It was certainly a disappointment, but not at all a surprise, when Randolph-Macon's name did not appear on the bracket of the 32-team field for the 2021 NCAA Division III Football Championship this past Sunday night.
Despite being ranked for much of the season, having won by double digits in eight of their nine victories, and only falling once, to eventual Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) champion Washington & Lee by one point on a two-point conversion with no time remaining, the Yellow Jackets did not receive one of the five precious at-large bids to the tournament.
Now, had I taken out the term "Old Dominion Athletic Conference" out of the above paragraph, and replaced it with, say, the "Ohio Athletic Conference (OAC)" or "Centennial Conference", Randolph-Macon almost certainly would have made the field. Why do I say that?
Because Randolph-Macon isn't the problem when it comes to trying to secure the respect needed to earn an at-large bid for a season like this. Their conference is.
Before we go any further, the Old Dominion Athletic Conference overall is a fantastic conference. It provides a healthy springboard in nearly every sport for teams to seriously contend for Division III national championships, as we have witnessed in the past twenty years with men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball at Randolph-Macon.
But when it comes to football, there's no such springboard. In fact, only twice has an ODAC institution earned an at-large bid to the Division III Football Championship: in 2000, and in 2010.
Earlier this fall, D3Football.com released its rankings of the 27 conferences in NCAA Division III when it comes to football itself. The aforementioned conferences placed fifth (OAC), and sixth (Centennial) respectively.
The Old Dominion Athletic Conference was ranked 12th. While up two spots from its #14 ranking in 2019, the ODAC is barely in the top half of the rankings, and, with five at-large bids, and 27 teams who placed second in their own conference, you can see that it's not nearly high enough to be in a position to annually be in serious discussion to have a second team be invited.
A big problem has been in the fluidity of conference football membership in the past half-decade. The carousel began when Catholic University announced they would end their football-only membership in the ODAC after the 2016 season. Enter Ferrum, who became a conference member in full in 2018.
In 2019, Southern Virginia University joined the conference as an associate member for football. That didn't last long. They played one season, and, in December of that year announced their intent to join USA South as a full member in all sports.
Then, in late 2020, Emory and Henry announced its move to Division II, ending a 45-year relationship with the ODAC. Their last conference football game, ironically, was the "ODAC Championship Game" that comprised the fifth and final game of their schedule in the truncated 2020 season played last winter/spring. Their opponent? Randolph-Macon.
The Yellow Jackets won 13-10 in overtime to break a tie with the Wasps for most ODAC Championships. Emory and Henry's 2021 schedule was non-conference. Add to that the fact that The Apprentice School's current agreement to play ODAC schools does not make them a conference member of any kind due to not being a Division III institution, that left six conference games on the 2021 schedule, and only eight considered by the NCAA Selection Committe.
Washington and Lee and Randolph-Macon tied for the conference lead at 5-1, with the Generals earning the NCAA bid and the ODAC trophy by virtue of their head-to-head victory.
Now, Averett enters the ODAC effective next season, leaving USA South. We'll be back to seven conference games (hopefully) moving forward. The Cougars finished 4-4 in their final USA South season, 5-5 overall, losing to Ferrum in their only non-conference game involving an ODAC team. Randolph-Macon faced Averett last in 2019 in Danville, coming away victorious.
Other than the uncertainty of conference membership, and, therefore, the ODAC's actual and potential strength, here are the other issues concerning this situation, not, by the way, in order of impact.
Geography: More than any other thing, this abnormally affects not only the ODAC, but all of Division III. The finances simply aren't available. Thus, come tournament time, there has been a 500-mile moratorium of sorts on teams traveling during NCAA championship tournaments. It recently was upgraded to 600 miles. This has affected multiple Randolph-Macon teams. Teams in Texas, on the West Coast, they have this issue, too.
Geography II: Randolph-Macon only makes sense as an ODAC member. With Emory and Henry's departure, the Yellow Jackets' position as a foundational member only grows. They would never leave, nor should they. But if you could take Randolph-Macon's campus, lift it by helicopter, and land it in Wisconsin, Ohio, or, say, Pennsylvania, they suddenly could be in a top conference. So, since that isn't happening.....
Strength of Conference: This is the big one. When we state that the conference is the problem, it is a collective issue with every member. First, though, a positive. The ODAC essentially traded Southern Virginia to the USA South for Averett. USA South fell from #20 in 2019 to #23 in the D3Football.com conference ratings. That's, again, out of 27.
However, it doesn't help the ODAC if a lot of members choose their non-conference opponents from lesser conferences. But, sometimes, there aren't many options. Credit, though, for example, Hampden-Sydney for scheduling Baldwin Wallace (8-2) of the Ohio Athletic Conference this past fall. Those are the type of series that ODAC teams need to find.
Randolph-Macon has always (in all sports) looked for the most competitive schedule possible. They opened their playoff season of 2018, and 2019, with Centennial powerhouse Johns Hopkins, and, frankly, should have defeated them on opening night two years ago.
But look at this past season. Shenandoah, who upset Washington & Lee in the season finale, further hurting Randolph-Macon's tournament chances, beat two USA South teams in Methodist (7-2) and North Carolina Wesleyan (4-6). Ferrum defeated Christopher Newport and future ODAC member Averett, both who finished 5-5. Even the conference champion, Washington & Lee, lost their opener at Christopher Newport, who later lost to NCAA Tournament team Salisbury...84-14.
1) Every team must get better. The only way for the ODAC to earn more respect nationally is to become better overall. Guilford, who is really struggling right now, needs huge improvement. Bridgewater, hopefully, suffered a one-off season in 2021 and will return to their usual prominence. Ferrum and Averett need to show that they are more than .500 type conference teams. The only under .500 teams in your conference need to be because you lost in-conference. Schedule tougher non-conference opponents, and win.
2) The Apprentice problem. Playing the Builders doesn't help anyone, unless they get better, and, become Division III members. We know of no plans for that to happen, so they need to be replaced. But who? Which institutions could seriously be considered for the ODAC? Christopher Newport doesn't fit the private institution nature of the conference, being a public university. Do you go after a Methodist from USA South, taking one of their better teams while giving Guilford a North Carolina partner in the conference?
3) When you get there, win. Washington & Lee is heading to, no shock, Mount Union this Saturday. If you don't know about the Purple Raiders, they own thirteen national titles, three in the past decade. The Generals' last trip to the NCAA Championship involved, yep, a trip to Mount Union, where they fell 21-0. No ODAC team won in the postseason from 2006-2012. Hampden-Sydney won one game in 2013, then Randolph-Macon won at John Carroll in 2018 (Ohio Athletic Conference member) before losing to Muhlenberg (Centennial). Bridgewater led Delaware Valley at home in the second half in 2019, but lost.
That's two wins for the conference in fifteen years. The quickest way to expand respect for the conference is to win on the biggest stage.
Would the Generals be at Mount Union Saturday had they won against Shenandoah last Saturday? Maybe. Had they gone 10-0? Likely not.
4) For now, go unbeaten. No, it isn't fair that teams in several conferences can have teams go 9-1, or even 8-2, and be ranked higher in the NCAA's region ranking system than others. It's about strength of schedule, both in-conference and how you schedule in September. So, until the ODAC is able to climb higher in the rankings, and eyes, of those football pundits nationwide, you have to get the job done on the field. And even if the ODAC becomes a top five conference nationally, you STILL have to win.
In closing, I witnessed every Randolph-Macon play from scrimmage this season. In one drive, on one day, when the Yellow Jackets needed one defensive play, they couldn't deliver. You can argue they were missing two key pieces of their secondary at the time. That's true. But Washington & Lee lost their starting quarterback during the drive, and it didn't stop them. Seventeen plays, 99 yards, the rest of the clock.
It's not fair, you may say, that Randolph-Macon is at home Saturday while Washington & Lee is playing. There's no doubt in my mind that the Yellow Jackets are the best team in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference this season. But that conclusion, shared by many others, doesn't change what's so much more important than opinion: results.
Now, Randolph-Macon fans should be ecstatic with the current state of the program. Never before has the Yellow Jackets won nine games in three consecutive full seasons (9-3 in 2018, 9-2 in 2019, 9-1 in 2021). The coaching staff continues to do a great job recruiting.
Yes, there are a lot of seniors on that defense. But, through the course of the season, there were tons of opportunities for underclassmen to prepare themselves to take over next season. Offensively, there's something special with Presley Egbers and Brecht Heuchan. If they can continue to work together, be selfless, and be ready to either share the load, or, if one gets hurt, carry it, 2022 opponents will have nightmares trying to scheme for the Yellow Jacket offense.
The home bleachers and press box are out. Duke Hall is coming, and with it, a chance to begin a dominant run in the ODAC not seen since Bridgewater two decades ago. I'm personally excited, thrilled in fact, to watch what unfolds.