Aaron Roelfs and the Dutch face a stiff first-round NCAA playoff challenge

PELLA — The NCAA Division III football playoffs are returning to Central College.

The 10-0 Dutch will take on 8-2 Bethel University (Minn.) Saturday at noon at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium.

The 32-team playoff field was revealed late Sunday afternoon.

It’s Central’s 22nd NCAA playoff appearance, its second in a row and the sixth for coach Jeff McMartin. Now in his 18th season, McMartin previously led Central to berths in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2019, compiling a 3-5 record in those games. The Dutch reached the second round in 2019.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to play at home in front of our fans,” McMartin said. “We’ve played really well at home this year and so it’s exciting to be able to host a playoff game.”

Central, ranked No. 10 in the AFCA Division III Coaches’ Poll and No. 9 in the D3football.com Top 25, received an automatic berth to the field after capturing a record 32nd American Rivers Conference title with an 8-0 league mark. There are 27 conferences with automatic-qualifying berths and five at-large selections chosen by the Division III Football Committee.

Bethel was ranked No. 12 by the AFCA and No 13 by D3football.com, but lost the MIAC title in the final second to Saint John’s University (Minn.) Saturday, 29-28. That left the Royals hoping for one of five at-large berths in the NCAA field, which came through for them Sunday.

Bethel is making its 10th playoff appearance and previously played at Central in the 2007 quarterfinals, defeating the Dutch 27-13 on an ice-covered field following a storm.

Saturday’s winner takes on the winner of a contest featuring 8-2 Aurora University (Ill.) at 9-1 Wheaton College (Ill.), the team that eliminated Central in 2019.

It’s a difficult draw, McMartin said.

“Bethel is a really good football team that was within one play of being a conference champion,” he said. “It’ll be a great challenge and a great opportunity for us.”

Central has the fourth-highest number of appearances in Division III history. The Dutch have a 22-20 playoff record, winning the 1974 Division III crown and making three appearances in the championship game at the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl (1974, 1984, 1988).

This year’s title game is slated for Friday, Dec. 17 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. The game will be telecast by ESPNU. North Central College (Ill.) defeated the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the 2019 championship at Shenandoah, Texas.

NCAA Division III football regional bracket

Bethel (Minn.) (8-2) at Central (10-0)

Aurora (Ill.) (8-2) at Wheaton (Ill.) (9-1)

Rose-Hulman (Ind.) (8-2) at DePauw (8-2)

Greenville (Ill.) (8-2) at Wis.-Whitewater (10-0)

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