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TAG | Maryville (Tenn.)

Sep/12

14

Triple Take: Coming into focus

Nate Oropollo
Aaron Terrell-Byrd is the new face at running back for St. Thomas, which has had significant changes on offense from 2011.
By Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

Teams — their strengths and weaknesses — are coming into shape after two weeks of play. And for many of them, they’re still in the walkup to the start of conference play, where the path to the playoffs is largely traveled.

Perhaps most captivating nationally are the battles between Top 25 teams, but that is not the end-all of Division III. Not by a long shot. And there are still dozens of teams with a shot of playing their way into the rankings and into the postseason.

Often going beyond the Top 25 are Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps in this week’s Triple Take (look for hashtag #3take on Twitter). As always, we’re happy to hear your comments.

Game of the week.
Ryan’s take: No. 5 Linfield at No. 10 Cal Lutheran.
I see these two teams in very different lights: the visiting squad is one that I’ve had a lot of enthusiasm about entering this year and that should have a huge target on its back; the other is one that needs to prove itself as a national competitor without the benefit Jake Laudenslayer taking snaps. We’ll get a better handle on that after Saturday, and these two teams should have fresh memories and be primed to duke it out. In 2011, these teams played two very competitive games — one in the regular season and one in the postseason — with the Wildcats emerging on top both times. Lining up together, they rarely disappoint.
Pat’s take: The Tommie-Johnnie game. What it’s doing on Week 3, however, is beyond me. I know some conferences feel the need to shuffle their schedules evenly over time but there are other conferences who do that and still make sure the rivalry games get played at the end. With No. 6 St. Thomas having beaten St. John’s by a hideous score last year, expect the Johnnies to come out extra motivated, in front of a home crowd that’s likely to be at least 15,000. And how often can you say that? Both teams had to rally to beat UW-Eau Claire, both had an easier game as well. St. Thomas has had quarterbacks fold in this game before but the new Tommie quarterback, Matt O’Connell, faced some pressure in Week 1, so the only thing new will be the crowd.
Keith’s take: No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor at No. 3 Wesley. Oh, cool, I get the slam dunk. And honestly, there isn’t a whole lot that needs to be said here. The two South Region powers have played six times in seven seasons, with Wesley winning four. In the UMHB game notes, Coach Pete Fredenburg makes reference to the whole country watching, and in this case, it’s not an exaggeration. Respect for these guys scheduling this game early. A well-played loss won’t hurt in the top 25, and it will have a limited impact on playoff chances.  What would be interesting is if these teams play again in the playoffs, but with experience against each other. UMHB outgained Kean 517-180, with 313 yards rushing, 165 from Darius Wilson. Wesley has been statistically underwhelming, but has given up only 21 points in road wins. This game is as big as they get in the regular season, and might be decided along the lines, by players we’ve heretofore never heard of.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Sewanee at Maryville.
There are only three Division III football teams in Tennessee, and two of them are lining up Saturday. Why are Sewanee and Maryville not meeting every single year? This situation is primed for a rivalry, but these two teams haven’t played each other in seven years. Sewanee is playing better ball that Maryville right now, but the Scots will be fighting for some in-state pride.
Pat’s take: No. 11 Trinity (Texas) at Sul Ross State. This is a new opponent for Trinity and a bit of a trip as well. Sul Ross has been competitive with Division II programs each of the first two weeks and transfer quarterback A.J. Springer has the offensive clicking. (And Ryan, I’d say it’s for the same reason Sewanee and its SAA mates broke away from the SCAC — wanting to play so-called “like-minded institutions.” Sewanee surely sees itself as not in the same class as Maryville academically.)
Keith’s take: TCNJ at Brockport State. Behind Joseph Scibilia, the Golden Eagles are 2-0, passing for 317 yards per game, and allowing only 28.5 rushing yards per game. They’re attracting top 25 attention. But TCNJ, at 1-1, has gained 521 yards per game, just a shade better than Brockport’s 518, and there could be a bunch of points put on the board. Justin Doniloski has 244 rushing yards in two games, so the matchup against the Golden Eagles’ run defense bears watching.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 23 Centre.
The jury is still out on whether this Centre team is as good as last season’s. If it is, the Colonels will beat Washington and Lee. But W&L is 1-1 and has played opponents that are better than those that Centre has lined up against. That’ll be the biggest advantage the Generals have over the Kentucky competition.
Pat’s take: No. 25 Redlands. Each team has one game under its belt. Pacific Lutheran was tied with Cal Lutheran at half before falling last week, and I like the Lutes’ chances.
Keith’s take: No. 14 Hobart. The Statesmen have given up just 230 yards and seven points in two wins, but Utica’s hung 40 and 45 points on its two opponents. The Pioneers, led by Andrew Benkwitt, are ready for a breakthrough win, but they can’t expect to keep gaining yards at a 500 per game clip. Playing at home should help, and I wouldn’t expect Hobart to make it easy. If it happens, it could be a low-scoring affair where turnovers play a part. No. 13 North Central at UW-Stout was also an option here.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: Gettysburg.
Statistically, the Bullets are first in the country in rushing offense and are eighth in total defense. Gaining yards and putting up points is nothing new for Gettysburg, but this is an enviable place defensively for Gettysburg to be in as it wends its way toward some of the tougher teams on the Centennial schedule. There are a handful of conference opponents that will bring a pretty good arsenal to the table.
Pat’s take: John Carroll. It’s been a little while since they’ve played, but they open their North American and Ohio Athletic Conference schedule with a home game against No. 15 Baldwin Wallace. We’ll see how good their transfer quarterback is.
Keith’s take: William Paterson. Kickoff ’12 hipped us to the possibility that it could finally be these Pioneers’ turn atop the NJAC. Running back Dawys German is supposed to be a star, but the 9-3 Week 1 win against King’s was underwhelming. The defense impressed, but so did Rowan in the Week 1 upset of Delaware Valley. But with the Profs humbled at D-II Merrimack last week, they won’t be going easy on William Paterson, so this is a big prove-it game for the Pioneers. Or else we just go back to thinking they’re a mid-pack also-ran.

Which 0-2 team will earn its first win?
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Franklin.
While I understand that the Grizzlies have taken on Mount Union and Division I-FCS Butler to start the season, they’ve been blown out in both of those matchups. This team — deservedly or not — has some great cred nationally to still be in the Top 20. This week’s opponent, Manchester, which has also begun its season 0-2, will not pose a problem for Franklin, which truly is more potent than its record indicates. Expect to stop paying attention to this game by halftime.
Pat’s take: Hardin-Simmons. I don’t need to know much about Texas College, which is 0-3 against an interesting spread of opponents, to take the D-III team here.
Keith’s take: Delaware Valley. Stevenson’s coming close, with a 10-point loss followed by an OT loss. The Aggies have a chance to salvage their high expectations for the season, but it has to start right away, and they need to generate some offense. Stevenson has allowed 419 yards per game, while Del Val has gained 382. The Aggies’ problem hasn’t been turnovers — they have four, but an even margin. They just haven’t finished drives. They have 10 punts, four turnovers and four touchdowns. The Aggies need to take advantage of Stevenson’s defense early and regain their confidence.

Which saint sparks your interest?
Ryan’s take: St. Vincent.
Over the years, the Bearcats have climbed up from the conference depths, going 1-29 in its first three seasons. But last year brought forth a much more refreshing 6-5 outing, including a visit to an ECAC bowl game. But so far, St. Vincent hasn’t turned a corner in 2012, dropping its first two games. This week, the Bearcats face Waynesburg, the PAC’s only 2-0 team. Is Waynesburg for real? Is St. Vincent really lacking? Clarity is right around the bend.
Pat’s take: St. Olaf, which gets its first real challenge of the season after pulling out a close game on a short trip to Luther and winning handily on a long trip to DePauw. Concordia-Moorhead coming to town is by far the most impressive opponent so far.
Keith’s take: St. John Fisher. It’s the final Courage Bowl with Rochester. Having attended one of the cooler young rivalries in D-III, mixing charity and on-field competitiveness, I’ll be sad to see it go. Rochester, which has lost all seven Courage Bowls, is ending the series, which moves back to campus, at Fisher, after two years downtown.

If you’re picking a winning team based on faith, which would it be?
Ryan’s take: Albright, affiliated with the United Methodist Church.
The Lions have come out of the gate with two wins, including one that knocked Kean off its preseason perch. But Albright needed overtime to beat conference-mate Stevenson, and the slate only gets harder, starting with this Saturday against Wilkes. Remember this matchup last year? Sixty-five points for the winning Albright, 575 passing yards, school records broken. There’s little doubt there’ll be some excitement going into this year’s game.
Pat’s take: Salve Regina, which is a Catholic school. The Seahawks face Fitchburg State. When I was working at my alma mater, Catholic U., the head coach wanted to put together a “conference” like the ECAC in style, with all of the Catholic schools playing Division III football. It was a great idea but I wasn’t going to run it. However, picture a postseason bowl game featuring the top team from eastern Catholic schools against the top available western Catholic school. Because so many Catholic schools made the playoffs last year (St. Thomas, St. John Fisher, Thomas More, Benedictine) you might end up with Salve Regina or St. Vincent against St. John’s or St. Norbert. Just food for thought.
Keith’s take: East Texas Baptist. Willamette gained 727 yards in its opener, and has had two weeks to prepare. And they’re at home. But the choices among the Baptists were limited, so I’ll have to lean on ETBU’s experience in the opener against Wesley for my pick.

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Trinity athletics photo

Analysis
As a football conference in the Division III model, the SCAC never made sense. The geographic footprint, from Colorado to Indiana to Alabama to Texas, created a demand on travel costs that small-college budgets usually find unnecessary.

Colorado College realized this and abruptly dropped football after the 2008 season. But they weren’t the only outlier. Rose-Hulman left after the 2006 season to join the HCAC, which is Indiana and Ohio-based. DePauw, finding a group of schools with similar academic cache in closer proximity, decided this year to join Indiana rival Wabash in the NCAC, beginning in 2012.

That left seven football members behind in the SCAC, enough to maintain its automatic bid to the 32-team playoff field. Schools from coast to coast – LaGrange, Cornell and Chapman – announced new conference affiliations this offseason. But nothing shakes up the national picture like seven schools withdrawing from a 12-school conference; of the seven football-playing members, five are forming a new conference that will require less travel but would need to add two football programs and then wait two years to get an automatic bid. Trinity and Austin retain the SCAC name and history but need five football-playing members — and two “core” members in all sports — to keep their AQ.

The SCAC has been very explicit in news stories and press releases that it intends to continue on, and potential new members have been contacted.

Who exactly might those be? What ripple effects can Division III expect?

With the remaining SCAC schools mostly Texas-based, this would seem to be a ripe opportunity for any school in the ASC that feels it either isn’t competitive or wants to align itself with Trinity and Austin (which left the ASC and took Rose-Hulman’s place in the SCAC) to make the leap. Texas Lutheran comes to mind, while Howard Payne and East Texas Baptist wouldn’t be total shocks.

It also means any NAIA school, particularly those in the Mid-South Conference and perhaps the KCAC, which eyes the NCAA’s financial stability has its opening. There are also four NAIA schools in Oklahoma, two independents in Florida and another independent, Southern Virginia, which has expressed interest in moving to Division III. Those schools might not all fit in the SCAC, but might come into play if teams begin shuffling their affiliations.

Centenary (La.) has moved from Division I to III, and joined the ASC, but doesn’t yet offer football.

Then of course, there’s the obvious: Huntingdon, one of the last football independents in D-III, has eagerly sought out a conference. The Hawks joined the SLIAC for one season, then the conference dropped football. The SCAC-7 (those schools that just broke off from the SCAC) appear to have not been interested in the Hawks, but the SCAC-5 might take them out of necessity. They’d be a core member.

That’s an example of the tough spot the SCAC is in. With 50 years of history and a reputation for academic prestige, the conference – whose commissioner of 16 years, Dwyane Hanberry, is staying on – would probably like to maintain how it is perceived. We might hear a lot of talk about being “excited for the future” or schools that “fit the SCAC profile,” but from an outsider’s view, it’s hard to see how the SCAC-5 isn’t desperate.

The SCAC-5, remember, has just two football schools. Colorado College recently dropped the sport, and Southwestern and U. of Dallas don’t seem to be on track to add it. Huntingdon would be a third. If the SCAC stole more than two from the nine-member ASC, then that conference’s automatic bid would be in jeopardy.

The odd thing is Division III had narrowed itself down to just three football independents, and only two with scheduling problems. Huntingdon is one. Wesley, which is a competitive fit for the NJAC but as a private school can’t afford to play by that conference’s rules, such as 100-player roster limits, might look to revive talks of football in its all-sports conference, the CAC. The third, Macalester, is independent by choice, having left the MIAC in the early part of the decade. The St. Paul-based school also has 14 potential opponents in Minnesota, plus dozens more nearby in Iowa and Illinois.

A former independent, LaGrange already made its move this offseason, to the USAC, where former football-only affiliate Maryville and non-football Piedmont joined this offseason, All three were members of the GSAC in other sports. Shenandoah announced plans to leave the USAC for the ODAC in all sports –- citing reduced travel as a reason – last fall.

The USAC moves leave few Division III schools in the south looking to move. A GSAC/SCAC-5 merger doesn’t make much sense for football because of the four women’s schools and the distance from Southwest Virginia to Colorado. Rust (Holly Springs, Miss.) is in no shape to add the sport.

The USAC might not have seen its last shuffle either. Averett, N.C. Wesleyan and Christopher Newport could join Wesley in the CAC, which currently doesn’t sponsor football. Salisbury and Frostburg State, which joined the Empire 8 as a football-only affiliates for access to an automatic bid and because Norwich had left the E8 one member short, could come back home and give the CAC six football playing members. Two sources have told D3sports.com that Neumann (Pa.) is considering adding football, which could be a potential seventh, as could Marymount (Va.) if it added the sport. Catholic, a former member of the CAC, competes in the ODAC for football and the non-football Landmark conference for other sports.

Another potential seventh member, Stevenson, which plays its first football game this season, recently left the CAC for the MAC.

So why all the movement?

First, access to automatic bids, especially in sports like football where at-large bids are scarce, is key. But schools prefer being in conferences for ease of scheduling, formation of natural rivalries, an enhanced athletic experience (i.e. all-conference awards, etc.) and association. Schools like being aligned with certain peers, because of the perceptions it creates.

The SCAC certainly did that. But perhaps the main reason Division III schools like their conferences are something the SCAC-5 still doesn’t care about: containing travel costs.

That would open the door for Westminster (Utah), an NAIA member whose name was mentioned in The Colorado Springs Gazette as a potential member. They’d be the third Westminster in D-III, joining the ones in Missouri (UMAC) and Pennsylanvia (PAC).

If Trinity and Austin can’t save the SCAC’s football automatic bid, they might be forced elsewhere to look for affliate membership. Or, they could dangle their bid and entice others – perhaps the four schools in the UAA (Case Western Reserve, Chicago, Carnegie Mellon and Wash U.) could join to create a who-cares-about-travel-costs football league. It certainly would be prestigious, but it would need a seventh member to keep the AQ.

The perfect seventh member, Rochester, figured something out long ago. Flying a football team across the country four or five times a season is cost-prohibitive. The Yellowjackets, a member of the UAA in other sports, are in the New York-based Liberty League for football.

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UW-Whitewater, Aaron Rusch and Jason FordRe-evaluating the Top 25, or, also known as, how did Central drop nine spots? Coe’s loss to Wartburg had an effect beyond those two teams, while losses by Cortland State, Randolph-Macon and Alfred certainly helped the reshuffling effort.

Why wasn’t Wartburg ranked to begin with? How did they end up at No. 13? Who else is underranked? That and more in this week’s Around the Nation podcast. Plus, Pat Coleman got to see UW-Whitewater play in person next week and gives his take on what he saw, plus gets coach Lance Leipold’s evaluation of his team at the midway point of the Whitewater season (that is, if the Warhawks are planning to play 15 games once again).

Click the play button below to listen.

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