Little more than a month ago, the Franklin College football team was ranked No. 19 in the NCAA Division III preseason poll.
Five weeks later, the Grizzlies have played two games. Heavily favored to win the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship, they have climbed to No. 13 in the D3football.com rankings.
But with regard to the poll, perhaps the most interesting number isn’t the Grizzlies’ ranking. It’s their record. They are 0-2 heading into Saturday’s HCAC-opener against visiting Manchester (0-2).
“We’ve moved up six spots since five weeks ago, and we’re 0-2. That’s good. That means we’re respected,” said Franklin coach Mike Leonard, whose team opened the season with a narrow defeat at Division III No. 1 Mount Union (Ohio) and is coming off a heartbreaking loss against Division I Football Championship Subdivision Butler.
Franklin had a fourth-quarter lead at defending national champion Mount Union and was tied with visiting Butler in the final period before succumbing against both opponents. The Grizzlies lost 30-27 against the Warhawks and 31-28 against the Bulldogs.
Although disappointed by the outcomes, the Grizzlies were not disheartened. They regard both nonconference opponents as a gauge of how they measure on the national stage. And as the results reflect, they are confident they can contend for the national title.
Their bid officially begins with the HCAC opener. The league champion earns an automatic bid to the Division III tournament. The Grizzlies have won three straight and are gunning for their fifth in the past six years.
“We feel very good,” Leonard said. “We’re disappointed because we know we had a chance to win both of those games in the fourth quarter and didn’t. It’s probably the most difficult (nonconference) schedule for any Division III team.”
D3football.com obviously agrees. The Grizzlies rose to No. 13 following the season-opening loss at Mount Union. They maintained their spot after losing to Butler.
And they are the only 0-2 team in the top 25.
“We feel like we’ve got everybody’s respect around the country for scheduling those kinds of teams and competing well, but we’re disappointed,” Leonard said. “But it’s a new season. We’ve kind of put to bed the nonconference season and are ready to look nothing but forward right now.”
Moving forward, the Grizzlies’ challenge is approaching each HCAC opponent with the same fervency as Mount Union and Butler.
Easily the league’s most dominant team the past six years, Franklin has won 26 straight games against HCAC opponents. Moreover, the Grizzlies were projected by a preseason vote of league coaches to successfully defend the HCAC title.
Being 0-2 notwithstanding, the Grizzlies have done nothing to indicate they are anything but favorites to win a fourth straight championship. But avoiding complacency will be a point of emphasis the rest of the way.
“The main focus is, how do we keep our guys sharp, trying to prepare each week like the challenge is every bit the same as playing Mount Union or Butler?” Leonard said. “That’s why I think we’ve got to have some measurable goals. We need to be sharp. We’ve got to clean up all the mistakes that we’ve had, and we’ve had plenty the first two games.
“That’s the advantage to having some short-term, measurable goals. It will keep us accountable and not so much worry about who the opponent is, just playing the best we can possibly play.”