The MIAC 3: Top games on the gridiron to watch for this weekend

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The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference has a rich tradition of football excellence spanning the entire state.

From the great Gustavus days of the mid-1900s, to the legacy of John Gagliardi and St. Johns, to the emergence of Glenn Caruso and St. Thomas, the only college conference contained within Minnesota's borders has been playing football nearly 100 years, and it's about time the storied tradition is recognized.

Every week, we'll preview the top three games within the conference to get you prepped for the weekend action. Last week, St. Johns took their second loss of the year at the hands of Gustavus, St. Thomas edged Augsburg to keep their postseason hopes alive, and Bethel pounded Hamline.

Two more weeks, here's what we're watching for.

1. Concordia @ St. Thomas, 1:10 p.m., O'Shaughnessy Field, St. Paul:It took every last ounce of effort the St. Thomas defense had last week to hang on at Augsburg, but they did so, with a 17-14 win keeping the faintest of Tommie playoff hopes alive. Quarterback Alex Fenske did coach Glenn Caruso no favors last Saturday, throwing three interceptions and leading the Tommie offense to just 231 total yards. Yuck. The defense has been what has kept their squad together all year, and after giving up just 14 points last weekend, they lead the MIAC in scoring defense, having given up just 12.6 points per game. This is UST's last test, with winless St. Olaf the last regular season game for St. Thomas, so another top notch performance will be needed on the defensive side of the ball. It won't be easy to stop the Cobbers, as they've moved into second on the conference's scoring offense list at more than 35 per game. The Cobbers, however, go into St. Paul on a poor note, having nearly dropped a game at Carleton. The Knights only wins this season are over Hamline and St. Olaf in tight contests, so to only beat Carleton by eight is worrisome for coach Terry Horan and Concordia. Still, with the steady-handed Griffin Neal under center, it has to be a sense of calm for Horan. The Cobbers playoff hopes are likely on the line here as well, as a second loss for the No. 17 team in the nation would be damning. Neal's steady hand will be tested this week, as No. 21 St. Thomas is giving up just 164 yards per game through the air and have gotten to the quarterback an MIAC-high 19 times. Offensively, Concordia definitely has the edge, but the Tommie D is among the best in the nation. All that may need to happen for St. Thomas to win is Fenske to take care of the ball, but that is no sure thing, as he has been up and down since replacing starter Matt O'Connell. This game is likely the difference between a spot in the NCAA tournament and not getting to the postseason, with the winner setting themselves up nicely. A showdown of ranked teams, this will be good.

2. St. Olaf @ Bethel, 1 p.m., Royals Stadium, Arden Hills:With postseason hopes over for every MIAC team aside from the two squads we've already mentioned and these Bethel Royals, this choice was easy. Bethel spanked Hamline 55-6 last week, with quarterback Erik Peterson putting up another stellar performance, throwing for three touchdowns and nearly 300 yards. St. Olaf is in trouble this week, as they remain winless. If there would ever be a time to put up a performance, it would be now for the Oles, coming off a bye week and a competitive Cereal Bowl in Northfield against Carleton the week before. That being said, if there was a line in Vegas on this game, we expect that it would be somewhere around 35-40 points in favor of Bethel considering the Oles are on the road and the Royals are the seventh-best team in the land. Bethel's final game of the year is at St. Johns, so expect this to act as a tuneup for their chance to finish off an undefeated season and take an outright MIAC title.

3. Carleton @ Gustavus, 1 p.m., Hollingsworth Field, St. Peter:This game has no bearing on the postseason, but it is key for these programs as they continue to build towards future success. The Gusties, who won just four conference games the last two seasons combined, have a chance at their fourth of the 2013 season Saturday. The Knights, who we mentioned earlier haven't had a quality win yet, have been very competitive as of late, winning two of their last four games while losing to powerful St. Johns and Concordia by only 18 points combined. The solid results are behind the arm of QB Connor Lynch, who is having a nice resurgence of late, averaging nearly 270 yards in the air the last three weeks. The Gusties have seen running back Jeffrey Dubose, their big offensive weapon, struggle lately, posting a combined three yards per carry three of his last four games. Gustavus' defense is their best unit and continues to be the difference in games, as they held St. Johns to 308 yards while picking off Johnnie QB Nick Martin twice in a three-point double overtime win. Four and five win seasons can mean a lot for a program coming from sub-par years, and the Gusties have a tough season finale at Concordia, so they'd like to make hay while the sun shines in this MIAC contest. It's a game they should expect to win.

The other two games feature Augsburg in the non-conference against Macalester, and Hamline visiting the Johnnies.

Have a great weekend, and stay warm at your game of choice.

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