When college rugby competitions started forming along the lines of traditional NCAA conferences, teams from different LAUs, TUs, divisions and skill levels found themselves in the same leagues.
Proponents for the movement became fond of the saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats”. The same was said in regards to the part of the college restructuring plan that pushes clubs from FBS schools into DI rugby. In many cases, the rising tide has done its job.
There are some notable exceptions.
Georgia Tech and Duke, who both tried their hand in the Atlantic Coast Rugby League (ACRL), a conference shaped in the mold of the ACC, sank in the rising tide. The Blue Devils went 0-6 in the inaugural ACRL season and dropped back to DII. Georgia Tech’s only conference win in its two seasons was over Duke, and the Yellow Jackets left for the South Independent Rugby Conference.
But elsewhere, teams have stepped up to the plate, taken themselves more seriously, applied a more professional approach and become surprisingly competitive.
The Big Ten Universities Conference is the prime example. Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa are all competitive, and all are new to DI.
The Illini have competed in DII in the Midwest since 2010. They were relegated from DI following an 0-4 finish in the fall of 2009. Their last game in DI, prior to this season, was a 113-0 loss to Wisconsin, and they finished third in DII in Illinois last season, losing to Southern Illinois, Illinois State and Western Illinois.
But this season, Illinois already boasts wins over Nebraska and Minnesota, two teams who have played in DI in recent years. Minnesota even reached the Sweet 16 just two seasons ago.
Michigan State moved up to DI last season and finished dead last in the Mideast. They lost big to Ohio State and Purdue. This season, the Spartans are 2-0-1, having tied the Buckeyes and walloped the Boilermakers.
Last season, Michigan finished second in its LAU and lost in the first round of the Midwest DII playoffs. This season, the Wolverines are 2-1 with impressive wins over Purdue and Indiana.
Iowa moved up to DI last season, a year after losing in the Midwest DII quarterfinals. The Hawkeyes finished a competitive 3-3 in the DI-AA Midwest Conference last season and are in third place in the BTU West right now.
There are examples outside of the BTU, too. Pitt, which lost in the first round of the Midwest DII playoffs last spring, is now atop the DI Keystone Conference with a 3-0 record. Northern Illinois, which missed out on DII Nationals last season, is doing well in the MAC Schools Conference. Arkansas, in its second season up from DII, is 1-0 in the Heart of America after a 75-0 trouncing of Iowa State, which has long played DI in the Midwest. Don't look now, but Brown is in lockstep with Dartmouth in the Ivy. And Auburn has even started a rugby endowment.
There have been some embarrassing hidings, too, like Tennessee beating Kentucky 91-3. And there will be more. I personally shudder at the thought of Texas A&M playing Baylor in an Allied Rugby Conference league game and what that score could be. But those blowouts have always happened and they’ll continue to.
As long as more teams are committing to improvement and doing the hard work than are retreating back to the old way, we'll take some lopsided losses and defections. So kudos to the teams who have accepted the challenge to get better during this transition period. And bravo to the coaches, administrators and lobbyists who’ve raised the standard to which teams are held.