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DI-A is set to be back for its fourth season in 2013/2014. As is the rule, there have been some big changes this offseason.
For starters, two conferences will be playing in the fall. The Big Ten played its regular season in the fall of 2012 and held a playoff in the spring of 2013. This season it will play through to a championship in the fall. The Rugby East, which has added Wheeling Jesuit, will do the same. Both of conferences are expected to compete in a newly formed East Coast championship in the fall, too.
Wheeling Jesuit isn’t the only varsity program to join DI-A, as Lindenwood has moved to the Mid-South, joining Davenport, Life and Arkansas State.
There has been some attrition from DI-A, as well, with Texas leaving for the Varsity Cup and a couple of teams getting into disciplinary trouble. Army’s program is still in limbo following an e-mail scandal, and it’s unclear if the Black Knights will compete this fall. It’s also unclear if Nebraska, who is also under disciplinary review from its university, will be active this season.
Currently, the Big Ten is planning on having nine teams this fall, Nebraska not included, and doing away with its divisional schedule. Instead, teams will play six games against their possible eight opponents, and the top two teams will play in the championship game at the end of the season.
Chief among the DI-A’s changes, however, is the decision to allow teams to compete in DI-A, even if they’re not committed to participating in the postseason.
Last offseason, the majority of DI-A members voted to not allow teams to compete in DI-A if they had no intention of participating in the playoffs, effectively excluding Varsity Cup teams and conferences which included Varsity Cup teams. It was a controversial decision that didn’t sit well with the likes of the PAC Rugby Conference and BYU. Those entities, if they so chose, could come back into the DI-A fold this coming season.
“The idea is a conference like the PAC could join. They’ll all be offered a bid, obviously, if they earn it, and there’s not much question that they would earn one, if not two bids, at least. And if they turn the bid down, that’s their prerogative and we’ll move on to the next best teams who are interested in coming. Each conference is guaranteed one seed, and everything else will be selected at-large,” DI-A commissioner Kevin Battle told RUGBYMag.
“My job as the commissioner and our job as USA Rugby is to make our championships something that people would not want to miss, that they would do everything they can to participate in it. Obviously, that hasn’t been the case in recent history. Instead of trying to strong-arm teams and tell them what they must do postseason, it’s up to me and it’s up to our events department to put on a championship that’s a well-planned, well-funded, and ultimately and hopefully, a well-attended championship event that teams won’t want to miss.”
Texas A&M and Central Washington turned down DI-A playoff berths in 2013. Central joined the Varsity Cup mid-season, and the Aggies cited travel costs when declining a challenge match against Arkansas State.
“There were a lot of positives to the Greensboro event this year, but obviously we missed a lot in terms of fan support and crowd there,” added Battle, who says the DI-A final made money despite having a small crowd on site. “But I think we’re on the right path and some of those changes and improvements we can make I think are easy tweaks – a little bit more planning and marketing.”
Another big change for DI-A is its playoff makeup. The league has expanded its playoff field to 12 teams. The top four at the end of the regular season will receive a bye to the quarterfinals. The next eight will play the first round. The playoff seeds and match-ups will also be figured differently, with season-long rankings factoring in.
“Still outlining the final bits to the [rankings] formula, but certainly it’s going to be win/loss, strength of schedule obviously will be a part of that, but we’ll also have conference commissioners, as well as myself, the director of college rugby and probably at least one other third party who will have a vote as well,” said Battle.
“We’ll seed [the first round] based on geography, for the most part. If you have an eight and 12 who are pretty close in geography but not from the same conference, it makes sense for us to pair them up together for their first-round match-up, versus flying someone all the way across the country with a week or two’s notice.”
DI-A has also increased its playoff travel compensation. According to one DI-A coach, quarterfinal teams received $5,000 if they traveled to a quarterfinal match and $10,000 for traveling to a semifinal or the final. Battle said he couldn’t get specific with the amount of money DI-A awarded for postseason travel, or what it plans to award this season, but that the budget has increased. However, the regular season travel assistance is going by the wayside.
“We want to invest in looking after our teams in postseason as well as not sticking them with a financial penalty for their success,” he said. “My three-year goal from the time that I started was to make sure that no team would have to pay for travel or hotel to compete in the first round all the way through to the championship. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting pretty close. By year three we will hit that goal, where our teams will not have to pay for the postseason, and that’s something that we think is really important.”
While dates have been announced for all of USA Rugby's other college championships, and the Varsity Cup has named its championship date, DI-A's has not been revealed.