Home for the Division III playoffs? Maybe not even for No. 1 seed North Central
Autumn Selection Sunday happened this week for Division III football.
Unlike the basketball version of the NCAA Tournament, the Division III football bracket is based more on geography than seeds.
Is that a problem? Yeah, maybe.
Defending champion North Central has been ranked No. 1 all season in the AFCA coaches poll. In the second round of the playoffs, the Cardinals could face No. 4 Trinity, Texas.
That's not a 1-seed against a 4-seed, that's the top-ranked team in the country against the No. 4 team in the country in the second round of a 32-team tournament.
No matter how you slice it, that particular eight-team quadrant is loaded. Besides North Central and Trinity, it includes No. 6 Wisconsin-LaCrosse, No. 9 Aurora and No. 15 Hardin-Simmons.
"That all falls under the category of uncontrollables, so we're not going to really worry about that," North Central coach Brad Spencer said. "If the last three or four years have taught us anything about our playoff runs, we really don't need to be concerned with who we're playing or where we're playing. We just need to focus on preparing ourselves the best we can."
It's not even clear if North Central or Aurora would get to host a game in Rounds 2 or 3. Home games are a big deal when the mode of transportation is most likely a bus. Last year North Central played four home playoff games before heading to the national championship.
Aurora, meanwhile, played three road playoff games. On Saturday Aurora will host the first playoff game in school history against Coe (Iowa) at the Spartan Athletic Park in Montgomery.
Aurora coach Don Beebe was told no team has ever won three straight road games in the Division III playoffs. The Spartans had a chance to do it last year, beating Wisconsin-Whitewater and Alma (Mich.), before losing to Wartburg (Iowa) in the quarterfinals.
"Home field is huge," said Beebe, the former NFL wide receiver. "If you're going to get to where everyone wants to go, you've got to get home-field advantage. The guys knew they had to go 10-0 if they were going to get a home game and they pulled it off, kudos to them. Obviously, anybody's better at home."
The NCAA doesn't assign specific seeds and only ranks teams regionally in Division III. Based on a strength of schedule criteria, the NCAA has Wartburg ranked No. 1, North Central No. 2 and Aurora No. 3 in Region V, while Wisconsin-LaCrosse is No. 1 in Region VI. That makes it seem like North Central might have to win two road games to get back to the national championship, and Aurora would have to play at LaCrosse in Round 2 if both teams survive. But nothing is official.
"What I'm told from the committee is that each week they redo strength of schedule, which plays a major factor in everything," Spencer said. "So it changes as the tournament goes on, if that makes sense. From what we've learned in the past, for instance in 2021, we thought we were ranked higher than Mount Union, (but) we ended up going there for the semis."
The NCAA tries to avoid plane trips as much as possible in the Division III playoffs, while strength of schedule is difficult to determine. Some teams do go cross country to play challenging nonconference games. Hardin-Simmons, located in Abilene, Texas, for example, traveled to Wisconsin in September and handed LaCrosse its only loss of the season.
For what it's worth, six of the top nine teams in the AFCA poll are on North Central's side of the bracket. Mount Union and Johns Hopkins are the top seeds on the other side. At least if North Central and Aurora meet up in the quarterfinals, one team won't have to travel far.
"Our whole side of the bracket is just crazy," Beebe said. "Whoever comes out of our side is going to be well-tested, I can tell you that."
Here's a look at the area first-round games:
North Central (10-0) vs. Belhaven (9-1)
The Cardinals' offense has been humming, behind third-year starter Luke Lehnen at quarterback, 1,000-yard rusher Joe Sacco (St. Edward) and star receiver DeAngelo Hardy (Lakes).
"I really like the way we're playing," coach Brad Spencer said. "It's been great to see the progress our defensive line has been able to make with the graduation of everybody from last year. Starting to see some great things with our return game. Offensively, we're humming right along and excited for what's next."
Belhaven, from Jackson, Miss., has the nation's ninth-leading rusher in running back Kolbe Blunt.
Aurora (10-0) vs. Coe (9-1)
Aurora ranks second in the country in scoring at 58.4 points a game, just behind North Central. Senior running back Jhe'Quay Chretin missed two games and still ran for 1,241 yards, which ranks No. 10 in the nation. Junior quarterback Ian Luyando (Buffalo Grove) has played well in his first year as a starter.
"We've always put up points, but we've gotten way better at is defensively and special teams," coach Don Beebe said. "Our defense is top 20 in the country and special teams, we have the No. 1 punt returner in the country (James Mautino), our kickoff coverage is great, punt coverage is great, and our kicker (Matthew Hylek) is 81 for 81 on extra points."
Coe was a bit of a controversial pick to make the field. The Kohawks finished second in the American Rivers Conference to Wartburg and have one starter from the area, offensive lineman Nicholas Mattran (Prairie Ridge).
Wheaton (9-1) vs. Mount St. Joseph (9-1)
There was no better viral video in Division III than the all-Wheaton Hail Mary on the final play of the game against Washington University on Nov. 4. Seth Kortenhoeven (Wheaton North) caught a 34-yard pass from quarterback Ben Thorson (Wheaton Academy) on the final play of the game, then Giovanni Weeks ran in the 2-point conversion. The 36-35 victory was obviously vital in Wheaton getting one of the four at-large bids to the Division III playoffs. The Thunder's lone loss was to North Central on Sept. 30.
"I think if there's the outcome of two plays of the season that kind of capture the essence of how everybody feels right now, it would be that," Wheaton coach Jesse Scott said.
Weeks ranks No. 8 in the country in rushing with 1,318 yards, while Thorson has thrown for nearly 2,600 yards. Mount St. Joseph, in Cincinnati, lost playoff games to Wheaton in 2004 and '06. The winner of this game plays either Wisconsin-Whitewater or Bethel (Minn.).