DI, DII, Or DIII: Which Division Selects The Best NCAA Cross Country Field?

There may not be a more exciting and dramatic event on the NCAA cross country calendar than regionals. While NCAAs pits the best of the best against each other and provides answers to the questions we've posed all season long, regional meets set the championship table with a maddening day of qualifying hysteria in which bubble teams stalk the results of every other region to find out if they've punched their ticket to nationals. 

Once each regional race is complete, there are regular season "wins" to count, "A" teams to uncover, and individual spots to reward to complete the NCAA field. As if that's not crazy enough, the NCAA builds the championship fields for each of its three divisions in three unique ways. 

Which system works the best? Let's break it down.

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DI: 18 Automatic - 13 At-Large - 38 Individuals

Unless you're new to FloTrack or cross country in general, you've probably heard of the Kolas Calculator, the tool developed by former Butler runner Brian Kolas to easily compare non-automatic-qualifying teams in NCAA Division I cross country. Kolas didn't invent the manner in which teams are selected, but his calculator has become synonymous with NCAA DI selection because it allows for the quick comparison of teams that have finished outside of the top two in their region.

After the 18 automatic teams are determined, two per region, the remaining 13 at-large spots go to the teams with the best combination of regional finish and "Kolas points," also known as "wins." Those points refer to any victory that an at-large team had over a qualifying team during the regular season, the period from September 8 to the conference championships. 

Additionally, teams can be "pushed" into NCAA qualification even without regular season points by defeating a team at regionals team with a high point total. There's also the matter of determining "A" teams, because a regular season result ultimately doesn't count if four of the athletes that ran on the regional squad did not compete at a particular regular season event as well.

After the teams are sorted, 38 individuals are invited to the Big Dance. The top four runners at each region not on a qualifying team are in, with two additional athletes who finished inside a region's top 25 granted selections via the committee's discretion. 

DII: 24 Automatic - 10 At-Large - 24 Individuals (Minimum)

The DII selection process is noticeably different from the DI process with three more teams advancing to nationals. The 10 at-large teams for Division II is new this season as there were only eight last year.

24 teams automatically go to NCAAs, three from each region. To find the remaining 10, all the fourth-place regional teams match up, with head-to-head performances against other at-large suitors used as the top priority after regional finish. The top squad becomes the 25th team invited. From there, the fifth-place team from that same region is compared to the seven remaining fourth-place suitors, with the best team from that group earning the next spot. This continues until the field is filled. 

Teams do amass something called "net wins," a figure that subtracts direct and second-degree losses from direct and second-degree wins, but that only plays a factor if a decision between teams cannot be made using the side-by-side criteria.

A minimum of 24 spots are guaranteed to individuals; 16 go to the top two finishers at each region not on a qualifying team, with anyone in the top five also guaranteed an NCAA bid. Eight additional spots are awarded using the team criteria above. 

DIII: 16 Automatic - 16 At-Large - 56 Individuals

Despite having one fewer region than NCAA Division I cross country, DIII's selection process is similar as two teams advance automatically from every region and the rest rely on at-large bids. Like DI and DII, regional finish is the first and most important aspect of a team's resumé. From there, the process more closely resembles the DI system as performance against qualifying teams measures a bubble team's value. 

However, other factors can be used -- common opponents, regional point-gap, regular season point-gap -- which gives it elements of DII's system. Five athletes makes an "A" instead of four here.

The individual process is the simplest of all the divisions. The top seven finishers -- 56 total -- from each region not on a qualifying team advance.

So which division builds an NCAA field the best? Let's go to the chart:

Best method for...Division 1Division 2Division 3
Strongest Field?✔️

Regular season performance?
✔️
Individuals?✔️

At-Large bids?

✔️
Logicalness?✔️

Division I takes the overall commanding win. The question of strongest field was a process of elimination, and DII has too many automatic bids for that, while DIII requires that an "A" team has five members instead of four, which could make it harder for squads to be properly analyzed, since legitimate defeats could be nullified due to injury or rest. 

The individual system stands out in DI, too, because it allows some wiggle room for two runners that perform poorly at regionals. The logic of the DI process works best as well since it has a much simpler criteria to work through than the other divisions. Just check the regional finish and count the wins and you have an NCAA field.

Division II wins out on dissecting regular season performance as head-to-head at-large resumés are given priority. That rewards a team for beating another team that is vying for the same nationals spot.

Like Division II, Division III took just one category but it's an important one. Building half the team field through the at-large process forces coaches to schedule tougher meets than they would if three teams made it out of each region, while also adding three more at-large teams than Division I.

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