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McCUTCHEON: Historic isn't enough sometimes

College football players all know there will come a day when they will take the pads off for the last time.

Most know it is coming. The last game of a disappointing season or the finale of a national title run all end the same way: tears and hugs by those players never to put on their school’s jersey again.

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The Dakota Wesleyan University football team experienced something different. After closing its season with four straight wins, the Tigers had to wait to find out if their season would continue with one more game.

Despite its best season in 20 years, DWU did not make the playoffs after coming into the final week with an outside shot at the postseason.

The Tigers finished 8-3 and 7-2 in the Great Plains Athletic Conference, but they failed to earn the school’s first playoff appearance since 1992.

Of the 16 schools selected for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics playoffs, four had three losses, just like DWU.

Why were these teams selected? Why was the best team at DWU in two decades left out?

The Tigers started 1-2, including a loss to the University of Wisconsin-Stout, a mediocre NCAA Division III opponent, and eventual GPAC runner-up and playoff participant Northwestern College.

The slow start made the Tigers an afterthought in the national polls, but after three straight narrow wins, DWU was receiving votes and its offense was clicking.

Just when things were looking up, then came an Oct. 19 meeting with the then top-ranked Morningside Mustangs at Joe Quintal Field. If the Tigers could have looked good against one of the nation’s best then, even in defeat, coaches around the country would likely have taken notice.

Unfortunately for DWU, star running back Francois Barnaud was limited by an injury and it got blown out on its home field 63-27. The Tigers then disappeared again from the national polls.

After the game, Tiger coach Ross Cimpl said his team needed to refocus as there was still plenty to play for. He knew that four wins to close out the regular season would give DWU only its third team in 126 years to achieve at least eight victories.

That’s just what the Tigers did. But winning their last four — seven of their last eight — was still not enough. When the final regular season poll came out, DWU was ranked 20th, missing a shot at the playoffs by four spots.

The Tigers very well could have been one of the top 16 teams in the NAIA. At times, the team certainly passed the eye ball test.

Barnaud had a record-breaking season in the Tiger backfield, breaking the school’s single-season rushing record by nearly 600 yards, one year removed from being sidelined with a back injury. He finished second in the country with 172 yards per game.

Wide receiver Anthony Muilenburg was back after missing last year with an injury as well, and performed at the high bar he set in his All-American junior season. Quarterback Jon Bane simply continued to rewrite DWU record books.

On defense, if you eliminate the lopsided loss to Morningside, DWU held its opponents to just 12 points per game after starting 1-2.

However, the Tigers’ schedule created another obstacle. DWU failed to beat a single team in the final top 25. The Tigers played just two teams in the final poll — Morningside and Northwestern — which both topped DWU.

The Tigers’ lone win over a ranked team came against Doane College, which was ranked 20th at the time, but finished the season without receiving votes.

In comparison, the final team to make the NAIA playoff field was St. Ambrose University, which ended up playing a much tougher schedule. St. Ambrose finished with wins over three teams that were ranked at the time it played them.

Ottawa University, the second to last team in the field, took down a No. 2 Missouri Valley team early in the season and another playoff qualifier in Tabor in the final week.

The Tigers can only play the teams on their schedule, but failing to find a signature win hurt their chances.

Losses at the wrong time, key injuries in big games and a schedule with few big wins ended DWU’s season, perhaps earlier than deserved.

It speaks to the beauty of college football. Every game matters. Opportunities to impress are scarce and sometimes a historic season is simply not good enough.