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The DIA post season is really starting to take shape with only a few weeks left to play but questions remain if the current format is the best scenario. It is arguably the best field ever in DI rugby but the playoff format poses some issues.
With the elimination of the Varsity Cup and the addition of several top teams back in the fold of DIA, the playoff bracket will be expanded to include 16 teams. Several coaches and DIA Commissioner Kevin Battle have confirmed that the bracket will feature the seven conference winners and the top Independent team getting an automatic berth and a home game in the first round of the playoffs. No conference winner shall be seeded lower than eighth overall. The top four conference winners, (or three and the independent team, which will be BYU) will be divided into the four regions.
This means, however, that conferences who have been traditionally weaker, like Red River and Rocky Mountain will have top eight seeds when none of the teams in their respective conferences are ranked higher than 18.
None of the current teams in the Rocky Mountain except for Colorado and Air Force have picked up post-season wins, since the DIA’s conception in 2011. Air Force defeated Cal Poly in 2016 and Colorado won a pair of early round games in 2013 and 2014. Other than that the conference has struggled in the post season. This year looks to be on the same trajectory as a weaker than usual Utah team beat up Rocky Mountain conference champions Colorado State in a friendly. Currently, Utah is ranked 17 and is likely to miss out on the playoffs entirely.
The Red River joined DIA in 2014 and has yet to pick up a post season win. In fact, most of their games outside the conference have not been competitive. LSU gave up 100 points to Life this season while Baylor was hammered at home in the first round of last year’s playoffs by Arizona. The winner of this conference is likely to play either Lindenwood or Life, depending on who ultimately loses out of the Mid-South title and is seeded ninth.
Part of the reason the playoffs are structured this way is that teams are required to pay 2,000 dollars to be a part of DIA and that does not include CIPP. The costs to participate are high and DIA needs to entice teams and conferences to remain.
“They need to keep these conferences happy and paying their dues. Granting an automatic spot in the playoffs and a home playoff game to the conference winner is one way of doing that,” said one DIA coach.
The problem will only be exacerbated in the near future, if and when the Liberty Conference decides to participate in the post season. The Liberty Conference currently only has one team ranked in the Rugby Today Top 25 (Iona) and nobody ranked in the DIA Top 20/
“That was essentially a 36,000 cash grab by DIA,” the coach added.
Currently Colorado State, the winner of the Rocky Mountain is ranked 18 in the DIA poll. None of the Red River contenders, Baylor, LSU and Texas A&M are in the top 20. Thus, two teams who are in the top 16 will be left out in the cold come playoff time.
This format currently also makes it an uphill battle for independent teams. BYU will not likely be affected as a top four team, but schools like Navy, Central Washington and Grand Canyon at best can be a nine seed or lower and will not see a first round home game despite possibly being better ranked than their opponent and some conference winners.
The current rankings indicate that St. Mary’s, Life, Cal and BYU will be the four anchors of each region. Leaving the other conference winners, Indiana, Penn State, Colorado State and the winner of the Red River to round out the top eight. A team like Lindenwood, Arizona, Navy, or Army at nine or 10 could have an advantageous game in the first round of the playoffs but it will also mean playing on the road.
Many teams will determine learn their fate in the coming weeks. Some are in control of their own destiny while others played out their schedule in the fall and will have to wait.
There are a lot of issues with the current format but one thing is clear. This year will have the toughest bracket we have seen since the creation of DIA. For the first time in half a decade, we will have a true national champion.