November 1, 2012

CIS Playoff Preview: Who are the favourites?


26 teams began the 2012 CIS football campaign dreaming of hoisting the Vanier Cup, and with the regular season in the books only 15 schools remain alive with a chance to play in the 48th edition of the Canadian university football championship.

In recent years the Quebec and OUA conferences have owned the championship trophy. Since 2001 Laval has won the Vanier five times representing the RSEQ.

Laurier in 2005, Queen’s in 2009 and McMaster last year give the OUA three Vanier wins in that span.

Canada West has had just one win in the title game in the past 11 years, the Manitoba Bisons in 2007. And the last time a team from the Atlantic conference won the cup was in back-to-back fashion by the Saint Mary’s Huskies in 2001-2002.

Can McMaster become just the fifth school ever to win back-to-back Vanier Cups? Does Laval claim the trophy in another even numbered year? The Rouge et Or won CIS titles in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010. Will Calgary finally break through with all their talent and hoist the Vanier for the first time since 1995?

Or will we see a team get hot and have a Cinderella-type run to a championship?

The win or go home time of season is here in the CIS, so let’s jump around the country and take a look at some of the favourites and under the radar teams who could make a run on the road to the 48th Vanier Cup with all four conferences in playoff mode.

Atlantic Conference (AUS)

Favourite to claim conference title: Acadia Axemen

Acadia, for the second year in a row, was the top dog in the AUS. During the regular season the Axemen compiled a 7-1 record, their only loss came on the road at Laval in interlock play, earning them the number one seed in the conference and a bye to play for the Jewett Trophy in the AUS championship game.

Kyle Graves and the Axemen offence get most of the ink in Wolfville, rightfully so. The fifth year quarterback and veteran receivers, Mike Squires and Taylor Renaud have been tough for AUS defences to handle. Squires and Renaud became just the second and third pass catchers in AUS history to catch 50 or more balls in a season. 104 of Graves’ 156 completions have been caught by either Squires or Renaud, so any opponent must slow down the pair of pass catchers to have a shot at beating Acadia.  

Dark horse: Mount Allison Mounties

The Mounties bounced back from a lackluster 0-8 campaign in 2011 to post three wins in eight games this year. One of Mount A’s regular season wins came over Saint Mary’s the team they will travel to meet in the lone AUS semi-final matchup.

Mount Allison rode the legs of second year running back Josh Botel all season long. Botel finished fourth in the CIS with 878 yards and recorded seven touchdowns on the ground. The Prince George, BC native has rushed for over 100 yards in four straight games, including a 40 carry, 194-yard effort against the Huskies in the Mounties October 13 victory. A similar performance will be needed from Botel if Mount Allison has visions of advancing to the AUS championship game.

Quebec Conference (RSEQ)

Favourite to claim conference title: Laval Rouge et Or

The Big Red Machine looked anything but to start the season. CIS pundits are used to Laval blowing out teams, but in their first two games of the season they beat McGill and Bishop’s by 18 and six points respectively and the offence was struggling. A change at offensive coordinator occurred two weeks in to the season when Duane John decided to leave his position citing professional reasons and Justin Ethier stepped in and the offence improved as a result. On the other side of the ball, the Rouge et Or defence was stingy all season long, allowing just 12.7 points per game, the second fewest in the CIS. 
The Rouge et Or have given the Dunsmore Cup a permanent home since 2003. If any RSEQ team is going to dethrone the nine-time defending conference champs it will have to beat Laval on their home field, a monumental task. The Rouge et Or have won a CIS record 55 games in a row, and counting, on their home turf.

Dark horse: Montreal Carabins

Montreal is certainly not a typical dark horse pick, with their 8-1 record and 1-1 mark against Laval this season. Many people in Quebec believe the Carabins are the only and real threat to end Laval’s reign in the conference. Sherbrooke has shown flashes of potential this season, but for my money they’re not on the level of the two heavy weights in the RSEQ just yet.

Montreal boasts a tough defence, like Laval. The Carabins ranked first in yards allowed per game and points allowed in the CIS during the regular season, but gave up 30 on the road in their only loss of the year, against the Rouge et Or. Teams just flat out struggle at Peps Stadium and that’s why Montreal is a long shot to upset Laval on their home turf, if they get past Sherbrooke, in the Quebec conference title game.

Ontario Conference (OUA)

Favourite to claim conference title: McMaster Marauders

Surprise, surprise the odds on pick to win the 105th Yates Cup is McMaster. The Marauders ran the table to an undefeated 8-0 record during the OUA regular season and have owned the number one ranking in the CIS top 10 poll all year.

Led by Hec Crighton front-runner Kyle Quinlan, MAC is loaded on both sides of the football. Admittedly, it’s hard to find an area of weakness when looking at the McMaster roster. However, with the Marauders jumping out to big leads all season, the team hasn’t been forced to play from behind very often or put in a full 60-minute effort. Not that McMaster can’t play well in a tight game, we all saw the Maroon men come out with an epic Vanier Cup victory over Laval last season. But, if a team can jump on McMaster early it will be interesting to see how the defending champs respond.

Dark horse: Western Mustangs

Not too often is a team coached by Greg Marshall considered a dark horse, but with the spotlight on McMaster, Western is standing in the dark – A strange spot for the Mustangs who will make their ninth straight OUA semi-final appearance and who have appeared in the last five Yates Cups.

Western was forced to change their offensive identity after quarterback Donnie Marshall suffered an ankle injury against McMaster on September 29. Freshman Will Finch has since taking over the starting duties and added more of a down field passing attack to the Mustangs offence that already featured the nations top ground game.

The rookie pivot had the best game of his young career, shredding Windsor, completing 20 of 29 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns in Western’s OUA Quarter-final win on October 27. However, Finch is about to face a much tougher test against a McMaster defence that tied for the CIS lead with 16 interceptions this season.

One thing yours truly has learned through the years, never count out a Marshall-coached team.

Canada West Conference (CWUAA)

Favourite to claim conference title: Calgary Dinos

Calgary heads into the playoffs as the definitive favourite to claim the Hardy Cup and a fifth straight Ca
nada West title, but a snoozer of a performance in a loss to Regina on October 19 has raised some questions about the Dinos.

Quarterback Eric Dzwilewski wasn’t his usually prolific self in the loss to the Rams and neither was his offence. Calgary managed just nine points, which were scored after Dzwilewski was benched. However, that woeful offensive showing came on the road. Fortunately Calgary won’t have to travel during the Canada West playoffs.

Dark horse: Regina Rams

A fifth year senior at quarterback and a defence coming together at the right time are two reasons why Regina could be a dangerous team in the playoffs.

Rams pivot Marc Mueller knows how to take care of the football; he was intercepted just three times this season. In four of six starts this year Mueller threw for over 300 yards, it might have been five out of six but he was pulled from the Rams’ season finale midway through the second quarter to ensure he was healthy for the postseason. Regina’s offence is more dynamic and explosive with Mueller behind centre.

Strong quarterback play and a stingy defence make a good combo come playoff time. The Rams have allowed just nine points in their final two regular season contests. Most impressively Regina held Calgary’s high-powered offence, which averaged nearly 50 points per game during the regular season, to just nine points in the Rams’ 12-9 upset victory over the Dinos on October 19. Led by top ranked CFL prospect, defensive lineman Stefan Charles, Regina and their defence could make some more upset noise in the playoffs.