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Kutztown with the carry. Ian Muir photo

The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship is the holy grail of collegiate rugby. There is no greater stage than the turf on PPL Park, no better conduit to the masses than the NBC cameras and no bigger prize than the Pete Dawkins Trophy.

It all kicks off tomorrow, and after watching some of the teams train in Philadelphia today, I’ll make some bold, and maybe not so bold, predictions.

The biggest training ground revelation? Indiana looks really good. They have some big, strong, fast athletes. The Hoosiers haven’t played postseason rugby of any kind, 15s or 7s, in some time, but rest assured they’re good. Indiana is the one true dark horse that might jump up and make a splash.

Arkansas State got out and sweat Friday, too. One Red Wolf not on the training ground was Michael Baska, who is a pivotal player for ASU. Baska is apparently a little under the weather, but he’s expected to lace up nonetheless.

An underlying subplot for Arkansas State this weekend is its coaching situation. The CRC is the swan song for outgoing coach Mani Delaibatiki, and not unlike college football bowl season, it’s always a story line worth following when a coach who knows he’s leaving is leading a team full of players who know he’s leaving in a postseason competition. How will the emotions and opinions and all the stuff that goes with such a big change affect the team’s on-field performance, if at all?

Some, like I was, will be surprised by the absence of Madison Hughes. Though his likeness is plastered on thousands of programs and will be well represented at PPL Park on the weekend, Hughes himself will not be suiting up. It’s probably safe to assume that’s in an effort to keep Team USA’s captain healthy for the Olympic qualifier in two weeks’ time.

Still, Dartmouth looks like the real deal. The Big Green have a couple of football converts on the team, a Canadian up-and-comer and some other experienced talent. Dartmouth is still in the hunt.

Cal is the team to beat. The Bears are going to miss Russell Webb, who was injured in the Varsity Cup final. That’s a very significant loss for a team trying to three-peat. Still, Cal has markedly better horses than anyone else in the pool. As for the other teams, Notre Dame appears to be much improved, Virginia Tech produced some results this spring thanks to continued commitment to 7s, and Boston College is a complete wildcard.

Kutztown should go undefeated in this pool. No one has more experience than the Golden Bears this spring, and no one has more wins. Alex Faison-Donahoe could be a household name after the weekend. Navy and Air Force both have upset ability if a moment of weakness appears for Kutztown. Temple is better, but it’s going to be tough sledding in this pool.

This is the most intriguing pool, in my opinion. Life is the logical favorite, but I’m not sure the Running Eagles can overwhelm anyone with a few key superior athletes like in years past. There’s no Paris Hollis, Cam Dolan or Harley Davidson. You already know I like Indiana. Clemson is extremely well coached. And Alabama reminds me of last year’s Michigan – a team no one expects anything from that has a bunch of capable tough guys looking to surprise. Still, smart money has to pick Life.

Pool D
This one is pretty stratified, with UCLA and Arkansas State being a cut above Michigan and Texas. Both the Bruins and Red Wolves are title contenders, and it’s a shame that whoever loses the showdown at 2:40 p.m. Saturday might miss out on the Cup Quarters altogether.  

Pool E
Wide open. Dartmouth has a good team. Arizona should be desperately looking to improve on a 15th-place finish last year, and the Wildcats have a capable roster. St. Joe’s has been really good this spring, and Penn State always has a salty side. I won’t be shocked if any one of these teams wins the pool, though I think Dartmouth and St. Joe’s are most likely to do it.

How will the knockout rounds go? That depends so much on bracket pairings and injuries that occur on day one and so many other factors that only a mad man would pretend to know anything about it. But, I will say I think there are five teams most capable of winning it all, in no particular order – Arkansas State, Kutztown, Cal, Life and UCLA. Dartmouth and Indiana are my dark horses.