Burning Questions To Preview RSEQ Football

So, what were the final standings in the Quebec conference anyway?

With ineligible players affecting both Concordia and Bishop’s, the order was Laval, Montreal, Sherbrooke, McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s in last, who lost all of their games due to that issue after the season ended (including a rare double forfeit).

I assume Laval is the class of the conference again. How do they keep getting better?

Well, this year – for the first time in a few years – Laval has an experienced offence and most key players who graduated have come from the defensive side of the ball. Laval has 11 returning starters on offence, including quarterback Tristan Grenon.

Defensively, they lose Arnaud Gascon-Nadeau and Frederic Plesius among others but will be looking to newcomers Jean-Fran├žois Cyr and Edward Godin-Gosselin to fill some of the holes, not to mention players who spent some years in the shadows of Gascon-Nadeau and Plesius.

Who is in the best position to challenge Laval from within?

It really comes down to the two other French schools, Montreal and Sherbrooke. Montreal has some key losses – notably defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe who did the rare CFL-CIS-CFL coaching trip and quarterback Alex Nadeau-Piuze who holds most if not all of the passing records at the school.

However, their talent on defence may be the best it has ever been as they are a veteran group led by defensive linemen Jean-Samuel Blanc who is coming off of a 12.5-sack season (in a nine-game schedule) and David Menard. Offensively, the inexperience at quarterback is off-set by the fifth year of running back Rotrand Sene who has been one of the best backs in the conference since his arrival. Don’t forget Montreal actually split their season series with Laval last year.

Sherbrooke, on the other hand, has their second full year under their coaching staff and beat Montreal in the Quebec semi-final on the road last year. They are led by third-year quarterback Jeremi Doyon-Roch who has been the starter since his true freshman year, and may be taking the mantle of best Canadian quarterback from Kyle Quinlan and Brad Sinopoli before him.

Defensively, they have to deal with the losses of Nicholas Boulay and Kevin Regimbald-Gagne who both went to the CFL but a consistent coaching staff may allow them to finally take that next step as they are in reloading mode.

Who is in the best position among the English schools?

McGill is the English school to beat. I would say they have the best coaching staff and it shows. They lost reigning CIS Rookie of the Year Shaquille Johnson, but have experience at quarterback with Jonathan Collin who has been battling injuries since his sophomore year and have depth at almost every position.

McGill is still rising to the ranks of the three schools mentioned above, but their fourth place finish from a year ago is theirs to lose.

Concordia has one last year with quarterback Reid Quest, and has four veteran receivers, including Kris Bastien arguably the best receiver in the conference, to put pressure on opposing secondaries. However, their own secondary is hurting after losing Kris Robertson to the CFL and Nathan Taylor who has graduated to the Stingers coaching staff. Their offensive line is young and untested, but they do have Bryan Chiu on the coaching staff who knows a thing or two about that.

Bishop’s has 10 returning starters on offence, including three fifth-year offensive linemen and nine on defence. They also have a fifth year quarterback in Jordan Heather, so this is the last chance to get to the playoffs for a lot of this veteran team. After having to forfeit all but one game last year, they want to bounce back in their second full year under coach Kevin Mackey.

Bishop’s biggest problem is that they aren’t in RSEQ/AUS interlock this year as Quebec returns to an eight game schedule. That means a fourth game against the French schools while McGill and Concordia have only three each. The final playoff spot will come down to the round-robin between the three schools, and it doesn’t help the Gaiters that they start one game behind.
Continuing our previews, Kevin Garbuio and Andrew Bucholtz discuss some key questions about the Canada West teams ahead of Friday's kickoffs.
GENERAL: Just how well does Canada West stack up nationally? The last two years have seen the conference champion (Calgary both seasons) pummelled 41-10 by Laval and 45-6 by McMaster in national semifinals. Are those results indicative that Canada West is behind the best Ontario and Quebec teams, or were they more anomalies? 

KG: The West right now is the third conference, but that could soon change. Calgary is a great program, and they should always be in the conversation, but the last two years they ran into the cream of the crop when it came to the CIS. McMaster and Laval were the two top teams and it wasn’t a fluke that they met up in the finals. The rest of the West has been forced to play catch-up, but it looks like the conference is getting stronger. With the Okanagan Sun rumored to join the CIS (with UBC-Okanagan), it shows the game is growing. More players are playing which means more talent should be reaching the university ranks.

The major issue that has plagued the West has been the change in recruiting models. Teams can no longer rely exclusively on the junior ranks. The five in seven rule (players have 7 years to complete their five years of eligibility after high school. CEGEP is excluded) has hurt many programs. Junior-alum-heavy teams like the '07 Manitoba Bisons are things of the past, forcing many teams to rely on developing 18-year-olds with coaching. Great coaching isn’t cheap, and it comes at a cost. McGill, U of T and Carleton recently opened their coffers and spent large sums of money bringing in top level coaching. With CanWest schools like Calgary getting huge donations, it will be interesting to see how the money is spent. Long-term success in the CIS is easy to predict: the team that spends the most money on coaching usually wins.

AB: Calgary's results in the national semifinals the last two years certainly haven't been great, but that doesn't necessarily diminish the whole conference. A two-game sample size against very strong teams isn't a lot to go on. It would be hard to put Canada West's top teams ahead of the best in Ontario or Quebec right now, but it's still quite conceivable a Canada West team could make the Vanier and perhaps even upset Laval. There's good depth at the top of the conference, too, with the Dinos looking strong again but the Huskies, Bisons and Rams looking to knock them off. Kevin's quite right that Canada West schools need to adjust to the new junior eligibility rules and need to catch up to the investments in coaching and facilities many high-profile Ontario and Quebec schools are making, but it may not be as great a divide as those national semifinals suggested. There are good programs out West, and while they have work to do to rebuild the conference's reputation, it's far from a hopeless cause.

Calgary (9-1 in conference last year, +24.3 SRS): Will the Dinos be able to keep their stranglehold on Canada West titles despite some key departures?

KG:  The Dinos' ability to send talent to the next level is impressive. Players like Matt Walter, Nathan Coehoorn, Linden Gaydosh, Mike Edem, Steven Lumbala, etc., are all contributing this season in the CFL. These contributions have to come at a cost, though, and at some point CFL U has to rebuild to a certain extent. The Dinos only lost a few starters on offence and return QB Eric Dzwilewski. The fourth-year pivot had an impressive season in 2012 and probably feels snubbed about not receiving an All-Canadian award. On defence they are new, with only one returning starter in the secondary. They will have to overcome growing pains early on but a program like Calgary should be able to reload at many of the spots where they graduated players. This might be one of the weaker teams Coach Nill has fielded at U of C, (remember: the bar is set fairly high at U of C) and this could be the year they are knocked off, but I can’t see anyone knocking off the Dinos. The team should start slow but they have a top coaching staff and a great program. Until someone shows they can defeat Calgary it is hard to bet against Blake Nill.

AB: This definitely is a Calgary team with less big names than we've seen in the recent past, and their defence is going to be tested early and often. However, while it might be a weaker Dinos' squad than recent editions, they still look like the class of Canada West at the moment, and they very well could have some unexpected players step up. The "CFL U" reputation that saw five Dinos chosen in this year's draft and 17 players (more than any other school in Canada or the U.S.) in the CFL to start this year is one that's really boosted Calgary's recruiting, and there are some great players who may well start making an impact for them sooner rather than later. It's a young Dinos' squad, but several of their new starters have already impressed (including new offensive tackles Jordan Filippelli and Braden Schram). They still look like the team to beat.

Regina (7-3, +5.3): How will this team replace Marc Mueller at QB? How will he do in his new role as a QB coach?

KG: If Regina is relying on their next quarterback to be Marc Mueller, they are setting themselves up to fail. While Cayman Shutter has experience coming from the University of Hawaii, he still will have some big shoes to fill. The QB, who is entering his third year of eligibility, should be mature enough (agewise) to live in a CIS legend’s shadow but he should not be expected to match his new coach’s production. That pressure should be on the Rams' veteran group of receivers. That unit is going to have to step up as Shutter adjusts to the Canadian game. The Rams also lost four offensive linemen, which could be a bigger loss than Mueller, but with a veteran at QB and some talent recievers they could elevate some pressure with some early success. As for the question about Mueller at QB, it is always interesting to see how former great players do when coaching immediately after playing football. in the past players like Ryan Pyear, Michael Faulds, Chris Judd and Benoit Groulx have all moved seamlessly from being top quarterbacks to being top coaches so it woudn’t be a shock for him to be successful. In this case, like Judd and Pyear, he is coaching a lot of the same players he played with, which can always be an issue. (A line worker moving to management, a friend becoming a boss, it is the same thing in sports and testosterone.) Mueller brings a wealth of experience (a CFL camp) and comes from a coaching pedigree (grandson of Ron Lancaster.) The easiest answer would be: Mueller will do fine.

AB: I like Mueller's move to coaching: he's a great football mind, and one that should be able to help elevate the Rams' offence. The move to go with Shutter is more of a risky one in my mind, though: he was born in Regina and lived there until he was 10, but has spent most of his football career in the U.S., so he'll have a lot to learn about Canadian football. Bringing him in may pay off down the road, but there are so many differences in the American and Canadian games (the bigger field, the three downs, the 12-a-side game dramatically shifting route and coverage packages) that it usually takes quite a while for U.S. quarterbacks to adapt. That may lead to some growing pains for Shutter early this season, especially with that offensive line turnover. He has a great Canadian quarterback to ask for help in Mueller, but it may take him some time to get used to how things work in CIS.

Saskatchewan (5-4, -3.3): After a rebuilding year with a lot of young faces, are the Huskies ready to break through?

KG: Saskatchewan is certainly a team on the rise. Drew Burko and Kit Hillis had chemistry last season, and with many players returning on offence, it is no surprise the Huskies were placed in the initial CIS top ten (#9) despite going 5-4 last season. While defensively they lost a few starters, judging by the Huskies' recent recruiting success they have players ready to fill and contribute immediately. The Huskies look to be on the right track and setting themselves up for prolonged success with this young talent. They may be a year away from being for real but with Calgary on a down year, U of S might be able to surprise early.

AB: In my mind, the Huskies are the most likely contender to potentially dethrone the Dinos as Canada West champions. Burko might be the best Canada West quarterback behind Dzwilewski, and he's certainly more proven at the CIS level than Shutter or Jordan Yantz. He's pretty efficient (a 65.3 per cent completion rate and 10 TDs against five picks last season) and should have another strong season at the helm of the Huskies' offence. Last year saw this team use plenty of young players in significant roles, and that was part of the reason they took a bit of a step back. In my mind, a lot of that young talent is ready for its spotlight. Just how well they do with the pressure on will determine if they can top Calgary, but they certainly have the potential to.

Manitoba (4-5, -4.9): How will Jordan Yantz do in his transition to the CIS level? Will playing at Investor's Group Field give the Bisons an edge, or will it be too cavernous?

KG: Yantz comes in with an impressive resume. He is one of the most highly touted players to come into the CIS in awhile. Manitoba hasn’t gotten a player with this much fanfare since Matt Henry bursted on the scene. The thing about quarterbacks is that they normally take some time to adjust to CIS. While the CJFL is a talented league and the BC conference has produced plenty of talent, it still isn’t CIS, and it will be interesting to see how Yantz does this season. As for the new stadium, if your name isn’t Laval, smaller is usually better. Big professional stadiums create weak atmospheres. Calgary and McGill struggle to do their high capacity stadiums justice and it usually gives a flat feel. While, it remains to be seen if Manitoba manages to pack in their newly minted stadium, I doubt it will be packed consistently.

AB: I like Yantz a lot, and I think he has the ability to be a great CIS quarterback. It says a lot about his potential that he's been anointed as the Bisons' starter Friday. He'll have some pieces to work with, too, especially All-Canadian RB Anthony Coombs. I'm not sure we'll see that this year, though, especially early on: he'll be adjusting to both the CIS level of play and to his new teammates and coaching staff. However, I do think Investor's Group Field will work out well for the Bisons. It's a fantastic stadium, and with the Bombers struggling, cheaper Bisons' games may look like an appealing option for local football fans to get out and experience the new environment. We'll see just how many they draw, but they may well pick up some new fans from the move.

UBC (2-6, -11.7): Can Shawn Olson lead the T-Birds forward this season, or were last year's struggles suggestive of larger problems?

KG: UBC is looking to be a middle of the pack team this year. They return 14 total starters but returning that many for a team that struggled really doesn’t indicate success this year. Olson has a tough-luck record. His one year of success was wiped due to an ineligible player which leaves him with a 5-21 record entering his 4th season. The Thunderbirds need to prove two years ago wasn’t just a fluke, but realistically, a .500 season would be a triumph this year.

AB: Olson certainly isn't in an easy spot, but there are some reasons to think the Thunderbirds may improve this season. Their offence should start on the ground, where Brandon Deschamps is back after leading the conference with 785 rushing yards in 2012. Through the air, losing Billy Greene hurts, but Carson Williams has showed some promise, and he's learned under Greene for three seasons now. Junior transfers Donovan Dale, Boyd Richardson, Yianni Cabylis, and Bobby Davis may help steady a defence that struggled this year. Beyond that, there are plenty of veterans coming back, and while they didn't all shine in 2012, that year of seasoning may help this team look much better this fall.

Alberta (0-8, -20.5): Is there any glimmer of hope, or are the Golden Bears going to be doormats again?

KG: Again, just because teams are returning starters does not mean that they are going to eventually start winning, (although it does mean they have players who aren’t flunking) especially when those starters struggled so much the year before. Alberta is on the right track, returning talent is important but as mentioned earlier, money is important. Alberta needs to start bringing star recruits in order to create a buzz and change. Star recruits usually get grabbed by top coaches and money gets top coaches. Alberta should be better this year; largely due to the fact they can’t get worse. 


AB: There aren't a ton of reasons for significant optimism with the Golden Bears this season, and new head coach Chris Morris will have his work cut out for him. It will be more than just his team adapting too, as he's never coached at the university level before. Morris does have a strong background as a CFL player with the Eskimos and a high school coach and administrator locally, though, so he knows what he's getting into, and there are some intriguing names on his staff, including OL coach Tim Prinsen (who used to hold that position with the Eskimos). Turning the Golden Bears around is going to take time and effort, but Morris does seem to have a clear plan, and the rigorous off-season workout program he implemented is a step in the right direction. Results this year won't be easy, but the Golden Bears could lay the foundation for better years down the road.
Otherwise known as "Differing Opinions on OUA Teams."

There's only so much we can do with these votes. Three years ago, I found that two separate lists of CIS football top 10 votes were largely the same, moving teams up when they win and down more quickly when they lose. It's not easy to be informed about teams from across the country, to say the least (and to say something unoriginal, for that matter).

As well, it's the first week, and basically by definition it's too early to tell who's who. In the first vote of 2010, the Mustangs were 8th, Rouge et Or 2nd, and Dinos 1st — a few months later, that supposed No. 1 team would get blown out in the Vanier by the No. 2 team, and the No. 8 team would play Laval close in a bowl game. Saskatchewan opened at No. 3 that year and bowed out of the postseason after a conference semifinal. In the beginning in 2011, No. 3 McMaster lost to No. 2 Western and stayed below them for 8 of the 10 weeks, despite eventually winning it all, dispatching the Mustangs along the way without much effort. In fact, in each of the last three years, the No. 1 preseason team didn't win the Vanier Cup (though they did play in it, each time), a factoid that says nothing about Laval's chances this year but everything about reading too much into early-season polls.

Having said all that, it does get us talking about the game, which is enough of a reason. Here, then, are the ballots from our staff (myself, Andrew Bucholtz, Neate Sager, Kevin Garbuio), compared to the official release:

  1. Laval — Ranked 1st by all of us. Least surprising ranking in the history of ranking things.
  2. Queen’s — 3rd by Neate, 2nd by Andrew, and 5th and 6th by those of us who didn't go to that school. Kidding, of course. Actually the average difference between Queen's (141 points in the vote) and No. 6 McMaster (122) is just one spot per voter, showing how they, and all the teams in between, are mixed together in a mess of August uncertainty. This is a pretty good team and I fully expect that 6th is the lowest I'll ever have them this year.
  3. Calgary — 5th on Neate's ballot, 3rd on mine and Andrew's, unranked by Kevin. I will admit to a "oh, come on" response to the 32-3 exhibition loss to Laval, mostly because it allowed me to make facile comparisons to that awful 2010 Vanier, possibly the worst football game I've watched all the way through. But I didn't use it to push the Dinos down (not that my No. 3 ranking is inherently correct; see earlier comment about reading too much into these). Also our first case of someone ranking a team outside the Top 6 (the fictional existence of which satisfies long-held personal belief that there should not be a Top 10 in a league this size).
  4. Western — Ranked 8th by Neate and 7th by Kevin, then 4th by the rest. Beat Toronto by 36, which was only the third-most lopsided OUA score of the opening weekend.
  5. Montreal — 4th on Neate's ballot, 6th on Andrew's and Kevin's, 5th on mine. Not much to say here. They'll get moved up if they're undefeated in non-Laval games, and certainly will be if they actually beat them.
  6. McMaster — 2nd by Neate, 7th by Andrew, 8th by Kevin, 2nd by me. Either Neate and I are both right, and this team will succeed regardless of the players they graduated, or we're both wrong (in which case we are at least not alone), or it means absolutely nothing and you stopped reading five sentences ago.
  7. Guelph — 6th, 9th, 2nd, 8th. With the exception of Kevin's No. 2 ranking, here's a clear illustration of our consensus opinion on the top 5/6 teams in the country. Their win over Laurier, by 14 points, is technically the closest result in all of CIS football this year, and observations like those are definitely why you stopped reading now.
  8. Sherbrooke — 9th, 10th, 4th, 7th. They got some love last year after beating Montreal in the playoffs (following an 0-2 season series in which they were outscored 53-20). 8th seems about right for now.
  9. Saskatchewan — 7th, 5th, 3rd, unranked. A popular approach with the Atlanta Braves in the 1990s was to assume that they will win their division every year until they don't. The opposite version of that rule of thumb has no relevance whatsoever to the Huskies, not at all.
  10. Manitoba — unranked, 8th, unranked, unranked. What does it mean to be No. 10 in the first ranking of a CIS football season? It means three of four semi-randomly-chosen voters don't think you're a top 10 team.
Fraser Caldwell, Perry King, and Neate Sager answer some burning questions about the Ontario teams ahead of Sunday's openers.

Disclosure: Fraser is employed by McMaster's athletics department as a communications assistant.


GENERAL: Does the 8-games-in-9-weeks schedule make much of a difference vs. 8-in-8? In 2010, when teams also opened early, attendance was not significantly lower in those home openers, for whatever that's worth. And will the clear distinction from last year remain, with four good teams at the top?

PK: For the time being, I don't see this making a big difference but the potential of a rested team making a game of it with a powerhouse club this season is likely, and probably better for 1) morale on lower echelon clubs and 2) for competitive balance in the OUA.

If a "middle" team, like a Toronto or a Guelph, can have some rest before taking on a (beatable) powerhouse, then we could have a chance for parity. If the added rest just gives the powerhouse clubs more ammo to load up, then so be it. Honestly, parity can only build interest, and ample rest goes a long way for a conference known to be more lighter in the belt, so to speak. The distinction between upper and lower echelon clubs should be distinct, but making efforts to support parity is a long term project, like it would be in the CFL or NFL.

NS: Whether 2012 was an anomaly or watershed for competitive balance will be determined by how it plays out this fall; how is that for a nice fence-straddling opening statement? York and U of T — which, you decide what it's worth, tied Concordia in exhibition last Sunday — are proving they can compete with mid-pack teams. Laurier and Ottawa definitely trended downward over 2011 and '12, but with new head coaches in place, there's some shot of renewal; new Gee-Gees coach Jamie Barresi has been described to me as an "evil genius."

Overall, seeing each team post at least two wins last fall was a welcome sight. It is shaping up as a year where there is going to be some parity.

FC: I don't foresee the new wrinkle in the schedule having any tangible effect on the product on the field. Where I do see a potential difference is in the marketing of games and the attendance/viewership numbers. It's right to point out that an earlier start did nothing to dampen opening week receptions a few seasons ago. But I can't help but think that the hype machines in the OUA will lose some of their edge when teams are two games deep before students have attended a single class. Diehards will make their way to the stadium, but it's the casual student who has yet to even consider school or their varsity teams as they try to suck the last vestiges of free time from their summer.


McMASTER (last year in OUA: 10-0, +26.0 SRS) — Only one non-Laval loss in two years is impressive. Do they take a step back without Kyle Quinlan (or other key players)? Marshall Ferguson's numbers were usually impressive as well, so they may have a good system in place, or they may simply have had two very talented QBs in recent years.

NS: McMaster is still McMaster and they have experienced new starters to plug in, including Ferguson replacing Quinlan as QB1, but keep in mind the depth players on a championship team always benefit from a 'halo effect.' They're still loaded, though, let's not kid ourselves.

FC: This is not the seemingly invincible team of 2012. But the Marauders will be more competitive in 2013 than many realize (again, I work for them, so take that with as much salt as you wish). The list of graduands is long, and filled with many an all-star. Gone is Quinlan, quarterback and talisman, and with him two of McMaster's best receivers and four of their starting five offensive linemen. Also remove three starters from the defensive line, including CIS single-season sack leader Ben D'Aguilar. Oh, and Yates Cup MVP Shane Beaton.

But the Marauders have built a great deal of depth in the past few years, and will be putting it to use in 2013. Ferguson will not be the athletic, defender-leaping threat that Quinlan was, but brings a cerebral approach and a sure set of hands to the McMaster offence, already proving capable during Quinlan's suspension in 2011. While Rob Babic and Brad Fochesato represented dependable production through the air, Dahlin Brooks, Max Cameron, Tyler Loveday and Ben O'Connor have all shown comparable ability in extended action. The Marauders will lean on a formidable secondary which returns all five of its starters, while hoping that the lines gell quickly in what is a tough early schedule.


GUELPH (8-2, +6.3 SRS) — Some would say the Gryphons got lucky last year. If so, does it run out in 2013?

NS: With Quinlan moving on, Guelph's Jazz Lindsey and Queen's Billy McPhee are the only incumbent QBs in the league who have guided a team to a 6-2 finish or greater. The Gryphons are evidently talented and have given themselves a leg up with their recruiting. One warning is that some regression might be inevitable after a year where seemingly every up-for-grabs football bounced into their hands.

FC: There's an awful lot of hype surrounding this team this season, after an improbable run to the Yates Cup final a year ago. Many other pundits seem to think that the Gryphons are ready to take another step forward, but I have the opposite opinion. I think they overachieved in a big way a year ago, no more so than during that semifinal in which the Gaels mashed the self-destruct button. Offensively, the Gryphons do have continuity going for them, and will return 11 of 12 starters. Rob Farquharson should be among the league rushing leaders once again, and Lindsey will be steady if unspectacular. But those who only remember the Gryphons' late-season romp should reacquaint themselves with Guelph's narrow victories over Toronto and Laurier. This was a Jekyll and Hyde team a year ago, and I think that we'll see more of Hyde in 2013.


WESTERN (6-4, +14.2 SRS) — What determines the success of this team, one that drew Mac in last year's OUA semi, and might have gone to the Yates otherwise?

FC: How far along Will Finch is in his progression will determine just how deep the Mustangs go this season. I see Western at the top of the heap, winning the Yates Cup, because I believe that he'll fulfil the potential that made him the top quarterback prospect in Canada in 2011. Finch doesn't need to be a world-beater, because he has the best running game in the province (by a landslide) at his beck-and-call, and the most well-rounded offensive line. Defensively, Western returns most starters, including defensive linemen Daryl Waud and Dylan Ainsworth, and linebacker Beau Landry. The loss of Harold Mutabola will hurt the secondary, but Greg Marshall recruited heavily, and successfully, at that position. With the strength of Western's ground game, their line play, and the expected emergence of Finch, the Mustangs are in an enviable position this season.

NS: Western could be very dangerous — Matt Uren is such a good all-purpose threat — but Finch is still very early on in his maturation cycle as a quarterback. It might be another season before Marshall really opens up the whole playbook.


QUEEN'S (7-3, +10.7 SRS) — Another member of the top four that just missed a shot for the championship. Will they return to the Yates Cup for the first time since 2009, the year they won some other trophy as well?

NS: Queen's is in the same turn-hurt-into-hunger scenario some of its past teams faced. The 2009 team was coming off consecutive home playoff losses; their '92 Vanier winner also had a 22-point lead go up in smoke in the playoffs, just like the '12 crew did vs. Guelph last November. Their window to win might not be as wide open as it is this fall; they return 20 starters and McPhee will now have a dedicated offensive coordinator with Ryan Sheahan rejoining the staff after his year with the Tiger-Cats. That might provide the solution to an all too frequently peaks-and-valleys passing game. There's a good skill-position group with the fifth-year trio of Ryan Granberg, Giovanni Aprile and Justin Chapdelaine, incoming D1 transfers Brandon Morgan and Daniel Heslop, and the emerging Alex Carroll and Chris Patrician. Queen's, for the most part, has been steady in its running game, defence and special teams for the last two years, notwithstanding the inordinate number of punt blocks they allowed last fall.

FC: A year ago, the Gaels remembered that they planned a kegger for the day of the Yates Cup and promptly shuffled out of their OUA semifinal. I wouldn't bank on that happening again. This is the most veteran squad in the province in 2013, with one last chance to take top prize before hanging up the tricolour. Aprile and Chapdelaine provide a great one-two threat through the air, and Granberg is reliable as always (though overused). Both lines are chalked full of experience and size, and will be among the very best in the province. Veterans abound on defence as well, with Andrew Lue, Chase Dunawa, and Sam Sabourin anchoring a fearsome back eight. But the lynchpin in it all may be McPhee, and that's why I don't think Queen's can win the championship they so desperately want this season. Quite simply, I've never thought very highly of McPhee as a passer. He does well underneath, and makes the routine play, but he doesn't protect the ball particularly well and he doesn't throw deep routes on par with a passer like Austin Kennedy. Maybe this is the year that McPhee makes a breakthrough, but I wouldn't bet on it.


WINDSOR (3-6, -2.8 SRS) — Do they have a shot at getting past those 5-at-4 or 6-at-3 matchups, losses in which seem inevitable for midpack OUA teams? Having perhaps the best returning OUA quarterback won't hurt.

FC: The Lancers will have to navigate a few key losses in 2013, and how they fare this season may depend on how well they fill those holes. First and foremost, Windsor will be without the services of Jordan Brescacin, far and away the most dominant receiver in the OUA in 2012 (and as an aside, the fact that Brescacin is currently without a CFL employer baffles me). Look for the ball to be spread more evenly between returnees Evan Pszczonak, Dylan Whitfield and Kyle Tyo. Defensively, both of the Lancers' 2012 all-stars have graduated, in halfback Matt McGarva and corner Shea Pierre. That could set Windsor's secondary back, at least momentarily. But if Austin Kennedy can keep the Lancers' offence firing at the rate it did last season, it might not matter.


OTTAWA (2-6, -3.3 SRS) — Compared to the other 2-6 teams they weren't blown out nearly as badly, so they have to get better, right?

FC: Looking at the Gee-Gees and the Lancers, I think these teams could easily flip between 5th and 6th. Let's put it this way: both teams are better than the bottom half of this division, but a clear step behind the Big Four. I put Ottawa behind Windsor because their defence still terrifies me, but I'll get to that in a second.

The foundation of Ottawa's offence remains intact and very dangerous, with Aaron Colbon back under centre along with his two favourite targets, Simon Le Marquand and Vincent Campbell, and fifth-year rusher Brendan Gillanders. With the offensive line intact and a year wiser, there's no reason to expect a regression on offence. But where the Gee-Gees were so often victimized last season was in their backfield, and that area will take time to address. Will the group be better than they were last season? Probably. But not good enough to make Ottawa a real threat in this division.

NS: On gut instinct alone, Ottawa gets back in the playoffs. Colbon, Gillanders, and Le Marquand are a good set of fifth-year triplets on offence and their line play should improve on each side of the ball. Their 'back eight' has been an Achilles heel for a couple years, perhaps more schematically than athletically.


YORK (2-6, -12.6 SRS) and TORONTO (2-6, -20.0 SRS) — Is there any hope?

PK: They had games they could have won in 2012. Both teams came off seasons with upsides but not a whole lot of results. Toronto lost something after their Laurier opener, and York simply had trouble putting a complete performance in games last season. Both teams will be hungry, and have a lot of their core guys back to play. There are a lot of beatable teams in the OUA, including the Beta version of Carleton's program, and they have the assets to win.
FC: If I had to pick an adjective to best encapsulate Toronto, it would be “nondescript”. The Varsity Blues are there. They're not terrible. They're not very good. They're there. There's a reason that there were no All-Stars named from Toronto in 2012. The quarterbacking duo of Simon Nassar and Richard Quittenton return to do completely average things, and the amazingly-named Paul de Pass will lead the way as Toronto's fifth-year receiver. Leading rusher Ashton Nelson is gone, but on the plus side, the Blues return the bulk of their young defence, which should improve this season. Still, they look to be set for yet another year in the murky middle ground of the OUA.

As for York, there are a lot of new faces in the Lions' defensive backfield this season, and rightly so. The secondary was victimized early and often last year en route to the dubious distinction of giving up the most passing yards of any defensive unit in the OUA. So in scanning the Lions' roster, it doesn't surprise me to see 12 rookie defensive backs listed. If York is to make further strides this year, it will need its defence to stop holding back a promising offence, which was quietly among the OUA's best last season. Myles Gibbon has one last kick at the varsity can, as do primary targets Will Austin and Jonelle Tolbert. The question is whether that offence can adapt to the loss of leading rusher Kyle Exume. I think they'll manage.


LAURIER (3-6, -16.1 SRS) — 2012 was quite an awful year, especially by their standards. What happened? Can they improve?

FC: Remember when the Golden Hawks were perennial contenders and a feel-good story of small town success? Good, because those times are long gone. This team reached a new low last season, and I see nothing to expect an immediate turnaround. What seniors there were in last year's atrocious offence – which scored the fewest points in the OUA (109) by a fairly wide margin – are gone, including receivers Alex Anthony and Anton Bennett, and fullback Josh Pirie. Sophomore James Fracas takes over under centre, after being thrown to the wolves appearing in four games — including Laurier's 34-0 quarterfinal thrashing at the hands of Queen's — and completing 28 of 57 passes for 327, a pick and no points in 2012. Oh, and Laurier's only All-Star from a season ago, linebacker Mitchell Bosch is gone, alongside fellow linebacking starter Nick Sapone, defensive back Carlos Naranjo and defensive linemen Alex Brouwers and Ben Ivany. This could be fun for the other teams in the league.


WATERLOO (2-6, -22.0 SRS) — The great saga continues: this team's last win over a non-York/Toronto/Windsor opponent was five years ago. Will they get one this year?

FC: Little by little, the Warriors pick up the pieces and get crucially older. With Joe Paopao sticking around, the Warriors will also enjoy continuity at the top, which is a must if they want to dig themselves out of the cellar anytime soon. But returning your players only matters if those players were worth a toss in the first place. On offence, there were some things to like, namely, receiving warhorse Nick Anapolsky and lineman Matt Vonk. But this is a group whose returning quarterbacking duo of Jamie Cook and Brian Chris threw four more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (8), and didn't boast a single rusher inside the league's top 20. Not to mention, the offence means very little when your defensive line is being treated like a TTC turnstile and there's only scorched earth where your backfield should be. This will be another ugly season.


CARLETON (did not play) — What is our realistic expectation for their success this year? Can you build a program from scratch that's instantly better than some or all of Waterloo, York, and Toronto?

[Ed. note: Neate has covered Carleton's return for Yahoo here and here.]

FC: In talking with football folk around McMaster and elsewhere, the sense that I get of Carleton is that this is a program with great potential, but one that won't be able to realize it for a few seasons. Steve Sumarah has gathered together an impressive first class of recruits to much fanfare, but they remain just that: recruits. There's obviously a desire to win on the administration's part at Carleton, and they've put their money where their collective mouth is. But this football embryo needs time to grow. I would peg the Ravens at 1-7 this season, with the victory coming at the expense of Waterloo in Week 2.
The Concordia Stingers made their biggest move towards a new beginning today in announcing Patrick Boivin as their new Director of Recreation and Athletics. The move was necessary after Katie Sheahan announced her retirement this Spring.

The Stingers promised a professional sports background, and Boivin delivers that. The son of former Montreal Canadiens president Pierre Boivin, Patrick is the Habs' former director of hockey operations and also worked in marketing for both the team and the league.

That background in marketing is significant for Concordia. They have dropped behind the University of Montreal and English-rival McGill in most university sports in the CIS, and need to play catch up. They have opened a new sports centre which is a huge improvement over their previous digs, and a renovation project to the Ed Meagher arena is also part of that. They need all the help they can get to recruit not only top athletes but sponsors and fans in the Montreal area as well.

Concordia's athletics department has some strongholds — the men's basketball team and their women's rugby teams have been consistently competitive with some notable recent performances from the women's basketball team as well. They made their return to the National Top 10 this past season. Football and hockey — usually the two most popular sports in CIS — have been somewhat disappointing recently, especially the football team given the talent it has been churning out to the professional ranks.

One thing that I would expect to see from Boivin right away is an emphasis on the marketing aspects of the sports teams at the university. That is something that he can change right away as the fall seasons are just around the corner. But, something to look at long-term is how focused Boivin is on results. From when I started at Concordia in 2004 until now, there has been one sport that has changed coaches: men's soccer (twice). The rugby teams also had a little switch as well. With other teams having struggled, and no changes made, it will be interesting to see how long of a leash Boivin has.

I'm not looking to get anyone fired, but the fact remains that at some point results on the field need to matter. It was one thing when Concordia was behind the French language universities. It is quite another when they start to fall as far as they have behind McGill, who have won hockey championships and had a better football team than Concordia last year.
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