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The third rendition of the Varsity Cup kicks off this weekend across five campuses nationwide. It was supposed to be six, but as was announced earlier this week, USA Rugby’s postseason ban of Oklahoma for the eligibility violations of the former Sooners coach will see Utah receive a bye to the quarterfinals.
For the second-straight year, Texas and Notre Dame will do battle in the tournament’s opening round. Last year, Texas was elated to score a 55-33 defeat over the Fighting Irish. This game kicks off Friday night under the lights in Austin, Texas. The prize for the winner? An unsavory date with No. 2 Cal in the quarterfinals. Therefore, this game in Austin, for all intents and purposes, is the Super Bowl of the season for both Notre Dame and Texas.
In Westwood, Calif. Saturday, Air Force seeks its first-ever Varsity Cup victory, while UCLA tries for its second. The Zoomies fell 81-28 in the 2013 quarterfinals to Central Washington, and last year they were felled 71-24 by Utah in the opening round. UCLA lost a lopsided quarterfinal, 69-8, to eventual champion BYU in 2013, but beat Oklahoma 77-12 in the first round last year. The Bruins were then shutout 41-0 by Cal in the quarters.
UCLA has had a mixed spring. The Bruins played Cal to an uncharacteristically close 18-12 result, but they also dropped close games to San Diego State and Arizona State, and they were blanked by Utah, 38-0. It’s been a short spring for Air Force, which has really only managed three 15s matches. So with both teams not coming in at full pace, this one is a toss-up.
In Ellensburg, Wash., Central Washington welcomes Arizona State to the Varsity Cup. The Sun Devils are a very competitive team with some good results this season, but Central Washington has reached the semifinals of the Varsity Cup every year. The Wildcats are bolstered this season by turning varsity, which has seen an already professional bunch become even more well-run, and the results are expected to show.
Central Washington’s kryptonite, and an ace up Arizona State’s sleeve, is regular season competition. Isolated in the Pacific Northwest, Central doesn’t have much competition before the playoffs. Playing the best men’s club team in the country, Seattle Saracens, in a home-and-home series certainly will help. ASU, which competes in one of the toughest conferences in the nation – the PAC – will be battle tested. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, that hasn’t mattered in the first round the last two years for CWU.
Moving east of the Mississippi River, Dartmouth hosts Navy in Hanover, NH. The Midshipmen blanked the Big Green, 32-0, in the quarterfinals in 2013. That was on Navy’s home turf, but the Midshipmen are still the favorites this go-round. They are coming off tough losses this spring to Army and Wheeling Jesuit, but at least they’ve gotten outside. Dartmouth has barely been able to assemble ahead of this weekend, let alone get game time, with a typically brutal winter burying the playing surfaces in Hanover.
Maybe the most intriguing match of the opening round features Clemson hosting Arkansas State. The Red Wolves left the toughest conference in the country, the Mid-South, for the Varsity Cup this season. In two of the last three years, the Red Wolves have lost to an eventual champion. In 2013 they fell in the D1A semifinals to Life. Life went on to win it all. In 2012 ASU lost by seven to BYU in the National Championship game.
So the addition of Arkansas State to the Varsity Cup was big, big news. But the Red Wolves of 2014/2015 haven’t looked like the Red Wolves of the previous three seasons. Crippled by injury and graduation, they dropped a game to Davenport and were shut out by rival Life.
ASU still has lots of experience and talent, but the stable isn’t as deep as it has been. On the other side of the ball is Clemson, which has squeezed in good tests against Navy, Life and Wheeling Jesuits this spring. The Tigers are hungry for their first Varsity Cup win, so Saturday’s result will go a long way in showing whether Arkansas State is a real contender this season.
That’s sort of the story line to watch this first weekend – is there a team that can prevent a third-straight BYU/Cal final? If so, who? Arkansas State, Central Washington and Utah seem to be the only legitimate dark horses, but we’ll know more in a few days.