Football: AUS Year in Review

Today we welcome a pinch-hit from Kevin Garbuio, a former linebacker with the Acadia Axemen and now working on their SSN broadcasts, who looks back at the 2011 season in AUS football.

AUS had an interesting season in 2011, and some storylines will carry over towards 2012. As a league at whole it again failed to gain respect at the national level. Acadia’s failure at the Uteck Bowl was the third straight blowout loss for an AUS team in a national semifinal, and in the last six years the AUS team has only won once.

AUS also saw its competition issues cause some scheduling problems in the last two years. RSEQ has reduced its interlock schedule to one game, and as of right now for the 2012 season, there may not be any interlock games. Many people have pointed to the one-sided results between the two conferences as a reason against further interlock. (The interlock contract is not yet over, but RSEQ has been "less than positive about the future" of interlock and rumour has it there may not be any next year. At the time of writing this piece I'm assuming there won’t be.)

Aside from this doom and gloom, at the top of the AUS standings last season, the league was competitive. Acadia finished the season with a 7-1 record while Saint Mary’s finished 6-2. Both regular-season games between the two teams were closely contested and entertaining to watch.

With that brief introduction out of the way, here is a team-by-team breakdown of this past season in AUS:

Record: 7-1
Playoffs: W 39-20 vs. SMU (AUS final), L 21-45 to McMaster (Uteck Bowl, in Moncton)

Acadia had been building toward this season; unlike their rivals in Halifax, they are forced to build. And after going 1-7, 2-6 and then 4-4, this Axemen squad matured into the most successful team since the '86 Axemen went 7-0 and won an AUS title.

Unfortunately they suffered the same fate as their predecessors and lost to a talented OUA team. Despite that 45-21 loss in Moncton*, the Axemen had a lot to be proud of. For one, they unseated Saint Mary’s, which they had not done since 2006. Also, if not for a game played in a hurricane, the Axemen could have gone 8-0 in conference play. Many readers would argue that a perfect record in AUS is a hollow achievement but to any of those who played CIS football they could tell you it is not easy to run the table in any conference.

* I think it is ridiculous that AUS is the only conference where the host team does not actually host the game every year. Essentially this game was played on neutral ground and had little crowd support. 3500 in Wolfville is a lot different than 3500 in Moncton.

Individually Acadia had a successful season. Quarterback Kyle Graves showed the raw talent coaches around the country raved about four years ago when he walked on to campus, essentially running away with the Hec Crighton nomination on the first day of training camp. As well, tailback Zack Skibbin proved to be the real deal this season, posting career highs in rushing yards and touchdowns as he looked like the SMU tailbacks from the early- to mid-2000s that set AUS ablaze. Wide receivers Taylor Renaud (who topped AUS in yards per catch), Mike Squires, and AJ Durling were too much for their opposition, dominating most teams they faced. Squires was picked up by the Calgary Stampeders in December. Fullback Reed Anderson also signed with the Eskimos.

Defensively, the Axemen never had a problem, only once allowing more than 20 points until they ran into the eventual Vanier Cup champions. They lost only three key players from the year before: Eskimos-bound Mike Miller, Adrian Saturley and Najja Coley. President trophy nominee Tom Labenski was as stellar as ever and the defensive-line play of Andrew Frazer, Jake Thomas, John Wilson and Jarrett Laycock meant Acadia could get home while only rushing four. The defense backfield also saw Cam Wade step in for Miller, going on to be an All-Canadian.

Coach Jeff Cummins also won his first CIS coach of the year award. Unfortunately for Acadia, co-offensive coordinator Tom Flaxman signed on with the University of Toronto to be their new offensive coordinator.

As long as Acadia can return its young core it should be happy days in Wolfville for the next few seasons.

Record: 6-2
Playoffs: W 25-2 vs. St. F-X (AUS semifinal), L 20-39 at Acadia (AUS final)

The Huskies are never to be counted out.

That is something I learned early on when I first moved out east. They truly are the definition of "reloading, not rebuilding."

This season was supposed to be a tough year for SMU but they still managed to lock up another AUS final spot — and that was with inconsistent QB play by returning son Jack Creighton, and the intermittent appearances of Devon Jones, the bruising Alberta tailback who had eligibility concerns that left him out of the lineup for most of the season.

While Creighton was getting up to speed with the SMU offence, rookie phenom Jesse Mills filled in admirably. His percentages were a little low, but it was his first year, and Mills should be the starter in 2012 based on his size and athleticism. He was one of the most highly-touted quarterbacks in Canada and proved why this season, being a successful game manager early in his young career. It seems he is only going to get better; his coaches call him a hard worker with a strong desire to win, something extremely important when playing in Halifax.

Ryan Tremblay proved to be a great compliment to the explosive Jahmeek Taylor, who was as dangerous as ever. The Huskies' defence, as always, was daunting, playing their usual match coverage which has given teams fits ever since they implemented the scheme. Acadia finally cracked it in week 7 but it had been years since any team in AUS had been successful vs. this defence.

The biggest issue with SMU in 2011 was not the fact they did not win the Jewett Trophy this season, but rather the surprise firing of long-time coach Steve Sumarah, a move that shocked the Atlantic football world. I figured Sumarah would be hired quickly by any team that wants to win now, and Carleton picked him up for their reintroduced football program.

Sumarah rebuilt the SMU program after Blake Nill left for Calgary. The next coach will have to assume that it's "AUS championship or bust."

Saint Mary's is hard to predict every year in terms of what they have coming back, but AUS watchers have learned not to underestimate a Husky squad.

Record: 2-6
Playoffs: L 2-25 at SMU (AUS semifinal)

X is an interesting team. They are the most athletic team in AUS and have studs all over the board. Blue-chip prospects and young talent could make them a team to watch in the next few years.

This year we saw Ron Omara prove he was the bruising tackler that had every CIS university coach salivating. The first-year linebacker from the Cumblerland Panther program out of Ottawa was seen as a junior Henoc Muamba, using his size, speed, and athleticism to make offensive players pay. Raye Hartmann at DB was an elite cornerback in the division and should only improve as he grows older. His issue next year may be that no one throws to his side.

Offensively they have some issues. I have long believed that in AUS (and in football in general) each offense has to have an identity. With SMU everyone knew they were going to have to stop the run. This year, Acadia had the run but to win you had to get to Graves like Mac did. For X, however, they would come out one week passing, the next week running. The next week they would try to run a spread. They never really had an identity.

I bring this up because what may stunt X’s ability to grow into a championship-calibre team is their coaching. Some of their schemes and how they defended certain formations was anything but conventional. I am all for going against the grain but they have had issues adjusting to basic Canadian football offences. Coach Gary Waterman has to be feeling some pressure after two straight losing seasons, but with such talented players he has to be optimistic that his team can challenge for an AUS title this coming season.

Record: 0-8

Well, it is hard to review a winless team and be positive, but let’s give it a try.

The Mounties began their first year of the A.G.R. Era (After Gary Ross) with defensive stalwart Ben Halpern getting hurt for the entire season, an injury that was a contributing factor to scores like 54-14, 60-6, and 59-21. Also, Mount A on the road is a different animal than Mount A at home, and they only had three home games this year. At MacAuley, the Mounties fought hard vs. Acadia and X but came up short.

They have room to grow and their coach Kelly Jeffrey has won in Sackville. Now for them to be successful they need to find a way to attract Gary Ross-like talents to the school. That will take a large commitment from the school and alumni. Jake Hotchkiss is a great talent and when he has a playmaker (or two or three...) around him, he has shown he could be great as he was in 2010. On defence Jacob LeBlanc was the AUS rookie of the year and will be representing Team World in the annual Team World Vs. Team USA game. With those two talents, Mount A can only hope to build around them and hopefully for the conference's competitiveness they will regain the steam they had when Ross, Callen Exeter, and Kelly Hughes were some of the biggest names in AUS football.
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