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Around the Nation: Big games and close calls

We might question whether some teams are as good as we think, and some Top 25 voters might be asking the same questions. Other teams are right where everyone thought they would be. And in some places, there’s new excitement and new life for football. We look at those teams, 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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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.

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Triple Take Week 8: Some clashes to get excited about

Will the Texas Lutheran defense stand up to Mary Hardin-Baylor? (TLU athletics photo)

Will the Texas Lutheran defense stand up to Mary Hardin-Baylor? (TLU athletics photo)

It’s that time of year when the air gets colder, the crowds get rowdier and the games get more meaningful.

To boil the action among 244 D-III teams down to a best-of list, Ryan Tipps, Pat Coleman and I sorted through dozens of games, including three clashes between top 25 teams. It’s also not too early to start discussing playoff implications, and we highlight teams that will give themselves a boost this weekend, and those that will fall down a peg. And not to forget the teams outside the playoff chase, we highlight a few teams in the midst of rough seasons that fans can look to for a W on Saturday.

It’s late October. This season is just getting to the good part. Here are our picks for this week.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week
Keith’s take: No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor at Texas Lutheran. We hear this all the time: “You guys don’t give us any respect.” “No love for my team in the top 25?” Here’s the thing: Respect is earned, not given. That’s the difference right now between the two 6-0 teams in Texas, but what a giant opportunity this is for Texas Lutheran, which was 0-10 before coach Danny Padron was hired in 2010 following a highly successful run coaching in high school. UMHB is one of the five most successful programs in D-III over the past 10 or 15 years, and this year’s squad is well worth its No. 2 ranking. Both teams come in top 5 nationally in scoring offense, averaging more than 49 points per game. Defense is where the separation is; UMHB allows 11.5 points per game, TLU 26.3. That puts the spotlight on a Bulldogs defense led by DBs Drake Dowling and Michael Wall, although seniors Adam McGuire, Joey Meza and Ethan Powell have a chance to leave a mark. The crazy thing is TLU doesn’t even have to win to earn respect, move up in the top 25 or preserve its playoff hopes. They’re in front of their home crowd, and UMHB is expected to win, and maybe win big. It’s an opportunity.
Ryan’s take: No. 12 North Central at No. 19 Wheaton. In the ATN Podcast this past week, there was some talk about how Wheaton has dispelled some of its early-season hiccups and shown that it truly is a Top 25 team. Sorry Thunder fans, but I’m not yet convinced. The conference slate so far has consisted of the bottom three CCIW teams, and two of the nonconference opponents currently have a combined record of 1-11. That means two things: 1) I don’t know that Wheaton is ready to face a North Central team that became battle-tested in nonconference play (though the Cardinals’ CCIW games have also been against a weak slate); and 2) a loss here by Wheaton, coupled with that nonconference schedule, could mean that the team lacks the strength of schedule to be a real Pool C contender. For North Central, a loss Saturday would be its second of the year, also creating a gray area on the Pool C front. Perhaps the playoffs are in the back of these players’ minds – or perhaps just the fact that it’s the Little Brass Bell rivalry game is motivation enough.
Pat’s take: No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor at Texas Lutheran. Sorry, I have to repeat Keith’s pick here because it’s just a game that can swing a lot of things: UMHB’s hopes at a top seed, Texas Lutheran’s playoff hopes (and perhaps the hopes of others) as well as rankings for both of them. Texas Lutheran has been through a few changes recently: leaving the ASC for the SCAC, leaving a local high school stadium for a more intimate stadium of its own on campus … oh, and it’s started winning more games. TLU has a lot of former Mary Hardin-Baylor players and coaches on its sidelines as well, in case anyone needs any extra motivation.

Surprisingly close game
Keith’s take: Berry at Birmingham Southern. A few seasons ago, B-SC started 5-0 for the second consecutive year and was a legitimate playoff contender, while Berry football didn’t exist. If you’re a fan of a conference that never crosses paths with these teams, now part of the SAA, you might be surprised to learn that they both come into Saturday’s matchup with two wins. The Vikings have won two out of three, their first wins in history, and are trending upward offensively. B-SC is 2-1 in the SAA but allows 30.4 points per game. The more established program might still win, but Berry should make it interesting.
Ryan’s take: Washington U. at Chicago. These teams are having very different kinds of seasons, but Wash U. has found its groove at times this year, even if the team’s record doesn’t necessarily reflect that fact. If the Bears can muster up one of their better games, they’ll be able to hang with Chicago.
Pat’s take: East Texas Baptist at Louisiana College. I think this is a great game waiting to happen. I already expected it to be close, but I really want to spotlight it here. I expect a classic game of the “Little 12” type we’ve been talking about on the podcast the past couple of years. One of many exciting games as we’ve come to expect from the American Southwest Conference.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset
Keith’s take: No. 11 Bethel. The category is “most likely,” not “definitely will be.” A loss to No. 22 St. Thomas wouldn’t be a major upset either, but we’ve sort of forgotten the once-dominant Tommies since a late-September loss to St. John’s. With the Royals allowing 15 points per game and the Tommies 16.5, expect a slugfest that could go either way, have major impact on the MIAC race and possibly result in an upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 16 Widener. It wouldn’t be an earth-shattering upset if Lycoming wins this one, but it will be telling to learn what the Warriors did with their bye week after losing to Delaware Valley on Oct. 11, a loss that knocked them out of the Top 25. A win for Widener, however, would give a lot of credibility to the Pride’s success this season.
Pat’s take: No. 13 UW-Platteville. Again, not overly likely but I can only say “none” once or twice a season, even if this has been a season in which none’s the word. The Stout team I saw a couple weeks ago has more than a fighting chance in this game, and for Platteville, this game comes sandwiched in between contests vs. UW-Stevens Point and UW-Whitewater.

Which team revives its conference title and/or playoff hopes?
Keith’s take: Endicott. Because the Gulls opened up with non-conference losses to 2013 playoff teams Framingham State (20-17) and Hobart (28-18), it’s been easy to view the NEFC race as Western New England vs. MIT. But after winning at Coast Guard on Saturday, Endicott players on the bus ride back from Connecticut can refresh the scoreboard for updates on the the Golden Bears-Engineers 5 p.m. Saturday clash in Cambridge. When one loses, the Gulls will know whether to circle next week’s home MIT game or the one at WNEU in two weeks as their chance to take control of the NEFC.
Ryan’s take: Albion. Lycoming, which I talked about in my answer to the previous question, would definitely fit this category, but Triple Take is best when it uses the spread. In the MIAA, Albion is traveling to current conference leader Trine. Both teams are coming off of losses from last Saturday, but only Albion’s was to another MIAA team. A win here won’t put the Britons in the driver’s seat for the conference title, but it will give them a big lift toward that goal. The game should be competitive, but I like that Albion has cut its teeth against some solid competition without getting blown out (the most notable of which is the 42-31 outing against UW-Stevens Point). That should translate well on the field against Trine on Saturday.
Pat’s take: Ithaca. The Bombers are going to need more than a little help, but if they beat Salisbury on Saturday they’ll have knocked off one of the one-loss teams ahead of them. They have yet to play St. John Fisher and they’ll need help from someone remaining on Buffalo State’s schedule to take down the Bengals. But as I alluded to in the podcast earlier this week, Butterfield Stadium is the place where the triple-option goes to die. Never get turf, Ithaca.

Which team can forget about the playoffs after Saturday?
Keith’s take: Lycoming. The Warriors need a home win against Widener or they might be looking at an ECAC bowl invite while the Pride and Aggies play for an NCAA spot in Week 11. A win puts them right back in the MAC race, which as a 5-0 team before a 52-42 loss to Del Val two weeks ago, is probably where they feel they belong. The Warriors had only allowed 50 points total before their last game, but Widener, in a strange twist, is a also a defensive juggernaut (No. 4 nationally in scoring defense) under new coach Mike Kelly. Widener also has one turnover all season. The Pride has four road wins already, which should reduce the effect of having to travel to Williamsport, and Lycoming is the team that can’t afford to stumble again.
Ryan’s take: Castleton State. The Spartans are going up against Husson, the only team who has a perfect record in conference play so far. I expect Husson to keep it that way. Week after week, the Eagles, who are 4-1 overall, have been more convincing than are the Spartans. Castleton State could have position itself for a postseason opportunity with a win here, but the teams just appear to be going in different directions.
Pat’s take: The University of Chicago. Chicago has the better record, by a significant margin, but Washington U. has played a much tougher schedule and will definitely come in prepared. This is a rivalry game, to boot, and kicks off the University Athletic Association portion of the teams’s schedules. But the Maroons cannot afford to take another loss.

Which team won’t be playing for any titles this season, but will win by 10 points or more?
Keith’s take: UW-River Falls. The Falcons have shot themselves in the foot more than any team in the country this season, with a national-worst 25 turnovers (12 fumbles, 13 interceptions). But they face the least-prolific offense in the nation in UW-Eau Claire (three touchdowns and three field goals in six games). Considering the UW-RF defense has held St. John’s, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Platteville below 30, it shouldn’t take a career day to outscore the Blugolds. But it would help if they hang on to the darn ball.
Ryan’s take: DePauw. The Tigers picked up conference loss No. 2 last weekend, effectively knocking them out of any playoff or title discussions. But as any fan of rivalries knows, seasons can be salvaged by that Week 11 game. But before then, there’s still a lot of football to play, and I see nothing slowing a DePauw team when it lines up against floundering Allegheny this weekend. The Gators have lost by more than 10 in each of their defeats this season, so it seems likely that DePauw will be able to use Allegheny as a way to take out some frustrations.
Pat’s take: Heidelberg. Perhaps an obvious choice, but a week after the Berg pulled Cartel Brooks from the game after eight carries vs. Mount Union, they’ll be looking to get him as many carries and yards as possible against Marietta. 10 points or much much more.

They’ll be on your radar
Keith’s take: Centre. Neck and neck with Carroll, also 6-0, for least-talked-about undefeated team, the Kentucky Colonels get a visit from 5-1 Rhodes this week. Two of the more alliterative and efficient quarterbacks in D-III face off in Centre’s Heath Haden and Rhodes’ Blake Box. But the big-picture interest here is how each team needs to beat the other for a notch on its playoff resume, and how Centre’s continued success could affect Pool B, which also features unbeaten Wesley and Texas Lutheran and 5-1 Framingham State, whose only loss is to Rowan.
Ryan’s take: Salisbury. The E8 is notoriously hard to get a handle on, and Salisbury’s performances have a big role to play in that. Mix a big loss to Wesley and a close loss to Buffalo State with wins over St. John Fisher and Utica, and we now have a team that might be climbing out of the hole it dug for itself early in the season. No team is spotless in the conference, meaning Salisbury has a real shot to claw into the postseason if it can extend its three-game win streak.
Pat’s take: Macalester. The Scots are likely to improve to 6-1 this week as they host Lawrence. They aren’t going to win by 60-plus points like Carroll did last week because Mac isn’t trying to impress anyone, but they should win and set up the showdown next week with Carroll for the lead in the Midwest Conference North Division.

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.