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Triple Take: Let’s get this 2015 thing started

It’s been a long time since we last saw a Division III game that counted. The Stagg Bowl was way back on Dec. 19, a mere 258 days ago. It’s been a longer wait for the 240-odd teams whose seasons ended before Salem, and still longer for McMurry, which returns to D-III after leaving following the 2011 season. Belhaven comes over from NAIA, and has never played a D-III game; Neither has Finlandia, which plays its program’s first game Saturday against Alma.

There are six Thursday night games, 12 on Friday and 92 on Saturday. Subtract the seven non-D-III opponents, and 195 of the record 247 teams that will play D-III football this season are in action on opening weekend.

Enjoy it. Whether you’re playing, watching or involved in game day some other way, it’s a three-hour break from everything else in the world. It’s a chance to see old friends and make new ones, to watch some players dig deep and pull out something from inside that they didn’t even know they had. It’s a chance to watch student-athletes who won’t forgo the first part of that deal.

I played tackle football for 13 consecutive seasons, between Pop Warner in Somerville, Mass., high school in Runnemede, N.J. and at Randolph-Macon in Ashland, Va. In that picture below, which was taken in one of my first seasons writing for D3football.com, I’m 23. Which reminds me that I’ve now not been playing football for more consecutive autumns than I played. All of which is to say, this weekend, if you’re a player, coach, parent or fan, take it all in and savor it. It goes by quickly. Teams only get eight to ten game days a season, unless they play really well and advance through the playoffs. But as those accustomed to playing 15 weeks would tell you, greatness happens one game at a time (a UW-Whitewater standard) and starts with respecting your opponent (something I’ve heard more than once at Mount Union).

Respect the game. Enjoy it. Savor it. Finally, it’s back.

— Keith McMillan

Triple Take is our weekly predictions column. Typically it appears on Friday morning, but with games kicking off on Thursday night, we’re presenting it a few hours early.

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 19 St. John Fisher at No. 23 Thomas More. You can’t really go wrong with a clash of ranked teams to kick things off. There’s lots to see here; The Saints (that’s Thomas More, not the school with ‘Saint’ in its name) opened with Wesley last year and stood up to the national power in a 35-21 loss. This game will be a challenge as well, and maybe one the Saints can pull off on the way to a PAC title. But TMC will have to do it without graduated All-American running back Domonique Hayden. SJFC is among the best in an expanded Empire 8, and the Cardinals will have a rough game nearly every week. They can’t afford to start 0-1.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 10 Wabash at Hampden-Sydney. As a Wabash grad, I’m coming out of the Triple Take gate playing the homer card. Wabash will probably be a better team than it was in 2014; Sydney is projected to be down a little. But that doesn’t take away from the quality of this matchup. As I talked about last year in my preseason Around the Nation column, the meeting between them is historic, as Wabash and H-SC are the only two D-III schools that abide by an all-male classroom atmosphere. And this is the first home-and-home series between them on the gridiron. I had talked with coaches and administrators at the schools as far back as 2008 about something like this taking place, and I’m excited that their enthusiasm translated into reality. Last year finished with a 34-21 Wabash win in Indiana. Kudos to both schools for putting a challenging nonconference game on their schedules. (Also, this is where I’ll be spending opening weekend.)
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Rowan at No. 12 Widener. There are a lot of good games this week, right out of the chute. I like this one, in part because it’s now Rowan’s only non-conference game, and I wouldn’t mind at all if these teams played every year. There’s reason to have at least a couple of questions about Widener this year, based on who graduated, but I’ll also be intrigued to see how Rowan’s retooled offense works out. Goodbye spread, hello power offense. Should be interesting. Rowan would like nothing more than to slip back across the Commodore Barry Bridge with a signature win.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: MIT at WPI. The Engineers … oh wait, they’re both Engineers. MIT had a magical undefeated season last year, but they pulled out multiple close wins, and that will be difficult to replicate, especially with five of the first six games on the road. I think they do it once more in this Week 1 Friday nighter, even though Zach Grasis and WPI will grind it out and make MIT earn it.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Mount St. Joseph at Augustana. I’m not ready yet to buy into this Lions team as being one of the better ones of recent years — we’ll see in a few weeks if they’re competing for the HCAC’s title. They lost a lot of starters and will have to break in a new (potentially young) quarterback. Last year, Mount St. Joseph showed no mercy against Augustana, being up 37-17 going into the fourth quarter before surging to a 58-25 win. Augustana has a new coach and is tailoring its offensive approach, giving them room to put more points on the board this time around.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Alma at Finlandia. I mean, Finlandia isn’t surprisingly close to anyone in a geographic sense. Alma is the closest in-state rival and the Scots will still need to take a seven-hour bus ride to get to Finlandia. (I’m closer and I live two states away.) I’m hoping for a good game in Finlandia’s first-ever football game. A win might be too much to ask for but Alma (six wins in four seasons) hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire of late.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 12 Widener, against Rowan. Considering Thomas More over St. John Fisher would be fudging, this is the only logical option. The Profs bring back their star on offense, might find a role for a former star from Lafayette, and will take a short trip over the bridge, possibly bringing along the support a home team would have. Rowan isn’t favored against a Widener team that was in last season’s final eight, but they have a shot.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Bethel. There’s not much jumping out in the inaugural week of college football as a safe — or even likely — bet for this category. Bethel graduated its conference MVP-winning quarterback, so if there’s ever going to be rust on the wheels that a team like UW-Stout could exploit, it’s going to be in Week 1.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: None. And considering this is the first week, and the first-week poll always has the most questions, that’s saying something. I’ve mentioned Widener above and there’s another team out there who tends to struggle with its Week 1 opponent but honestly, they always win when I pick against them so it’s time to stop trying. Chalk in Week 1.

Which team that finished strong in 2014 is going to have the biggest Week 1 letdown?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Curry. The Colonels won their final three after an 0-7 start, but it was slightly misleading, because two of the wins were against 1-9 Nichols and 3-6 Maine Maritime. To start 2015 off right, Curry must win under the lights on Friday night at Bridgewater State, which brings back seven on each side of the ball from a 5-5 team. The Colonels have about the same number of starters back, and the benefit of unfamiliarity; The schools, not far from one another in Massachusetts, south of Boston, did not play last season.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Rowan. The Profs ended the last regular season with three straight wins, a share of the NJAC conference title and a trip to the playoffs. But also like last year, they’ll kickoff another season going up against Widener. The thoroughly battle-tested Pride are shaping up to be just as formidable as they proved to be in 2014, and the Profs are going to have a tough go of it right from the start.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Morrisville State (vs. St. Lawrence). This is the week we’ll get to find out how much of the Mustangs’ 2014 surge was the Lemar Johnson show. Meanwhile, St. Lawrence has legitimate reasons to think it can contend for the playoffs, and not in a 5-5, manage-to-snag-the-automatic-bid way. SLU slipped early last season but isn’t likely to let that happen again.

Which lopsided matchup would you most like to be more competitive?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No.13 Johns Hopkins at Randolph-Macon. In Week 1 last year, my alma mater was a seven-win team with its star quarterback back, going up to face the perennially ranked Blue Jays. They lost, 42-3. The quarterback is now a member of the coaching staff. And Johns Hopkins is still ranked 13th. Do I need more than that?
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Guilford at Greensboro. I’m certainly not begrudging Guilford for stepping up its game and showing on the field that it is ready and determined to make a playoff run this fall. But this crosstown rivalry represents something more than just a W or an L for the teams — it’s also charity event known as the Gate City Soup Bowl. People who come get their admission fee waived if they bring canned goods to donate. Success of the food drive means getting people to the stadium; getting them to the stadium means presenting them with an exciting game to watch. Guilford has owned most of the history of this series, capped with last year’s 52-0 victory. It would be fun to see these two teams grind out a close matchup in this 19th meeting, but I fear that may not come to pass.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Bethany at No. 2 Mount Union. I mean, just for variety’s sake. Let’s see the new Mount Union offense put through its paces for more than a couple of quarters. Not expecting anything outlandish, but wouldn’t it be nice to see the Machine need to disengage the cruise control?

Pick a color: Green or yellow

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Yes. We’ll be watching to see if Illinois Wesleyan (green) is a CCIW challenger, in its opener against usually-the-class-of-the-HCAC Franklin (yellow). Since I’m supposed to choose, give me our preseason No. 59 IWU, with its eight returning starters on offense and nine on D, in a mild upset over No. 50. Kickoff projected the Titans to go 8-2 off a 4-6 2014.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Green, of Belhaven. Good riddance to the NAIA and welcome to Division III! And, of course, welcome back to D-III Coach Mumme. It’s likely the Blazers will begin their tenure here with a win.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Green. With St. Norbert, under a new coach again, its third in three years, hosting Carthage, which has fallen so far that they’re a unanimous pick to finish behind North Park, the CCIW’s doormat of the decades.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: McMurry. Both teams in the St. Lawrence-Morrisville State game intrigue me, but since Pat touched on that one above, and Ryan mentioned Belhaven, let’s go with the War Hawks. I’m curious about what kind of team they’ll field after recruiting scholarship athletes in Texas for a few years, only to lose some of them when they moved back to a non-scholarship model.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Stevenson. The Mustangs made some noise en route to their best performance in the MAC ever. But can they sustain having improved their record so drastically? Moreover, can they really make the surge count and compete for a title spot (or at least a Pool C bid)? The opener against N.C. Wesleyan is winnable, but it’ll be more challenging this year to put up 40 points like in 2014.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Delaware Valley. Also green, and yellow (OK, really it’s gold). And those things I said about what Widener lost over the offseason go triple for Del Val, which lost an NFL prospect wide receiver, one of its best-ever quarterbacks, and basically starts over in terms of returning starters. But Montclair doesn’t have the type of offense that will let them run away and hide from people, so I expect the Aggies to hang in this game and keep it close longer than one might otherwise expect from them this season. Should be an interesting year in Doylestown, Pa.

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 predictions, Week 10: This is almost it!

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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 D3football.com.) 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.

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Around the Nation Podcast: Still many unbeatens

Chicago had its hands full at Bethel on Saturday. (Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com)

Chicago had its hands full at Bethel on Saturday. (Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com)

A few unbeaten but unranked teams had the opportunity to prove themselves against opponents with a little more prestige on Saturday. But in the end, Chicago, Gustavus and Emory & Henry couldn’t get over the hump.

Of course, those losses, and others by UW-Stevens Point and Wesleyan, still leave Division III with nearly two dozen unbeaten teams. That seems like a lot for this time of year, but that’s not too unusual.

We remember what an unpopular decision it was to hire the guy who has won 100 of his first 106 career games as a head coach and talk about who to re-evaluate in the Top 25. Plus, Pat and Keith each give out their game balls, look beyond the obvious games to some underappreciated highlights and much more.

Hit play, or subscribe to get this podcast on your phone or portable 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

Plus, all the highlights and interviews from around Division III in the postgame show: