In the aftermath of the Wartburg football team’s latest demolition — an 81-21 victory over Loras at a snow-covered Walston-Hover Stadium — Division III football bracketologists penned the fifth-ranked Knights a first-round playoff opponent of little merit.
There was St. Scholastica (10-0), a three-time defending Upper Midwest Athletic Conference champion that’s been outscored 170-25 in the last three first rounds.
Or, there was Macalester (9-1), a traditional Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference cellar dweller that became an independent in 2002, which won the weaker Midwest Conference this year for its first ever playoff appearance.
So, you couldn’t help but drop your jaw a little bit when 20th-ranked St. Thomas (8-2) popped on the NCAA.com Selection Show screen Sunday afternoon as the Knights’ opponent.
“That’s one place where the bracket is jumbled up,” D3football.com editor Pat Coleman said.
Just two years ago, the Tommies were Stagg Bowl runners-up. They tied for second in the MIAC this year and are 66-9 over the last six seasons.
Not exactly the type of pushover expected as a reward for going 10-0 with an average margin of victory of 33.7 points.
But, don’t get lost in the Purple Power stigma. This isn’t the same team that won three straight MIAC titles with unblemished records from 2010-12.
Bethel, which Wartburg beat 31-14 in Week 2, handed the Tommies a 35-24 defeat in Week 8.
“If you’re a Wartburg fan, even though St. Thomas is a big name, they’re in a quality conference, you’ve got to remember that Wartburg beat Bethel pretty handily and Bethel beat St. Thomas,” Coleman said. “Even though St. Thomas is a big cache because they went to the Stagg Bowl a few years ago, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re that team this year.”
Yet, although the NCAA doesn’t officially release seeds, we can infer that the Knights are the No. 2 seed in the Wis.-Whitewater bracket, while St. Thomas is No. 6, Coleman said.
St. John’s, the third seed, hosts No. 7 St. Scholastica because the committee won’t pair conference teams in the first round. Lower teams Benedictine (Ill.), Adrian and Macalester were sent to Wheaton (Ill.), and top seeds Mount Union and Wis.-Whitewater, respectively.
“It’s kind of interesting how that worked out,” Coleman said. “The West was always gonna be a little bit iffy because of the geography.”
Last season, Bethel was the second seed in this bracket and drew St. Scholastica. But, with two MIAC teams in this season, it was impossible to give Wartburg, which won 41-7 as a sixth seed at Illinois Wesleyan last year, a similar matchup this season.
Although the Knights moved up to No. 4 in this week’s coaches poll ahead of Wesley, a 38-33 loser to Division I FCS Charlotte on Saturday, Coleman, whose D3football.com pollk kept Wartburg at No. 5, said there was likely no debate of them earning a No. 1 seed.
So, is Wartburg viewed as more of a Stagg Bowl contender or a popular upset pick?
“I think that there’s some doubt about that right now,” Coleman said. “I think that Wartburg has a few more believers than they would have had they hadn’t won that game at Illinois Wesleyan last year. If Wartburg’s coming in at 10-0 this year (with no playoff win last year), even though they beat Bethel, you would still have that question of well, what have they done in the playoffs?”
Coleman noted that if Wis.-Whitewater, which needed a late touchdown to beat Wis.-River Falls (3-7) 28-25 Saturday without the services of injured 707-yard, 10-TD receiver Jake Kumerow, continues to struggle, Wartburg could be the beneficiary.
The Knights lost to the Warhawks, one of Division III’s two most notable powers along with Mount Union, 34-17 in the 2008 quarterfinals.
“When people are looking at elite teams and teams that can contend for championships, they want to see kids on that roster who have played and won playoff games. Wartburg has that. That’s a good start for them. Wartburg is certainly in a position where they could contend for the semifinals or even go to Salem, even if the Division III public doesn’t necessarily realize it yet.”
It could have been another rematch
The Wartburg-Bethel series was a two-point conversion away from another chapter.
Bethel, which eliminated Wartburg in the 2013 and 2010 playoffs, was upset by Augsburg on Saturday, opening the door for St. Thomas to get into the field.
The Royals finished the season with two straight losses and a 7-3 record, but would have likely made their second trip to Waverly this season — following a 31-14 Week 2 loss — had they converted the two-point conversion that failed in a 62-61, overtime loss Saturday.
“I think the reason why Bethel doesn’t stay ahead of St. Thomas even though Bethel beat them head to head and had a stronger strength of schedule, is probably because of the last 25 percent of the season,” Coleman said. “That’s one of the things that the committee is allowed to consider.”
St. Thomas, meanwhile, won three in a row with new starting QB John Gould after the loss to Bethel.
It would have been an interesting storyline after the Knights made two trips to Arden Hills, Minn. last season — the first a 30-17 Week 2 loss that was 30-0 at one point, the second a much more competitive 34-27 defeat in the second round of the playoffs.
“For St. Thomas to be in ahead of Bethel, it’s surprising on the surface because Bethel had head-to-head and Bethel had a huge advantage in strength of schedule, but, when it comes down to it, St. Thomas was playing better at the end,” Coleman said.