With the 2012 OUA season now past the halfway mark and the conference's ranked teams having all played each other over the past three weeks, it's time to check out Ontario's university football hierarchy. While last year's playoffs — when a juggernaut Western Mustangs squad regressed and was passed by a McMaster team they had squashed in September — showed us that teams can change drastically as the season goes on, the past three weeks have given us a good look at what we can expect as the regular season reaches its later stages.
We'll evaluate the Yates Cup contenders, offer the optimist's and pessimist's take on their chances, and then take a peek at the teams just on the outside.
MCMASTER MARAUDERS - 5-0
As most pundits predicted, Mac has looked like a team more than capable of repeating its triumph from last year. Ben D'Aguilar has established himself as a top-tier pass rusher (OUA-leading 10.5 sacks), they've been able to weather the storm of injuries to their top three running backs, and Kyle Quinlan has looked every bit like a Hec Crighton winner. With dismissals of Queen's and Western over the past two weeks, they've not only established their position at the top of the conference but paved the way for Ron Joyce Stadium to potentially host its first-ever Yates Cup.
But for a team that has basically steamrolled its way to a 5-0 record, there's still a long way to go before this team can be considered a Yates lock. They have not put four good quarters together in a long time, and playing with fire like that won't help Stefan Ptaszek sleep well (not that I'm sure he sleeps, given his insane early morning workouts). In their past three games, they've taken leads of 23-0 over Ottawa, 33-3 over Queen's and 28-9 over Western before looking frankly disinterested and like a team playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
That story sounds all too familiar to those who watched last year's Vanier Cup. Of course, that was Laval, and they played a hell of a second half to get back into that game. But it's maddening to see this team play up to its potential, then cruise through quarters and let teams back in the game. That Jekyll-and-Hyde style was on full display on Saturday against Western, where the Marauders rendered Western's vaunted offence irrelevant with some outstanding play in the trenches, and let Quinlan do his thing to quiet the homecoming crowd. They took a 19-point lead, then seemingly hit cruise control to make the 33-27 final score seem much closer than the game deserved.
This may be nitpicking, as the prudent strategy for Ptaszek would be to not burn his team out before the playoffs; last year's team certainly looked better in Week 8 than Week 2. But anyone hoping for a Yates/Vanier repeat this year had better hope this team doesn't make a habit of cruising on big, early leads.
Optimist's take: They've yet to see game action from 2011 OUA MVP Michael DiCroce, who should open up Jon Behie's already-massive playbook when he returns from a training camp foot injury, so this team can still get better.
Pessimist's take: There's the overhanging concern that this season's been too easy for Mac so far and they'll get caught off guard come playoff time.
QUEEN'S GOLDEN GAELS - 4-1
Projected to be a contender at the beginning of the year, this year's edition of the Golden Gaels have done everything one would expect a burgeoning contender to do. They've won the games they should have won, took care of a big win at home against their chief rival, and probably learned a lesson or two after being beaten by McMaster. Tough road games at Windsor and Guelph remain between Queen's and a first round bye, but they've established themselves as legitimate this year. With Billy McPhee able to lean on Justin Chapdelaine and Giovanni Aprile, and Ryan Granberg continuing to be a stud, they're a potentially explosive team with the ball.
But despite the pieces being in place, one or two misplays per game have kept this team looking more like it's a year away. A perfect example last week against Mac: one blown coverage at the end of the first half made it a 26-3 halftime deficit rather than 19-3. It was one small play, but one that made a big difference and kept them out of the game. Two blocked punts and three fumbles against Ottawa on Saturday didn't help to calm the concerns that this team is its own worst enemy. Whether the Big Yellow Guys can put it all together this year may depend on if they shoot themselves in the foot too many times, and may mean the difference between a Yates Cup and a "next year is the year" finish.
Optimist's take: A few hiccups that Mac exploited were all that kept them from keeping up with the defending champs.
Pessimist's take: Will need to protect McPhee better if they want to win: they have given up far too many sacks against a quarterback who missed their most important game last year with busted ribs.
WESTERN MUSTANGS - 3-2
What's worse — losing your homecoming game, or your fifth-year starting quarterback? Things are not looking good in London after Saturday, which saw the Mustangs fall 33-27 to Mac in front of a packed TD Waterhouse Stadium, then lose Donnie Marshall to what could be a CIS career-ending injury.
But while Marshall's loss is unfortunate and even sad, it may have been time for the Will Finch era to begin regardless. Greg Marshall was unlikely to bench his most senior son, and Donnie looked absolutely horrendous in Saturday's loss. He was indecisive in the pocket after his first option was taken away, unable to make catchable throws in coverage and lacked the old evasiveness which he used to juke out linemen. Finch, arguably the nation's top quarterback recruit last year, is probably quite raw, but at some point promise has to trump loyalty, and one wonders if Donnie hadn't been carted off the field if he would still deserve to be the starter next week. Finch has looked shaky in limited playing time so far this year, but managed to look more than competent after Marshall went down on Saturday. With hopes of a first-round bye now dashed and the season placed squarely on the shoulders of a rookie quarterback, returning to the Yates Cup will be an uphill climb for the Mustangs.
Optimist's take: If Finch can open up the field, the Mustangs can still put points on the board.
Pessimist's take: Nine sacks surrendered on Saturday suggest Finch won't have an easy CIS initiation.
ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN:
GUELPH GRYPHONS - 4-1: The 4-1 number is impressive, but two huge matchups against Queen's and Western in the next two weeks will tell whether the Gryphons are for real. A stout defence and a suddenly dependable run game suggest a home playoff game may be on the way.
WINDSOR LANCERS - 3-2: Will need an upset over Queen's or Mac to avoid a 4-4 record and a long, long road to the Yates Cup, a goal that didn't seem unreasonable just a few weeks ago.