Go ahead, call it a measuring stick game.
After all, Franklin College coach Mike Leonard does.
When the 19th-ranked Grizzlies kick off the football season Saturday at defending national champion Mount Union, they will find out exactly how they measure against NCAA Division III’s most dominant program.
Ranked No. 1 and with a tradition like no other, Mount Union has won 11 national titles and has reached the title game 16 times. It has made eight straight trips to the national finals and has three graduates, including former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon, playing in the NFL.
A measuring stick opponent? No question about it.
“We’ve been looking at this game ever since the (2012) season ended,” said Leonard, who’s in his 11th season at Franklin. “Measuring stick’s a good word for it.”
Which is precisely why the Grizzlies look forward to it.
With 20 starters back from last year’s Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship team, including four preseason All-Americans, the Grizzlies view the opener as something more than an opportunity to upset Division III’s best team.
They see it as the first step in their own bid for the national championship.
“They’re the best team in the nation, but we’re a pretty damn good team, too,” said senior cornerback Zack Corpe, who — along with senior quarterback Jonny West, senior wide receiver Kyle Linville and senior punter Michael Parks — is a preseason All-American.
No other team in Division III returns more All-Americans, including Mount Union.
“We’re going into it looking like it’s a national championship game. We want that atmosphere,” Corpe said. “We want that feeling of going out there and playing the best and competing with the best.
“So we will take care of business, like usual, every game, but we’re a little more excited for this one.”
It’s easy to understand why.
Although Mount Union won last year’s opener 45-7 at Franklin’s Stewart “Red” Faught Stadium, the Grizzlies are confident they are positioned to contend for the national title. They are not only experienced, but they are experienced against Division III’s best teams.
In the past four years, Franklin has played four-time Division III national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater three times. Although the Grizzlies lost all three, they made strides each time and are no longer daunted by the challenge of a national title contender.
They regard themselves as such now.
“That is the beauty of that thing,” said Leonard, whose teams have won five of the past six HCAC championships, including three straight. “I remember the first time we went up to Whitewater. It was an ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a different animal.’ But we’ve played that animal several times now.
“We compete hard. We have not beat that animal yet, but that is the goal. That is the dream.”
In two days, the Grizzlies have will get another shot at the beast — not just any beast, but the king of Division III beasts.
Mount Union, in Alliance, Ohio, saw four of its 2012 graduates sign NFL free-agent deals in April. Former Purple Raiders players Cecil Shorts III (Jacksonville), Kyle Miller (Miami) and Garcon (Washington) are in the NFL.
Mount Union is coached by Vince Kehres, a former Purple Raiders player and longtime defensive coordinator, who takes over for his father, Larry Kehres.
The elder Kehres, who is the school’s athletics director, retired from coaching after the 2012 season. He coached the Purple Raider for 27 seasons and led them to their national titles.
“They had an outstanding group last year. We expect them to reload. They always have,” Leonard said. “We’re going to see some new faces with some new names, so at least they’ve got a little bit of inexperience.
“Couple that with our experience, maybe it’ll be a whole lot better game.”