(Update: the original run of this article said there was one independent team competing in DI-AA this season. That's incorrect, as New Mexico has been playing DII. Additionally, the author didn't originally consider the Southeastern playoff structure. Four teams advance to the SCRC playoffs in April.)
Three teams will receive at-large bids to the USA Rugby DI-AA playoffs this spring, with 13 automatic berths going to conference champions.
There is a 14th conference, Northern California, which doesn’t have an automatic bid, because it has less than the required seven member teams. And there is one independent -- New Mexico. If the College Competition Committee’s decision on Cal is overturned, there will be two.
Who deserves the at-large bids? That’s what I’m going to try to answer.
If Cal is deemed eligible for DI-AA postseason play, then the Golden Bears should be a lock for one at-large bid. Do I think they should be eligible? No. They would be joining the division mid-season. But if they’re eligible, no team in the country will have a better body of work to support its case for an at-large bid.
For anyone else in the country, whether or not a bid is deserved will be based on the grading criteria. Is it finishing second in one of the nation’s toughest leagues, or is it a team’s overall body of work?
If it’s the former, then the runners-up in the Southeastern, Mideast and Pacific Mountain West Conferences have strong arguments. Those teams could conceivably be LSU, Bowling Green and San Diego State.
If it’s the latter, then you have to consider Tennessee’s preseason loss to Maryland, LSU’s losses to Texas State and Florida State and Bowling Green’s loss to Clemson. But, Tennessee, LSU and Bowling Green were in vulnerable positions in those games; coming fresh off of sevens, just starting play or on game two in as many days.
The ripple effect of the Competitions Committee trying to vet the impressiveness of preseason wins and losses could bring forth big changes in the way teams operate. Would Bowling Green pick up a pair of road games on short notice in 2013 if the Clemson loss costs the Falcons a playoff spot? Would Clemson agree to play South Carolina in the spring if losing was a factor in keeping them from an at-large berth?
For that reason, and because I know first hand how hard it can be to decipher if so-and-so was playing it’s a-side or not, I think you have to examine an at-large team’s play in conference, or at least give it more weight, and then try to determine what the best leagues in the country are.
Obviously, preseason inter-conference games would still be factored in. It’d be near impossible, as a member of the Competitions Committee, to ignore the fact that Clemson lost to South Carolina, and South Carolina has lost three-straight games by big figures. On the flip side, it’s hard to not give Clemson credit for a win over Bowling Green.
But, what should make or break Clemson is its conference play, not how poorly it played three months before league play or how big a win it scored on the Sunday of a conference bye week.
So back to what I said I was going to try to do: figure out who the three at-large teams will be. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to eliminate Cal from contention. They’re still ineligible.
My picks for the at-large bids
Northern California, with just five teams, has three teams that would win at least three other leagues; Sac State, Chico State and Santa Clara. Thy have Stanford, too. Though the Cardinal had a lackluster preseason, they did the same last year and reached the National quarterfinals. NorCal is lacking quantity, not quality.
The Southeastern Conference is very strong at the top. Tennessee, I think, will beat LSU for the SCRC title, but LSU could win half a dozen other conferences in the country. So could Florida, who lost at home in Gainesville to Tennessee already. If the Tigers get through the SCRC regular season undefeated (and they play Florida March 17th), and play Tennessee competitively in the conference title game, I believe they’ll garner an at-large.
San Diego State
UCSB is the defending National runners-up, and the Aztecs played them close in their first meeting. SDSU should beat everyone else in the Pacific Mountain West this season, and there’s the rematch with the Gauchos. Whoever is left in second in the PMWC should get an at-large bid.
On the bubble
The Mideast may no longer be the best conference in the country, but, then again, it may be. Bowling Green, Miami and Indiana all got pummeled by Davenport, but Davenport is really, really good. That loss to Clemson doesn’t help.
I know it would be a stretch to give the SCRC a third team, but think about it. Florida went undefeated in the fall Florida Cup, establishing its supremacy over half of the South Independent Rugby Conferene, the better half. Florida also came within three points of making the final four last year and throttled ACRL champion Maryland in the round of 16 by nearly 60 points. Florida is really good, and could be the best team left out of the playoffs. Florida and LSU could meet twice more before the end of the season, and the higher aggregate scorer could get a bid.