney this week and Emory & Henry next weekend to win the conference title. The Quakers, who lost 47-31 to Shenandoah a few weeks ago, are no more likely to get it done than the Tigers, who were cruising through the conference before a 34-9 loss to Bridgewater last week. H-SC needs to beat Guilford and rival Randolph-Macon in Week 11 to take the crown, while E&H has home games against Shenandoah and then Guilford, but lost 49-27 to H-SC in October. If it feels like every conference team still is in the mix somehow, well, duh, it’s the ODAC.
Ryan’s take: ECFC. Husson appears in control of the conference, being undefeated and cruising convincingly through most of its games. But the Eagles’ real challenge to their postseason hopes won’t come until Week 11 when they travel to Mount Ida, which has just one conference loss. Both Husson and Mount Ida play 0-8 teams this weekend, so there’s every reason to expect that they’ll remain on track for their final-week collision.
Pat’s take: MWC. We might not even know immediately on conclusion of the games on Saturday who will be playing in the Midwest Conference title game and tiebreakers might be required. In the North Division, if Macalester defeats St. Norbert, they win the division and play for the title next week. If St. Norbert wins and Carroll beats Beloit, then there’s a three-way tie and it comes down to how many quarters each team led. (If St. Norbert wins and leads all four quarters in the process, they play for the automatic bid). In the South Division, Cornell plays Illinois College for a share of the title. If Illinois College wins, it plays for the title. Cornell can  force a tie with a win and Monmouth can make it a three-way tie with a win vs. Knox. (Monmouth has not lost a game to Knox in the history of Look for teams to take an early lead and keep trying to score.

Predict the outcome of a game outside the playoff picture
Keith’s take: Trinity (Conn.) at Wesleyan. Amherst has already locked up best-team-in-the-NESCAC honors, and is aiming to finish 8-0 by beating 2-5 rival Williams. There’s maybe more intrigue in Tufts going for its fifth win this season at Middlebury, after not winning a game from 2010-13. But the Cardinals got drubbed by their Bantam rivals last season, so that’s all the story line needed for this one. It’s the final game for Wesleyan DB Jake Bussani, the active career leader in interceptions (17) and passes defensed (38), and a big reason why the Cardinals are top-five nationally in pass efficiency defense. The player behind Bussani on the career interceptions list, UW-Whitewater’s Brady Grayvold (16), plays almost as many games in two seasons (30, for the frequent Stagg Bowl participants) as Bussani has had in his four-year career (32). It’s only fitting that he makes one final big play and helps Wesleyan avenge last year’s loss.
Ryan’s take: Kenyon at Wooster. The season really derailed for the Scots midway through October, and the best chance they have at a rebound is this game. It certainly should happen. Yet without a win here, Wooster will almost certainly be riding on fumes when it visits Ohio Wesleyan in the season finale.
Pat’s take: Alfred State at Washington U. Not difficult to predict the Bears will win this game, but I just wanted to bring this game to the radar and give some kudos to Alfred State and Wash. U. for making the most of a bad situation. Both teams got dropped by Maranatha Baptist this season when the Bearcats couldn’t reliably field a football team, but rather than have Alfred State swallow its airfare, they continue to travel this weekend and end up in St. Louis instead of Watertown, Wis. As for Maranatha, there’s a lot of recruiting to do this offseason to get up into the 40s or 50s instead of opening the season with 30 players and dropping to the low 20s.

They’ll be on your radar
Keith’s take: Montclair State. An afterthought coming into the season because it totaled nine wins in 2012 and ’13, wins No. 8 and 9 this season would clinch the NJAC and potentially a winnable first-round home game against a team from New England in Round 1. Before they get that far ahead though, the Red Hawks have to get past 7-2 Morrisville State, which has come close a couple times in recent seasons, but hasn’t beaten Montclair State.
Ryan’s take: Texas Lutheran. The Bulldogs’ placement in the NCAA’s regional rankings compared with Centre have me curious about a 9-1 team getting picked ahead for Pool B over an undefeated team. It’s a bit unexpected, but that makes TLU’s game against a 5-3 Austin this week all that much more crucial.
Pat’s take: UW-Oshkosh. The Titans won’t lose this weekend, and although their strength of schedule will drop, they’ll likely stay in the regional rankings until next week, when they face UW-Platteville.

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.

Triple Take: Clarity in conferences

Was Redlands stiffed in this week’s regional rankings?
Redlands athletics photo

The Eastern Collegiate, Empire 8, North Coast, Old Dominion, Southern Collegiate and USA South each feature matchups this week involving teams that are undefeated in conference play. That means the stakes are high, and postseason hopes are brimming for players, coaches and fans.

But several teams elsewhere — including powerhouses Mount Union and North Central — are also closing in on the automatic qualifier and can clinch with Saturday wins. There’s no doubt that a clearer view of the playoff landscape will be had by the time the weekend is over.

Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps take you through some of the big games. We probably aren’t hitting them all, so feel free to weigh in in the comments section. We’re always happy to hear what you have to say, especially if you have your own predictions.

Game of the Week.
Ryan’s take: No. 12 Delaware Valley at Lycoming.
There’s more at stake here than the MAC’s automatic qualifier. A Lycoming win can push DelVal into the crowded end of Pool C, and with their standing, the Aggies would be ripe for snagging one of the few at-large playoff spots. So every Pool C contender should be paying attention to this matchup in Williamsport, Pa., hoping for Delaware Valley to give Lycoming its second loss of the season. Both Delaware Valley and Lycoming have hung substantial points on opponents, but what have been impressive are their defenses — and they will be the biggest factors come game time Saturday.
Keith’s take: No. 25 Centre at No. 18 Trinity (Texas) and McMurry at No. 20 Louisiana College. I’m cheating and taking a two-game swing down south. Here’s why: These matchups have conference title (in the SCAC) and playoff (both) implications, the latter of which could be far reaching. A Trinity win could mean a home game against the winner of the other game, and a flight to Mary Hardin-Baylor for someone else. A Centre win might affect someone like fellow Kentucky school Thomas More, or one of the Virginia or Ohio playoff teams. But here are the clinchers: Each team has subtext to its performance. Dennis Dunn came to LC as a nationally known high school coach; the Wildcats are winners, but have yet to visit the playoffs. Centre’s been knocking on the door of the playoffs for years as well, winning as many as nine games and not getting in. Trinity could bid adieu to its conference mates leaving to form the SAA with one last SCAC football title. And McMurry, on the way to D-II, might have its first real taste of D-III success on the way out the door.
Pat’s take: No. 13 Wheaton (Ill.) at No. 6 North Central (Ill.). The Little Brass Bell grew in stature starting in 2005, when the Cardinals actually became capable of winning the game on a regular basis. In this instance, North Central can wrap up the conference automatic bid with a victory. The Cardinals have allowed less than a touchdown per game over the past six contests and Wheaton has had some similar performances of late.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Baldwin-Wallace at No. 2 Mount Union.
We all know that a “close game” in Purple Raider Land is relative. Maybe, after I picked Baldwin-Wallace in the preseason to finish second in the OAC, I simply want this game to be close. And “wants” don’t always line up with “realities.” It’s hard to ignore that in four of the past five games, UMU has been held to three points or less in the first quarter (before then laying waste to their opponents). B-W, on the other hand, has been consistent in putting up points early. But none of those B-W games came against Mount, which for 60 minutes, is a whole ’nother beast entirely.
Keith’s take: Alfred at Ithaca. The Saxons lost by 69 to Salisbury three weeks ago, then gave up 54 to Frostburg State. The Bombers eked out a 13-10 win against the Bobcats last weekend, and they only gave up 21 to Salisbury in September. But this seems to be a case where comparing scores will fail us. Both teams bounced back from losing streaks with close wins last week, and have been up and down all season. Add in the need for Ithaca to win their last two games to help their streak of winning seasons hit 40, and we’ve got the recipe for a tight finish.
Pat’s take: St. John Fisher at No. 11 Salisbury. The concept of surprisingly close, you know, is just a measure of a game that might throw a scare into a team, or make fans do a double take at the score. Since Wesley showed the blueprint of how a team can beat Salisbury last week, St. John Fisher has a better chance of keeping the margin of victory down. But do they have the personnel on defense to shut the Salisbury defense down, at Salisbury? I’m thinking not.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 17 Montclair State.
The Red Hawks are sandwiched in a stressful part of their season, and a loss means they could be flushing their playoff hopes away. Two weeks ago, Montclair lost to New Jersey, and this week’s Rowan team will bring a tough defense that could catch the Red Hawks off guard, especially if they find themselves looking ahead to next week’s showdown with fellow NJAC frontrunner Kean. It’s a perfect storm, and Montclair doesn’t want to find itself struggling to stay afloat.
Keith’s take: No. 10 Wabash. There’s hardly a game on the board that is both likely and would be a true upset. But since the Little Giants are ranked so highly and Wittenberg is not, and because I’m a glutton for punishment on our message boards, let’s go here. Wabash allowed only 24 points in its first five games, a stat so good I wonder why I’m just now noticing it. Since, the Little Giants might have let their feet off the gas, but no matter. With QB Ben Zoeller passing for 291 yards per game, Wittenberg will be a test unlike anything Wabash has seen so far. But then again, the Little Giants defense, which allows only 74 rushing yards per game, will be like nothing the Tigers offense has seen.
Pat’s take: No. 19 St. Olaf. Alright. I’ll buy one last time into the Johnnie magic concept. After that they’ll have to show me once before I go again. But the Oles haven’t won in Collegeville since 2001, and have lost 10 of 11 at St. John’s. Whether St. John’s recent bounceback is a measure of improved play or catching some easier opponents will be determined Saturday, but the Johnnies need a win to finish with a winning record.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: McMurry.
I just added McMurry to my Top 25 ballot last weekend, and lining up against Louisiana College will tell me whether I bet on the right horse. Because, you see, Louisiana College isn’t on my ballot at all, instead hovering just outside at that 26 or 27 spot in my mind. A win here would keep the War Hawks in the running for a Pool C bid. Could they cap their final year in Division III with a playoff run?
Keith’s take: Trinity (Conn.) and Amherst. The big rivalry games for these two teams are next week, but the NESCAC title is on the line Saturday. A little national recognition should be in order for the winner as well, as the Bantams and Lord Jeffs are the No. 1 and No. 5 scoring defenses in the country. Both teams rush for more than 200 yards a game as well, and given that there’s no other way to tell how good they are, this result means everything.
Pat’s take: Louisiana College. Sorry, Ryan, I’m going in the other direction. I think Louisiana College does enough to take McMurry’s aerial attack off the radar and ensure that McMurry’s final season in Division III ends like the rest of its seasons did.

A team that will clinch a share of the conference title on Saturday.
Ryan’s take: Franklin.
While clinching a conference certainly means that the Grizzlies have to win against 0-8 Earlham on Saturday, there’s another piece to this puzzle: Hanover must lose. If Hanover loses to Mount St. Joseph, every team in the HCAC except Franklin will have two in-conference losses. That punches the playoff ticket of Franklin and its high-powered offense. So this isn’t really about watching Franklin this weekend, it’s about watching the evenly matched Hanover and Mount St. Joseph square off.
Keith’s take: Dubuque. The Spartans are no one-man gang, not gaining 506 yards per game they aren’t. They’ve thrown 41 touchdown passes; Monmouth and Widener are next best with 31. Their opponent, Coe? It’s the 202nd-ranked pass defense in the country, and No. 158 in pass efficiency defense, which means Dubuque has a golden opportunity to light up the scoreboard and head home as IIAC champions.
Pat’s take: Norwich. And in this case, not just a share, but they’ll be in the clubhouse with a win against SUNY-Maritime. It’s hard to come up with any kind of trend from Norwich’s recent results, so I’m counting on Norwich’s aggressive (by ECFC standards) non-conference scheduling to carry the day.

Which season turnaround has been the most interesting?
Ryan’s take: Albion.
It’s tough to fault a team starting 0-3 if those first few games come against the likes of Wheaton, UW-Stevens Point and Division 1-FCS (non-scholarship) Butler. But, wow, how Albion has redeemed itself in conference play. The Bulldogs’ passing offense has become more effective, the run defense has been better able to stop the opposition and, most of all, the team earned itself a spot in the playoffs. And this is without yet lining up against defending MIAA champ Trine, which is sitting with two conference losses already. From 0-3 to conference champ isn’t unheard of, but it definitely says a lot about the team and the coaching staff.
Keith’s take: Defiance. The Yellowjackets opened up with three home games, yet lost their first four overall. They’ve rebounded with four wins in a row, and by beating 2-6 Manchester and 4-5 Bluffton, they can match last season’s 6-4, 6-2 record. A nod here, too, to Christopher Newport, which is playing for the USA South title after a 1-2 start and a loss to a first-year program.
Pat’s take: Baldwin-Wallace. And they’ve certainly trying to impress us, what with that 75-0 win at Wilmington two weeks ago. It’s a far cry from the surprising home loss to Capital back in Week 4, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be enough to carry the day against Mount Union.

Which team will rise in the regional rankings next week, and why?
Ryan’s take: Hampden-Sydney.
It’s a tough call in their matchup against regionally-ranked Washington and Lee, but I give the Tigers a narrow nod in this one. And that means H-SC will bump up past the LC/McMurry loser and possibly even leapfrog Thomas More.
Keith’s take: Illinois Wesleyan. It’s subtle, but assuming the Titans beat a struggling Carthage team, they should move ahead of Case Western Reserve. Especially if Wheaton, which lost to IWU, clinches the CCIW title with a win of 15 or more points. The three CCIW teams have strength of schedule numbers and results against each other that make them three of the teams most likely to end up high in the North regional rankings.
Pat’s take: Redlands. They’re incorrectly below St. Olaf this week, in my opinion. Of the criteria, there is nothing in which St. Olaf is better than Redlands. The only way this ranking can be justified is if they ignored the win against a regionally ranked opponent, in North Central. Is the committee’s memory short or was a cross-check missed at the national committee level?