Wabash manhandled another opponent this week, this time a previously-undefeated-in-conference-play Wooster squad. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, their quarterback decided to up the ante a little bit by running his mouth on Twitter and putting Wabash on “#UpsetAlert.” As it turned out, the game was pretty well over at halftime and ended up 48-14. Through four weeks,* this makes the total combined score Wabash 232, Opponents 27. And yet, Wabash stays put at 17th in the polls. Thing is, I can’t necessarily disagree with that.
*Remember, Division III only plays ten regular season games, so this is very nearly half the season.
This isn’t a case of Wabash scheduling a bunch of cupcakes, especially going forward. Wabash has only one out-of-conference for the foreseeable future, as the NCAC has gone to a true round robin format. With ten teams, that means nine games are eaten up by conference games. Their one conference game this year was Hanover, which admittedly is not exactly a powerhouse. But three out of four of these games are conference games. They’re not going anywhere and Wabash had no real say in the matter. I would say it would be like complaining that Oregon has to play Colorado or something. Sure, it’s a mismatch, but it’s a conference game. What are you going to do?
I would love to say it’s going to get better going forward, but it really doesn’t appear that way. Ohio Wesleyan is up next. You might remember from my NCAC guide that OWU got a share of the conference title last year. Not to sound too haughty, but that was a damned fluke thanks to Wabash losing two inexplicable games, allowing OWU and Wittenberg to back-door their way into the conference title.* This week’s game should be closer, but I have a hard time believing that the Bishops will be able to win this one (especially in Crawfordsville) after losing to Denison 47-41. I saw Denison up close. They managed 13 against Wabash, all in garbage time.** I suppose I could be surprised, but the only real challenge on the schedule appears to be Wittenberg, and I’ve written extensively here about how Wabash has been unquestionably the superior team for the last decade. That will be a tough game, but one I fully expect Wabash to win.
*No, for real. Wabash beat both of those teams, and did so pretty handily. They beat OWU 28-0. Wittenberg was 27-24, which admittedly is much closer than I remember. After looking at the box score, I remember why now. Wittenberg scored twice on short fields to tighten up the game, once off a blocked punt and once off a fumble. I don’t know if you want to call them fluky plays, but somewhat unusual plays.
**Wabash had rung up 44 points before Denison’s first score right before the end of the third quarter. I think it seems fair to say that Wabash had mostly stopped trying at that point.
So, yeah, it’s awfully hard to really get a handle on just how good Wabash is. They are doing what you are supposed to do against weaker teams, so you can’t fault them for it. But it’s also hard to really reward them for it by moving them up the ranks above other teams who also haven’t lost. And who knows what it means for a presumptive playoff date. Wabash has acquitted itself well lately in the playoffs, but the team clearly has a bit of a learning curve every time they come up against a stronger team. I just don’t think they’re used to teams being on their level and they don’t really know how to handle it when they run into such teams. That’s not to say they don’t adjust, but it has led to holes they can’t dig out of, like losing 20-8 to Mount Union a couple years ago.
It seems like the best idea would be to join a different conference, but, unfortunately, it’s not that easy, even in this day and age. Part of this is where Wabash is. There aren’t too many conferences available to Wabash being in west central Indiana. The only real alternative seems to be the HCAC (Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference), but then Wabash would run into the same problem. Just instead of Wittenberg being the only real competition, it would be Franklin. And, frankly,* Franklin’s football history isn’t that good. They’ve been way up lately, but I don’t know that you can depend on that long term. The HCAC would be a step down if anything.
There’s also the issue of Wabash itself. It presents a unique logistical challenge in being all-male. I don’t think a lot of conferences would be falling over themselves to add that sort of institution to their ranks. Partially because of bringing no women’s sports (obviously), but I could imagine that there would be those questioning a single-sex school as a public relations move. And, of course, there’s the point that this is purely a football move. The NCAC is one of (if not the) top basketball conference in Division III, with Wittenberg and Wooster both consistently making very deep runs in the tournament. Wabash hasn’t been there in quite a while, but they do have good history, especially through the 80’s and 90’s. I think OWU has made some runs in the past, too. Basically, for every other sport, Wabash is a very good fit, both competitively, geographically, and academically.
So all we can do is shrug. All Wabash can really do is keep crushing the conference competition on the gridiron and hope for the best when the playoffs roll around. One of these years, it’ll work out, right?