Division III Football's Dynasty Problem
(Author's Note: Please disregard the photo. Finding one of a Division III football team is next to impossible but apparently, you need a photo in every piece.)
Most of you here probably love college football. In all likelihood, most of you know very little about Division III football. And I've got to tell you, you're missing out on some good stuff. There are the same great rivalries, great plays and great games on the Division III level, even if the overall level of play is admittedly lower.
One of the best things about being a D-III fan is we know who our National Champion is every year. If you thought of that as a back-handed jab at the BCS, well, you're half-right.
But in actuality, we D-III fans really do know who the champion is, usually before the season starts. We really don't have many teams to choose from.
The past four seasons, the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater and Mount Union (Ohio) have met on the final Saturday of the year to determine who the best team in the Division III world is.
You may have heard of Mount Union. They're arguably the most successful college football team playing right now. Laugh at the level of competition all you want; when a team goes 179-5 over a 13-year span, that's impressive. Larry Kehres, Mount Union's coach, has a career record of 275-21-3 (.924) which makes him the winningest coach (based on winning percentage) in college football history.
If you were a Division III football fan, Mount Union was the unstoppable force AND the immovable object.
That is until 2005.
That's when the UW-W Warhawks showed up and announced it was a two-person party in D-III. Whitewater was a good, but not great team, coming off a pair of 7-3 seasons as a member of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. All of a sudden, they were 14-0 and giving Mount Union all they could handle in the Stagg Bowl, although they ultimately lost 35-28.
The scene repeated itself in 2006, as Whitewater again went undefeated before losing to the Purple Raiders in the title game.
In 2007, the Warhawks finally broke through, topping Mount Union 31-21. Their only loss that season was to Division II St. Cloud State.
Last season reverted to the norm, as Mount Union ran the table and topped Whitewater, who had actually lost to someone else in Division III—Wisconsin Stevens Point.
In the past four seasons, these two teams have lost two games to other Division III teams. Some people look at this as a great thing, because the presence of two great teams raises the profile of Division III in a way that parity probably never will.
Personally, I think it's a bad thing.
Full disclosure: I grew up rooting for another Division III team, Ithaca College. The Bombers were one of D-III's powerhouse teams from the 70's to early 90's. So it's possible I'm just experiencing sour grapes.
I know other sports have dynasties. The Yankees seem to be in contention every year, and college teams like USC and Florida are perennial contenders. So are the Patriots.
But to me, there's a difference between saying, "USC's going to be good and could contend for a title" and actually seeing the same teams in the title game year after year. When it crosses the line from "strong probability" to "essentially forgone conclusion," you're in the danger zone.
Now, some people may think I'm saying I don't think these two teams deserve their success. That's not true. You play the games to the best of your ability. And if your best is better than everyone else's, well, more power to you.
But you can be upset at the consequences of a situation, even if you don't blame those responsible for creating the situation. Mount Union and Whitewater deserve all the wins they get.
But man, it kind of stinks for the rest of us.
The best way I can describe it would be this: Go ask a Pittsburgh Pirates fan how they feel about the upcoming season and their chances to win a World Series. Most Division III teams, even the really good ones, feel the same way.
One of the biggest factors in fan attendance is the "uncertainty principle". Essentially, it's the idea that we watch games because we don't know who's going to win. In Division III football, we're on the cusp of losing that. Most teams don't have a hope against these two squads—especially Mount Union.
It's getting to the point where the first 14 weeks of the season are beginning to feel like a formality. The first poll of the 2009 season has Mount Union and Whitewater at the top two spots. Mount Union returns 17 of 22 starters, although they will need to replace their starting quarterback and running back. Whitewater returns 20 of 22 (I believe).
I want to again point out that I hold nothing at all against the two teams involved in the domination of Division III football. If you've earned those wins, you can stay on top until someone proves they're good enough to knock you off. That hasn't happened in the last five years, and in no way am I asking for either team to apologize for their success.
Nor is this a "it's not faaaaiiirrr. How come no-one else gets to play in the National Title game?" piece.
Quite honestly however, part of me wonders if this doesn't hurt the reputation of Division III football as a whole. If two teams are so dominant, do you run the risk of people assuming the rest of the teams are just mediocre? Because that would be unfair to other excellent teams like Mary Hardin-Baylor, North Central, Hardin-Simmons, and others.
But most football fans will only know about Division III football what they see on TV. And the only Division III football game on National TV is the Stagg Bowl. If they get a fifth straight year of Mount Union-Whitewater, could we blame them for thinking it's those two teams and everyone else?
I even find myself, a huge Division III fan and a fervent supporter of one of the country's premier D-III programs, (Ithaca) wondering: How can no one else be good enough to beat these guys? Shouldn't someone be able to do it, eventually?
Here's hoping 2009 brings that possibility to life.
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