Triple Take, Week 8: The biggest week so far

Everything that Week 7 was not, in terms of big matchups, Week 8 is. There are no fewer than five nationally significant major clashes, plus several more games that will greatly impact conference races. Here’s a quick list, in rough order of importance:

No. 24 Texas Lutheran (5-1) at No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor (6-0)
No. 8 Wheaton (6-0) at No. 16 North Central (4-2)
No. 5 UW-Oshkosh (5-1) at No. 12 UW-Platteville (5-1)
No. 21 Rowan (5-1) at No. 4 Wesley (6-0)
No. 25 Whitworth (6-0) at No. 2 Linfield (5-0)

Those are the big five. For the uninitiated, one might assume the clash of undefeated teams is the biggest, but in all these matchups, there’s some nuance. Three top-five teams are at home, where they rarely lose. Meantime, UW-Oshkosh’s loss was to non-Division-III Robert Morris-Chicago, so when it comes to playoff positioning, we can toss the 23-21 Week 1 result right out the window. North Central’s two losses are to Platteville, in overtime, and to Wesley, on a two-point conversion with seven seconds left. The Cardinals blew three-touchdown leads in both games. Rowan’s loss is by three, to No. 23 Salisbury, Texas Lutheran’s is by eight to No. 14 Hardin-Simmons, and Platteville’s is by 10, to No. 6 UW-Whitewater. Platteville also beat Dubuque, which manhandled then-No. 8 Wartburg last week, 31-7 back in September.

In essence, each one of those 10 teams is powerful. One tier below, we have:

No. 10 Johns Hopkins (6-0) at Gettysburg (5-1)
Franklin & Marshall (5-1) at Moravian (5-1)
Delaware Valley (5-1) at No. 20 Albright (6-0)
Widener (4-2) at Stevenson (5-1)
No. 23 Salisbury (4-1) at Kean (4-2)
St. Lawrence (5-1) at Springfield (4-3)
Bethel (4-2) at No. 7 St. Thomas (6-0)
Hendrix (4-2) at Chicago (5-1)
Brockport State (4-2) at Cortland State (6-1)
Wesleyan (3-1) at Amherst (4-0)

Basically, it’s one big slobberknocker. And if the above intro just looks like a list of games, names and records to you, then that’s where Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I come in. Our job is to sort out this Battle Royale for you so you can make sense of Week 8. You’ll have your eyes on one game, more than likely, but what else should you be paying attention to? Below the radar or clearly on it, we’ll show you the way.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 8 Wheaton at No. 16 North Central. My initial instinct was to pick the Texas clash, because TLU and UMHB don’t have Pool A bids to fall back on if they lose. They’re essentially competing for the same Pool B spot, and there’s a Hardin-Simmons/UMHB game after this. But since Ryan has Texas covered, and a one-loss UMHB would be a Pool C (at-large) shoo-in, let’s shoot up to Chicagoland. The Little Brass Bell rivalry game is at North Central’s Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium, meaning higher-ranked Wheaton will have to make the seven-mile trek. But it’s the status of Thunder QB Johnny Peltz (the Chicago Tribune says he’s “listed as the starter” after missing two games because of injury) and North Central’s desperation that makes this the game of the week. The Cardinals had both UW-Platteville and Wesley on the ropes and failed to deliver the knockout blow. NCC is clearly as talented as anyone, but a potential dream season goes up in smoke if they can’t finish a game. And even if NCC wins, 6-0 Illinois Wesleyan looms next week; IWU and Wheaton clash the week after.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 24 Texas Lutheran at No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor. It’s hard to see this matchup listed and not hark back to last year’s weather-delayed, two-day postseason game in which UMHB edged out a 27-20 victory. It was a starkly narrow outing compared with the Cru’s regular-season 72-16 win against TLU. UMHB is as threatening as ever, with one of the nation’s best scoring offenses; but not to be out-offensed (yes, I just verbed a noun), TLU is pretty skilled at putting points on the board, too. So this one will likely be which defense can step up and stop their opponent’s onslaught most effectively. UMHB, though less effective halting the pass than halting the run, still holds the upper hand on that front.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 5 UW-Oshkosh at No. 12 UW-Platteville. Like the game Ryan mentions, this is also a game which may carry the fate of multiple playoff hopefuls in the balance. If Platteville beats Oshkosh, and they and Whitewater each win out to finish with one D-III loss, it’s possible three WIAC teams could make the playoffs. If Oshkosh wins, Platteville is definitely still in the conversation thanks to its win against North Central and its early-season win vs. Dubuque, which now carries more weight than initially thought. But if Platteville wins, there’s a chance someone’s playoff bubble will eventually pop.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Hartwick at Alfred. Maybe this is only surprising to those who have paid zero attention to the Empire 8 this season, since the conference race has been the demolition derby predicted in Kickoff ’15. In a conference where five of nine teams have four wins overall, six have exactly two conference losses and the leader (Cortland State) wins by miracle seemingly every week, the Hawks have yet to get in on the action. But even though Hartwick is 2-4, 0-4, they’re right there — Cortland and Morrisville State each won by just a field goal. So why wouldn’t Alfred (4-2, 2-2), which has played one-score Empire 8 games against Cortland and Buffalo State, play another tight one with Hartwick?
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Cal Lutheran at Chapman. Chapman has bumbled to a 1-4 record this season as it struggled to get its offense rolling and swapped out a starting quarterback midseason. It’s a far drop off of 2014, when the team’s only two losses came at the hands of Linfield. Meanwhile, Cal Lutheran at 4-1 has been a seesaw of performance this season, winning games but leaving doubt about how good they really are. This will be an interesting matchup that will do one of two things: give more credence to Cal Lutheran’s run or further muddy the SCIAC waters by letting another conference-title challenger hang around.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Montclair State at TCNJ. Closer than expected for a .500 team vs. a winless team. Once upon a time this was the premier rivalry in New Jersey small college football, and while that was supplanted by Rowan-TCNJ, this is still the oldest. TCNJ has too much going for it this season to finish 0-10 (or 1-9 with a win vs. Southern Virginia). The Lions will pick off one of the next two opponents, I think, and it could be this week.

Most likely top-25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 7 St. Thomas. We’re going to have at least five top-25 teams lose this week, and in the spirit of taking a stab at a true upset, I’ll go beyond those 10 ranked squads playing other ranked teams. There’s no reason that the Tommies, a team I have higher on my ballot than their No. 7 overall ranking, should lose to this particular Bethel team. But the Tommies and Royals have such history — Bethel has won the past two, and knocked St. Thomas out of the 2010 playoffs with a 12-7 win that followed a 10-6 loss earlier in the year — that if there were a shocker in this week’s top 25, this would be it. Both teams average 237 rushing yards per game, but the Tommies’ defense only allows 62 to Bethel’s 145, so it would take a Herculean effort up front.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Albright. Opponent Delaware Valley has far exceeded my expectations this season. With as much as the Aggies had to replace because of graduations, I was expecting them to be closer to 3-3 at this point rather than 5-1. The game against Albright starts the difficult stretch of the season for DelVal, but if they really have been able to reload rather than rebuild, Albright will be the first step toward DelVal re-establishing itself at the top of the MAC.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 8 Wheaton. My concern here is the same I’ve mentioned previously, that Wheaton is nursing some injuries and will be missing its No. 1 quarterback for this game. That negates a significant advantage. No. 16 North Central is playing for its playoff life at the moment, and pride, and the Little Brass Bell, and to get the CCIW title. They’re quite battle-tested this season and a couple plays away from being in the top 10.

Pick a winner in a game that will affect a conference race later

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Loras, at Simpson. I’m going to again board the bandwagon of the high-octane Duhawks, who are standing next to Albion at the “National Leaders in Total Offense” party, next to Wesley, Mount Union, St. Thomas, Wheaton and Thomas More, like they belong there. And maybe they do. With Dubuque taking control of the IIAC race last week, and playing 1-5 Buena Vista this week, Loras needs to win at home against Simpson (both are 3-3, 2-1) to set up a crosstown showdown for a share of first place next week. I’m not saying if we did D-III Game Day that we’d come to Dubuque, Iowa next Saturday for Duhawks-Spartans, but I’m not saying we wouldn’t.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: St. Lawrence, at Springfield. The Liberty League is one of the many conference parity mashups that has been difficult to sort through this year. Hobart was king – they had been so for the past three seasons. But defeat at the hands of Springfield, as well as St. Lawrence’s rise the past two years, provides an air of uncertainty to the LL. There are many directions this conference could turn, including seeing Hobart again emerge on top. The St. Lawrence/Springfield matchup will hopefully help with some clarity and give a bit of momentum to the victor (who I’m projecting to be St. Lawrence).
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 7 St. Thomas, hosting Bethel. This game is for first place now, or a share of it, but I include it here because it definitely will affect it later as well, should Bethel win. St. Thomas has the opportunity to run the table and leave no doubt, but like the WIAC game I referenced above, there’s a chance this game could feature multiple playoff teams, or multiple playoff hopefuls.

Pick a team with a losing record to win

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Lycoming. The Warriors once ruled the MAC with an iron fist, but this year, everyone else is getting its shots in, as Lycoming is 1-5. Having lost nine in a row to the Warriors, FDU-Florham (2-4) would certainly like to join in. Both teams have lost three straight since beating Wilkes, but the Devils’ losses have been by a combined 147-27, with 33 points the closest margin. Lycoming’s past two losses were by three and four points, on the road, one in overtime. Look for RB Blake Bowman and WR Ryan Umpleby to have big games.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Christopher Newport. The Captains are playing a 5-1 Frostburg State squad, but it’s worth noting that the Bobcats’ record comes with the help of wins against the bottom three teams in the NJAC. Of course, there’s a chance that 5-1 mark will improve by beating the fourth-from-the-bottom team in the conference, but CNU has been at its best this season playing the toughest teams in the conference. CNU has a knack for stepping up when it needs to, whether that’s against Wesley or Rowan or Montclair or, I’m betting, against Frostburg.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Pacific Lutheran. The winless Lutes — have you ever said that before this season? — have George Fox coming to town. GFU is 3-3, with two wins at home and a win at Arizona Christian. I wouldn’t have thought PLU would have to hope for a win vs. a second-year D-III program, but it might be necessary. My thinking here is that a young program might need a little more experience before it can go on the road and beat an established program, even if it’s a struggling one.

Pick a team with a winning record to lose

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Springfield, against St. Lawrence. The Pride upended the usual state of things in the Liberty League with a 35-point second half to rally past Hobart. That opened the door for itself, for Rochester, for RPI, and for St. Lawrence. The Saints right now are in the drivers’ seat, and with a respectable run defense (121 yards/game, 56th nationally) that should be familiar with Springfield’s successful attack, and a Liberty-League-best scoring offense (30.3 points/game), they can stay there.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Rose-Hulman. As much fun as the Engineers have been having on their undefeated run, that streak stops against Franklin. It should be an interesting battle to see the HCAC’s top two quarterbacks sling it out against each other, but the bottom line is that RHIT hasn’t found an answer for the Grizzlies since 2009.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Bethel at No. 7 St. Thomas. This game has traditionally been a slog, a pound-the-rock type of fight, and I would not expect any different in 2015. St. Thomas is even more ground game-oriented than previously, and when I saw Bethel play earlier this season, their secondary particularly impressed me. But St. Thomas is more talented and should be able to take this game based on the strength of their defense, their run game and special teams.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: The Centennial Conference. Johns Hopkins has been in control so long that it’s easy to glaze over the CC when looking at which races will be contested. But with the 6-0 Blue Jays being trailed by three 5-1 teams and 4-2 Muhlenberg, this could get interesting, both locally and nationally. Between the four leaders, only JHU and Moravian have played so far (a 45-23 Hopkins win). This week, F&M goes to Moravian and JHU goes to Gettysburg, to give us a little bit more clarity in terms of what’s ahead. If two teams begin to emerge, we could be looking at an unexpected Pool C contender. If it really gets crazy, we could be looking at a half-Empire 8 situation. Or Johns Hopkins could just be saving its best for last. So basically, that’s why it’s on the radar this week.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Case Western Reserve. Consider the game against No. 16 Washington and Jefferson to be Case’s opportunity to show what it’s really made of, to show everyone that it has put the season-opening loss behind it and that it deserves to be positioned at the top of the PAC. Most of all, this will be a big test of whether Case has turned itself around after a couple of sub-.500 seasons. W&J quarterback Pete Coughlin and rusher Ryan Ruffing will undoubtedly make it a tough game for a team like Case.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Western New England. Once upon a time this was our predicted game of the year in the NEFC. Now the game vs. MIT is just another step for WNEU on its way to a potential 10-0 season, and maybe a first-round home game vs. Husson. (Although Husson hasn’t won the ECFC yet and … well there are some other games to be played.)

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.