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ATN Podcast: Breaking down the conference races

We started our deep dive into the playoffs on last week’s edition and we know we had a lot of new listeners — now we have to really talk about some of the automatic bids. Some conferences have pretty interesting races here in the final two weeks of the regular season and Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan look closely at the PAC, where two teams could finish unbeaten and never play each other, along with the NACC, NCAC, NJAC and the American Southwest Conference. Plus, even though this never has any playoff relevance, Pat and Keith debate whether you can rank a NESCAC team in the Top 25.

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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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
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Quick Hits: Coming down to the wire

Conference races are coming down to the wire, and some of those key matchups come this week. That includes the game for bragging rights between our founding Around the Nation columnist (Keith McMillan, former defensive back at Randolph-Macon) and our current columnist (Adam Turer, former defensive back at Washington & Lee). Our guest prognosticator this week is Doug Rothschild, a Wheaton football alum who played for coach Swider and is currently the color analyst for Wheaton’s broadcasts.

— Pat Coleman

Which Week 9 game is the must-watch game?

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Keith’s take: There are two. Rowan at Frostburg and Salisbury at CNU. If the Profs and Captains win, Wesley could be atop the heap of five NJAC 6-2 teams.
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Ryan’s take: Middlebury at Trinity (Conn.). Because sometimes, you don’t have to be Top 25 teams to bring an awesome performance to the field.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Ithaca at St. John Fisher. I hear faint echoes of cries about bounced interceptions but just looking for an exciting game.
Adam Turer
Adam’s take: Case Western Reserve at Washington U., in a rare late-season non-conference game with playoff implications for both teams.
Frank Rossi
Frank’s take: Brockport at No. 15 Alfred. This has national appeal as E8 is one of few East conferences with Pool C still in play. A Brockport win could undermine that.
Doug Rothschild
Doug’s take: Rowan at Frostburg. I am a sucker for good defense and these teams are 1-2 in the NJAC in scoring defense. Frostburg is 11th in D-III in defense behind Niles Scott and Will Sewell, who spend a lot of time in other team’s backfields.

Which Top 25 team is most likely to get upset?

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Keith’s take: No. 15 Alfred. The Saxons’ opponent, 5-2 Brockport, is two scores from being unbeaten and has played five one-score games.
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Ryan’s take: No. 24 St. John Fisher. Week in and week out, the Empire keeps striking back at one another.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 25 Case Western Reserve. In all honesty, this wouldn’t be much of an upset, either.
Adam Turer
Adam’s take: No. 19 Salisbury at Christopher Newport, because the NJAC is as balanced as ever this year.
Frank Rossi
Frank’s take: No. 15 Alfred. It’s the time of year when leaves change, pumpkins are carved, and the E8 cannibalizes itself out of strong Pool C contention.
Doug Rothschild
Doug’s take: No. 25 Case Western Reserve. Easy come, easy go. They just appeared in the poll last week and a road trip to 6-1 WashU will be their stiffest test of the season.

Of the three NCAC teams ranked 20-23, which one makes the biggest statement to Top 25 voters?

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Keith’s take: Denison winning at DePauw would be more impressive than anything Wabash or Wittenberg could accomplish on Saturday. It’s not a lock to happen though.
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Ryan’s take: Wabash, with a win over upward-trending OWU. Still, I have exactly zero NCAC teams on my ballot, so they’re all needing to prove themselves to me.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Denison. The question, however, is whether it’s a positive statement made by the Big Red.
Adam Turer
Adam’s take: Denison winning at DePauw would be the biggest statement. Wittenberg is expected to win, and I expect Wabash to struggle against a hot Ohio Wesleyan squad.
Frank Rossi
Frank’s take: Wabash (vs. Ohio Wesleyan). After a scare vs. Wooster, Wabash needs a statement win. They’ll start this game like a cannonball to win big.
Doug Rothschild
Doug’s take: Wabash. A convincing win @OWU tells Denison they are ready for next week’s showdown, shows their Monon rival how to do what they haven’t done in 4 seasons and keeps Pool C hopes alive.

Who wins the Around the Nation Classic between Keith McMillan’s and Adam Turer’s alma mater?

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Keith’s take: I’m obligated to pick the Yellow Jackets, but there’s solid logic. The past three games have been decided by 6, 4 and 3, and none of those R-MC teams had a D as good as this one.
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Ryan’s take: The nod goes to Washington & Lee. With the slate Randolph-Macon has coming up, it’s easy to get caught looking ahead.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Washington & Lee. Something in me just wants to recognize the team that scheduled Johns Hopkins, and that’s no longer Randolph-Macon.
Adam Turer
Adam’s take: The mighty Generals take the hill.
Frank Rossi
Frank’s take: Newspaper ink companies. A lot of letters & symbols for one game. (I’ll pick RMC, but Turer can gloat during our Stagg pregame show if I’m wrong.).
Doug Rothschild
Doug’s take: Randolph-Macon. While I may not be siding as much with Keith as my fellow Wheaton alum Pedro Arruza, Keith is the benefactor this week as his RM brothers have the No, 1 defense in the ODAC and defense wins championships.

Which team bounces back after a tough loss?

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Keith’s take: Hardin-Simmons. The foe is 1-6 Belhaven, which has given up 52 or more points in six straight games.
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Ryan’s take: Texas Lutheran, after losing its first-ever SCAC game. The Bulldogs beat Trinity (Texas) once already this year; don’t be surprised to see them with new fire to do it again.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: UW-Platteville. After the Pioneers have run the gantlet here over the past few weeks, a trip to UW-Stout should be a little easier to take. As long as they don’t take it too easy.
Adam Turer
Adam’s take: Franklin can stay in the HCAC mix and keep its playoff streak alive by winning at Mount St. Joseph.
Frank Rossi
Frank’s take: Franklin. An extremely inconsistent ship needs to be righted immediately vs. Mount St. Joseph if the Griz have any hopes of playoffs.
Doug Rothschild
Doug’s take: Franklin lost its first conference game in 3 years last week. Mount St. Joseph might be on a roll but Mike Leonard’s teams have lost two conference games in a season just once since 2005. Grizzlies roll.

Pick an under-the-radar 1-loss team which will pick up its second loss Saturday.

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Keith’s take: Wash U. is surprisingly 6-1, and 7-0 Case Western Reserve needs this win to bolster its credentials because 9-1 against its schedule might not get it in the playoffs..
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Ryan’s take: Washington University, as it goes against undefeated former UAA foe Case.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Bluffton. Rose-Hulman has to have its eyes on the HCAC automatic bid and shouldn’t be subject to a letdown after beating Franklin.
Adam Turer
Adam’s take: Tufts is an under-the-radar 4-1, but has to travel to an angry Amherst team that just got blanked by Wesleyan. The nicknameless home team wins.
Frank Rossi
Frank’s take: Olivet. What’s lost from the AMAZING “Play of the Week” throw: the Comets struggled vs. a middling Benedictine team. Alma wins Saturday.
Doug Rothschild
Doug’s take: Pomona-Pitzer. The SCIAC is likely decided this week as two 1-loss teams play when 5-1 Redlands visits 5-1 Pomona-Pitzer. I give the edge to Redlands despite being on the road so Pomona-Pitzer picks up loss No 2.

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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Week 10: The clock ticks down on the 2015 season

Week 10. Here’s where the fun really begins. And for four-fifths of Division III, it’s 10 days from ending.

We won’t forget about all the teams who won’t make the field of 32 or participate in an ECAC bowl game in our weekly picks below. But do understand that most of the fun of the final two Saturdays of the D-III season revolves around the chase for those playoff spots, and around great rivalry games. A few of those rivals begin slugging it out this weekend, although most of the premier D-III rivalries are played in Week 11.

We’ve got regional rankings out now, and 24 of 25 automatic bids still to be clinched. This is the most wonderful time of our season. We want to you take it all in, to enjoy it. And the best way Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I can assist in that is by highlighting the games across the country that you should be paying attention to, beyond the one you’ll be participating in or following. So without further ado, here are our seven-point primers for one of the best weeks of the D-III season.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take:
No. 7 Wheaton at No. 22 Illinois Wesleyan. There are other games this week that are huge for both teams playing, but none that will cause the ripple effect that Thunder-Titans will. Not only will No. 16 North Central be feeling for its playoff pulse either during or immediately after its game at Augustana, but Pool C hopefuls nationwide have a vested interest in Wheaton, since a win would knock IWU out of the mix. NCC is plus-10 (18-point win, eight-point loss) in the potential scores-among-tied-teams three-way tiebreaker, so a close Illinois Wesleyan victory could hand the CCIW lead to the Cardinals and push both Wheaton and IWU into the pool of teams in good shape for at-large bid consideration. A Wheaton loss might also indirectly affect, say, Wabash, which could draw better matchups in the postseason if it remains unbeaten and Wheaton picks up a loss. All that and I haven’t mentioned a single thing about the game itself. IWU is certainly smarting after bad snaps led to nine North Central points last week. Wheaton only needed seven completions from QB Andrew Bowers in the driving rain, but it got 101 rushing yards. The forecast for Saturday in Bloomington is sunny with highs of 54 degrees, so this game won’t likely resemble either of last week’s.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 25 St. Lawrence at Hobart. Even last year, when Hobart was in its prime, this matchup was a nail-biter. This season, the spotlight is on the Saints, who have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since their infamous 5-5 regular season in 2010. They are a team chock full of playmakers, not the least of which is All-American cornerback Leondre Simmon, who was featured in my Around the Nation column this week as a dual-sport athlete. Though he’s primarily a cornerback (with five interceptions this year), he plays both sides of the ball. As a wide receiver, he has seven catches in the past five games — impressive primarily because five of those catches were for touchdowns. St. Lawrence has kept most opponents comfortably at bay, and the Saints are simply playing better football than Hobart right now.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Albright at Stevenson. Now that we have regional rankings and a pecking order for potential at-large teams, there are few opportunities for teams to improve their stock. Albright’s SOS needs the boost. (You know, or Stevenson’s, but Albright is the higher-ranked team.) The winner has a shot at being the first team on the board to be selected as an at-large from the East Region if Delaware Valley wins out, and that’s an important position to be in. There’s no guarantee that an East Region team would get an at-large bid, but it’s key to be first in line.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Salisbury at No. 4 Wesley and No. 13 St. John’s at Bethel. I’m definitely swayed by the historical competitiveness of these rivalries more than how the teams match up this year. And while history doesn’t always matter, familiarity between coaches does, and the staffs of Sherman Wood and Mike Drass have been going at it for as long as I can remember, just like Steve Johnson and Gary Fasching, even when the latter was part of John Gagliardi’s staff. The Sea Gulls rush for a second-best-in-the-nation 376 yards a game, and Bethel goes for 247 per. The Wolverines allow a shade more than three yards per carry, and so do the Johnnies. The game may well be won in the trenches, which gives both underdogs a chance to keep it respectable.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Kalamazoo at Adrian. There’s so much focus on the top of the MIAA and the potential for a three-way tie that it’s easy to overlook the teams deeper down. Adrian is at 5-3, while K-zoo is only 2-6. However, K-zoo has played two of the conference’s tougher teams in recent weeks and should be well prepared to stand strong against Adrian. The Hornets may well benefit from their balance on offense to keep the defense guessing, which differs from Adrian’s heavy run game.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Austin College at No. 20 Texas Lutheran. The Roos haven’t had a winning season since 2000. Austin College needs a win in either of the last two games, vs. Texas Lutheran or Trinity, to pull that off. That may be enough to inspire AC to give the Bulldogs a battle.

Most likely top-25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 12 Thomas More. I’ll swing for the fences yet again in this category, and perhaps incur some troll’s wrath. I don’t know that anyone would have given No. 18 Case Western Reserve much of a shot against the Saints a few weeks back, but wins over W&J and Wash. U. have been eye-openers. The Spartans, who might be undefeated if not for missing a PAT with five minutes left in a 31-30 Week 1 loss at Chicago, have had no problem scoring behind QB Rob Cuda, WR Bryan Erb and the gang. But they’re also 10th nationally against the run (73.3 yds/game) and had six interceptions last week, while Thomas More has been flip-flopping quarterbacks. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints won big, but it’s probably time to take CWRU seriously.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: None. I haven’t played the “none” card in Triple Take yet this season, so I’m taking the opportunity. Maybe this is a testament to thinking that the poll has it right, and the teams that are currently ranked are there deservedly so. That’s not always the case earlier in the season. While Salisbury/Wesley, Hardin-Simmons/East Texas Baptist, St. John’s/Bethel and Concordia-Moorhead/Gustavus Adolphus (and others) have the potential to be competitive, I don’t see any of the bigger dogs falling this week.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 23 Concordia-Moorhead. I mean, I have to keep picking Gustavus Adolphus until they win one of these last four games. (I mean, this week or bust — it won’t be next week vs. St. Thomas.) We picked Gustavus to go 7-3 in Kickoff and goshdarnit, that’s what’s going to happen. Only issue is that this wouldn’t be a huge upset — MIAC No. 5 over MIAC No. 3.

Pick a team that will help its postseason chances this weekend

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Albion. The dream for the Britons, as laid out in a Kickoff ’15 Q&A, was to win the MIAA and dodge the first-round fate of weaker-conference champions: Getting sent to Mount Union or Wheaton or some such place in Round 1. The Britons’ strength of schedule might have earned them a home game if 10-0. That ship sailed with 55-51 loss to Trine, but the conference championship and automatic playoff bid are still Albion’s for the taking, because virtually every scenario breaks its way. All it has to do is take care of Alma on Saturday. The bad news? The Scots, after six wins in the previous four seasons, are looking for win No. 6.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Berry. I gotta hand it to this young team, it’s been exciting to see how they have rebounded from an opening-week nonconference loss to sweep through the SAA thus far. A win at Birmingham-Southern means the Vikings are in the playoffs in just their third season as a team. The Panthers have a sub-.500 record and have struggled in conference play, so Berry should be able to secure their postseason spot by the close of business on Saturday.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 2 Linfield. The Wildcats need one win to wrap up the Northwest Conference automatic bid and they’ll get it this week vs. Puget Sound. Not sure exactly what went into last week’s game vs. George Fox, which was the poster child for “surprisingly close,” but if Linfield needed a wake-up call in any way, that was certainly a candidate. That, and being ranked third in the regional rankings.

Pick a team that will not help its playoff chances this weekend

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Cortland State. Pat used my first idea, so I landed on a team that doesn’t even have a game. The Red Dragons (7-2, 5-2) get a break from the 11-week whirlwind that is the Empire 8 while Alfred (6-2, 4-2) and St. John Fisher (5-3, 4-2) attempt to keep pace, facing Utica (4-4, 3-3) and Hartwick (3-5, 1-5). Cortland State’s season will again come down to the Cortaca Jug game, and struggling Ithaca should have no problem getting amped up to spoil it for their rival and send good fortune either the Cardinals’ or Saxons’ way. But those teams have to play, and since this is the E8, risk defeat this week. Cortland can kick back and watching knowing that it’ll still be in the conference-title hunt in Week 11.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Stevenson. The Mustangs line up against Albright, and the pair make up two-thirds of the one-loss teams in the MAC. This weekend, we’ll get to see some separation in the pack. Though both of these teams lost to Delaware Valley, the Aggies have a loss to a bottom-rung MAC team, which means the playoff chances for both Stevenson and Albright are alive if they can win out and DelVal stumbles yet again. But first and foremost, Stevenson and Albright, as I said, must win out to stay alive, and that’s an impossibility after this weekend. Albright has been the overall more impressive team this season and will stay in the hunt, which effectively means Stevenson’s hopes will vanish.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Monmouth. There’s nothing Monmouth can do this weekend to help its playoff chances. All the Scots can do is go out and beat Knox and retain the Bronze Turkey for the 17th consecutive season. It has no impact on their position in the Midwest Conference title game and Monmouth doesn’t have a real shot at an at-large bid, so this game is essentially meaningless for playoff purposes. It’s just their biggest rivalry, that’s all.

In a game outside the playoff chase, pick a winner

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Amherst. There’s a clash of unbeaten teams in Massachusetts on Saturday, with one of the most fun-to-watch offenses in D-III taking on a traditionally great defensive team. (Trinity, Conn. has allowed six touchdowns all season, the same number as Linfield in one fewer game.) Does anyone outside the NESCAC’s circle care? The NESCAC is fine playing in its own sandbox (or in the house with its own robotic erector set, as it were) and we’re fine with it too. But if the conference was in Week 10 instead of Week 7 and played non-conference foes, this would be a matchup of top-25 teams with an automatic bid on the line. As it is, voters are just guessing at where or whether to place these teams, and fans from outside the circle are indifferent. And given that Johns Hopkins, Washington & Lee and Case Western Reserve are all currently proving that it’s possible to be in the top 20 of U.S. News & World Report and D3football.com at the same time, and it’s disappointing that there’s no framework to appreciate this game within the overall fabric of D-III.

[For a preview of the game, check out our friends at NothingButNESCAC.com]

Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Trinity (Texas). In Kickoff 2015, I picked Trinity as the team to most improve its record over 2014. While the Tigers are two games ahead of last year’s record already, I expect them to be able to run the table in these final weeks (Saturday vs. Southwestern and then at Austin) and officially double last fall’s win total. Of course, that probably won’t put them as the nation’s most improved team overall; that honor (I believe) will go to Washington and Lee, which was 2-8 last year and is 8-0 so far this year. (Kudos to Adam Turer on picking W&L in Kickoff!)
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Misericordia. I’m going to pick the Cougars here on Saturday vs. Wilkes. Miseri and Wilkes have played everyone pretty similarly all season, and after last week’s narrow loss to FDU-Florham, here’s a chance for the Cougars to get their first win of the season. The build has been slow for Miseri, and they haven’t had the Year Four surge that many new programs have had.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 8 Hardin-Simmons. So you’ve finally vanquished the UMHB demon. You know who doesn’t care? East Texas Baptist, which is surprisingly 6-2, gains 491 yards per game and is within sniffing distance of its first ASC title since 2003. So if the Cowboys are worthy of their ranking and a team we should expect to play a playoff game outside the Texas border, they must handle business on Saturday. I’ll be watching (from afar).
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: The Maryville at Huntingdon game. I didn’t have any other available spot in this list game, and this game is too big for USA South playoff implications not to mention. Huntingdon can secure its spot in the postseason, and Maryville can get there by winning both this week and next week. Both teams are having very solid seasons that would be even more impressive without each having a somewhat-surprising slipup (read: both teams should be undefeated right now). More notably, these are the only two teams in the conference that have records above .500, and there will be a lot of eyes on them to see how well they can represent the USAC now as well as in 15 days.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Berry at Birmingham-Southern. Once again, this will be on visual, not on radar. This is the game I’ll be at on Saturday, to see if Berry can clinch the Southern Athletic Association’s automatic bid. When I saw the Vikings slog through a losing battle with Millsaps last year, I would never have envisioned they could be in this position a year later. Also, let’s keep the rain away. Thanks.

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.