We’ve been on the “road” for so many years that its odd for me to envision a “race” to the NAIA National Championship. Especially given the driving conditions I had cross country the last few years getting to Rome. Although two buses stranded on I-75 in Georgia and the stories from all those involved is still one of my favorite memories from 2010.
But this year the NAIA will embark on the first of three title games in Daytona Beach aptly title the “Race to Daytona.” Previous incarnations of the game saw us on the “Road to Savannah” and the “Road to Rome.” The racing moniker fits the host and also the attitude of several of the NAIA’s best who are definitely in the fast lane towards the NAIA title game. (See what I did there?)
It’s so tough for me to pick any major upsets in the first round of the NAIA Football Championship Series in any given year. Typically if you select the chalk, you are bound to get five or six of the eight games correct. Last year the only upset was Tabor defeating Benedictine in the first round (11 over an 8). In 2012 there were two upsets, same with 2011.
But that’s not to say the NAIA postseason doesn’t go without it’s occasional craziness. In 1998, five underdogs garnered victories in the NAIA’s opening round of the championship series seeing the No. 1, No. 2, No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 teams in the county knocked off in game one of the postseason. This led to a national championship game where the No. 8 Azusa Pacific Cougars won their first national championship game over the No. 11 Olivet Nazarene Tigers.The unthinkable has happened before and 1998 was a perfect storm of lower seeded home teams hosting due to the higher seeds not “bidding” for the right to host and late season losses that saw very solid teams fall late in the season and finish the year with lower ratings than expected.
Wait a sec. . .very good teams with late losses that caused them to be rated lower than expected? Sounds vaguely familiar.
Most of my picks are going to be chalk and home teams but that’s not to say there isn’t a match up or two that causes me to raise my eyebrows. Here’s a look at this year’s first round:
Valley City State (N.D.) (9-1) at Carroll (Mont.) (9-1): Saints regain the No. 1 spot in the country in the final week of the season. CC is rolling and has the cleanest shot at making it to the NAIA title. They will have home games in Helena unless they lose and anyone who has been in Nelson Stadium as a competitor or a fan knows it’s a tough place to play. VCSU is much improved and has had a lot of success this season. Even though they lost to Morningside, they actually gave the Mustangs one of their better games this season. VCSU will battle, but Carroll comes away with the win.
CC 38 VCSU 14
Langston (Okla.) (7-3) at Grand View (Iowa) (9-1): After an early loss, Grand View seems to be hitting their stride and getting better and better each week. Langston has played a tough schedule against non-NAIA opponents and then won a CSFL title that is too up and down to judge. Their performance against GVU will give us some indication as to if the CSFL is improving or if Langston is just the best team out of a conference that tends to beat itself up. I see GVU getting the win.
GVU 28 Langston 10
Campbellsville (Ky.) (7-3) at Saint Xavier (Ill.) (8-2): Campbellsville is back in the postseason and has one of the games that causes me to raise my eyebrows. SXU is the home team and on paper in most years people would chalk this one up to the higher rated team winning. But SXU has had their struggles this year and Campbellsville has proven they can put up a boatload of point in a hurry. I’m picking SXU but this game has my upset alert meter going off.
SXU 42 Campbellsville 25
Ottawa (Kan.) (9-2) at Morningside (Iowa) (9-1): Ottawa had to fight tooth and nail to come out the KCAC with a title this year and has played well down the stretch. Morningside is coming off a loss that no one outside of Crete, Neb. saw coming. Nonetheless, the Mustangs are in the postseason and will no doubt be refocused for their first round opponent. I have the utmost respect for the OU program but this week is the wrong week to be catching the Mustangs.
Morningside 56 Ottawa 24
Northwestern (Iowa) (8-2) at Missouri Valley (8-2): This game would be upset alert No. 2 for me. The two teams match up well in terms of style of play so I don’t foresee either team really being able to open things up and blow the other team out of the water. I’ll pick MVC in this one but won’t be surprised if the boys from Orange City, Iowa come away with the win.
MoVal 24 Northwestern 17
Faulkner (Ala.) (9-2) at Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) (9-2): Faulkner beat LWC earlier this year, 28-21. That game was at Faulkner and was before the MSC went all crazy on itself. I was actually disappointed in the outcome because I was expected both teams to put up 700 yards a piece given how the first half of the season had gone. This week the game is at LWC where the Blue Raiders are coming off of a home field upset of Georgetown College. If this game had odds in Vegas it would be even, essentially a pick ’em game. LWC seems to be ticking upward, so I’m going with them to win this one.
LWC 35 Faulkner 31
Georgetown (Ky.) (8-2) at Marian (Ind.) (8-2): Another toss up game. Marian has played really well down the stretch and snagged themselves a game in Indianapolis this weekend. Unfortunately for them, their opponents won’t exactly be road weary as GT is just down the road. My theory on this game is kind of the same as Morningside/Ottawa. I think GT was stunned to lose last week and is going to bounce back with a win this week. Essentially, this is my one upset pick in the first round but understand this game is a toss up as well.
GT 28 Marian 21
MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) (9-1) at Southern Oregon (9-2): I was really hoping MNU would get an opportunity to show the NAIA raters that they have been underrated this season. They still get that opportunity but they will have to do it coming off of what is far and away the toughest transportation schedule of the postseason. Bus to a plane to another bus. I’ve had several coaches tell me that getting to a foreign country is in many ways easier than getting to Ashland, Oregon. That advantage plays right into SOU’s hands and the fact they are a very good football team. MNU will compete and will play SOU very tough on the road. They’ve got the talent to upset the home squad in this one but my gut is telling me to stick with the chalk.
SOU 38 MNU 27
Don’t be shocked to see a few upsets this weekend. The NAIA first round has a tendency to throw everyone for a loop in at least one game. The way the NAIA Championship Series is set up for qualification I have to say that I think the coaches got it right. The postseason isn’t specifically designed to get the top 16 teams into the postseason and nowhere has the NAIA or the coaches ever stated that. The series is set up to get championship representation from all of the NAIA’s conferences as well as the top remaining teams.
Sure Webber International and Eastern Oregon have gripes and they should. But keep in mind that week after week in the NAIA no one is really for sure anymore who the top teams really are. This isn’t the days of old where one team dominates an entire conference and is the easy pick to the postseason. If anything, the NAIA is more volatile and competitive now than it ever was. For many years all you had to do was pick Carroll, Georgetown, Sioux Falls or Saint Francis (Ind.) to make the championship and in most years you were right.
The great thing about the NAIA postseason in recent years is the unpredictability of who is going to win the title. The same can be said for this year. It’s really anyone’s title to win this year and it all starts this weekend. My pick to win it all will be Carroll College. I see the Saints facing off with a team from Iowa in Daytona Beach. Give me another week to decide on that one.
My final bit of advice is to get out and watch some of these great games this weekend. If you can’t get there in person, check out the online streams. Last weekend I watched about 10 games thanks to my AppleTV and a few apps. These games and all the smaller division postseason games are truly some of the most exciting football you can see all season.