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Dan Mullen's Dumb Eligibility Idea; Also, Heart of America and Great Plains Previews

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Football coaches just don't get it sometimes.

Seriously, Dan. It's dumb. Stop it.
Seriously, Dan. It's dumb. Stop it.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Lead

Mississippi State head coach Dan Muller made some waves earlier this week with his proposal to grant freshmen who actually meet the NCAA's new eligibility requirements a fifth year of eligibility. Mullen's complaint is that kids are being punished for not managing to maintain a 2.3 GPA, and that they should be rewarded for doing so.

It's a stupid idea, it completely misses the point, and it demonstrates just how clueless college football coaches are about the (arguably at this point theoretical) mission of their programs.

There was a time, and it wasn't very long ago, when having a 2.5 GPA was a requirement to even be admitted to most colleges. Now, the college diploma has replaced the high school diploma as the barest minimum necessity to get most non-menial jobs -- but that's only the case because of the vast explosion in both colleges and students enrolled in those colleges. The former has been happening since time immemorial, of course; the majority of public universities in the United States started out as "normal schools" -- institutions designed to train elementary and secondary teachers -- and eventually grew into first baccalaureate-granting institutions, and then research institutions. The latter has been more recent, coinciding with the federal student loan program. Thirty years ago, Wisconsin was the largest university in the nation with 45,000 students. Seems like such a quaint number now, with Central Florida out there pushing 70k.

Point is, we're already granting freshman eligibility to players who wouldn't even have gotten into college back when we first started granting freshman eligibility. The NCAA has now decided to increase that figure to a 2.3 GPA, and Dan Muller is right: it is "punishment". It's punishment for not applying yourself in high school, where one can reasonably argue that regardless of your athletic ability, you have one job. One. Doing your schoolwork.

Aside: for chrissake, when I was in high school you had to have a 2.0 just to be eligible to play. Are we really comfortable with the idea that the bare minimum academic requirement for high school ball is good enough to go play in college?

But for now, let's set aside Mullen's self-serving complaint, which treats the institution which employs him as a semi-pro football club rather than an educational institution which offers intercollegiate athletics as part of its program. Let's take a look at his solution.

What Mullen wants to do is give freshmen who meet the NCAA's new standard five years to play five years, while those who don't get five years to play four. Stop and think about this for a moment.

Has it hit you yet? Mullen is basically saying that the NCAA's new standard should be meaningless in terms of what it's attempting to accomplish: improving incoming freshman GPA. The purpose of the new standard is to incentivize high school athletes to do better so that they'll be allowed to play as freshmen; what Mullen wants to do instead is to not offer that incentive. Worse, the NCAA has now decided that 2.3 is the desired minimum, and Mullen wants to give anyone who meets it five years of eligibility. That's not an incentive, that's a handout.

Now, that's not to say that a fifth year of eligibility would be a bad thing in certain instances. I would wholeheartedly support, for example, the idea that players who achieve a certain GPA in college and who enter a post-graduate program should be allowed to continue their eligibility. After all, they're clearly in school to be in school and they're still in school; the entire purpose of eligibility, historically, has been to ensure that the guys playing football were legitimately students and were taking their education seriously. The sort of player who's academically gifted enough to do this in the first place is, by and large, not really in college to get a degree in football.

But folks, getting a 2.3 GPA in high school really should be the minimum requirement to be allowed to play as an incoming freshman. Restricting that privilege to those players isn't punishing the rest. It's rewarding those who achieve that base minimum by granting them the privilege of immediate eligibility, just as the previous minimum did. The only difference now is that those who no longer meet the new minimum will still have the opportunity to attend school on scholarship and get their work in order. And Dan Mullen needs to open his eyes and realize that, because as important as college football is to the campus culture and as much importance as we place on it as fans, it is not "Mississippi State University, a division of Mississippi State Bulldogs Football Club". The university comes first, and there is no rational argument to the contrary.

Heart of America Athletic Conference

2014 Standings and Info
SCHOOL LOCATION HAAC OVERALL
9 MidAmerica Nazarene University Pioneers Olathe KS 8-1 9-2
8 Missouri Valley College Vikings Marshall MO 8-1 9-3
16 Baker University Wildcats Baldwin City KS 6-3 8-3
25 Benedictine College Ravens Atchison KS 6-3 7-4
Graceland University Yellowjackets Lamoni IA 5-4 6-5
Central Methodist University Eagles Fayette MO 4-5 5-6
Culver-Stockton College Wildcats Canton MO 3-6 5-6
Evangel University Crusaders Springfield MO 3-6 5-6
Avila University Eagles Kansas City MO 1-8 3-8
Peru State College Bobcats Peru NE 1-8 2-9
Note: Standings reflect actual results. Graceland was forced to forfeit wins over Bethany (KS), Culver-Stockton, Peru State, Central Methodist, Avila, and Evangel due to an "administrative error", and their official record is 0-9, 0-11.

What was already a tough league becomes much tougher in 2015. Grand View (the 2013 NAIA Champions) and William Penn (a strong program which has been utterly snake-bitten as far as qualifying for the playoffs) join the fray, and the conference becomes a 12-team circuit. Notably, while the conference is splitting into divisions -- the Iowa schools, Peru State, Culver-Stockton, and Benedictine in the north, everyone else in the south -- they are playing a full 11-game round-robin, which precludes any non-conference play at all. It's unclear whether cross-division games will be "non-conference" contests; the conference's schedule currently lists all games as conference games, which is not the practice for the previously-previewed Mid-South and Mid-States.

Also of note for the conference: a weekly game of the week airing on KSMO (channel 62) in Kansas City and also streaming on ESPN3. That weekly game will also be available to Mediacom cable subscribers across the midwest. All 12 teams will appear at least once, and 11 of the 12 teams will be featured in a home game. (Only Evangel is left out of hosting a televised game, and they host Baker on November 14, the lone date whose broadcast is yet to be announced.) It's obviously a big deal for the conference.

The league is still not done expanding either. In 2016, two more Iowa schools will join the conference: Clarke University (Dubuque) and Mount Mercy University (Cedar Rapids). Neither currently field football teams, but Clarke has already announced they'll begin in 2018 while Mount Mercy is very seriously considering it and indications are that it will happen.

And if that wasn't enough, the conference has unveiled a new, stylish logo to replace the relatively staid and boring one they've used for years.

This is the profile of a league that's determined to become relevant, even if only regionally. The Heart is positioned to be the most important NAIA conference, perhaps, since the Great Migration back in the early 1990s which saw half of what is now NCAA Division II leave the NAIA.

All of this, however, transpired against a cloudy backdrop. Only two HAAC teams reached the playoffs last year; the league normally lands three or four teams in the tourney. The problem wasn't non-conference play; the top four teams in the league were 4-2 outside the HAAC, and both losses were to ranked teams. The league simply ate itself, as you can see just looking at the standings above. Baker just missed the field, and Benedictine was undone when Tabor's mid-season swoon made that loss look uglier than it was. Will the addition of two more powerhouse programs lead to a three-loss conference champion? Don't laugh; it could happen.

MidAmerica Nazarene loses 14 seniors, including two first-team selections. No worries. Junior RB Javon Taylor, who rambled for 1,288 yards and 15 touchdowns on the way to winning the HAAC Offensive Player of the Year award, returns along with first-teamers TE Dylan Meyer and K Cristian Casillas as well as a raft of wideouts who earned honorable mention nods and combined, along with Taylor and Meyer, for over 1,400 receiving yards. And QB Trent Hedlund returns as well, so obviously the offense is going to keep right on rolling. Brian Willmer, a former four-year letterman and captain at UCLA, joined MANU last year after eight years running the defense at Azusa Pacific.

Missouri Valley has been a conference power for awhile now, but their losses from 2014 are devastating: all five of the school's first-team honorees, including two-time NAIA All-American, two-time HAAC Defensive Player of the Year, and three-time first-teamer DL Ty Phillips, whose exploits earned him an invite to the Cleveland Browns rookie camp. In any other league, or any other season, one could assume the Vikings would weather this, especially with 18 returning players earning second, third, or honorable mention nods. But with the competition in the HAAC and the two new powerhouses, Missouri Valley's run of four straight NAIA playoff appearances might be in jeopardy. HAAC Coach of the Year Paul Troth has his work cut out for him.

Baker also loses a lot, with four first-team selections graduating. Several players are set to step up, though, and Baker is always in the thick of things in the HAAC year in and year out. They also snagged Butler CC RB Dalton Buehler to reload the backfield. Baker missed the playoffs after two consecutive appearances; Mike Grossner, in his 12th season, will try to get them back.

Benedictine (KS) RB Tyler Henness returns off a 1,488 yard season, as does WR/KR Christian Haack, who averaged 116 yards of total offense per game on his way to the "athlete" spot on the HAAC first team. But the losses are grim. Gone are two other first-teamers, including All-American and Rimington Award winner C David Stochlin. Worse, a look down into the second and third teams reveals that the Ravens are losing a whopping 12 players who received conference accolades. Benedictine, like the above three schools, is always a factor under Larry Wilcox, who's won 253 games in 36 seasons -- one of only four NAIA coaches to ever reach the 250-win mark. No four-year college football coach has won more games in Kansas. Not even that hall of famer in Manhattan.

Graceland has had an interesting year. In addition to becoming part of national news when their most famous alum became Caitlyn Jenner, Graceland was forced to forfeit all six of their 2014 wins due to "administrative error", and there was no press release indicating the details, but it almost certainly involved a player suddenly being ineligible. It ruined a season which saw the Yellowjackets bounce back from a dismal 1-10 campaign in 2013 and land five players on the 2014 HAAC first-team. Only one returns, junior QB Myles King. They'll probably still manage to land in the middle of the standings, as they've got decent returning talent.

Central Methodist only had three players selected to the second- or third-teams. Two return, and one can expect the Eagles special teams to be Special thanks to juniors KR Keenan Honore and PR Shawn Whitley. Last season was marked improvement for Central Methodist, however; in his first two seasons, head coach Jody Ford led the Eagles to an ugly 4-17 record before last year's 6-5 finish. CMU should remain in the middle of the pack.

Culver-Stockton returns first-team DL David Marcinko, their only such honoree, as well as second-team WR Nick Hill and Desmond Phillips. The Wildcats have improved in each of Jeff Duvendeck's four years in charge, and the pieces are in place to continue that progress.

Evangel had a mediocre season and still had five first-team all-HAAC selections. The bad news: they all graduated. Junior RB Brock West, a second-team selection, returns after an 800-yard season. But Evangel's fate in 2015 is going to depend on new blood.

Avila had never done anything of note, but they started last season 3-0 and received votes in the NAIA poll for the first time in program history. It all went downhill from there. The Eagles return a couple of second-teamers in TE Luke Oldham and DL K.C. Moorman, but there's nothing to indicate this team will break into the conference's upper half.

Peru State had appeared to be on the rise in 2013, going 7-4 and spending a good portion of the season in the NAIA top 25. Welp. The good news is that although they lose their only first-team selection (LB Shane Lloyd), the Bobcats have quite a few players returning who received lesser accolades. Improvement over last year's disaster looks plausible; contention does not.

Grand View joins the league, bring two consecutive NAIA playoff appearances and three in four years. They followed up their undefeated national championship from 2013 with a 10-win season and NAIA quarterfinal loss last year. The Vikings landed a whopping eleven players on the MSFA-Midwest all-league team last year, but lost eight of those -- including All-American WR Brady Roland -- to graduation. Can the Vikings contend here? Well, Mike Woodley led Grand View to a 54-16 record in six seasons in the MSFA, which until July 1 was inarguably the toughest conference in the NAIA. He's probably going to do just fine here.

William Penn hadn't accomplished anything in decades, but in 2010 the Statesmen began a run, winning 28 games in three years. Twice they missed the NAIA playoffs despite being ranked in the top 16 due to the conference champions rule; they finally appeared in 2012. 2013 saw a backslide, but Penn rebounded to a 7-4 finish last year. The Statesmen had six MSFA-Midwest first-teamers last year; WR Jatavius Stewart, C Hea Tuifua, and DT Hunter Barry return. Penn probably won't contend for the title, but they'll play an important part in helping separate the pretenders from the chaff.

Game of the year: we're going to fudge here and claim a pair. The season will open with Grand View hosting Baker on August 29 on ESPN3. On November 14, Missouri Valley visits MidAmerica Nazarene, and that may be the ESPN3 game that week as well. Really, any game involving two teams from among those four and Benedictine is going to be huge.

Great Plains Athletic Conference

2014 Standings and Info
SCHOOL LOCATION GPAC OVERALL
9 Morningside College Mustangs Sioux City IA 8-1 11-2
8 Northwestern College Red Raiders Orange City IA 8-1 9-2
16 Doane College Tigers Crete NE 7-2 7-3
25 Dakota Wesleyan University Tigers Mitchell SD 5-4 7-4
Hastings College Broncos Hastings NE 5-4 6-4
Concordia University, Nebraska Bulldogs Seward NE 4-5 5-6
Nebraska Wesleyan University Prairie Wolves Lincoln NE 4-5 4-6
Briar Cliff University Chargers Sioux City IA 2-7 2-9
Midland University Warriors Fremont NE 1-8 2-8
Dordt College Defenders Sioux Center IA 1-8 2-9

Like the HAAC, the GPAC only got two teams into the NAIA Playoffs last year, although that's not out of the ordinary. The league looks to continue to be what it usually is: a two team race, with Doane desperately trying to get over the hump.

There is change in the air, but not one with terrible repercussions. Nebraska Wesleyan, the only remaining school in the nation holding dual NCAA and NAIA affiliation, will finally get off the fence next summer. The Prairie Wolves are leaving to join the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and become a full-time member of NCAA Division III. Nebraska Wesleyan has, for many years, opted to declare its eligibility for the NAIA post-season; now they're abandoning the NAIA altogether.

Morningside carried a #4 ranking and advanced all the way to the NAIA semifinals last year before falling to eventual runner-up Marian (IN). Four players who occupied six spots on the GPAC first team have graduated, including All-American and GPAC Offensive Player of the Year RB Brandon Wegher, who ran for 2,510 yards and 39 touchdowns, signing with the Carolina Panthers in May. Also gone is WR Devin Thomas, also named the GPAC's first team kick returner and punt returner. But eight first-teamers return, and Steve Ryan is a ridiculous 120-35 in 13 years at Morningside, so the Mustangs are in pretty solid position as favorites to yet again win the GPAC.

Northwestern (IA), meanwhile, only had six representative on the first team total. They lose three, including GPAC Defensive Player of the Year Greg Hegstad, but return All-American DB Justin Wohlert and DLs Sam Van Ginkel and Lawton De Jong. Northwestern is a step behind Morningside, but they're still a serious threat.

Doane is also a threat, a fact made clear by their win over Morningside last season. The Tigers have spent several years challenging the established order but through one misfortune or another falling short. In 2011, they started 5-0, but lose to Morningside then two weeks later lost 19-17 to Hastings in a game they should have won. Result: just missed the playoffs. In 2012, losses to Northwestern and Morningside were one thing; a 28-24 loss to Dakota Wesleyan again left the Tigers empty-handed. And while they victimized Morningside last year, it was a humilating loss to Friends to open the season followed by an overtime loss to Northwestern which scuttled the ship before it ever sailed. (After that, Doane went 7-1.) Their only first-team selection, LB Garrett Borcher, returns; when a team finishes third in the league and 7-3 with only one first-teamer, you can do the math. They'll be in the mix again.

Dakota Wesleyan has been right about where they were last year for a decade, floating between 4 and 7 wins with a surprise 8-3 campaign in 2013. Ross Cimpl, a member of the NAIA championship squads at Sioux Falls in 2008 and 2009, took over in 2012 and has the program moving forward. Both first-team selections on offense last year have graduated, but the Tigers return LB Brady Bonte and DB Tanner Munk. Like Doane, they'll be a threat, but the top of the mountain is hard to scale here.

Hastings, Tom Osborne's old stomping ground, has had a miserable decade. After a 9-3 finish and an NAIA berth in 2009, the Broncos first clung to .500, and then took a nosedive in 2013. They bounced back to mediocrity last year, but Tony Harper -- who took over right after that last playoff appearance -- needs to make something happen. The Broncos lost both first-team selections to graduation, as well as two of four second-teamers.

Concordia (NE) has only had a winning record once since a 10-2 outburst in 2001, and that was a 7-4 finish in 2013. But there's reason for optimism this year. Junior RB Bryce Collins was a first-team selection last year, rushing for over a thousand yards. Senior K Adam Meirose also made the first team, while junior TE Seth Fitzke and freshmen WR Jared Garcia and DB Tarence Roby all earned second-team nods. There's talent returning, so if the Bulldogs are going to make a move the time is now.

Nebraska Wesleyan embarks on their final NAIA season with questions. Every player who received first- or second-team recognition graduated, including All-American DL Phil Latimer. Brian Keller has led the Prairie Wolves to at least a .500 record in 13 of the last 15 seasons, but the switch to NCAA Division III -- and with it, the requirement to phase out all athletic scholarships -- may hurt this year.

Briar Cliff had won 11 games from 2007-2012 before going 4-7 in 2013. But they regressed last year, and only had one representative on the first team, two on the second. Only second-team K Patrick Taccogna returns. Not only will the Chargers not compete, they'll have trouble avoiding the cellar.

Midland went 8-3 in 2010, and have slowly, inexorably moved downhill ever since. First-team WR Kail Walker returns, but little else. Josh Gehring, former offensive coordinator at high-scoring Morningside, is in his fourth season, and may be running out of time.

Dordt is Dordt. Since their first year of varsity football in 2008, the Defenders have yet to experience the thrill of winning their third game of the season, and they've gone 2-9 three straight years. LB Vanoy Harris, a second-team selection last year, returns for his senior year, but the only question facing Dordt is whether they'll finish ahead of or behind Briar Cliff.

Game of the year: October 3, when Morningside calls on Northwestern. Depending on how the season plays out, the season-ender between Doane and Morningside might also be very, very relevant.

Tomorrow

Once again, a reminder to cough up some mailbag questions. (If you've come here from somewhere else, you can always ask on Twitter @jonfmorse.) Tomorrow, we'll wrap up our NAIA previews with the Frontier Conference and the Central States Football League.