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Around the Nation Podcast: Purple ponderings

Hard to start anywhere but with UW-Whitewater and Mount Union this week, as Whitewater comes away with a key win and the Purple Raiders looked a little shaky in their win vs. Ohio Northern. Plus we talk about a couple of key injuries, including two in the MIAC, we look at the big matchups in New Jersey and Iowa, hand out our game balls and more in this week’s 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 9: Several down and three to go

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 McMillan
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 Tipps
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 Coleman
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 McMillan
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 Tipps
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 Coleman
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 McMillan
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 Tipps
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 Coleman
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 McMillan
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 Tipps
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 Coleman
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 McMillan
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 Tipps
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 Coleman
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 McMillan
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 Tipps
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 Coleman
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 McMillan
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 Tipps
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 Coleman
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.

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Triple Take, Week 2: Welcoming the fashionably late

As noted in this space last week, 195 of the 247 Division III teams kicked off in Week 1. Among those who did not were quite a few prominent teams, including third-ranked Linfield and 22nd-ranked Chapman, who open up against one another this week, plus No. 1 UW-Whitewater, No. 5 Wesley and No. 13 North Central.

Of the 195 seasons that got underway, 97 started with a loss, which makes Week 2 a chance to wipe away the disappointment of Week 1. There are some top-25 clashes, intriguing non-conference matchups and more, and we’ll get you prepared for it all.

With so many games each week, Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I boil it down, independently providing our seven-point primers for games to focus on, where to watch for upsets, and other assorted predictions. Then in Monday’s podcast, we run back where we were right and where we were way off. If you’d like to play along, leave your picks in the comments below.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 22 Chapman at No. 3 Linfield. It’s a toss up between this and Wartburg-Bethel. And the last game of the weekend, Pacific Lutheran at Cal Lutheran, is an equally intriguing NWC-SCIAC clash. But there’s just so much at stake when the Panthers visit the Wildcats. D-III’s West Coast and Deep South “island” teams are pretty much guaranteed to match up with one another in the first round of the playoffs, unless an odd number of them make the field of 32. (This map is out of date, but will help you visualize how concentrated D-III schools are). So Chapman and Linfield, even if one goes undefeated and the other ends up with only Saturday’s loss, are basically playing for the chance to host in the first round of the playoffs. In their opener. Which is absurd, but reality. Last season, Chapman hosted and led in the second half of a 21-14 loss to Linfield, won every other game and in Round 1 road game, lost to the emotionally charged Wildcats, 55-24.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 22 Chapman at No. 3 Linfield. It’s opening day for both of these teams. Linfield lost a lot from last year, but the Wildcats are a team that perennially reloads rather than rebuilds. With All-American Alex Hoff on the defensive line and dual-threat quarterback Sam Riddle driving the offense, McMinnville will be a hard place to win. Chapman graduated its quarterback but is replacing him with a player who is already 3-0 as a starter — dating from a stint in the middle of 2012. The Panthers, like Linfield, lost a lot, but they don’t likely have the same depth to overcome such a hit.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 6 Wartburg at No. 19 Bethel. They’re probably expecting me to take this game anyway, and since it’s practically in my backyard, that’s even better for me. But neither team looked invincible in Week 1. Wartburg needed a huge defensive effort in the fourth quarter to beat Augsburg, a team which is further down the MIAC ladder than Bethel is (last year’s Week 11 result notwithstanding), while Bethel showed some weaknesses on defense at UW-Stout that, if nothing else, last year’s Wartburg team would just destroy them for. Bethel had three buses of students at Stout so you know they’ll show up at home. Should be interesting.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Ursinus at Gettysburg. At first glance, this seems like a team always knocking on the door at the top of the Centennial against one usually in the middle of the pack. After Week 1, when the Bullets put up 678 yards and 49 points on Bridgewater (a team it lost to last season), and Ursinus couldn’t score until overtime, this becomes a more intriguing matchup. The Bears beat D-II Millersville in the opener, though, and handled Gettysburg, 31-14, last season. I see it more like a one-score game this time around.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Whitworth at Whittier. Should we Fear the Poet, as Whittier hopes? The SCIAC doesn’t always match up well against the NWC, but Whittier is returning most of its defense and has a lot of players competing for the right to start in key positions on offense.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Susquehanna at No. 11 Johns Hopkins. Sure, I’ll bite on the possibility that Susquehanna, which defeated Lycoming last week, has a shot to make this a good game vs. the Blue Jays, who have won 39 of their past 40 Centennial Conference games. If nothing else, just impressed with Tom Perkovich’s debut as Crusaders head coach and hoping to get more info on Susquehanna.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 23 Muhlenberg. No. 18 Texas Lutheran has a tough challenge, but the Mules are most vulnerable, against Franklin and Marshall, which returned 17 starters and put up 501 yards and 42 points in Week 1 (while allowing 540 and 37 to Lebanon Valley). The Mules had no such problems, allowing fast-paced Wilkes to convert just 6 of 26 third and fourth downs in their 35-7 Week 1 win, but I’ve got to pick someone. The rest of the top 25 looks liable to cruise to victory, or is in a situation where a loss would hardly be an upset, so I guess I’ve earned a spot on Muhlenberg’s bulletin board/dartboard.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 23 Muhlenberg. The Mules dropped this one at Franklin and Marshall in 2013, and the question is whether lightning will strike twice in that span. Both teams had good Week 1 wins, so this will be an exciting matchup to take in.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 18 Texas Lutheran vs. Hardin-Simmons. I actually feel pretty similarly to last week, where I expect a lot of chalk in the Top 25, but Hardin-Simmons intrigues me. (Although I got an e-mail this summer asking me, “how Hardin-Simmons continues to get mention in preseason polls despite the fact they haven’t finished in the top two in the ASC in so many years and haven’t made the playoffs since 2008?”) Bottom line on that is that we still think the ASC is capable of having more than one or two good teams. One thing in TLU’s favor is that HSU will have to go from playing a bottom-25 team to playing a top-25 team in consecutive weeks and that’s not an easy transition. Nor is stopping Marquis Barrolle.

Which team that did not play in Week 1 turns in the most impressive Week 2 win?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 13 North Central. The sense of urgency should be there for the Cardinals, who open up this week against 1-0 Trine and play No. 25 UW-Platteville and No. 5 Wesley the next two weeks. Trine, under new head coach Troy Abbs, was a 38-14 winner in Week 1, rushing for 403 yards against Manchester. It will be Jeff Thorne’s first game as NCC head coach, and although he has a ranked team and 16 starters back to work with, holding the Thunder under 100 rushing yards in a win would be impressive.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Ohio Northern. Any time you can take down an Empire 8 team that finished 7-3 last season, it’s a quality win. The Polar Bears play Utica, and this will give us a good barometer for what heights ONU might be able to ultimately reach in the conference standings.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 3 Linfield. Cats roll. They’re on an even playing field since No. 22 Chapman didn’t play last week either. No big fancy analysis for me here — I just think Linfield is helmet and shoulder pads above Chapman, if not perhaps the best team in all of D-III football.

Which non-conference clash will have the biggest ripple effect?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Hardin-Simmons at No. 18 Texas Lutheran. In 2013, the Bulldogs’ only loss was a Week 10 73-44 shocker at Hardin-Simmons. TLU returned to the site of that beating in Week 2 of last year and won, 37-14. Finally, they get the Cowboys in Seguin. After a Week 1 win in which they were tied with Sul Ross State at 27 to start the fourth, the Bulldogs have every reason to be amped. HSU hung 77 on Southwestern in Week 1, but if they can’t hang a loss on TLU (which plays Louisiana College and No. 4 UMHB, among others, before finishing with their three SCAC opponents), it could have wide-ranging effects. ASC and SCAC are both angling for the one Pool B bid guaranteed to non-automatic bid conferences, so anyone else in Pool B is going to want to see those teams beat up on one another.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Trine at No. 13 North Central. In Kickoff 2015, I pegged Trine to surge this year, and cutting their teeth this early in the season against a power like North Central will be telling. And these two teams aren’t annual foes, so there could be surprises on both sides of the ball.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Albion at Augustana. Here we have two teams who had impressive Week 1 performances. Albion put up 65 points in a win vs. UW-Stevens Point and reminds us that the Britons are one of the big dogs in the MIAA despite all the buzz about everything Olivet has returning. Augustana rolled out its new offense after taking more than a decade to painfully back away from the Wing-T that helped define the program during its heyday and beat a Mount St. Joseph team that would like to think it can win the HCAC this season. I’ll be interested to see how these two end up after Saturday.

Which matchup of in-state opponents intrigues you most, and who wins?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Delaware Valley at Wilkes. There are lots of better games that are mentioned elsewhere or are a state border away from fitting here (Cortland State-Framingham State; Lycoming-Stevenson; Rose-Hulman-Illinois College). I’m intrigued by this one following Del Val’s 27-24 season-opening win against Montclair State. Duke Greco led the Aggies to a win despite just two starters back on offense and nine overall, and I’m interested to see more of the new Del Val. Meantime, Wilkes can get a lot of plays off (they ran a record 113 against the Aggies last year), but it hasn’t translated into many points. I’ll pick Del Val.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: LaGrange at Berry. We’re only in Week 2, and already a state title is about to be decided. What’s not to like? While Berry is on the road upward as its fledgling team gets older and gains more experience, I’ll give the nod to LaGrange in this matchup.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Cornell at Coe. It’s hard to tell just from last week’s blowout at the hands of Wheaton exactly how good or bad Coe is in 2015. But one thing we do know, in addition to the 52-14 loss, is that Coe started camp with just 85 players, which is a low number for them. (I know, Cornell started with even fewer, but that’s their status quo.) Cornell last beat Coe in 1999, and that’s a long time to lose to your rival. Readers of Kickoff got Coe’s take on this rivalry game. It will be interesting to see if these teams, which were 79 spots apart in our preseason ranking, are any closer than that.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Christopher Newport. Facing what seems like a weaker-than-usual Hampden-Sydney team might not tell us much about what the Captains will look like against NJAC competition, but I’ll be watching anyway. CNU dominated the first half of a 31-21 Week 1 win at TCNJ, while H-SC played a top-10 team in Wabash. I’ll also be watching the Secretaries’ Cup and Coe-Cornell for rivalry purposes, as well as Albion-Augustana and Rose-Hulman vs. Illinois College. Those last two combined for 142 points in last year’s clash, reminding us that epic D-III games can come from anywhere, and was the subject of a Kickoff ’15 prediction question about how many they’ll combine for this time. I’ve got 67.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Cal Lutheran. In reading Kickoff 2015, there was something about Cal Lutheran that intrigued me, something that made me feel they’ll improve significantly over last season. Maybe it’s just that their young team is older and wiser, or that there isn’t a clear front-runner in the SCIAC, or that their first opponent (Pacific Lutheran) is going through a rebuilding year. If the Kingsmen can end the day Saturday (which will be Sunday on the East Coast) with a win, be prepared to see a team making noise once again.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Coast Guard at Merchant Marine. Not sure I need to say much more — this is a great rivalry between two of our maritime academies and I’m looking forward to a couple of years from now when these teams are both in the NEWMAC and this rivalry game can be pushed back to Week 11 where it belongs. A decade ago, when Coast Guard abandoned ship on the Liberty League and set sail for the smoother waters of the NEFC, this game was sandwiched into non-conference play, which hurts the exposure of this great matchup.

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.