Middlebury the Team to Beat in D-I Football

By Bill Murphy

There were quite a few question marks about Vermont Division I Football when the 2015 season kicked off. Middlebury was expected to be one of the staples. There was a wonder of how good they would be this time around, BUT, everyone expected the Tigers to be in the hunt and they are. After all, they are the champions until someone stakes their claim.

Just a little over the halfway point of the season, there are three unbeaten teams in the D-I ranks. Middlebury is 5-0 in State play, while Hartford and Rutland are both 4-0 in the Green Mountain State, having lost an out of state contest which they both schedule annually, in hopes of challenging their players to get better.  In Middlebury and Hartford, D-I has its last five state champions, so Rutland may be the states biggest hope of ending the reign. Middlebury has won the last two titles, while Hartford captured the three previous ones.

Middlebury’s road to a perfect season goes through Essex ( 1-4/home this Friday), at Rice (1-4/ Saturday the 10th at 1 p.m.) and at Champlain Valley Union (3-2/ Friday, the 16th at 7.) Dennis Smith’s Tigers do not meet either Hartford or Rutland in the regular campaign. The Hurricanes and Raiders do play each other in the regular season finale in White River, Jct. on Friday the 16th at 7. A big weakness of the twelve team division, is, that everyone does not meet, BUT, the eight team play-off is the trade off.

On the way to a possible battle of the undefeated in Week eight, Hartford travels to Mount Anthony (2-3) this Friday night at 7 p.m,. in what many people consider a trap game, versus a much improved team from Bennington, before hosting St. Johnsbury (2-3) on Friday the 9th at 7. During the same two weeks, Rutland has an interesting match-up with Brattleboro (3-2) on the road this Friday night at 7 p.m. , while a week later they host Bellows Free Academy of St. Albans (2-3). It will be fun to watch if the two teams can move on to the final meeting with unblemished marks.

Smith was just like the majority of fans, who wondered how the hierarchy will fall in place this fall. “We have lost a lot of good athletes the last two years. We do have nineteen seniors this year, BUT, I knew we would not be as athletic, BUT, I wasn’t sure, who would be in contention with us. The biggest surprise overall may be Brattleboro. I knew they were going to have a new coach and they have a strong running back and a good quarterback and they played us tough. It’s strange how the schedule works out. We don’t have to play Rutland and Hartford now, BUT, we will have to beat someone every week. People talk about streaks and all, every week someone is looking to beat us. I tell my kids to just worry about being 1-0 this week,” the eighth year head coach told the Northeast Sports Network.

Record wise Brattleboro and CVU at 3-2 have the inside track for the fourth D-I seed and homefield advantage in the first round of the post season. HOWEVER, any of the 2-3 teams (Colchester, MAU, St. Johnsbury, and BFA) could land there IF they win out. South Burlington at 0-5 is not expected to make the post season, BUT, if either Rice or Essex at 1-4, win out, they could end up in the play-offs. People wondered how Rice would fare, moving down from D-II, where they captured four of the last five State grid titles. Smith has a theory on that as well.

“I know people expected more from then, BUT, from my position, there are two things about them. I coached a lot of their players on the Shrine team and they were both good and athletic, so they lost a lot. Another thing is they have had injuries and a school that size is not as deep and that has hurt,” the Middlebury coach said.

There are two other Friday night D-I games this week as CVU is at Colchester and BFA is at South Burlington. The lone Saturday D-I contest has Rice at St. Johnsbury at 2 p.m.

Back to the subject of Middlebury and Hartford and their streak of a combined five straight Division I titles. They met in the finals in 2011 with Hartford easily prevailing 42-6, BUT, the two schools have much more of a play-off history in D-I and Smith was a part of all those (as an assistant earlier) and has forged a mutual admiration society with the Hurricanes. In four other previous post season meetings with Hartford in D-I, the Tigers won each time. They met in the semis in 2007, a 16-14 Tiger victory and they also had a semis triumph in 1996 14-7 and a title victory 14-13 the year before and also a 3-0 title winner in 2002.

“What I like about our rivalry with Hartford,” says Smith “is the respect both the players and coaches have for each other. It has continued over the years and when they are in either North/South or Shrine Games together, they find time to spend with each other. It is a healthy rivalry”.

Whether or not the two teams meet this year is still to be seen, BUT, regardless, there should be plenty of excitement down the stretch of the D-I season and there should be plenty of competition as well. Middlebury and Hartford may want to keep the title streak alive, BUT, unbeaten Rutland and the rest of the field want to have their say too and possibly start a streak of their own. Who was the last title team not named Middlebury or Hartford?

Back in 2009, Essex captured the title with a 48-14 victory over Rutland. In case you were wondering, Hartford won the two years prior to that, meaning the Tigers and Hurricanes also own seven of the last eight championships.