Football: Laurier, St. Francis Xavier can show Semifinal Saturday does not have to be a letdown

Full disclose: it is tough typing a blog post with two sets of crossed fingers on each hand. One always hopes against hope each national football semifinal will be good, since it is one of the few times all season that Canadian university football gets any sort of media platform.

As long as football is 12-on-12 and young adults are playing the games, there is always a capacity for surprise -- just ask a Western alumnus, eh.

The subtext for Saturday's semifinals, with Laurier going up to Laval and St. Francis Xavier carrying the AUS banner across three time zones to take on Calgary is all the talk and inaction about creating a level playing field nationally.

The second-last Saturday of the season seldom delivers on its promise, except to complete cynics. When it does -- Montréal and Manitoba trading haymakers in the 2014 Uteck; Saskatchewan ending Laval's three-peat ambitions in the 2005 Mitchell -- it's a Choose-Your-Own-10-Dollar-Word-Damnit thrill ride. Of course, a great team playing a perfect game in front of its fans (Saint Mary's two semifinal wins against Laval in 2001 and '07) is exhilarating in its way.

More often than not, though, the semis are just prologue. It is worth mentioning this since it will show how unexpected it will be if, indeed, Laurier defeats Laval and/or St. Francis Xavier shocks Calgary. I guess I'm writing this as a plea to the people involved that it would be more refreshing if there was more adult conversation about why the semis are often predictable, instead of feeding a false line about plucky underdogs.

The past does not necessarily predict the future, but down below are tables that show the national semifinals have seen greater winning margins over the last 15 seasons than in the previous two decades. Of course, a more sophisticated analysis would try to project whether this is likely to continue, but doing that would involve having data sets that include more meaningful interconference play. (You see what I did there.)

For what is worth, the 'average aggregate' (combined margin of victory) in the semis from 2001-15 was 45.93 points, with a median of 42.

In the previous 20 sets of semifinals (1980-2000, with 1983 excepted since the Atlantic conference forfeited), the average margin was 29.95 points, with a median of 27.

That represents a 50 per cent increase in the wrong direction, since the goal is presumably to have closer games. A greater mind can figure out The Laval Factor: their average point differential in 12 national semifinals is 12.25 points.

(The 2001 season was a good starting point, since that was the first season every Ontario team played in OUA. The Mitchell Bowl was called the Churchill Bowl through 2002; the eastern-most semifinal was renamed after Larry Uteck in 2003.)


MarginUteck HUteck VMitchell HMitchell V
201542AUSCWOUARSEQ
201415RSEQCWOUAAUS
201368AUSRSEQCWOUA
201274RSEQAUSOUACW
201155AUSOUACWRSEQ
201029RSEQOUACWAUS
200927AUSCWOUARSEQ
200865RSEQCWOUAAUS
200754AUSRSEQCWOUA
200653RSEQAUSOUACW
200523AUSOUACWRSEQ
200435RSEQOUACWAUS
200355AUSCWOUARSEQ
200233OUAAUSRSEQCW
200161AUSRSEQCWOUA
45.93

Consider the chart above a literally calculated act of someone who knows he would make a poor hype man for a major sports network. One season in the last 15 when both games were close (and in 2014, McMaster played to the level of Mount Allison, likely accounting for the 12-point margin) is kind of bad.

Averaging a pair of three-touchdown games for a decade and half is, at best, a reflection of the challenges of staging a national championship in a country with so much geography and so much institutional inertia about Nopuck sports. At worst, it shows a complacency with the status quo. There are probably a lot of other things to do to get more people to care about the Vanier Cup that do not involve lucking into some 40-38 games in the semis. Also, having one bad weekend in November is not a reason not to enjoy September, October and early November (the good regular-season matchups and conference playoffs).

There are 20 sets of semifinals from 1980 to 2000. That's good for these purposes, since it's an even number and '80 was the first season the O-QIFC -- Queen's, Carleton, Ottawa and the Quebec schools -- had its own trophy game. In that era  the Atlantic Bowl was at a fixed site in Halifax. For simplicity's sake, the three extant conferences are referred to by current abbreviations:

The average swings three points either way if you discard either of the anomalies, 1985 and '87.


MarginAtlantic HAtlantic VChurchill HChurchill V
20009AUSCWOUAOQIFC
199913AUSOUAOQIFCCW
199818AUSOQIFCCWOUA
199712AUSCWOQIFCOUA
199632AUSOQIFCOUACW
199540AUSOUACWOQIFC
199428AUSCWOQIFCOUA
199324AUSCWOUA*OQIFC*
199217AUSCWOQIFC*OUA*
199137AUSCWOQIFC*OUA*
199029AUSOUAOQIFCCW
198935AUSOUACWOQIFC
198853AUSOQIFCOUACW
19873AUSOQIFCCWOUA
19869AUSOUAOQIFCCW
198593AUSOUACWOQIFC
198427AUSOQIFCOUACW
198263AUSCWOUAOQIFC
198127AUSOQIFCCWOUA
198030AUSOQIFCCWOUA
29.95
*Played at SkyDome

If you hung in for all of this, you can jump to your own conclusions about whether this could be remedied or if it's just the reality of university sport. A solution is not as simple as "bring back the Atlantic Bowl, bring back the O-QIFC, add water and stir."

At least the trends show there is reason to be untethered from the conference-champs-only format. Now just reflexively being against the so-called The Usual can create its own set of problems (see: the result of the U.S. presidential selection).

The other subtext for Saturday

There is no chance the rights holder will mention this in depth on Saturday, perhaps beyond some cutesy graphic that shows that Calgary's administrative staff (4,964) is larger than the population of Antigonish proper (4,524).

Laurier was among the OUA schools that fired a broadside in 2014 about "the arms race in OUA football," which was also aimed at Laval and MontrĂ©al driving up the cost to compete. Now the Golden Hawks are getting their shot to play Laval, so that theme has been revisited this week.

St. Francis Xavier is probably the strongest rep AUS has had since the age cap (i.e., the "seven years to play five seasons rule") took full effect. I'm not sure how much stock can be put in the fact that St. FX hung in with Concordia, Quebec's third-best team, on Sept. 24. The effects of having a deeper roster and a bigger budget increase as the season progresses.

Anyway, here's hoping for a couple of 40-38 games.

Oh, and just to complete the Buzz Killington hat trick, one more table, which is more or less Ontario vs. Everybody. Well, actually it's how the OUA has fared over the years in semifinals against opponents from Canada West and Quebec.

All told, the conference is 2-11 in such instances. Each win was a home game.


YearOUAROCLocationOUAROC
2015GuelphMontrealHome1025
2013WesternCalgaryAway344
2012McMasterCalgaryHome456
2010WesternLavalAway1113
2009Queen'sLavalHome3330
2007Western ManitobaAway2052
2006OttawaSaskatchewanHome2835
2004LaurierLavalAway1130
2003McMasterLavalHome3236
2001McMasterManitobaAway627
2000McMasterOttawa*Home1520
1998WesternSaskatchewanAway1733
1997WaterlooOttawa*Away3744
1996GuelphSaskatchewanHome 933

Pre-Laval
1994WesternBishop'sAway4124
1993TorontoConcordiaSkyDome2616
1992GuelphQueen's*SkyDome1623
1991LaurierQueen's*SkyDome4222
1988CalgaryWesternHome1534
1987LaurierUBCAway3133
1984GuelphCalgaryHome127
1983TorontoQueen's*Away721
1982WesternConcordiaHome177
1981WesternAlbertaAway3132
1980WesternAlbertaAway414
* O-QIFC team
BOLD-won Vanier

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