Anyone who follows Division III football knows that an annual Stagg Bowl meeting between Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater has become something of a given over the last decade.
The Purple Raiders and Warhawks have played for the D-III championship nine times in the past 10 years, and the perennial powers can generally point only to each other for the losses on their schedule. In fact, since the start of the 2005 season, Whitewater has dropped six games to teams other than Mount Union and Mount Union has just one loss to someone other than Whitewater.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise Mount Union and Whitewater will face each other in the D-III playoffs once again this Saturday, but what might come as a shock is the fact that this time around it won’t be for a national title.
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Instead of meeting in Salem, Va., where the Stagg Bowl has been held since 1993, the rivals will take the field at Mount Union’s campus in Alliance, Ohio, in a national semifinal. It’ll be the first playoff matchup and just the third overall game between the teams without a championship at stake. (Mount Union also beat Whitewater in the regular season in 2002 and 2003.)
As per tradition, Mount Union is undefeated and the top-ranked team in the D-III polls, and in any other year, that would leave Whitewater comfortably situated at No. 2 (or vice versa). But a regular-season loss to Wisconsin-Oshkosh ended the Warhawks’ 36-game winning streak and cost them a conference championship, meaning they had to make the playoffs as one of six at-large teams in the field.
As a result, Whitewater ended up on Mount Union’s side of the bracket, but in the playoffs, both teams have looked as impressive as ever. Mount Union whooped Liberty League champ St. Lawrence 55-23 in the first round (the lead was 55-7 after three quarters) and shredded Albright, the Middle Atlantic’s top team, 66-7 the following week. Then on Saturday, the Raiders led 49-14 at the half in a 56-35 quarterfinal win over No. 11 Wesley.
Meanwhile, Whitewater’s path to the semifinals has gone through previously unbeaten St. Norbert, 48-0, followed by a 31-17 win over No. 6 Wheaton, which was also undefeated. On Saturday, Whitewater redeemed itself against No. 3 Oshkosh, stopping a late Titans two-point conversion attempt to preserve a 31-29 win and set up the semifinal against Mount Union.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 4 St. Thomas (Minn.) and No. 2 Linfield (Ore.) will play to set the rest of the Stagg Bowl matchup, and neither team is anything to scoff at. Both schools are undefeated and Linfield, located about an hour outside Portland, received a handful of first-place votes in the latest D-III poll, thanks in part to three regular-season wins by 65 or more points.
But that will do little to quell the disappointment for fans who consider a Mount Union-Whitewater Stagg Bowl the be-all and end-all in Division III football. For them, the colors on the field in Salem may still look the same — both St. Thomas and Linfield wear purple, just like both Mount Union and Whitewater — but Saturday’s de facto championship won’t be.