Wishful Thinking Wednesday: Why (and how) Vanier Cup could add wild-card teams

No. 2 Western lost to Guelph in the 2015 Yates Cup, but their season should not have ended at that point. (CHCH photo)

Which comes first: the expanded national championship, or a true national interlock? The answer might surprise you. Or not.

Few people can honestly argue the best display of CIS is reaching a national TV audience with the conference-champions-only final four. To some extent, that stems from the nature of football in cold weather: it's a Dickensian struggle with dime packages, but that's the hand we have to play in Canada.

There seemingly diametrically opposed ideas that aren't necessarily in conflict, the Northern 8 interlock idea and the notion of expanding the Vanier Cup bracket to eight teams, have four shared goals. The difference is on how to achieve them. Those could loosely be labelled:

  • A TV property cannot be built on three games per year (semis and Vanier); 
  • The current conference-champions-only structure, where the bowl hosts and matchups are done in rotation, probably hinders competitiveness more than it helps it;
  • Something practical needs to be offered to a broadcast partner (while not knowing what broadcasting will entail in four years, never mind 15);
  • How is this being funded (which could actually be Nos. 1, 2 and 3)?

Since all news is local, it is understandable why power programs in OUA and RSEQ have yet to cross the Rubicon on interlock. There was a fear of the unknown of trying to market a game against an unfamiliar outside-the-region opponent. That is how we roll in the centre of the country.

With regard to a football Final 8, there are issues. Conference championship games would be marginalized, and years of work at the conference level to build the profile of those events goes poof.

Reaching eight teams means the Canada West, OUA and RSEQ runners-up would each get a berth every year. There might even have to be a semifinalist to fill the field, since AUS is likely a one-berth league. That deprives those games of the drama essentially to get people to care. And why strain yourself for a banner when the real thing is waiting? To use a basketball example, only seven of Carleton's 12 championship teams have won the Wilson Cup, the OUA title. Beyond seeding, the only motivation to win a Wilson Cup is if a coach's program has never savoured any success.

The Final 8 format would not mesh with football, which embraces the crushing finality of one-and-done -- triple zeroes on the clock, other team celebrating, an unprocessable swirl of emotions, hugging family for support that doesn't quite fill the void.

But we know the last four teams standing aren't always the four most deserving. Or the four who exemplify the growth of CIS football. There has to be an expansion.

From a broadcaster perspective, they probably would prefer to have only two games in that extra week of playoffs. Four quarter-finals is unwieldy.

You can probably intuit where this is going: go to a Final 6. The four conference champions, and two wild cards, who would be the conference runners-up with the highest rankings in the final Top 10 of the season. The conference champs who were the highest in the poll(s) advance directly to hosting the Mitchell and Uteck semifinals. The third and fourth seeds each host a quarter-final.

It's the same playoff format as the CFL and a conference bracket in the NFL -- six teams, top two get a bye.

The value of a conference title is protected. A team who wins on Conference Championship Saturday knows their Vanier Cup dream is extant, and they might have even earned a important week to allow injuries to heal before the first national playoff game. The losing team has a hellish few hours of wondering whether their ranking, and the outcome of the other three games that weekend, will provide a second chance.

For sake of clarity, some seeding provisos will be needed.
  • A wild card cannot receive the bye to the Uteck and Mitchell. You went 8-0, scored more than 500 points, were everybody's No. 1 but failed to seal the deal in the one game you had to win? That's great, and you should be very proud. Now take a lap and get ready to host a quarter-final next week.
  • A wild card must be seeded lower than the team it lost against in the conference final. This further incentivizes winning the conference.  
  • No same-conference matchups in the quarter-final. However, two conference rivals may be on the same side of the bracket.
In other words, the first wild card could be no higher than No. 3. The wild cards could be the 3 and 4 seeds, if a 4-4 or 5-3 team goes on a Cinderella run like Manitoba did in 2014.

It's best left up to someone with a true mathematical background (i.e., not me) to hash out how to weight the simple Yes / No ("Did you win your conference?) and a team's national ranking at the end of the regular season. It's like a professor deciding how much weight she should give to a final exam vis-a-vis regular classwork: thirty, 40 or 50 points on a 100-point scale?

There would be some trepidation about incorporating the Top 10 poll, but if it exists, then why not use it? It also wouldn't necessarily have to be just the last poll. Using the final three weeks, with a recency factor, seems like a good way to account for a good team which played their toughest opponent last, or who laid low for a week if they clinch first or second place early (which happened in OUA in 2009, '11 and '14).

The other reason there would be opposition to using the Top 10 results is perceived (if unproven) regional bias. You can hear it already: Ontario and Quebec would always have the two wild cards. Well, OUA has nearly double the teams of any other conference, so it has a case to have two spots in a six-team tournament, like it did under the old format of the men's hockey University Cup.*

(* Well-aware that was because one spot was technically the RSEQ's. Details.)

Moreover, one struggle for a Top 10 voter is comparing teams in different conferences (see previous posts). That brings us to an a-ha moment: if conferences are worried that their second, third and fourth-best programs don't receive enough exposure outside their conference, then how can they still be against true interlock play?

With meaningful non-conference games, suddenly there's a better way for a voter to make comparisons between Ottawa and Saskatchewan. Or Concordia and Laurier, and so forth. Over time, there would also be enough data (i.e., interlock results) to generate RPI and SRS that could also factor into determining who hosts quarters and semis, and who has to charter a plane.

Football has the most passionate season-long debate over national rankings. Expanding to a Final 6 is a practical way to begin channeling all that emotional equity into having a more dramatic end to the season that can better showcase the best of CIS football.
Next PostNewer Post Previous PostOlder Post Home

1 comment:

  1. This is the format I've always dreamed would one day unfold with 3 changes:
    1. Conference champions should hold seeds 1-4 (ie. you win your conference, you host a national playoff game).
    2. Run the FRC Top 10 all the way through the conference championships. This will then lead to...
    3. Seeds 5 and 6 don't have to be conference semi finalists, just the highest 2 ranked non champs. Example: if someone has a dominant regular season, ranked #1 and loses a semi final (likely against a team they beat in the regular season), giving them an outside chance at a 5 or 6 seed further increases the stakes of the conference championship weekend and the potential story lines.