Any coach will tell you that a game in July is just as important as a game in October. But to fans, Labour Day in the CFL is the unofficial start of the road to the Grey Cup. Divisional rivalries meet square on, often in back-to-back weeks, intensity is high and the race is on to clinch one of the six playoff spots for a chance to play in November.
Eighteen games is a long season, so obviously winning the division, for various reasons, is the teams number one goal. It earns them a bye week, allowing them to rest and also decreases the number of games between them and the Grey Cup. A second place finish also secures a team a playoff game in their own backyard and a third place finish gives you a shot of winning three road games to take home the championship, most recently accomplished by the 2005 Edmonton Eskimos.
But there is another way a team can qualify for the Grey Cup playoffs. Although, it has yet to yield a Grey Cup winner, five teams have used the method to qualify. It’s the crossover rule. And here’s how it works:
If the fourth-place team in division A has more points, not tied, than the third-place team in division B, the fourth-place team will crossover to division B, replace the third place team in division A, and compete against the second-place team of that division.
Let’s look at the 2005 season for an example.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders finished the season 9-9, fourth place in the West Division. In the East Division, the Ottawa Renegades finished in third with a 7-11 record. Since the Riders had a better record than the third place in the opposite division, they crossed over and played the Montreal Alouettes in the East Semi-Final. They lost 30-14.
In fact, all four crossover teams have lost their semi-final game. The BC Lions crossed over in 2003, losing to the Toronto Argonauts 28-7. The year before, the Roughriders lost to the Argos 24-14 in the East Semi-Final. And in the first ever crossover match-up, the Lions lost 45-35 in 1997.
The rule was first introduced in 1996 (slightly different format). The version of the crossover playoff format in use today was first used in 1997. It was implemented more than a decade ago for two primary reasons. One reason was that it intended to keep the entire league competitive down the stretch, which keeps the fan interest level as high as possible and teams’ playoff hopes alive. The second reason is to reward the top six teams with a playoff berth.
If you remember the 2007 playoff race, the Eskimos, who finished 5-12-1, were not eliminated from the playoffs until their Week 18 loss to the Roughriders. If the crossover format was not used last season, Edmonton would have been eliminated from post-season contention a week earlier.
While this format keeps the entire league competitive and rewards the top six teams with a playoff berth, it is also sensitive to the East-West rivalry.
Qualifying the top six teams, in a ranking format could be another option, but division play is an important role in building rivalries, especially come playoff time.
The current crossover formula could allow for a same division Grey Cup game, however, it also ensures each division has two home playoff games, despite the crossover teams’ record.
For example, if a team in one division has a 9-9 record and finishes in fourth, they may have a better record than the third place team in the opposite division and the second place team. However, even if they have a better record than the second place team, they still have to play on the road.
And if you look back at the short history of the crossover it illustrates the difficulty of a team crossing over to the opposite division and competing in the semi-final. Crossover teams have a record of 2-6. But their playoff hopes were granted, their season extended and the top teams rewarded.
And for the fans? They receive increased unscripted playoff drama, which is what sports are all about, isn’t it?
To keep track of the crossover playoff race, visit the Crossover standings following each game by clicking here or accessing it through the CFL.ca schedule menu option.