There are lots of teams looking for at-large bids to the playoffs. Problem is, there’s only six of them. If you are new to Division III, or new to playoff contention and don’t know how the D-III playoffs work, this is the week where Keith and Pat will walk you through it. Who are the best candidates for at-large bids? What is this whole pool thing about? We’ll talk it all through for you. 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.
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Week 9 isn’t quite the week of marquee games that Week 8 was, but there are three clashes that pit top-20 teams against one another. And besides, with three weeks left in the regular season, we’ve hit the point where every game is big for teams in the hunt for conference titles and one of the 32 playoff spots.
Sometimes around this time of year, we veteran playoff prognosticators get more concerned with losses, because they help us eliminate contenders. But no matter what’s left to compete for as November nears — championships, rivalry trophies or plain ol’ pride — the object is to win. With 239 teams each trying to get one, participating in 120 Week 9 games across 28 conferences and beyond, it can be hard to keep track of what matters. That’s where Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I come in. We compile our seven-point primers for the weekend independent of one another, then reveal them so Division III observers can know where to look beyond their own games for potential upsets, the biggest face-offs and those that are below-the-radar but still meaningful.
— Keith McMillan
Game of the week
Keith’s take: No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor at No. 13 Hardin-Simmons.The clashes of top-20 MIAC and CCIW teams are big, but both of those conference races have other teams in the mix; this is pretty much winner-take-all. Yet the prize is no longer the ASC’s automatic bid. Because the conference has just six core members, plus McMurry transitioning back into D-III and Belhaven in its first year, it no longer has a playoff spot reserved for its champion. The winner in Abilene is probably a shoo-in for the Pool B playoff spot reserved for teams without access to automatic bids. The loser has to swim in Pool C with the runners up in 26 of the other conferences, hoping for one of six at-large bids.
Ryan’s take: No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor at No. 13 Hardin-Simmons. For the first time in more than a decade, we’re deep in the season and both teams are still undefeated as they meet. Plus there’s the lone Pool B bid riding on the outcome of this game. I could go into more reasons why we should all be paying attention to this one, but I spelled a lot of it out already this week in my Around the Nation column.
Pat’s take: Washington University at No. 23 Case Western Reserve. Case gets to put its newly minted top-25 ranking on the line in a big game right away. Despite playing for automatic bids in their separate conferences, the UAA teams still all play each other. Case, which has already lost to University of Chicago, now faces Wash. U., which is coming in riding high. The Bears are 5-2 and have scored 145 points in the past three weeks. This should be a great matchup of teams peaking at the right time, as both Case and Wash. U. are facing their toughest competition at the end of the season.
Surprisingly close game
Keith’s take: Loras at Dubuque. The Duhawks started this season with seven wins in the previous four years. If the host Spartans win Saturday, it’d be their sixth this year. Dubuque (5-2) got national notice two weeks ago by walloping then-No. 8 Wartburg, so it now leads the IIAC. The Spartans have also won the past four in the series by 27 or more. However, Loras (4-3) boasts the nation’s top passing offense at 409 yards per game, and is 207th in time of possession — suggesting the Duhawks play fast and get off the field. Dubuque is 170th nationally in pass efficiency defense so they’ll either have to play a superb game defensively or score to keep up. The IIAC has traditionally been the territory of Central, Wartburg and Coe, and a bit further back, Simpson. Loras reinstated football in 1980, and has never won an IIAC title. Dubuque has won it once since that year. Saturday, they play for first place in a game so rarely big, I had no idea they played for the Key City Trophy.
Ryan’s take: LaGrange at Maryville. If looking strictly at the records, a 6-1 Maryville squad should roll over a 2-4 LaGrange without issue. But the scoreboard itself points to another angle: Of the four games the Panthers have lost, three of the margins have been by one point, three points and seven points. Of the games they’ve won, the margins were two points and three points. This is a team that has been playing close games all season, and while many of the games haven’t been against competition as good as the Scots, there’s nothing to suggest that this will be a runaway performance by Maryville.
Pat’s take: Berry at Millsaps. Berry is 6-1, 5-0 in the SAA and Millsaps is 1-6, 0-5. That brings with it a connotation of a big win for Berry but I’m looking for a closer game. Berry has only blown out one opponent all season, the 24-0 home win vs. Rhodes that opened everyone’s eyes early in the season. In fact, the Vikings have only outscored opponents 142-113 this season, despite their gaudy record. Millsaps won’t be getting 70 points rolled up on it this week.
Most likely top-25 team to be upset
Keith’s take: No. 23 Case Western Reserve. The Spartans now play football in the PAC, while Washington U. plays in the SAA; Both are UAA rivals in other sports. The Bears (5-2) have recently discovered a high-powered offense. Since being held to 13 by Berry, they’ve gone for 37, 38 and 70 points. Junior quarterback J.J Tomlin leads what is now the nation’s sixth-best passing offense at 339 yards per game. Case Western Reserve’s defensive strength, unfortunately, is against the run. The Spartans (6-1) have just four turnovers all season, and they’ll need to keep that going and keep pace with the Bears’ offense to avoid making their stay in the top 25 a short one.
Ryan’s take: No. 22 Washington and Lee. The ODAC is one of those conferences where anything can happen. We’ve said it a few times already this season, and it applies now as the Generals square off against Emory and Henry. Both teams average in the 30s when it comes to scoring, and both are good at holding their opponents to an average of about 21 points. What could make this interesting is the E&H has statistically the best rushing defense in the conference, but that’s only because we’re deep in the season, and most of the other teams have already played the ultra-run-heavy W&L. So the numbers are skewed in favor of E&H. If there’s any legitimacy to that stat, though, we’ll find out for certain on Saturday. The momentum of games change on big plays; between these two teams, the winner may depend on them.
Pat’s take: No. 20 Cortland State. It might be easy pickin’s here to take the Empire 8 game, but it’s not just because the conference has been evenly balanced and difficult to predict. Cory Benedetto is coming off the best performance of his brief starting career at Morrisville State and Cristian Pena has rushed for 100 yards in three of the past four games. I think we’ll continue to have churn at the bottom of the poll this week.
Pick a team that can greatly improve its playoff chances with a win
Keith’s take: Albion. The Britons gained notice by averaging about 50 points per game in a 6-0 start. They scored 51 last week, but allowed Trine to rally from down 17 for the 55-51 win, which means Saturday’s game at 7-0 Olivet is its last playoff hope. The Comets are on top and would clinch with a win (Trine, the only other team in the hunt, lost 49-24 to Olivet on Oct. 10). The Britons, however, would jump right back into the top spot with a win and any Trine loss. Since MIAA teams really don’t get at-large bids, this is essentially a conference title game with a playoff spot on the line. It’s such a big game, the Battle Creek (Mich.) Enquirer published dueling columns making the case for either team to win.
Ryan’s take: Endicott. The NEFC is a mess of undefeated Western New England and three one-loss conference teams, including Endicott. The key to this cluster, though, is that WNEU hasn’t played any of those one-loss teams yet, so head-to-head matchups and the potential for tiebreakers will probably leave fans of this conference guessing about its Pool A selection until the final clock runs out on Nov. 14. Endicott can stay in the hunt if it knocks Western New England off this weekend.
Pat’s take: No. 22 Washington and Lee. The Generals travel to Emory and Henry for what should be their last big test of the ODAC season. I say “should be” because of the ODAC’s general unpredictability. But the Generals can all but clinch this week with a win against the Wasps. And if Guilford were to lose to Catholic and Hampden-Sydney to Bridgewater, the Generals could clinch the automatic bid outright, regardless of their results the final two weeks vs. Shenandoah and Catholic.
Pick a surprising one-loss team that will remain on the fringes of the playoff hunt
Keith’s take: DePauw. Joe Sager’s Around the Great Lakes column this week featured the Tigers’ offensive balance, partly fueled by QB Matt Hunt and his wide receiver brother Andy. At Denison, which features its own QB/WR brothers in Tommy and Matt Iammarino, DePauw will need to keep it balanced and continue to be the NCAC’s best third-down offense. Both DePauw and Denison have yet to face Wabash and its mighty defense, so improving to 7-1 might keep whichever team wins on the playoff fringe only until the Little Giants game.
Ryan’s take: Frostburg State. This week’s game against Rowan is a tough matchup for the Bobcats, probably the toughest since the Wesley game in Week 2. Frostburg is a young team that starts five freshmen on offense, but, like Rowan, their success is largely rooted in how they’ve performed on defense. With so much youth and with the shift in the conferences, probably no one saw this kind of success from the team this season, but what it’s doing is helping to build toward something even bigger in the years to come. Rowan is coming off of a close loss to Wesley – how banged up the Profs are will also factor into how this game plays out.
Pat’s take: Gustavus Adolphus. Keith and I spent some time this August talking about whether the Gusties would be able to improve on their 6-0 start/0-4 finish from last season and even though they don’t necessarily match up well with Bethel’s weaknesses, I’m looking at this game as a possibility. The Royals should, however, be able to pass for more than 1 yard, which will be an improvement over last week.
Pick a team that won’t be playing for any titles this season, but will win comfortably
Keith’s take: Hamline. Because the Pipers play in the absolutely loaded MIAC, their revival story has gone underappreciated. After four wins in four seasons, Hamline won four last year. They’re just 2-5 this time around, but were competitive in seven- and 10-point losses to Gustavus Adolphus (6-1) and Concordia-Moorhead (7-1). The Pipers can get to .500 with a strong finish, and St. Olaf, one of the two MIAC teams they beat last season, is beatable again. Hamline’s problem areas are a deadly mixture of penalties and poor performance on third downs and in the red zone, but the Oles have the nation’s 229th-ranked defense, allowing 501 yards per game. Pipers QB Justice Spriggs and WRs Philip Sherman and Naji El-Araby could have their first really big day together.
Ryan’s take: Hobart. Once the king of the Liberty League, the Statesmen weathered their third loss last week and are effectively (though perhaps not technically) out of the title hunt. Up next, though, is Union. The winless Dutchmen have played a couple of close games this month, but even with Hobart losing a bit of its edge, it seems unlikely that Union will be able to hang around in this one.
Pat’s take: Finlandia at Maranatha Baptist. I have to get in my contractually obligated minimum number of references to Finlandia and since we left them out of the podcast this week the 2-6 Lions fit here. Finlandia beat Maranatha at Finlandia back on Oct. 3, 30-14. Logic would suggest the Sabercats would be able to keep it closer at home, but I’m here saying it won’t go down that way.
They’ll be on your radar
Keith’s take: McMurry, hosting Belhaven. The War Hawks are 3-5 in their first season back in D-III, and 1-3 against D-III opponents. Belhaven is now one of those, in its first season coming over from NAIA, but it is just 1-7 and 0-6 against D-IIIs. The Hal Mumme bowl (the ex-Kentucky coach was head man at McMurry from 2009 to 2013, and now leads Belhaven) will take place while Matt Mumme’s LaGrange team plays a key USAC game at Maryville.
Ryan’s take: Lakeland. It sometimes gets easy as we talk about teams from the 10 strongest conferences to overlook those closer to the bottom who are fighting to be in the same 32-team playoff. The NACC is one of those weaker conferences, and this weekend, Lakeland takes on Concordia (Wis.) to help sort out of the top of the heap. Coupled with Benedictine who is also still sitting comfortably at the pinnacle, there is a lot yet to sort out there.
Pat’s take: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. The Stags play Cal Lutheran at 10 p.m. ET on Saturday night and Keith and I might have to hold off a little while on recording the weekly podcast that night to see how that game progresses first. Pretty sure I’ll be spending that “fall back” hour on D3football.com, as I usually do.
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.
Sam Sura had a busy day, carrying 40 times for 119 yards for St. John’s in the Johnnies’ win vs. Bethel. (St. John’s photo by Richard Larkin McLay)
The playoff picture began to take shape this week, as 14 of the 24 automatic bids were claimed. Pat and Keith talk through the teams who are in, who has yet to clinch and who might be in line for the Pool B bids.
Meanwhile, did Wabash and St. John Fisher move onto the bubble or all the way off of it? What are Centre’s chances like if they pick up a loss next week? Keith and Pat discuss the upsets, the near-upsets and much more in this week’s Around the Nation Podcast.
Plus they hand out their game balls, look at teams on the rise, under-the-radar highlights, key stats and more.
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