This weekend saw plenty of turmoil in CIS football, with No. 1 Laval, No. 2 Western, No.8 Laurier and co-No.10 Alberta all suffering losses, making the Top 10 perhaps more difficult to analyze than ever. With my natural sense of good timing, I figured it would be the perfect week to start revealing my ballot choices; they'll be easier to mock than ever!
I'm a firm believer that there isn't necessarily a right way to rank the Top 10. It's an opinion poll of people who know a lot about the game, which means that the overall rankings are very valuable in my mind. Each individual voter likely approaches their ballot differently, though, and that's a good thing; it would be an extremely boring universe if we all thought alike. Thus, there are probably plenty of good reasons for anyone to disagree with any individual ballot, but that doesn't diminish the validity of the ballot, the thought and effort that went into it or the importance of the overall rankings. I try to incorporate a best-of-all-worlds approach into my rankings, considering everything from record to previous ranking to strength of schedule to margin of victory to personnel. My Top 10 teams and the rationale for each choice follow below. Also check out Neate's ballot here and Jared's breakdown of the QUFL action here.
1. Queen's (5-0):
Yes, I did go to Queen's, but this isn't a homer pick (although you're welcome to ignore the following rationale and deride it as one if you like); I'm a reporter, not a fan, so I see it as my job to avoid both positive discrimination in favour of the Gaels and negative discrimination against them (being too hard on them in an attempt to prove impartiality). You can make a great argument for any of Laval, Calgary, Montreal or Queen's as the top team overall, but after looking at the Top 10 picture, I concluded that the Gaels fit the bill better than anyone else.
The rationale is simple. For one thing, they're undefeated, while all of those other contenders have at least one loss. A perfect record isn't everything, as St. Francis Xavier is also undefeated (4-0), but the X-Men have only beaten one team with a real case to be included in the Top 10 (No. 9 Saint Mary's, who they knocked off in the first week of the season). Their other wins are a 27-21 victory against Mount Allison (0-4), a narrow 19-17 squeaker over Concordia (1-4) and a 60-7 thumping of Acadia (1-3). By comparison, Queen's has put up a 52-49 win over No. 10 Guelph, a 8-7 victory over McMaster (3-2) where star quarterback Dan Brannagan exited in the second quarter after suffering a concussion and a 20-8 defeat of Ottawa (3-2) without Brannagan playing at all. They also put up blowout wins of 67-0 over York (0-5) and 42-13 over Windsor (2-3), but it's the three impressive victories over teams with legitimate top-10 cases that really convinced me to rank the Gaels here.
By comparison, Laval has two wins over Bishop's (1-4) and a win over Concordia (1-4). Their most impressive win is their 30-8 victory over a banged-up Montreal squad on Sept. 19, and that same team just gave them a 28-7 thumping. Montreal has yesterday's impressive win over Laval and a win over a decent McGill squad (3-2), but their other wins are over Acadia (1-3) and Concordia (1-4), and they have that 30-8 loss to Laval as well. Calgary's most impressive win was their 34-31 victory over Alberta, a team that has cracked the Top 10 but fell to 2-3 this week with a loss to Manitoba. Their other wins are over 2-3 SFU, 2-2 Regina and 1-4 UBC, and they have an overtime loss to Saskatchewan as well.
Out of all the candidates, it seems to me that Queen's has the best resume at the moment, especially considering McMaster's 42-35 win over Western and Ottawa's 27-25 defeat of Laurier. Running back Jimmy Therrien is looking like the second coming of Mike Giffin, and the Gaels also have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Brannagan and quite possibly the best special-teams threat in the CIS in cornerback/kick returner Jimmy Allin. The defence also hasn't declined appreciably from last year's heights despite the losses of Dee Sterling to the CFL and reigning CIS defensive player of the year Thaine Carter to injury (and Carter may even return down the road) [Mike Koreen, The Kingston Whig-Standard]; they've allowed an average of just 15.3 points per game so far this year against solid competition. If you remove that 52-49 shootout in Week One, which came against one of the most explosive offences in the country in Guelph and while the defence was still adjusting to its new faces, they've allowed just 28 points in their last four games (an average of seven points per game). They have a ways to go, still; they have what should be an easy win against Waterloo this coming week and then two difficult tests against Western and Laurier, but it seems that a second consecutive 8-0 season isn't out of the realm of possibility for the Gaels. Given the flaws in the other top teams, they may be in store for a great postseason as well.
Apart from Queen's, I figure Calgary has the best case for the top spot based on their body of work.They've beaten good teams in Alberta and SFU and have won decisively against not-so-good teams like UBC and Regina. They have a great dual-threat quarterback in Erik Glavic and a superb running back in Matt Walter, and their defence has looked very solid as well, especially against the run [Lauren Balter, The Ubyssey].The main blemish on their resume is that overtime loss to Saskatchewan, a good team in their own right. I expect Calgary to continue their strong season and come out on top of the Canada West heap.
Some may quibble with ranking Laval above the Montreal Carabins, who just beat them, but these are the juggernaut Rouge et Or, after all. They've dominated CIS football for the last several years, and they lost on the road, without reigning Hec Creighton winner Benoit Groulx (although they did beat a banged-up Carabins squad without him at home earlier in the year). They've been tops on my ballot and in the overall rankings every week this season, and for good reason. It's still a bad loss for them, especially considering the margin of victory, but it's not enough for me to drop them any further than third. I think they're still likely to wind up as Quebec champions, so that's the biggest reason I have them ranked above Montreal.
Sunday's win was a historic one for Montreal, and proved that Laval is no longer the unquestioned top dog in Quebec. However, the Carabins had a lot of breaks go their way in this one, including the absence of Groulx and home-field advantage. They can hang with Laval and even knock them off if things go their way, but I'm not sure they're likely to beat the Rouge et Or again in the playoffs. They do have a shot, though, which is why I have them at fourth.
This is a significant drop for the Mustangs, but I still love the team they have. Michael Faulds is one of the top quarterbacks out there, and the two-pronged rushing attack of Da'Shawn Thomas and Nathan Riva is not to be trifled with. On defence, though, there are more questions after they gave up 42 points to McMaster in a Homecoming loss. The Marauders had hardly been dynamic on offence going into Saturday's game; they did have 49-8 and 52-21 victories against bottom-feeders York and Waterloo, but they only managed seven points against Queen's and 14 against Laurier. They had a field day against Western, though, and that raises questions about how good the Mustang defence is. Western did hold a good Laurier team to seven points earlier this year, but the Golden Hawks are stronger defensively than offensively. The Mustangs also conceded 39 points against Guelph and 17 against Ottawa before Saturday's loss. Don't write off Western yet, though. They face York next week, but the big game for them will be the Oct. 17 showdown with Queen's. At the start of the year, I predicted on Norman James' London radio show that the OUA final would be Queen's - Western, and I haven't seen anything yet to convince me otherwise. That clash could go either way, and the winner stands an excellent chance of making it to the Vanier Cup, so Western is still very much a national title contender in my mind.
6. St. Francis Xavier
Yes, the X-Men are 4-0, and they do have the one impressive win over St. Mary's. It is difficult to rank them in the bottom half of the top 10 when other teams above them have significant blemishes. However, as I mentioned earlier, their schedule hasn't been the most challenging to date. That's not their fault, but it does mean that I have questions about how well they'll do against the top teams, especially considering that they weren't even ranked in the first three Top 10 polls this year. They've been a good surprise so far, but it's a question of if they can keep it up into the AUS playoffs, and if they can match up with other conference champions.
The Huskies also have an impressive record, particularly with their overtime win over Calgary. Their loss to a 2-3 Alberta team (but one better than that record might suggest) significantly hurts their standings here, though. They're still very much in the hunt for a Canada West title, but they'll have to take down Calgary to get there. Even if they do pull that off, I'm not sure they'll do as well as the Dinos might against other conference champions.
8. Saint Mary's:
Everyone was expecting the Huskies to come out of the AUS, and they made it as high as No.4 in the poll before their loss to the X-Men. That loss and the weakness of their schedule so far means I can't put them higher than this at the moment, but they're still contenders for the AUS title and they could make some noise in the playoffs.
I've been high on Guelph since the start of the season, and so far, they've justified my faith. They have one of the top offences in the CIS, led by quarterback Justin Dunk and running back Nick Fitzgibbon, and they're averaging an incredible 48.2 points per week. Those numbers haven't all been against creampuffs, either; they hung 49 points on Queen's in Week One and put up another 39 against Western on Sept. 26. They also pulled off a nice win over Waterloo this week despite the absence of Dunk for swearing into a TV camera (which my former Queen's Journal colleagues Amrit Ahluwalia and Jake Edmiston debated here) Their defence is cause for more concern, and so is a potential injury to Fitzgibbon [Mark Bryson, Waterloo Region Record, but Josh McCreight filled in nicely against Waterloo. They also have a tough next few weeks against Ottawa, Laurier and McMaster, but they look like the best of that close pack at the moment.
The Marauders surprised pretty much everyone this week with their win over Western, but their resume actually isn't bad. Yes, their other wins came over York and Waterloo, but they only lost to Queen's by one and they were in the game against Laurier. Moreover, the biggest question mark around them was their offence, and they proved that there's plenty of talent there by hanging 42 points on the Mustangs. They have two relatively easy games against Toronto and Windsor coming up, which should leave them in good shape for the season finale against Guelph.
Also considered: Ottawa, Manitoba, Laurier, McGill
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[Cross-posted to Sporting Madness]