It’s (almost) playoff time.
In just a few days, the NCAA Division II and III football committees will configure their brackets, which will be announced on Sunday night, but before we get to that point there are a few interesting scenarios heading into Saturday’s regular-season finales.
With 24- and 32-team fields in their respective playoffs, only a small fraction of programs that began preseason practice in the late summer will earn the opportunity to vie for an NCAA title.
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In Division II, the committee utilizes regional rankings to generate a bracket, and while some teams are “locks” because of unbeaten records or high rankings, there are still some that could use a victory on Saturday — and maybe even coupled with a loss by another team — to sneak into the playoff picture.
There are 13 teams who have already secured a DIII playoff berth by winning their conference crowns, but 11 leagues still have bids up for grabs, and even though some teams are out of their conference races or they are independent, they are still trying to impress the selection committee for the eight remaining Pool B and Pool C spots in the bracket.
Let’s take a look at some of Saturday’s games that should have an impact on bracket selections.
In DII’s South Atlantic Conference, Carson-Newman and Mars Hill will not only be battling for the league title, but for a shot at a bye in the opening round of the playoffs. In the latest Super Region II rankings, Mars Hill is third and Carson-Newman follows in fourth. The top six teams in the four regions will advance (and the top two get first round byes), so it is possible the loser of this game drops outside of those rankings.
Carson-Newman (7-2, 4-2) is looking to advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, while Mars Hill (6-3, 5-1) is seeking a repeat performance after making its first appearance in 2011. The Eagles have won five consecutive games entering the contest.
The top-ranked squad in DII football — CSU-Pueblo — will be looking to finish the regular season unbeaten for the second consecutive year with a win against Western State on Saturday. The Thunderwolves (10-0) are ranked No. 1 in Super Region IV.
Shippensburg — the No. 1 team in Super Region I — will face Indiana (Pa.) (ranked fifth regionally) in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference “State Game” Championship for the league title in a matchup of the nation’s top offense and top defense. Shippensburg leads DII with 565.5 yards per game, while IUP is giving up just 239.9 yards per contest. The Red Raiders (10-0) look to extend their winning streak to 15 games. And, while the two squads have not met since 2007, IUP has won the past 20 meetings in the series.
In DIII, the New England Football Conference is the only league sponsoring a championship game with the winner earning an automatic bid to the playoffs. Salve Regina and Framingham State will be vying for their first appearance in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Another race coming down to the wire is in the North Coast Athletic Conference with three teams tied for first place as Kenyon, Ohio Weslyan and Wittenberg all own 5-1 records in league play. Of the three, Wittenberg is the only program to appear in the playoffs (most recently in 2010).
No. 13 Waynesburg takes a 9-0 record into the 40th edition of the PAC Backyard Brawl as the Yellow Jackets play host to Washington & Jefferson to determine the winner of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference on Saturday. W&J has won eight consecutive contests against the Jackets. The last time Waynesburg defeated the Presidents was in 2003 — also the only season they advanced to the NCAA playoffs.
• The top running back in the FCS will face one of the nation’s toughest rushing defenses when Zach Zenner and No. 20 South Dakota State meet No. 1 North Dakota State in Missouri Valley Football Conference play on Saturday. SDSU’s Zenner leads the FCS with 166.2 yards rushing per game, while the Bison are holding opponents to just 64.56 yards per game on the ground. Zenner, only a sophomore, is on the Walter Payton Award watch list.
The MVFC title will also be on the line in the 99th meeting between the two programs in the series. While NDSU leads the overall series 53-40-5, including the past two, the pair have split the previous eight games in the series.
• Five-time defending DII women’s volleyball champion Concordia-St. Paul is on a roll heading into Saturday’s tussle with No. 1 Southwest Minnesota State. The second-ranked Golden Bears are riding a 13-match winning streak, and have not dropped a single set during the stretch. SMSU holds a one-game lead against the Bears in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference standings as the Mustangs look to claim their first NSIC title since 2001.
• While the No. 1 Stanford women’s volleyball team’s perfect Pac-12 record is pretty impressive, two other top-10 teams also are in the hunt for unbeaten seasons in conference play. Third-ranked Texas is riding a 14-match winning streak and boasts a 12-0 mark in Big 12 play with four contests remaining on the regular season slate, including Saturday’s match at No. 23 Kansas.
No. 7 Hawaii is taking a break from league play this week, but the Rainbow Wahine already have secured the Big West Conference title and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. UH has won 18 consecutive conference titles, starting with the Big West crown in 1995 and each of its 16 seasons in the Western Athletic Conference. The ‘Bows are 14-0 in Big West play and own the nation’s longest active conference winning streak of 69 matches, but this week they will play host to BYU-Hawaii for a non-conference contest on Thursday.
• Big East men’s soccer is on the move — literally. The league’s championship tournament has been moved from Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., to PPL Park in Chester, Pa., due to the residual effects of Hurricane Sandy.
PPL Park, a state-of-the-art 18,500-seat Major League Soccer stadium, serves as the home for Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union. The stadium is located less than 10 miles south of the Philadelphia International Airport and is located on the banks of the Delaware River.
All four semifinal teams hail from the Big East’s Blue Division. On Friday, Georgetown and Marquette will play at 5 p.m. ET, and Notre Dame and Connecticut will follow at 7:30 p.m. Both matches will be televised on CBS Sports Network. The championship game is at noon Sunday and will be broadcast live on BIGEAST.tv and numerous regional sports networks.
• Division II basketball opens with a bang this weekend at the Disney Tip-Off West Coast Classic at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif. The tournament features 12 teams — six men’s and six women’s — and it is the women’s games that the basketball community will be keeping an eye on with a strong field that includes No. 1 Ashland.
Four of the six women’s squads are ranked and five of them participated in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Joining Ashland will be No. 8 UC-San Diego, No. 13 Grand Canyon, No. 15 Gannon, Simon Fraser and West Texas A&M.
Each team will play three contests between Friday-Sunday in the sixth-annual event.
DI women’s basketball officials are being asked to monitor several areas in 2012-13.
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• Basketball gets under way this weekend, and the latest trend in Division I season-opening games held on the flight deck of aircraft carriers is growing. Four games will be played on them, beginning with a double-header in the second annual Carrier Classic on Friday in Charleston, S.C. First, No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 19 Ohio State will tip off in a women’s contest on the USS Yorktown, followed by a men’s contest between No. 4 Ohio State and Marquette. The USS Yorktown is currently a museum outside of Charleston.
Georgetown and No. 10 Florida will compete in the Navy-Marine Corp Classic on the deck of the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, Fla., on Friday, and finally, No. 9 Syracuse and No. 20 San Diego State will play on the flight deck of the USS Midway in San Diego on Sunday. The Orange-Aztecs game originally was scheduled for Friday, but was moved due to a strong chance of rain and wind at the open-air venue.
• The No. 4 Notre Dame football team will not be the only Irish program visiting Boston College this weekend. The UND men’s hockey team will also be heading to Chestnut Hill, Mass., for a showdown with the No. 1 Eagles on Friday at the Conte Forum. The seventh-ranked Irish are in the midst of 11 consecutive games against nationally-ranked opponents.
Follow Amy Farnum on Twitter: @NCAA_Amy