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Sixteen teams begin their campaign for the D1AA National Championship this weekend at four different sites.
The continued splintering of college rugby's postseason sees several teams make their first USA Rugby playoff appearance in quite a long time, while a few heavyweights are expected to cruise to the semifinals.
BOWLING GREEN, OHIO
The host Falcons are the team to beat. The MAC champs go up against Iowa State, runners-up in the Heart of America, in the opening round. The Cyclones have enjoyed some renewed success in their new league, but are likely up against it this weekend. Led by the likes of flyhalf Teddy Terezis, No. 8 Sean McFarland and hooker Mike Brown, BG is one of a handful of teams with realistic expectations of winning it all.
The other game will see Missouri take on Middle Tennessee State. Mizzou won the Heart of America conference, while MTSU finished second in the South Independent, losing big to SIRC Champ UCF. This is a toss-up. Both schools have a regular pipeline to experienced high school players, and both have had relative success in the past. The harsh reality is neither is likely to get past Bowling Green Sunday, should they win Saturday.
Pat's Pick: Bowling Green
STATE COLLEGE, PENNSYLVANIA
Perhaps the least compelling region in the D1AA playoffs is this one, as West Virginia is the lone conference champion. The Mountaineers did well to win the Keystone in the fall, but were jettisoned out of the American Collegiate Rugby Conference playoff in the opening round. Still, they've played the best competition on a regular basis out of everyone in this region.
The University of San Diego finished second in the Gold Coast, and is a bit of an unknown. Brown and Princeton won their way into the playoffs by finishing first and second in the Ivy's wildcard playoff, despite missing out on the conference's actually championship playoffs. In order to safely maintain its automatic bid to USA Rugby's D1AA playoffs, the Ivy decided to have two separate playoffs - one including seven-time defending champion Dartmouth, and one not. The latter was won by Brown.
Pat's Pick: West Virginia
This grouping has two teams that could potentially win another, weaker region, but are extreme long shots to get out of Knoxville. LSU and South Carolina emerge from the Southeastern, a conference that isn't as strong across the board as some, but plays a higher standard than most.
LSU has the unenviable task of facing Central Florida in the first round. UCF lost essentially nothing off its National Championship team from last year, and the Knights streamrolling through D1AA competition once again.
South Carolina vs. Georgia in the round of 16 is a rematch. When they met in SCRC regular-season play, the Gamecocks rolled 58-8.
Pat's Pick: Central Florida
PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA
There is no definitive favorite in this region. Long Beach and Arizona return to the D1AA postseason for the second year in a row. Last year, Long Beach upset the Wildcats, who were expected to advance with ease. That loss, the late Dave Sitton's last playoff game, is still fresh on the collective mind of the program. Under new head coach Sean Duffy, Arizona has proven capable of winning notable non conference games, beating the likes of Air Force and Notre Dame.
The other matchup is between traditional Pac-12 foes. Oregon finished second in the Northwest, behind juggernaut Central Washington. Stanford won the Pacific Western, but, like Oregon, didn't fare well against upper-echelon teams this season. Oregon is a program on the uptick, and Stanford is a bit of a wounded blueblood at the moment, making for an interesting storyline.
Pat's Pick: Arizona