There are a few game-within-the-game scenarios in the College Premier Division. Everyone’s shooting to make a name for themselves in the new league, to make the playoffs, but former members of the Mid-Atlantic Premier and West-North leagues still want to beat their old rivals, and Texas A&M and LSU will play each other with memories of competing for Texas titles still fresh on their collective minds.
But perhaps the best game-within-the-game is the one being played, either consciously or subconsciously, by the CPD’s three service academies, Air Force, Army and Navy. They want to beat each other and go further in the playoffs than their contemporaries. The competition is a little more obvious with Army and Navy, as they sit tied at 3-0 atop the East, but don’t think Air Force, who still has a reasonable shot at second place in the West, isn’t keeping tabs, too.
How would the Zoomies feel if they missed out on the postseason, while Army and Navy kept playing?
“It would be tough,” said Air Force coach Joe Muehlbauer. “I’ve had people say that, ‘Well, they play in the East,' and all this stuff. It doesn’t matter where you play, you want to make the playoffs. We don’t want to miss the party if they’re there, for sure. That would be a blow to us, and our guys have brought that up also, and not only our guys, our alumni also like to mention that to me, too. That’s something that’s definitely in the back of our minds, and if they’re going to be there, we want to be there too and spoil it for them.”
Air Force sits at 2-1 in the West, with one big loss to BYU (93-8) and big wins over Wyoming (52-0) and Colorado (36-15). The Zoomies have one more game in which they should be favored, Saturday against Colorado State. If they win, their season boils down to an April 16 trip to Utah.
“Not trying to overlook CSU, but that’s going to be a huge roadblock for us if we can’t get by Utah, also. We really want to make the playoffs. That’s our goal,” said Muehlbauer. “Our scrum was dominant against CU, and our lineout was dominant, so that’s something we’d like to build on, and I think if we play like we did this past Saturday against CSU and next week, I think it’s there for us to lose, but that’s looking down the road a bit.”
Look down the road even further in the East, squint, and you might be able to conjure the blurry image of an undefeated Army playing an undefeated Navy April 30 for the East title. Until Navy defeated Penn State rather convincingly Saturday, 29-12, that image wasn’t just blurry, but invisible.
“I think we’re sneaking up on some people,” said Navy coach Mike Flanagan. “I think everybody anticipates Navy to play a certain style, and we’re throwing them some curveballs now. We’re moving the ball a little bit more. We’ve got some really good guys in the midfield, so it’s not your mother’s Navy team any more, and frankly our defense is off the charts.”
A 3-0 Navy registers as a surprise to many (though a relatively narrow loss to Life in the preseason should have served as an omen), but no one is shocked that Army is undefeated. However, they may be taken aback by how Army's gotten to 3-0.
First, the Black Knights gave up three tries to Rutgers, who some considered the worst team in the CPD at the time, then they had to overcome a 17-point halftime lead to edge Kutztown, and Saturday, Dartmouth gave them all they could handle. Fairly or not, many thought Army would beat up the East with a little more ease.
“We don’t have good weather in January to play a 10-match preseason to figure things out before we enter our league, so we’ve got to do it on the run, and I think that’s part of it,” said Army coach Rich Pohlidal. “We Graduated 23 players, and all high-level, A-side caliber guys. We’re pretty young, and there’s some inexperience out there, and it’s one of those things where as long as we learn from a win, it’s OK. I’d rather learn from a win.”
A lot can happen between now and April 30, but it’s not crazy to think Army and Navy could be unbeaten playing for postseason positioning, is it?
“I don’t know if that’s possible for either of us to be undefeated at that time,” said Flanagan. “It’s not necessarily that we couldn’t do it, but you look at the level of competition across the league, and for one team to go undefeated, let alone for two teams to go undefeated until the last weekend, that’s asking a lot of anybody. Is it possible, yes, but I don’t know. What a great storyline that would be, though, huh?”
“I think what we’re going to be focused on is us, and trying to mature the team as we go throughout the season, and we hope to better ourselves before April 30, but there is a lot of rugby to played yet,” added Pohlidal, “but I like our chances, that’s for sure.”