Football: Time to solve the inequality?

Imagine, for a second, that we have been asked to completely overhaul the process by which teams qualify for the semifinal bowl games in CIS football.

What's my idea? Instead of guaranteeing every conference a spot in the Mitchell and Uteck Bowls, let's put six teams together in one division (Laval, SMU, Saskatchewan, Western, McMaster, Calgary), with the top three in that division qualifying for three of the four national semifinal spots. The fourth spot goes to whoever comes out on top among the other 20.

This is a pretty silly and unfair idea, right? Who would agree to a system that allows just 1 out of 20 teams from one group in the national tournament, but takes 3 out of 6 from the other group?

The more astute readers will have already guessed the punchline: that unfair system is the system we already have. Those six teams above have combined for 30 of the 40 conference championships in the last ten years. (The other 20 teams still in CIS have won just nine.)

So the "chosen six" already comprise 75% of the national playoff teams. We don't have to overhaul anything for that to happen.

It would make for a far more interesting article if I could tell you how we can stop this from happening, but if I knew how to unseat Laval, I would be sharing my plan with whatever Quebec university I like best, not rambling about it on the blog. (Revenue sharing and expansion to 40 teams are what Laval's Jacques Tanguay thought might help two years ago.)

But even without a solution, we do have a problem: an unbalance of power in CIS football.

Of course, this didn't just start happening when I started writing about CIS--in the ten years before I was born, Western won six Yates Cups--but consider this: our four national semifinalists this year are exactly the same as they were in 2008, and are a Michael Faulds injury away from being a copy of 2009 as well. Fluke or not, just five schools have won the last twelve conference championships up for grabs.

And even if this isn't an entirely new phenomenon, it's not always been this way. As Neate just reminded me, the OUA has had five different winners in the last 10 years, but eight (all but York and Windsor) in the ten years before.

Anyway, it's never good when 25% of the teams win 75% of the time, regardless of how much precedent there is. If you're an Acadia or a Bishop's or a Guelph, there must come a point where you look at the cost of football, and the benefits it brings (e.g., just four home games and a blowout playoff loss), and wonder what the point is.
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  1. CanWest has also had a lot of turnover with 5 of their 7 football programs over the past decade moving on to the national playoffs. The big discrepancy occurs out East with both Laval and SMU only being challenged at times, and generally still coming away with the win.

    But when you mention MAC, who since '04 have lost really all relevancy on the national scene until this season where they ALMOST made it back to the conference final for the first time in 6 seasons, it shows that there is a good amount of turnover and therefore hard to downplay the notion of parity (sidenote: both Laurier and Ottawa have more football relevancy over this past decade than MAC does).

    I do however agree that there are programs with little to no shot at a conference title let alone a Vanier Cup, even with teams rising and falling over time. And it's for that reason the idea of a Division II for CIS football sounds better and better. Giving those teams a legitimate shot at playing for a championship would probably help football growth as a whole nationwide, and would allow the teams pulling away at the top better competition.

  2. Rob,

    You did an amazing job on this post so it seemed best to hold off until there was something to say.

    There is little denying there is an unbalance that ought to be addressed (and it's a sidepoint that you include Mac since its 2000-03 team had the same driving force behind it as 2007-10 Western, an excellent coach named Greg Marshall).

    What should be done ... I would argue long term, we should move toward a 9-game reg season in each conference followed by a 4-week tournament, with the Vanier Cup synched up with the Grey Cup to increase visibility. (You know TSN is only doing a 15-minute pregame next week, right?)

    You could fit that into 14 weekends ... arguably, the OUA, if it becomes a 12-team, two-division setup (Carleton and ...?), could still hold the Yates Cup for seeding purposes.

    Anyway, let's say it's a 12-team tournament. People will immediately say you can't have teams travelling that far. I would argue that in the first round, all matchups will be regional.


  3. For argument's sake, let's use the last CIS-FRC Top 10 to form the seeding for our imaginary alterna-Vanier tournament.

    That would be
    Byes: 1) Laval 2) Western 3) Sask. 4) Ottawa
    Playing in the first round: 5) Calgary; 6) Mac; 7) Montréal; 8) Regina 9) SMU 10) Sherby 11) Laurier 12) Bishop's

    We'll use geography to decide the first-round matchups, thus helping save on travel ... so eastern-most teams play off, western-most teams play off and so on.

    That gives us, from East to West:
    (10) Sherbrooke at (9) Saint Mary's
    (12) Bishop's at (7) Montréal
    (11) Laurier at (6) Mac
    (8) Regina at (5) Calgary

    Again, for argument's sake, let's say Sherby won ... the next round, when we do go to low seed-high seed format, we get ...

    (10) Sherby at (1) Laval (which actually was the Dunsmore matchup; even if you use SMU here it's not a long trip)
    (7) Montréal at (2) Western
    (6) Mac at (3) Saskatchewan
    (5) Calgary at (4) Ottawa

    Surely OUA and Canada West could do a cost-share for the Dinos and Marauders.

    Let's say Laurier won it had to go to Laval.
    (11) Laurier at (1) Laval
    (10) Sherby OR (9) Saint Mary's at (2) Western
    (7) Montréal at (3) Saskatchewan
    (5) Calgary at (4) Ottawa

    You still only have two teams crossing the Prairies, although that's a tough trip for the V&O or eastern Huskies. I could see some argument here, why not build in some condition that would allow for Calgary-Saskatchewan and Montreal-Ottawa matchups to save costs?

    You're ranging into "law of unintended consequences" territory ... but maybe we say the highest-seeded "travel team" (Calgary) has the right to veto any trip longer than 1,500 km IF the next highest remaining seed can fill its place without travelling more than X distance (Montreal to Ottawa being a very short trip).

    Anyways, we'll play it out with that first scenario...
    (1) Laval BEATS (10) Sherby (like in real life)
    (2) Western BEATS (7) Montréal
    (3) Sask. BEATS (6) Mac (in who-gags-less matchup)
    (5) Calgary BEATS (4) Ottawa (by virtue of experience with travel and big-game coaching experience ...

    That leaves us with Saskatchewan-Western and Calgary-Laval semifinals. Yes, it's an all-Super Six final four, but at least they'd have earned it.

  4. Also, we'd add a rule no school can host a semifinal more than 2 consecutive seasons. Again, that speaks to Laval's home dominance and not making any school or region bear the bulk of travel costs.

  5. Just to play DA, there are 120 teams in the Football Bowl Division in NCAA... 12 (10 per cent) have accounted for the last 20 national championships.

    Since 1992 (there were split titles in '97 and '03):

    Big 8/12: Nebraska 3 (1994-95-97), Oklahoma 1 (2000), Texas 1 (2005)

    Big Ten: Michigan 1 (1997), Ohio State 1 (2002)

    SEC: Florida 3 (1996-06-08), Alabama 2 (1992, '09), LSU 2 ('03 and '07), Tennessee 1 (1998)

    ACC: Florida State 2 (1993, '99)

    Big East: Miami 1 (2001)

    Pac-10: USC 2 (2003-04)

    I'm straining to think which of those teams played someone from outside that group in its bowl game. The only ones are the '97 Michigan team (which faced Ryan Leaf's Washington State in the Rose Bowl) and the '99 Florida State (which beat Michael Vick and Virginia Tech).

  6. For argument's sake (again), our 12-team format using the final poll of 2009:

    First round:
    Byes: (1) Laval (2) Calgary (3) Sask. (4) Queen's

    Regional first-round games, east to west:
    (10) St. FX at (6) Saint Mary's (the actual Loney Bowl matchup)
    (12) Bishop's at (8) Montréal
    (11) Ottawa at (9) McMaster
    (7) Laurier at (5) Western

    Likely winners: Western (5), Saint Mary's (6), Montréal (8), McMaster (9)

    (9) McMaster at (1) Laval
    (8) Montréal at (2) Calgary
    (6) Saint Mary's at (3) Saskatchewan
    (5) Western at (4) Queen's

    Semi-finals ....
    (4) Queen's at (1) Laval
    (3) Saskatchewan at (2) Calgary

    In most likelihood it's a Calgary-Laval Vanier, instead of Queen's-Calgary at Laval (the Gaels beat the R&O at home on grass; on the road on turf might have been tricky).

  7. I like to play around with different ideas too but in reality, the only time change is required is when the best don't face the best.

    That's just not the case in the CIS football playoffs.

    Laval, Western, Calgary, and SMU all earned their way to the national semi-finals. Honestly, only Sask-a-bush could claim to be included in this grouping. They lost, as did the Gee Gees, so their claim is moot.

    Inequality in the CIS playoff system doesn't exist. However, inequality in full-ride scholarships, private program ownership, and academic right-to-play regulation runs rampant in the CIS. Is the Bison or Rouge et Or private system the way that more programs should go? When will the OUA pull its holier-than-thou wingtip out of its collective arse and make their scholarship programs competitive with the rest of the country? I'm a stickler for the B-average right-to-play rule but maybe some concessions have to be made to keep home grown Ontario talent.

    Oh, there is plenty of inequality; it’s just not in the playoff structure.

    By the way, great article.

    Super Fun Happy Slide

    P.S. Go Stangs Go

  8. Good stuff, Slide. (FYI, the the Regina Rams are the Can West program which has autonomy -- is that the right term? -- from the athletic dept.)

    Like you say, there is inequality, just maybe not in the playoff structure.

    In the long term, one way to get more interest in CIS football (i.e., from having the media care for 4 weeks instead of 2) is a national tournament.

    Meantime, there should be a deep look at better matching "apples to apples" in terms of the size, academics and football culture of universities.

    As it stands there are 16 football-playing schools in Ontario and Québec. Ideally that would grow to 18 (all together, Carleton and?????).

    You'd have all manner of options on how to form three divisions ... perhaps you could do an "OUA Classic" division with schools such as Western, Ottawa, Queen's, McMaster ... and then a division for characteristically struggling teams (York, Windsor, Guelph, Waterloo, Toronto and another OUA team). There would be options.

    Ottawa culturally and size-wise (33,000 undergrads) is really more of a QUFL school. Tiny Bishop's might be more competitive if it played Ontario schools again.

    Then have a 9-game reg season, a Yates Cup game for seeding and a 4-week tournament. Laval could end up playing 14 games this year, so it's doable. (Western would have also played 14 last year, counting its exhibition, if it had made the Vanier.)

  9. Great stuff Neate. I almost missed it in the comments. One of the best things about your imaginary tournament is that there would be fewer meaningless playoff games. 2 out of every 3 teams in the playoffs is too many.

    Too bad it will never happen. Travel to the West is a non-starter for the other conferences, cost-wise, and making the conference cups less meaningful wouldn't go over. It would also open the possibility of two teams from the same conference playing for the Vanier. Although it would be deserved, for many it just wouldn't feel right.

  10. I think geography and the logistics of travel are just too great for Sager's tiered league concept. That said, there is certainly something to be said for seeing the second tier recruiters compete and find on-field success against those who face the same monetary and prestige obsticles. However, I just don't think there is a taste for second-division sports in Canada. Seperate conferences, decided upon due to performance, could marginalize the second league schools even more than their performance has already accomplished.

    Clearly, there's no "right" answer. It makes for a good discussion though.

    One has to ask, are the-powers-that-be in the OUA, Quebec, AUS, and Canada West conferences even attempting a like or similar dialogue?

    You know, for the betterment of the game.

    Happy Slide

  11. I haven't said anything about tiering for the exact reasons you mentioned ... Canada West and AUS would stay as is; Quebec would stay 80% intact.

    If the OUA expands to 12, though, they could certainly look at a more equitable schedule. A Carleton-Ottawa-Mac-Laurier-Western-Queen's division and a Guelph-Toronto-Waterloo-Windsor-York-expansion team division ... or just go East/West and match up teams appropriately.

    and honestly, you would not have that much more travel if you did a 4-week tournament where the first round and second-round matchups were done geographically.

    You're right, though, has anyone in power tried to cost this out?

  12. With all due respect, the moment a division comprised of the OUA's weaker sisters is constructed you have the definition of a tiered system.

    Another stumbling block: a potential second trip east, to visit Carlton, would likely diminish support from Western and Mac.

    Although, a power league, like you suggested, would intensify the regular season and make for some insane rivalry games. Heck, every game would turn into a rivalry game, to the nth power. I wonder if the power schools would want to engage in that type heightened competition. Fans certainly lament the quasi two week-bye, as the Toronto schools drift through the schedule. However, for teams planning on making that deep push into the playoffs, those soft spots in the schedule are likely quite valuable for getting their charges healthy. The dangers of competitive rust may not be enough to bring the traditional power schools on board with a power conference. In any event, it's fun to imagine the possibilities.

    On another note, I'm sad to report that Neate Sager, one of the CIS's biggest fans--a fan actually employed in the media, most importantly--is moving away from his landmark web-pew, Out of Left Field. Oh, he’ll still be blogging (about curling?). However, many will certainly miss his perspective and writing style on that forum. Media's greatest duty is to hold the-powers-that-be accountable, while entertaining us. Sager's done both duties, through traditional media and the blogosphere, fabulously.

    We can only hope that his passion for CIS sport continues to burn as brightly as his career.

    Happy Slide


  13. Thanks, I do enjoy curling!

    I know, no matter what I suggest, it's some kind of tiering ... I will say never have anything that makes it official some teams can never win a Vanier.

    The perfect collegiate post-seasoon tournament is NCAA men's basketball ... there are 340 teams in Division I, but they're divided up in a certain way (i.e., big state schools play in the SEC, smaller universities play in 'mid major' conferences and so on).

    That's all I'd like to see. With the lack of offence ninth-ranked Saint Mary's is showing today, I'd suggest there are teams in the OUA who might be giving these UC Dinos a bigger scare today.

    I'll keep OOLF up ... post when there's time.