Students are filing into campuses across the country, an event that always coincides with the beginning of another Canadian university football league season.
From coast to coast teams have finished training camp, jobs were won, lost, and new stars are about to emerge. 27 teams begin the 2014 CIS schedule looking to make it to Montreal for the 50th Vanier Cup game in November. So join me on a trip from east to west to preview all four conferences.
Atlantic conference (AUS)
It’s wide open in the AUS. Just two wins separated the first team in the standings from the last place squad a year ago. And Mount Allison edged Saint Mary’s 20-17 in the Loney Bowl on a last minute field goal. A similar scenario could play out in 2014, expect the conference title to be closely contested.
The Mounties captured their first AUS championship since 1997 and will look to defend their title. Mount Allison returns 22 of 24 starters, but they must find a way to run the football without Atlantic conference MVP Jordan Botel. Saint Mary’s always find a way to put themselves in the championship picture and the Huskies could get back to the Loney Bowl if they can feed the ball to playmaker Melvin Abankwah. St. Francis Xavier just might be the most athletic team out east, but the X-men can’t afford another 1-5 late-season collapse. Finally, Acadia needs to find a capable quarterback to get the offence moving because the Axemen defence returns a strong corps from a unit that allowed the third fewest points (122) in the CIS in 2013.
Hec Crighton candidates: Ashton Dickson, RB (St. Francis Xavier), Ben Rossong, QB (Saint Mary’s)
Quebec conference (RSEQ)
In La Belle Province Laval is at the top of the class. Head coach Glen Constantin always ensures his Rouge et Or team is prepared to compete for championship trophies. Laval has won 11 straight RSEQ titles – a record for any CIS conference, ever. Winning the Dunsmore Cup is an expectation, claiming National Football Championships is the sole focus for the Rouge et Or. Anything short of a Vanier Cup win is deemed a disappointment in Quebec City.
The University of Montreal played Laval closely in the 2013 conference championship game, dropping a 14-11 decision. The Carabins always field a strong defence, but there offence has to be better, especially if Montreal has real visions of getting to the Vanier Cup game in their own back yard.
Elsewhere around the conference Bishop’s, coming off their best regular season showing since 1993, will need to fill the void left by Hec Crighton Trophy winning QB Jordan Heather. Sherbrooke needs to find a way to score more points, the Vert et Or managed a conference-low 164 last season. For McGill the Redmen have a massive hole on the offensive line after seeing Laurent Duvernay-Tardif drafted into the NFL by the Kansas City Chiefs. And Concordia’s new head coach Mickey Donovan has now where to go but up with the Stingers coming off a 0-8 campaign.
There were a lot of Mustangs galloping into the end zone a year ago. Western scored an OUA record 458 points, also the third highest total in CIS history, and return 11 starters from the high-scoring unit. Will Finch is the triggerman at quarterback for Western. He is coming off a stellar sophomore season where No. 4 for the Mustangs set OUA records for passing yards (3,047), completion percentage (69.7) and added 26 total touchdowns on his way to conference MVP honours. Finch enters his third year as the odds on favourite to win the Hec Crighton Trophy. And the dual-threat quarterback will be looking to help Greg Marshall win his first Vanier Cup as a head coach.
Last season it seemed as though Queen’s posed the only legitimate threat to stopping Western from hoisting the Yates Cup, but the Gaels were blown out 51-22 in the Ontario championship game. Quarterback Billy McPhee is back for his fifth and final season at Queen’s, but head coach Pat Sheahan has admitted it’s a transition year. Gaels all-time leading rusher Ryan Granberg, playmaking receiver Giovanni Aprile and on defensive leader John Miniaci and standout defensive back Andrew Lue are all gone. Players in new roles will need to be brought along and developed quickly for the tricolour to make it back the conference title game.
Related: Top 10 Players to Watch
CFL.ca CIS expert, Justin Dunk ranks the top 10 players to watch in CIS this year as the Canadian University season begins and these players look to solidify their spot as top prospects in the 2015 CFL Draft.
10. David Beard, OL (Alberta) 9. Chris Ackie, DB/LB (Laurier) 8. Karl Lavoie, OL (Laval) 7. Sean McEwen, OL (Calgary) 6. Addison Richards, REC (Regina) 5. Sukh Chungh, OL (Calgary)
A few other schools, Guelph, McMaster and Windsor have the talent to be in the Yates Cup conversation – all three teams have experienced quarterbacks. Toronto, Ottawa, York, Waterloo and Laurier will likely end up in a close race to claim the final playoff spot. If the Golden Hawks can take another step and learn how to win in close games, Laurier could surprise in the OUA – WLU running back Dillon Campbell is fun to watch. Meanwhile Carleton is still building their program and even a single win this season would go a long way for the Ravens.
Calgary is the tyrannosaurus rex of the Canadian West Universities Athletic Association, the Dinos have won six consecutive Canada West titles. Head coach Blake Nill has guided his team to a conference title crown six out of his eight seasons at the helm of the program. Nill always seems to build from the trenches on out and Calgary is annually one of the toughest group of athletes in the country.
The entire Dinos starting offensive line returns, including All-Canadians and likely future CFL draft picks Sukh Chungh and Sean McEwen. One individual likely happy to see all of his road graders back is Mercer Timmis, Calgary’s standout ball carrier. Timmis led the CIS with 1,157 yards rushing and 19 total touchdowns, impressive numbers for a sophomore season. Overall Calgary welcomes 23 of 24 starters back from a Dinos squad that went 8-0 in 2013.
It appears Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the clear cut challengers to end Calgary’s run in Canada West. Nic Demski is a dynamic receiver for the Bisons and he should see more touches with running back Anthony Coombs gone to the CFL. Demski will likely soon be in the pros himself. Evan Gill is back at Manitoba, deciding to return to school after being selected in the first round of the CFL Draft by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. For the Huskies, who lost 11 seniors, quarterback Drew Burko enters his third year as the starter for Saskatchewan and needs to take his team to the next level.
Don’t count UBC or Regina out of contention. The Thunderbirds will boast a strong running game with Brandon Deschamps, who rushed for 1,0007 yards last season, and Arizona State transfer Terrell Davis. Meanwhile you can bet the Rams would like to send Frank McCrystal into retirement on a winning note. And after a 0-8 season in 2013, Alberta will be looking to get a win on the board. Keep an eye on talented Golden Bears receiver Tyler Henry.