In 50 words or less: It's tough to be excited in Wolfville, but the AUS is as open as it usually is and they're presumably hoping their pleasing results on the defensive side of the ball last year continue in 2011. (And in even fewer words: 4-4 again?)
1) WILL their offence join their defence in the above-average category?
2) CAN they finish above .500 for the first time with this group of players?
3) HOW can they bring it against Saint Mary's when it matters?
2010 recap: 4-4, third place (on tiebreaker). 1-1 in playoffs.
Acadia started out with what seemed like a season-changing win on Sep. 11, defeating SMU 17-7. But they played the Huskies three more times that year and were outscored 103 to 18, resulting in yet another conference win for Saint Mary's. Aside from the SMU games, Acadia split with Mount Allison, swept the X-Men, and lost to Bishop's in the Gaiters' homecoming game. Overall they were 18th out of 26 in RPI — and a minus-20 in SRS, and I don't mean to exaggerate but that's really, really, really, really bad.
The Acadia defence was a relative strength for the team last year: they were below-average offensively but above-average defensively, with four conference all-stars on the defensive side (vs. only one offensive all-star). They gave up less than 20 points per game last year; this was an 11-point per-game improvement over 2009 and 2008.
The Axemen didn't win any of the "big" league awards (MVP, rookie of the year, defensive player of the year) but Adrian Saturley won Lineman of the Year and was named to the conference all-star team.
Departures: The aforementioned defensive lineman Saturley, whose eligibility is complete. DB Mike Miller signed with the Edmonton Eskimos in May, forgoing the rest of his CIS career. They didn't have many fifth-year players in their lineup so expect many of the others to return.
Arrivals: We can't seem to link to their article directly, but on the football homepage they detail 20 recruits in their June 20 release, in addition to about a dozen more from the first and second waves in the winter. Head coach Jeff Cummins singled out, among others, FB Reed Anderson (SMU transfer, Orillia, ON), NT Lucas Gheorghe (Halifax, NS), DT Jesse St. James (Vanier College, St-Lazare, QC), K/P Ryan Begin (Ottawa Cumberland Panthers, Orleans, ON), and LB Drew Morris (Ottawa Sooners, Ottawa, ON).
Keep an eye on: Morris, the incoming linebacker who was the Ontario Football Conference's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010. Another linebacker, Andrew Rowe, returns to the Axemen as well.
Offensively, assuming QB Kyle Graves returns (we have no reason to believe he won't, but nonetheless it is somewhat early to be writing about the AUS teams), he and the rest of the offence will need to have a good year to bring Acadia above .500 and give them a home playoff game. Graves led the team in rushing yards last year (412, or 4.8 yards per carry) but was near the bottom of the list in surplus passing yards and threw 10 interceptions against just six touchdowns.
Coach & coordinators: Jeff Cummins, entering his ninth year (31-39 overall). Cummins was a defensive line coach on the Canadian team that finished second at the International Federation of American Football Senior World Championship. New coaches this year include Sean Hall (defensive halfback), who joins Acadia after 11 years with Ottawa U, and A.J. Tufford (receivers), who played for Acadia until 2009. Larry Stewart (assistant offensive line), the other conference award-winner for the Axemen in 2010 (Volunteer Coach of the Year), enters his third year.
Off-the-field factors: As always, Acadia's status as one of the smallest football-offering schools in CIS (third behind Bishop's and Mount Allison) offers unique challenges. Last year they had what was likely miminal distraction from a positive drug test, but I'm not aware of anything this year that may negatively affect the on-field results. Cummins' role with the national team may help in recruiting down the line (and possibly already has).
From last season’s preview: Andrew was slightly bearish on the Axemen in 2010, saying "they could conceivably start 0-4" when they in fact went 2-2, but he got the important stuff right: "losing a talented fifth-year QB [Keith Lockwood], his primary target [Devon Jones] and several offensive line starters doesn't exactly scream 'Banner year!'" And, indeed, the offence scored fewer than 17 points per game, worse than everyone except St. F-X (12.3), McGill (11.3), and hapless York (9.1).
2011 outlook: The Axemen are the only team other than Saint Mary's to win the Atlantic championship since 1997, and haven't done so themselves since 2006. Recent history suggests more of the same, and a 4-4 or 3-5 record isn't unlikely. They have not done better than 5-3 since 1995, not quite before this year's incoming freshmen were born but certainly before they were old enough to care.
They will play SMU either four or five times this year: one pre-season game, three regular-season games, and a possible playoff game. That won't be overkill at all.
Swing games: It's always hard to tell what will happen in the non-SMU games in this conference. Let's say the first road game against each team will be the ones to watch: Sep. 10 (at St. F-X) and Oct. 8 (at Mount Allison). Both will be on EastLink (as will five of Acadia's other six games, oddly enough).
Stock up or stock down: Neutral or slightly up. They may not finish better than 5-3 but another year for Graves should help the offence get better, and if they replace their defensive departures adequately then both sides of the ball should be at least as good as last year.