Making playoffs could be tougher for ASC
By MARK WILSON / Staff Writer
The addition of Mississippi College is a major change this year for the American Southwest Conference, but an even more significant difference for 1997 and beyond will be the league's affiliation.
The six teams in the ASC - including newcomer Mississippi College - are now full members of NCAA Division III, having left the NAIA Division II ranks behind.
Many aspects will remain virtually unchanged for the football teams, which remain non-scholarship. They will no longer have to play teams with scholarships in the playoffs, however, as they had in the NAIA postseason.
But on the other hand, getting into the playoffs in the first place is likely to be a tougher chore now than before - politically, through the voting process done by raters nationwide, if not physically on the field.
In NAIA Division II, the conference champion was guaranteed a playoff spot as long as it was ranked among the top 16 teams in the nation. But NCAA Division III football teams are divided into four regions, and only the top four in each region will earn a national playoff berth.
Last year, Hardin-Simmons and Sul Ross State were ASC co-champions, while a strong Howard Payne squad finished out of the playoff picture with losses to HSU and Austin College.
Coach Jimmie Keeling's Cowboys, who lost in the opening round of the playoffs to Evangel, Mo., could see their five-year string of postseason berths come to an end because of the difficulty of finishing in the top four in the South Region - which extends all the way up into Pennsylvania.
Getting enough exposure to impress the national selection committee and the regional advisory committees won't be easy - particularly since the ASC teams are not as well known in other parts of the country in NCAA Division III circles.
"First of all, it puts a huge importance on every single game you play," HSU coach Jimmie Keeling said. "It's also supposed to be based on the toughness of your schedule. It's also to your advantage if you play teams in other areas of the country."
Howard Payne University coach Vance Gibson said he believes that an ASC team would probably have to finish the regular season with a perfect record in order to finish with a top-four ranking and make the playoffs. Some NCAA Division III teams actually schedule nine games instead of 10, he said, hoping to increase the chance of having an undefeated regular season.
Keeling agreed that anything short of a perfect regular season record could prevent even a deserving ASC team from making the postseason.
"I think it's got to be close to that," said Keeling, also noting that strength of schedule will be important. "It depends on who you're playing, to some degree."
As for the battle for the ASC crown, Hardin-Simmons and Howard Payne will again be stout, and McMurry, Sul Ross and Mississippi College should provide plenty of interesting competition and balance.
"I think McMurry is obviously better (than last year). They kind of turned the corner at the end of last season," Keeling said. "Howard Payne is competitive. Sul Ross is kind of back in there now. McMurry is going to be a threat for us all. Austin College will be the most improved team."
Of Mississippi College, Keeling said, "They're going to be a factor, I promise you."
Sul Ross State
A year ago, coach Jim Hector's Lobos claimed a co-championship with Hardin-Simmons. Quarterback Jeff Lefevre and running back Jesse Lynch provided a brand new concept in Alpine - a balanced offensive attack.
But the Lobos, who were 6-4 overall, now must replace those two key figures on offense. Mark Feemster, a 210-pound fullback who averaged 7.3 yards per carry, is back, however.
The offensive line, which allowed the team to average 5.2 yards per carry, has four lettermen returning.
A key returning defensive standout is Charlie Bunch, who is not only an all-America selection as a defensive back (42 tackles) but is also one of the ASC's best punters. Bunch was voted the Defensive MVP in the conference last season.
Jason Walker and Jeff Edwards return to anchor the defensive line.
Terry McMillan's seventh season as head coach of the Choctaws will be the school's first as a full member of the ASC. The Choctaws were 4-6 overall last season.
Quarterback Roger Guy and running back Josh Sanders are expected to be among four returning starters on offense. Sanders rushed for 724 yards a year ago. Guy completed 59 percent of his passes for 1,526 yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Six starters are back on defense, including leading tacklers Kyle Fulcher and Alex Lincoln - both linebackers. Fulcher had a total of 106 tackles, including 52 solo stops.
The Kangaroos are coming off a 3-7 season, in which they were ranked last in the conference in team offense and defense. However, the Kangaroos should begin the season with 19 returning starters.
One of the key performers for coach David Norman's squad should be the ASC's Freshman of the Year for 1996, running back Brian Marshall. He rushed for more than 600 yards last season.
Quarterback Joe Newton is another returning starter on offense, and should have a dependable target in wide receiver Bryce Lokey, along with another returning starter at receiver, Trent Cox.
On defense, the Kangaroos will benefit from the return of lineman Justin Buchanan, who was all-conference in 1995 before missing last season with an injury.
1997 ASC Schedule
Aug. 30 - Monterey Tech at Sul Ross State, 1 p.m.
Sept. 6 - Austin College at Millsaps, 1:30 p.m.; Sul Ross State at Panhandle State, 2 p.m.; Butler at Howard Payne, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 - McMurry at Trinity, 7:30 p.m.; Austin College at Nebraska Wesleyan, 1:30 p.m.; Hardin-Simmons at Azusa Pacific, 6 p.m.; *Sul Ross State at Howard Payne, 2 p.m.; Tusculum at Mississippi College, 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 20 - Southwestern Assemblies of God at McMurry, 7 p.m.; Austin College at Rhodes College, 1:30 p.m.; *Hardin-Simmons at Sul Ross State, 2 p.m.; Bethel at Mississippi College, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 - Sul Ross State at Southwestern Assemblies of God, 1 p.m.; Howard Payne at LaVerne, 1 p.m.; Chapman at Hardin-Simmons, 2 p.m.; McMurry at Panhandle State, 2 p.m.; Trinity at Austin College, 7 p.m.; Lambuth at Mississippi College, 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 - Mississippi College at Georgetown College, 1:30 p.m.; Western New Mexico at Hardin-Simmons, 2 p.m.; Chapman at Howard Payne, 2 p.m.; Millsaps at McMurry, 2 p.m.
Oct. 11 - Colorado College at Austin College, 1 p.m.; *McMurry at Sul Ross State, 2 p.m.; Thomas More at Howard Payne, noon; Mississippi College at West Alabama, 2 p.m.; Hardin-Simmons at Langston, 2 p.m.
Oct. 18 - *McMurry at Hardin-Simmons, 2 p.m.; *Howard Payne at Sul Ross State, 2 p.m.; *Austin College at Mississippi College, 5 p.m.
Oct. 25 - *McMurry at Austin College, 1:30 p.m.; Hardin-Simmons at Howard Payne, 2 p.m.; Mississippi College at Sul Ross State, 2 p.m.
Nov. 1 - *Austin College at Hardin-Simmons, 2 p.m.; *Sul Ross State at McMurry, 2:30 p.m.; *Howard Payne at Mississippi College, 6 p.m.
Nov. 8 - *McMurry at Howard Payne, 2 p.m.; *Austin College at Sul Ross State, 2 p.m.; *Hardin-Simmons at Mississippi College, 2 p.m.
Nov. 15 - *Howard Payne at Austin College, 1 p.m.; *Mississippi College at McMurry, 2 p.m.; *Sul Ross State at Hardin-Simmons, 2 p.m.
* - denotes ASC game