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ATN Podcast: One big shakeup

There was one huge upset this week, but that left a lot of room to talk about other games as well. So in addition to Dubuque-Wartburg, let’s take a few minutes to focus on the “middle class” of Division III football, as it were. Or at least, teams trying to break into the Top 25, or trying to break through and win a conference. 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 5: October is here, and so are conference rumbles

Believe it or not, the first month of the season has gone by. And as the calendar flips from September to October, the Dubuque at Pacific and Wesley at North Central matchups turn to the more familar: Central at Wartburg, Washington & Jefferson at Thomas More and the like.

Of course, as the CCIW, ECFC, IIAC, MIAA, NACC, NWC, ODAC, SCIAC, USAC and the WIAC get conference play underway, there are some unfamiliar matchups as well. In the ASC, which along with the MWC has had just one league game played, Belhaven at Mary Hardin-Baylor is a conference clash. Rowan at Christopher Newport is now an NJAC game.

The four-team SCAC aside, league games in Division III’s 28 conferences will be underway as of this week. It’s not normal to follow that many conferences, so our abormal prognosticators — Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I — provide our seven-point primers in hopes of making sense of it all. Add your picks in the comment section below.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 13 Washington and Jefferson at No. 12 Thomas More. The WIAC clash could earn top bill here, but that has more of a defined favorite, and less on the line, since UW-Platteville has already scored a big non-conference win. The PAC teams might have more at stake; Thomas More missed the playoffs at 9-1 in 2013. It then upgraded the schedule by adding Wesley, lost, and missed the field at 8-2 last season. Both years included big losses to W&J (45-21 and 51-28). This season, if the Saints still can’t stop the Presidents, they at least look like a better bet to keep pace. You might know TMC from their All-American running back the past few years, but QB Jensen Gephardt is the nation’s third most-efficient passer. Look for his throws to Goose Cohorn, and either team’s defense generating turnovers as the difference in the game.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 13 Washington and Jefferson at No. 12 Thomas More. The Saints, which average almost 60 points a game, have the second-best scoring offense in the nation. But W&J isn’t far behind on the list with 43 points a game. This will be a game that has the potential to see some wild offense come alive, and it would be of little surprise for it to be a back-and-forth slugfest. TMC holds the edge going into this one with more muscle and more balance on both sides of the ball. Yet all it takes is a well-timed turnover to shift the momentum of a matchup.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: What they said. But also No. 14 UW-Platteville at No. 1 UW-Whitewater. Just to get in some info on another game here. Last week’s game couldn’t have come at a better time for Whitewater. The adjustment in terms of speed of game and quality of opponent for Whitewater last week was pretty necessary to prepare the Warhawks for the conference schedule. It took a while for the passing game to come around, but if Whitewater comes out ready to fire on Saturday, they should be in good shape. On the other hand, Platteville has to come out with a lot of confidence after the success it had in the non-conference schedule, and the Pioneers have had two weeks to prepare for this game.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 19 Ithaca at Utica. While the Bombers have the ranking and the name recognition, the Pioneers are still under the radar. (See what I did there? Bombers. Radar. Eh?) The case for Utica is that they’re 2-2, but with seven-point losses at Ohio Northern and at Cortland State surrounding an impressive win against Morrisville State. The Pioneers are back at home, and while Ithaca’s scores might lead one to believe they’re a little more offensively inclined than usual, Utica can keep pace, and Ithaca is still top 10 in passing efficiency defense and top 20 in rushing defense. Plus, it’s the Empire 8, so anything can happen.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 18 Hardin-Simmons at Trinity. I’m high on Trinity’s potential this year, but the reality of it is that the Tigers haven’t been tested much. Trinity’s opponents are 1-10 this season, and the margins haven’t been what we’d expect to see from a team that can compete with the top of the ASC. What could keep Trinity in this one, though, is the defense — with pick-master Jai Boatman in the secondary, Luke Packard coming off D3football.com Team of the Week honors and linebacker Julian Turner averaging 14 tackles a game. Confidence should be high that they can at least slow this HSU squad.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Any game in the path of Hurricane Joaquin. The potential of torrential rain makes this weekend interesting on the field. (And please, everyone, be safe off of it.) Rainy weather will favor the teams which run the ball well and play good defense, and if you need a real-world reminder, just review the UW-Whitewater/Morningside game. Option teams will have less of an advantage because of the way they pitch the ball around. Keep an eye out for results that look odd on paper. Paper is hard to read when it gets wet.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 18 Hardin-Simmons. The Cowboys sneaked into the top 25, largely because of their Week 2 win at Texas Lutheran. But we don’t really know how good they are. Weston Garner, Jessie Ramos and company have another chance to prove it Saturday at Trinity (Texas), which is surprisingly 4-0. As Pat remarked on the podcast, this takes us back to the early 2000s when these two teams were national powers.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Bethel. If only because the top of the MIAC is so good that teams are vulnerable week after week. Opponent Concordia-Moorhead’s only blemish is to St. John’s, while Bethel has a loss only to Wartburg. No matter who comes away with the victory here, it’ll be the team’s first upper-tier win of the season.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 11 John Carroll. Not to keep sounding this horn week after week. I’ll just leave the team name here and hope that I don’t need to say anything else.

Pick a team that will win a shootout

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 23 Guilford, at Washington & Lee. The nation’s No. 4 passing offense (the Quakers average 384.7 yards a game) and No. 3 total offense (639.3) meet the No. 1 rushing offense (509.7) and No. 10 total offense (562.3). Those numbers should come down a bit as the ODAC rivals face tougher competition in one another, but they do what they do. Guilford QB Matt Pawlowski will complete passes to Adam Smith, Daniel Woodruff and Rontavious Miller, and W&L counterpart Charlie Nelson will hand off to Duncan Maxwell or one of three other ballcarriers or keep it himself as the Generals whiz past in every direction. Whichever team can muster enough defense to slow the other probably pulls this one out.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Mass-Dartmouth, at Framingham State. The MASCAC hasn’t been known for defense this fall, and shootouts seem to be commonplace. That will be no less likely when the conference’s only 3-1 teams meet. The Corsairs average more than 500 yards a game, while the Rams are just behind that with 472. The Rams’ weakness, though, is that their offense is one-dimensional — lots of passing, little run. The Corsairs will be more likely to make Framingham’s defense work for the win by spicing up the offensive approach and keeping the Rams guessing.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 17 UW-Oshkosh at UW-Stout. Stout has proven the ability to put points on the board this season against good teams (see Bethel, Wartburg) and UW-Oshkosh will score as well. As long as Stout’s offense remains healthy, it’ll be able to put up points against a good number of teams. Last year, that group was so debilitated that you can’t judge the Blue Devils based on those results.

Pick a team that will win a defensive battle

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 15 Rowan, at Christopher Newport. Pat and I had the same idea, except what I would put in this category he used under surprisingly close (although I don’t know what’s surprising about unpredictably close games in hurricane weather). In the interest of singling one team out, the Profs are already strong defensively — they’ve allowed just 20 points in three games, two on the road and two against teams that won eight or more games last season. Rowan is on the road again, in Newport News, which might not get the brunt of the hurricane, but will be sloppy by the time the game kicks off at 6 p.m. Saturday, if it stays on schedule. Look for Darren Dungee, Josh Popper and Anthony Rizzolo to add to their defensive stats in a low-scoring affair.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: RPI, vs. Merchant Marine. Both teams are coming off shaky games and will be looking to re-establish themselves on the field. Not only are both of these teams’ strengths in their defensive units, but their offenses leave a little to be desired. RPI should pull this one out, but it would be no surprise to see a finish in the vicinity of 17-13.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Pacific, vs. Pacific Lutheran. PLU has only played twice in the first four weeks of the season, while Pacific has an extra game under its belt. I’m looking for this game to qualify as a low-scoring one. What qualifies as low-scoring in college football these days?

Which team will win a challenging conference opener?

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 1 UW-Whitewater. If we’re being totally honest, the Warhawks are ranked No. 1 because of what they’ve accomplished under Lance Leipold. However, new coach Kevin Bullis is off to a 3-0 start, including an impressive win over then-NAIA No. 1 Morningside. Now we’ve got a WIAC opponent, and a tough one at that. But if we’re being totally honest, the Pioneers are fortunate to be undefeated, as North Central had them on the ropes and just didn’t deliver the knockout blow. So it’s a bit of a prove-it game for both, and since Bullis (a longtime WIAC assistant) and his charges are no stranger to what they’ll be facing, and the Warhawks get to play at The Perk, one has to assume they’ll do what they do. But in a wise bit of scheduling, Mike Emendorfer’s team has had two weeks to prepare for UW-Whitewater.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Finlandia, vs. Maranatha Baptist. I know I’m stretching the definition of “conference” since the independents aren’t technically one. Regardless, the upstart from the Upper Peninsula has been throttled week after week — opponents have put up 272 points; the Lions have scored just nine. Finlandia did notch  its first touchdown of the season last week, so that’s a perk. Going into this week, the team can expect to see something totally different than what it’s dealt with in recent weeks — a team not from the WIAC. In fact, if Finlandia has a winnable game on its schedule, it’s this one against Maranatha Baptist. The Sabercats haven’t been through the meat grinder against the kind of competition Finlandia has faced, so if Finlandia is healthy, they should be prepared for this one. But, I also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that every game in a startup’s season is going to be challenging.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Adrian, at Olivet. One of the key games of the MIAA season is this one, right out of the gate. There’s not much in the way of common opponents to judge these teams on, so I’ll be taking the team that has played the stronger schedule so far, even if that’s picking against the team that has the home-field advantage.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Widener. So I’m still not sure what to make of the Pride, but at 2-2 and 2-1 in the MAC, they have to have this game at Wilkes, which aside from its 12-7 upset of Delaware Valley has lost every game. What’s surprising is Widener is second in the nation in passing yards allowed, seventh in getting off the field on third downs and top 2o in total defense. It is also even in turnover margin, so either the stats are lying or Widener is a breakout team lying in wait. Which means now against the Colonels and next week against Misericordia are the times to show it, because 4-0 Stevenson follows them.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Centre. The Colonels had won 14 straight regular-season games, and there were high hopes for another sweep through the SAA. Chicago ruined that streak with a 49-30 outing last weekend. But the test of a good team is how well it bounces back after defeat. Centre’s opponent, Hendrix, is 2-1 to start the season, and both teams have quarterbacks who excel — expect a lot of offense. I’ll be on site in Danville, Ky., on Saturday to personally see how this one plays out.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Hendrix. I’m actually going to take the opposite side of this game from my colleague. Hendrix is on the upswing here and will go as far as quarterback Seth Peters can carry them. What the program lacks so far, though, is an ability to win on the road. They can put that struggle behind them in a memorable way on Saturday. But if they don’t, it will still be one more step on the road to growing a program.

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.