While much of the focus during college football season is on the FBS and FCS levels, fans shouldn't overlook the Division III championship race this year, especially if recent years are any indication.
Last season, the Wisconsin-Whitewater captured its sixth national championship with a 43-34 victory over Mount Union in the 2014 Stagg Bowl. It was the ninth meeting between the programs in national championship. In 2015, the Warhawks will attempt to secure their second three-peat in the last eight years while the Purple Raiders will their 12th national title.
Here are three questions to ask about the upcoming Division III season:
1. Which team has the BEST chance to compete with UW-Whitewater and Mount Union?
Wisconsin-Whitewater and Mount Union have dominated the ranks of Division III football the past 10 seasons. UW-Whitewater has produced undefeated seasons in five of the past six years. The program currently has the longest winning streak in all of college football and its national title win over Mount Union extended the streak to 32 games.
Meanwhile, Mount Union has won 23 consecutive conference titles and has missed playing in the Stagg Bowl only twice since 1996.
So which teams provide the biggest threat to end the dominance of these two programs? Funny enough, the team that has the best chance is the last program to win a national championship before them.
Linfield won the Division III playoffs in 2004, which was the last time the Stagg Bowl did not involve the Warhawks nor the Purple Raiders. The Wildcats came close to making it in last year’s semifinals game against UW-Whitewater, but came up short by only six points.
Linfield, who was ranked No. 3 in the D3football.com preseason poll, has one of the top defenders in Division III with Alex Hoff. The Wildcats’ defensive end made first-team All-American in 2014 after completing 27.5 tackles for a loss and 15.5 sacks. Offensively, quarterback Sam Riddle hopes to continue improving his statistics after a successful sophomore season where he had 1,313 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns.
Look out for Hoff, Riddle and company to challenge Whitewater and Mount Union in the playoffs.
2. How will expectations hold up for Wisconsin-Whitewater?
Former Warhawks coach Lance Leipold jumped to FBS level and took the same position at the Buffalo. During his time with the Warhawks, Leipold finished his career with a 109-6 record and six national championships. With a winning record like that, it comes with much pressure on new head coach Kevin Bullis, who was promoted in January from his previous position as defensive line coach.
There is some comfort for Bullis in the fact that seven starters return on each side of the ball from the team that went undefeated last season. There is also a strong senior class Bullis can rely on for player leadership.
But there are some challenges that remain for Bullis, including how to replace the Warhawks’ All-American quarterback Matt Behrendt and wide receiver tandem Justin Howard and Jake Kumerow, D3football.com’s 2014 Offensive Player of the Year. Chris Nelson is the projected starter at quarterback for the Warhawks and will have excellent protection this season with all five linemen returning, including All-American Connor Peters.
Senior wide receiver Joe Worth will be a main target for Nelson. Worth had 47 receptions for 526 receiving yards and added four touchdowns in 2014. Running backs Jordan Ratliffe and Dennis Moore will provide support in the backfield for Nelson and the Warhawks’ offense, as the duo combined for almost 2,100 rushing yards last season. Defensively, senior linebacker Justin Dischler will anchor the defense after he compiled a team-high 93 tackles, including seven tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks.
3. What other teams and players can be expected to make a splash?
No. 4 Mary Hardin-Baylor: The Crusaders have made the playoffs 13 of the past 14 seasons, although the program saw an early exit in the second round of last season's playoffs with a 31-28 defeat to Linfield. The team has have a favorable schedule this year with seven of its games played at home.
Player to watch: DE Teidrick Smith. The 6-foot 2-inch, 230-pound junior posted 47 total tackles, 14.5 of which were for loss. He also added nine sacks and two fumble recoveries and was tabbed preseason All-American by D3football.com.
No. 5 Wesley: Wesley has made the playoffs 10 straight seasons, advancing to the semifinals in six of those appearances. While the program switches over to the New Jersey Athletic Conference, the Wolverines should still be the favorite in their new conference.
Player to Watch: QB Joe Callahan. The senior was one of the four finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy in 2014 after he posted the best season ever for a Wesley quarterback. Callahan threw for 4,190 yards and 46 touchdowns, which were fourth-most and seventh-most in those categories respectively in the history of Division III football.
No. 6 Wartburg: The Knights set a school record for wins as they went 12-1 in 2014. Wartburg was a quarter away from defeating UW-Whitewater in the playoff quarterfinals before the eventual champion pulled together a fourth-quarter comeback. Wartburg opens up as the No. 6 team in the D3football.com preseason poll and the team is one of the most experienced programs with 30 seniors listed on the roster, who want to secure the school's first title before graduating.
Player to watch: QB Logan Schrader. The senior is one of the top quarterbacks in Division III and was tabbed as preseason first-team All-American by D3football.com. Schrader enters his final season with an impressive 6,425 career passing yards, 53 touchdowns and 550 pass completions and the quarterback is expected to break the program record in all categories.
No. 8 John Carroll: The Blue Streaks could have the best chance to defeat Mount Union in conference play. Both of the Blue Streaks' losses in 2014 may have came at the hands of the Purple Raiders, but it was only by a combined 15 points, including an 8-point loss in the quarterfinals. The team will spend majority of its season on the road since it has only four home games scheduled, which could make the season more difficult.
Player to watch: DB Michael Hollins. The junior notched a conference high 13 pass breakups and recorded seven tackles against Mount Union in the season finale last year. D3football.com named Hollins to its second-team All-American preseason list.