ROANOKE, Va. If the Stagg Bowl, Division III's national championship game, is supposed to provide the nation a glimpse at how college football's other side lives, it's failing in one major aspect.
On the BCS big stage, the SEC is less than four weeks from its sixth consecutive national championship, LSU and Alabama facing off in a title game whose participants are chosen not by playoff but standings based on human polls and computer rankings.
On Friday night in Salem, Va., a national champion will be crowned, the culmination of a month-long, 32-team tournament. But if proponents of a playoff in the Football Bowl Subdivision want to claim that deciding a champion "on the field provides a title opportunity to more teams, they shouldnt point to Salem. In Stagg Bowl XXXIX, Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater will play for the title for the seventh time.
In a row.
Much to the chagrin of the 237 other schools that started playing Div. III football back in September, the usual, dominant suspects are back for an unprecedented sixth straight rematch. Just as they've done since 2005, the schools earned their way here through the kind of playoff system the FBS doesn't have. But the Warhawks and Purple Raiders have been ranked 1-2 all season.
And almost every season. This championship game is the 14th for Mount Union, a 10-time champion that's missed the Stagg Bowl just twice since 1996. Whitewater lost its first two trips to Salem but has won the last two, evening its Stagg Bowl record with Mount Union at three wins for each side and adding a little extra juice to this meeting.
A Warhawks win Friday might mark an official passing of the torch.
"It gets more exciting every time," Whitewater coach Lance Leipold said. "There is always a new injection of energy or excitement about getting to this point. It has not gotten old and I don't believe that it ever will."
Leipold is 71-3 since taking over as Whitewater's coach in 2007. He's lost all of one game to a team not named Mount Union.
On the other sideline will be Larry Kehres, whose record in 26 seasons in charge of the Purple Raiders is 317-23-3. Whereas Leipold, a former Whitewater quarterback, took over for longtime coach Bob Berezowitz, Kehres has built a power at the Alliance, Ohio, school. By now, he's qualified for a post-football job as tour guide in the Salem-Roanoke area.
"We get older, but (the winning) never does," Kehres said. "It's a new group of players. Going to Salem, playing in the Stagg Bowl, participating in the activities that surround the game, it's a weeklong experience and one these guys will never forget. Does winning through the playoffs and playing the same team ever get old? To a competitor, no. Our older players want to go out on top. Our young guys want to go out and do it all again."
Mount Union's players had to cram their semester exams in before a Tuesday practice that preceded a seven-hour bus ride to Salem. Whitewater flew in Tuesday evening the teams first this season spent in a hotel following its first plane trip of 2011.
So, there is some element to small-time college football in this year's Stagg Bowl, but it's not in the records or traditions. It's "only" Division III, but these coaches haven't won a combined 95 percent of their games and Kehres' record actually drags down that number a fraction without a standard of excellence.
"Going all the way back to the first time we met (in '07), I was just so impressed not only with Mount Union's athletes but their level of play and level of consistency," Leipold said. "They're so well-coached. They play hard. They're prepared. It's a tremendous challenge, and by no means is anybody in our program surprised we're playing Mount Union again."
Kehres said Whitewater "is a team that has everything you need to have to make it (this far). I think most people expected Whitewater to make it back here."
He left out the obvious. That "everybody" expected Mount to make it back here, too.
The Stagg Bowl is usually played on a Saturday afternoon. The last night game, in 2001, was also won by Mount Union in the midst of an all-levels record 55-game win streak that carried from 2000-03. Whitewater comes into this weekend riding a 44-game win streak, right on the heels of what's nationally known as the gold standard of football win streaks, Oklahoma's 47-game win streak from 1953-57.
Kenyon College in Ohio had its streak of 31 straight Div. III NCAA mens swimming titles snapped last year, but in sports played on land, almost no one's done it like Mount Union and of late, no one's beaten the Purple Raiders except the Warhawks.
This year marks the fifth time both teams come in to the Stagg Bowl undefeated. All but one of the previous six Mount-Whitewater meetings has been decided in the fourth quarter.
The last two Stagg Bowl fourth quarters will undoubtedly be a point of discussion in Mount Union's practices this week. This losing stuff just doesn't happen, and Kehres said none of his players take the program's success for granted.
"When you actually play through a season, I dont think anybody understands how hard it is more than the players, he said. "If we (as coaches) take it for granted I think for people that know, they cant take it for granted. I think when you are engaged in that process, you dont take it for granted.
"You are trying too hard. You know its not easy. No one knows that better than a player.
For the first time since the late 90s, Mount Union has a class of seniors that gasp! face the prospect of moving on having won just one national title.
Friday night, that group gets its chance to leave that kind of history for someone else.