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HODGE: DWU should feel slighted, but playoff message is clear

Not even 24 hours removed from missing the playoffs, several members of the Dakota Wesleyan University football team were back in the weight room Monday.

Not even 24 hours removed from missing the playoffs, several members of the Dakota Wesleyan University football team were back in the weight room Monday.

It's possible players wanted to burn off some proverbial frustration after the NAIA Football Championship Series selection committee left out a 9-2 DWU team from the 16-team field.

Or, maybe the bottomless feeling the Tigers felt on Sunday after being told one of their best seasons in program history wasn't enough to warrant a playoff spot motivated them to be even better in 2016.

If the Tigers are wise, it's the latter.

The NAIA selection committee places an emphasis on earning your way into the playoffs by winning conference championships. Any team with a resume that doesn't have a championship is completely left to chance.

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To receive a guaranteed spot, an NAIA team has to win its respective conference and finish in the top 20 of the final coaches poll.

Looking at the 16 teams selected for the playoffs, 10 of them won their respective conferences, meaning DWU was fighting for one of six at-large berths.

As a third-place team in the Great Plains Athletic Conference, receiving one of only six at-large berths is a tall task to muster, even if the Tigers did have a solid body of work. For example, if DWU had made it, the GPAC would have had three teams represented. Only the Mid-South Conference had three teams qualify for the postseason this year, and no conference had three teams make it in 2014.

The DWU faithful could argue the Tigers' resume was more than enough to merit a playoff spot. And, for the most part, those arguments are valid.

DWU won nine games for only the second time in program history, played a grueling schedule that included seven road contests (which DWU won six of) and only four home games, competed in a conference that at one point had five teams ranked in the NAIA coaches poll, lost its only games against then-top five opponents and had legitimate playmakers on both offense and defense that could strike fear into opposing playoff teams.

But more importantly, DWU finished as the No. 14-ranked team in the final coaches poll. If the NAIA truly wanted to select the best 16 teams in the country, you'd have to figure the Tigers would be let in.

Unfortunately for head coach Ross Cimpl and the Tigers, that's not the world the NAIA lives in. It does seem unfair that a senior class that came into the program with no expectations left college with a program record for most wins in a four-year span (30), but never got to play in a playoff game.

But in short, the Tigers' reality is pretty cut and dry.

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If DWU really wants to end a playoff drought that extends all the way back to 1992, it needs to find a way to surpass longtime GPAC powerhouse Morningside College-the No. 1 team in the nation which drubbed DWU 76-20 on Oct. 17.

Going forward, the Tigers have to find a way to close that gap.

Getting in the weight room the day after the season ends is a good start.

At the very least, if DWU can't beat the Mustangs, it needs to beat everyone else and finish second in the GPAC. Had the Tigers won their matchup with Doane College-the GPAC's other playoff representative-this season, Cimpl and company would be preparing for their upcoming playoff game on Saturday, not turning in their equipment.

The DWU football program has made tremendous strides under Cimpl in just four years. The Tigers thought they made enough of a stride in 2015 to participate in the postseason.

The NAIA disagreed.

Entering year five of Cimpl's tenure, if the 2016 team wants to make school history, they better not leave it in the hands of the NAIA, because that only ended in disappointment for the 2015 Tigers.

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