Triple Take: Clarity in conferences

Was Redlands stiffed in this week’s regional rankings?
Redlands athletics photo

The Eastern Collegiate, Empire 8, North Coast, Old Dominion, Southern Collegiate and USA South each feature matchups this week involving teams that are undefeated in conference play. That means the stakes are high, and postseason hopes are brimming for players, coaches and fans.

But several teams elsewhere — including powerhouses Mount Union and North Central — are also closing in on the automatic qualifier and can clinch with Saturday wins. There’s no doubt that a clearer view of the playoff landscape will be had by the time the weekend is over.

Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps take you through some of the big games. We probably aren’t hitting them all, so feel free to weigh in in the comments section. We’re always happy to hear what you have to say, especially if you have your own predictions.

Game of the Week.
Ryan’s take: No. 12 Delaware Valley at Lycoming.
There’s more at stake here than the MAC’s automatic qualifier. A Lycoming win can push DelVal into the crowded end of Pool C, and with their standing, the Aggies would be ripe for snagging one of the few at-large playoff spots. So every Pool C contender should be paying attention to this matchup in Williamsport, Pa., hoping for Delaware Valley to give Lycoming its second loss of the season. Both Delaware Valley and Lycoming have hung substantial points on opponents, but what have been impressive are their defenses — and they will be the biggest factors come game time Saturday.
Keith’s take: No. 25 Centre at No. 18 Trinity (Texas) and McMurry at No. 20 Louisiana College. I’m cheating and taking a two-game swing down south. Here’s why: These matchups have conference title (in the SCAC) and playoff (both) implications, the latter of which could be far reaching. A Trinity win could mean a home game against the winner of the other game, and a flight to Mary Hardin-Baylor for someone else. A Centre win might affect someone like fellow Kentucky school Thomas More, or one of the Virginia or Ohio playoff teams. But here are the clinchers: Each team has subtext to its performance. Dennis Dunn came to LC as a nationally known high school coach; the Wildcats are winners, but have yet to visit the playoffs. Centre’s been knocking on the door of the playoffs for years as well, winning as many as nine games and not getting in. Trinity could bid adieu to its conference mates leaving to form the SAA with one last SCAC football title. And McMurry, on the way to D-II, might have its first real taste of D-III success on the way out the door.
Pat’s take: No. 13 Wheaton (Ill.) at No. 6 North Central (Ill.). The Little Brass Bell grew in stature starting in 2005, when the Cardinals actually became capable of winning the game on a regular basis. In this instance, North Central can wrap up the conference automatic bid with a victory. The Cardinals have allowed less than a touchdown per game over the past six contests and Wheaton has had some similar performances of late.

Surprisingly close game.
Ryan’s take: Baldwin-Wallace at No. 2 Mount Union.
We all know that a “close game” in Purple Raider Land is relative. Maybe, after I picked Baldwin-Wallace in the preseason to finish second in the OAC, I simply want this game to be close. And “wants” don’t always line up with “realities.” It’s hard to ignore that in four of the past five games, UMU has been held to three points or less in the first quarter (before then laying waste to their opponents). B-W, on the other hand, has been consistent in putting up points early. But none of those B-W games came against Mount, which for 60 minutes, is a whole ’nother beast entirely.
Keith’s take: Alfred at Ithaca. The Saxons lost by 69 to Salisbury three weeks ago, then gave up 54 to Frostburg State. The Bombers eked out a 13-10 win against the Bobcats last weekend, and they only gave up 21 to Salisbury in September. But this seems to be a case where comparing scores will fail us. Both teams bounced back from losing streaks with close wins last week, and have been up and down all season. Add in the need for Ithaca to win their last two games to help their streak of winning seasons hit 40, and we’ve got the recipe for a tight finish.
Pat’s take: St. John Fisher at No. 11 Salisbury. The concept of surprisingly close, you know, is just a measure of a game that might throw a scare into a team, or make fans do a double take at the score. Since Wesley showed the blueprint of how a team can beat Salisbury last week, St. John Fisher has a better chance of keeping the margin of victory down. But do they have the personnel on defense to shut the Salisbury defense down, at Salisbury? I’m thinking not.

Most likely Top 25 team to get upset.
Ryan’s take: No. 17 Montclair State.
The Red Hawks are sandwiched in a stressful part of their season, and a loss means they could be flushing their playoff hopes away. Two weeks ago, Montclair lost to New Jersey, and this week’s Rowan team will bring a tough defense that could catch the Red Hawks off guard, especially if they find themselves looking ahead to next week’s showdown with fellow NJAC frontrunner Kean. It’s a perfect storm, and Montclair doesn’t want to find itself struggling to stay afloat.
Keith’s take: No. 10 Wabash. There’s hardly a game on the board that is both likely and would be a true upset. But since the Little Giants are ranked so highly and Wittenberg is not, and because I’m a glutton for punishment on our message boards, let’s go here. Wabash allowed only 24 points in its first five games, a stat so good I wonder why I’m just now noticing it. Since, the Little Giants might have let their feet off the gas, but no matter. With QB Ben Zoeller passing for 291 yards per game, Wittenberg will be a test unlike anything Wabash has seen so far. But then again, the Little Giants defense, which allows only 74 rushing yards per game, will be like nothing the Tigers offense has seen.
Pat’s take: No. 19 St. Olaf. Alright. I’ll buy one last time into the Johnnie magic concept. After that they’ll have to show me once before I go again. But the Oles haven’t won in Collegeville since 2001, and have lost 10 of 11 at St. John’s. Whether St. John’s recent bounceback is a measure of improved play or catching some easier opponents will be determined Saturday, but the Johnnies need a win to finish with a winning record.

They’ll be on your radar.
Ryan’s take: McMurry.
I just added McMurry to my Top 25 ballot last weekend, and lining up against Louisiana College will tell me whether I bet on the right horse. Because, you see, Louisiana College isn’t on my ballot at all, instead hovering just outside at that 26 or 27 spot in my mind. A win here would keep the War Hawks in the running for a Pool C bid. Could they cap their final year in Division III with a playoff run?
Keith’s take: Trinity (Conn.) and Amherst. The big rivalry games for these two teams are next week, but the NESCAC title is on the line Saturday. A little national recognition should be in order for the winner as well, as the Bantams and Lord Jeffs are the No. 1 and No. 5 scoring defenses in the country. Both teams rush for more than 200 yards a game as well, and given that there’s no other way to tell how good they are, this result means everything.
Pat’s take: Louisiana College. Sorry, Ryan, I’m going in the other direction. I think Louisiana College does enough to take McMurry’s aerial attack off the radar and ensure that McMurry’s final season in Division III ends like the rest of its seasons did.

A team that will clinch a share of the conference title on Saturday.
Ryan’s take: Franklin.
While clinching a conference certainly means that the Grizzlies have to win against 0-8 Earlham on Saturday, there’s another piece to this puzzle: Hanover must lose. If Hanover loses to Mount St. Joseph, every team in the HCAC except Franklin will have two in-conference losses. That punches the playoff ticket of Franklin and its high-powered offense. So this isn’t really about watching Franklin this weekend, it’s about watching the evenly matched Hanover and Mount St. Joseph square off.
Keith’s take: Dubuque. The Spartans are no one-man gang, not gaining 506 yards per game they aren’t. They’ve thrown 41 touchdown passes; Monmouth and Widener are next best with 31. Their opponent, Coe? It’s the 202nd-ranked pass defense in the country, and No. 158 in pass efficiency defense, which means Dubuque has a golden opportunity to light up the scoreboard and head home as IIAC champions.
Pat’s take: Norwich. And in this case, not just a share, but they’ll be in the clubhouse with a win against SUNY-Maritime. It’s hard to come up with any kind of trend from Norwich’s recent results, so I’m counting on Norwich’s aggressive (by ECFC standards) non-conference scheduling to carry the day.

Which season turnaround has been the most interesting?
Ryan’s take: Albion.
It’s tough to fault a team starting 0-3 if those first few games come against the likes of Wheaton, UW-Stevens Point and Division 1-FCS (non-scholarship) Butler. But, wow, how Albion has redeemed itself in conference play. The Bulldogs’ passing offense has become more effective, the run defense has been better able to stop the opposition and, most of all, the team earned itself a spot in the playoffs. And this is without yet lining up against defending MIAA champ Trine, which is sitting with two conference losses already. From 0-3 to conference champ isn’t unheard of, but it definitely says a lot about the team and the coaching staff.
Keith’s take: Defiance. The Yellowjackets opened up with three home games, yet lost their first four overall. They’ve rebounded with four wins in a row, and by beating 2-6 Manchester and 4-5 Bluffton, they can match last season’s 6-4, 6-2 record. A nod here, too, to Christopher Newport, which is playing for the USA South title after a 1-2 start and a loss to a first-year program.
Pat’s take: Baldwin-Wallace. And they’ve certainly trying to impress us, what with that 75-0 win at Wilmington two weeks ago. It’s a far cry from the surprising home loss to Capital back in Week 4, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be enough to carry the day against Mount Union.

Which team will rise in the regional rankings next week, and why?
Ryan’s take: Hampden-Sydney.
It’s a tough call in their matchup against regionally-ranked Washington and Lee, but I give the Tigers a narrow nod in this one. And that means H-SC will bump up past the LC/McMurry loser and possibly even leapfrog Thomas More.
Keith’s take: Illinois Wesleyan. It’s subtle, but assuming the Titans beat a struggling Carthage team, they should move ahead of Case Western Reserve. Especially if Wheaton, which lost to IWU, clinches the CCIW title with a win of 15 or more points. The three CCIW teams have strength of schedule numbers and results against each other that make them three of the teams most likely to end up high in the North regional rankings.
Pat’s take: Redlands. They’re incorrectly below St. Olaf this week, in my opinion. Of the criteria, there is nothing in which St. Olaf is better than Redlands. The only way this ranking can be justified is if they ignored the win against a regionally ranked opponent, in North Central. Is the committee’s memory short or was a cross-check missed at the national committee level?