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Playoff Time in Most Competitive D1A Ever

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Playoff Time in Most Competitive D1A Ever

The bracket.

Saturday brings the opening round of the D1A playoffs and there are a couple of things to consider.

It's Different Because ...

This year the playoffs expanded to 16. No one gets a bye to the second round. Serendipity jumped in with eight of the top 16 teams being in the East and eight being in the West. That won't happen every year; there will be a time where we'll see things a bit more lopsided and the question will be whether someone gets shifted to the other side, or if a #17-ranked team gets in because it's #8 on that side of the country.

It's Also Different Because ...

No automatic bid exist anymore for conference champions. This came about after some teams that won their conference we just not in a position to do well in the playoffs against high seeds. It's asking a lot of teams that are still what we'd call college club teams to play a playoff game against a team that has varsity-level support on campus.

It's Like 2023 Because ...

Several teams have the capability of winning this championship. This is the result of year of competition among coaches and institutions to produce high-level men's rugby programs instead of just complaining that Cal gets all the present under the Christmas tree. First it was BYU and Saint Mary's who refused to throw up their hands in helplessness. Then it was Life, followed quickly by several more. But those college teams all then had to chase that consistency and become programs, not just teams—they had to be strong every year, not just when one or two super-talents showed up.

OK, Now To The Games

We've got a video:

But if you want more, here's more:

Yes we do think Mary Washington can be an upset special against Navy. That doesn't mean we're predicting a Navy loss—they are still favored—but this is just perhaps Navy's least-favorite matchup.

Navy, of course, lost to Cal recently and that was their first loss in  almost two years. So that can shake them up or just steel their resolve.

"As always we have plenty of work-ons but we saw good progression against Penn State," Navy DOR Gavin Hickie told GRR, referring to the game they played after Cal. "As a very young team we are growing week to week, so now that it is the playoffs, we are focused on getting the basics right against a very strong Mary Washington team."

It's worth noting that Navy kicked a lot against Penn State and used that field position game to control the defensive narrative. 

The game that appears to be a tossup in the East is, of course, the #5 (Davenport) at the #4 (Arkansas State). These teams have split their games against each other so far, but it's more about that fact that, aside from a 15-minute splurge in Grand Rapids that allowed ASU to pull away, their games have been essentially tied.

"It'll be an exciting match up for sure," said Davenport Head Coach Dustin Steedman. "With a short turn aroun in the time between competition we know what to expect out of each other. It'll be one of the most physical matchups in all of the playoffs. We both have great line speed that will male it difficult for the attack get continuity. That being said I back my boys to come out on top.  We've been preparing for the opportunity to be right where we are and anticipate a different result than the Army playoff game last year."

That being a heartbreaking 37-34 loss at West Point April 8, 2023.

How we see the East then:

#8 UMW at #1 Navy - Navy is favored but we're saying don't be surprised if it's a close one, or an upset.
#5 Davenport at #4 Arkansas State - Full expect this to be close, at the very least through 60 minutes. ASU probable slightly favored but Steedman backs his boys so ...

#6 Mount St. Mary's at #3 Lindenwood - This has been a truly great 18 months for MSM and they will bring a fire into this game that Lindenwood will have to handle. But at home? Yes, they should handle it.
#7 Army at #2 Life - Life is favored, but they are well aware that Army beat Cal by just being more tenacious.

"We have a lot of respect for Army," said DOR Blake Bradford. "They are a tough team that is very well coached, and definitely a lot better than what their record shows. We have spent the last two weeks working out some kinks with a focus on starting well in the first half. We are expecting a physical battle and we are prepared for that on both sides of the ball. Our focus each week has been putting out a performance we can be proud of and despite the stakes being higher this week our focus remains the same."

In the West it has been difficult to find a hierarchy because there have been so many close games and so many strange combination of results.

That, say the coaches of those teams, is why this has been such a fun season.

The #1 seed is Saint Mary's, but Head Coach Tim O'Brien has been cautious in crowing about his team this year.

"We are excited to be participating in this years playoffs," said O'Brien. "We have a steep slope in front of us starting with a physically challenging GCU team."

GCU has the ability to score from anywhere and is in fact just really learning how dangerous they can be. Little mistakes cost them against Mount St. Mary's and, crucially, UCLA, but they are learning every time. O'Brien expects his Gaels to be doing the same.

"Like most others we need to improve our accuracy, efficiency, and awareness," O'Brien told GRR. "It’s also helpful to have a few a favorable bounces of the ball go our way." 

Well ... you also make your own luck by being able to take advantage of those bounces. Saint Mary's has usually been good at that.

Remember that UCLA team has been having one of it's very best seasons and beating Arizona was a big deal for them. They have challenged others and it's quite sure that BYU isn't taking them for granted.

"We are looking forward to the challenge that UCLA brings," said BYU Head Coach Steve St. Pierre. "They are having a great year and have some really good players. We know we have to play our best in order to get the result that we want. We have been focusing on improving our key metrics and being more disciplined in the basics. We know that we will need to do that if we want to advance."

St. Pierre has said before that his team can be its own worst enemy. UCLA can punish them for that.

Cal Poly is at Cal and these are two programs that have a good history together. Cal is battling injuries while Cal Poly was able to get some key performers back in tome for their biggest game of the year. Can you look at this and say "Cal Poly only lost 39-20 to Central Washington, who beat BYU, and BYU beat Cal ... so maybe Cal Poly is better than Cal"? That's always a fun game. However, Cal lost to Saint Mary's by only seven while the Cal Poly-Saint Mary's result was much larger. Choose your argument.

And finally Central Washington hosts Arizona in a matchup that was 19-17 back when they played in February. A lot of has happened since then. 

"Arizona are a very dangerous side and playoff rugby is a different beast so we have been working hard this week to prepare for a huge challenge this Saturday," said CWU Head Coach Todd Thornley. "The little things in the game are the big things so if we can put together an 80-minute performance we have a chance of advancing. We look forward to testing our game model and working hard for each other in front of our home crowd and cannot wait to meet the challenge with a collective effort we can be proud of."

For Arizona — look at DOR Sean Duffy's comments after Arizona beat Army: "I'm just incredibly proud of the way our guys stuck to it, executed the game plan, and didn't blink when things got tough."

That could be the big part of it all—who doesn't blink when things get tough.

#8 Grand Canyon at #1 Saint Mary's—Gaels have to be favored but this could be a very high-scoring game.
#5 Cal Poly at #4 Cal—Cal will be determined to win this one and move on for a Saint Mary's rematch.

#6 UCLA at #3 BYU—Playing at home will be a positive for BYU but UCLA has some tricks up their sleeve. Upset potential.
#7 Arizona at #2 Central Washington—Should be much, much closer than the seedings imply.