Division III Preview: Everything is not normal

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Last season felt a little bit different compared to many previous NCAA Division III college football season.

For a decade, either Mount Union or the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (often both) appeared in the Stagg Bowl, the D-III national championship game.Last season was the first time since 2004 that neither Mount Union or Wisconsin-Whitewater appeared in the title game.

Mount Union has made 19 appearances in the Stagg Bowl since 1993, winning 12 national titles (eight since 2000), the last one in 2015.The Purple Raiders epitomize college football at the Division III level. No team in the division has come close to their accomplishments over the

As for Wisconsin-Whitewater, the Warhawks made nine Stagg Bowl appearances since 2005 and claimed six national championships between the and 2014. Every appearance in the championship was against Mount Union. Last year’s Stagg Bowl marked two straight without UW-Whitewater, however, with its 2016 Playoff ending in a loss to John Carroll.

The dominance between Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater adds up to a combined 18 national titles. Every other D-III champion since 1973 combined for 26 titles. Since the turn of the 21st Century, only three other program have won a title: St. John’s (Minn) in 2003, Linfield in 2004, and the current defending champ, Mary Hardin-Baylor.

The Crusaders (the Crus for short) also appeared in the other national championship game that didn’t feature Mount Union or Wisconsin-Whitewater,  2004 versus Linfield.

It’s quite the step up for a UMHB football program that has only been in existence since 1998.

In fact the school, which is part of the Baylor University system, was known as the Baylor Female College, and later the Baylor College for Women before being named Mary Hardin-Baylor College and finally the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, named after a benefactor.

The Belton, Texas university became coed in 1971.

During Mary Hardin-Baylor’s short history, the school has had just one coach: Pete Fredenberg. Such continuity might be unheard of in FBS, but it’s a bit more common at the D-III level.

Signs of UMHB’s buildup showed, including the Cru sending an alum to the NFL: linebacker Jerrell Freeman.

All the hard work for the Cru under Fredenberg over the years paid big dividends. First they knocked off Mount Union 14-12 in the semifinals.

UMHB did meet a University of Wisconsin team in the Stagg Bowl, but it was Oshkosh, not Whitewater. UWO made its first-ever Stagg Bowl appearance after defeating John Carroll, 10-3, in the semis.

In the end, it was defense and a go-ahead touchdown run by Cru senior quarterback Blake Jackson that made the difference and gave Division III football a new champion to crown, defeating Wisconsin-Oshkosh 10-7.

At this point, questions remain about how D-III football will look, not just this season, but the next few years afterward. Are we entering a new, more competitive era of D-III college football? UWW missing two Stagg Bowls since Lance Leipold left to be head coach at the University of Buffalo might suggest so.

This being the shift to a new era for the division would be fitting, with the Stagg Bowl leaving Salem, Virginia, for the first time since 1993. After the 2017 season, it will be played for two years in Shenandoah, Texas, and the following two in Canton, Ohio.

Yet despite the changing times, Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater remain strong, competitive programs. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to see these two teams play again in the Stagg Bowl this season, and possibly future ones.

Alabama is always going to be in contention for a national title at the FBS level (at least as long as Saban is there). North Dakota State will always be in contention at the FCS level. Likewise, Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater will always be towards the top and competitive in D-III football.

We can’t discount that those two will face off in the next five or six Stagg Bowls.

If last year proved anything, however, it’s that schools like Mary Hardin-Baylor, John Carroll, UW-Oshkosh are also contenders.

We need these teams to shake up D-III. They’ve had some sustained success, and last year proved they can beat the best of the division.

If it doesn’t give Division III parity, it at least gives the level some hope. Ahead of a new season, a new champion is a breath of fresh air.

And it allows everyone to talk about somebody other than Mount Union or UW-Whitewater, which maybe is all that Division III really needs.