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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.