Football: Rooting for weird outcomes; an incomplete and irreverent season preview

Forget the old line that in sports, one essentially roots for laundry. What really keeps one hanging on year after year with university football — so exhilarating on the field ... so exasperating everywhere else — is when the results veer off the well-trod path.

If one is going to write about U Sports in 2017, they should at least let the audience add up two plus two, which means pro forma preseason predictions are passé. Yet it's a good exercise to keep fanning that little flame of hope that there might be some twist ending, like 2014, when the national semifinals involved neither Calgary, Laval nor Western. That was refreshing, although those principals would disagree — no judgment; who would not trade it all for just a little more, eh?

Besides, other, better outlets have the whole preseason rigmarole covered very, very well:

I'm also self-aware enough to know people get fatigued about reading another post decrying the severe stasis in the No. 1 and No. 2 university sports, football and men's basketball. The increased opportunities to for Canadians to play professionally and internationally do stem somewhat from Laval and Carleton having spurred the competition to take sports a little more seriously. Yet the general public needs stimulation from seeing new challengers take the summit, so it's a bad look when one football team has won nine national championships in the past 18 seasons and one men's basketball team has won 13 times in 15 years. That's probably exacerbated by the fact that there is little rigorous examination of the factors involved in that beyond the obvious such as "good coaching" and "tradition."

Nevertheless, my enthusiasm for university football always bounces right back up come the last two weeks of August, and probably will as long as the game is being played. With the regular season one day away, here's a few "well, that's different" weird outcomes that would make 2017 a memorable season. You know, before Laval wins one for the thumb on their other hand.

  • Bishop's winning the AUS title. Thanks for the providing that bullet point, Captain Obvious, but don't you want to see the reaction from people in the office in November, "wait, since when does Bishop's plays in the Maritimes?"

    The Gaiters, who are going to be day-tripping by plane for all road games, which will reduce some of the travel stress from going to Antigonish, Sackville and Wolfville. It shouldn't be assumed that doing a drag-and-drop of a Quebec team into a lesser league will immediately equal a championship. The Gaiters have a rookie coach in Chérif Nicolas and return only nine starters from a 1-7 team. The move will restore some vitality to a team which had been a poor fit in Quebec.

    In 2000, Queen's was also 1-7 in their last season of league play against Quebec teams and, like the 2016 Gaiters, the only victory came at home in an interlocking game. They played for the OUA championship just two years later.
  • The Argo Cup deciding a playoff berth. Yes, really, even though York last made the playoffs in 2004 and Toronto has not done so since '95. If you are anything like me, you made a spreadsheet of the OUA schedule and stared at it for hours, trying to see if there's any possibility either GTA school might eke out the 5-3 finish it would likely take to wrangle OUA's sixth and final playoff berth. A 4-4 finish will trigger a tiebreaker scenario.

    So pin hopes there on ... Toronto? The Varsity Blues have a Windsor-Waterloo-Guelph-York gauntlet from weeks 2 to 5, before their bye week. They won a couple games last season. They stayed within three scores against Guelph, Queen's and Windsor.

    York is improving and Brett Hunchak might be the best passer in Ontario now that Derek Wendel has graduated; like with any perennial straggler, there is the question of whether the defence and offensive lines will hold up late in the season, when the intensity is ratcheted up. York's skeddy isn't as favourable since they don't get a direct opportunity to unseat Carleton or Guelph, their two non-combatants. Their closing leg of trips to Queen's and Windsor is daunting, but must be done if they are to take a step.

    Waterloo comes in on a 16-loss streak that dates back to the 2014 season finale, when a one-point win against York ended a 12-loss streak.
  • A Hec Crighton winner who doesn't play quarterback. The last 11 national players of the year have all played the same position. Granted, MVP awards in football have always been slanted toward the offensive backfield. The bias has moved more and more toward quarterbacks as once-sacrosanct "establish the run, then throw" principles have gone the way of weekly TV coverage.

    Still, 11 quarterbacks in a row smacks of lacking an institutional memory. Only 10 Hec Crighton winners in the 22-season span from 1985-2006 were quarterbacks.

    Will that change? Likely not. Regina's Noah Picton has a shot at going back-to-back, while UBC's Michael Connor and Laval's Hugo Richard are each have the mantle of being past Vanier Cup winners.
  • Saint Mary's as sentimental rooting interest. Remember The Simpsons when Bart gets Principal Skinner fired and, counter-intuitively, finds out he misses him as an enemy? It's kind of like that with SMU's "Room 2-22" phase over the last three years.

    One cannot really hate on Acadia, Mount A or St. FX unless you grew up or did your undergrad in that region of the country. The Huskies in their heyday made for an easier target, probably because they reflected the Maritimes' insularity ... all this pride that one could do with seeing a little more of Ontario, but still, get over yourselves man, you only have to beat three other teams.

    In short, one needs to see the Huskies be back among the living and worthy of withering praise, again.
  • Another year with no Yates Cup repeat. Ontario has had five different teams win in the past five seasons, tying the longest stretch without a back-to-back champion. (The only other instance was in 1996-2000, but Waterloo won on two non-consecutive occasions).

    Does that mean it's okay if Western actually manages to keep it together in the fourth quarter of a Yates Cup, for a change? Sure.

    The Western-Laurier contest on Sept. 30 could decide first place in Ontario. In the Greg Marshall era, the 'Stangs are 2-1 when they've gone on the road for the Yates and 2-3 when they have been home. Small sample sizes, I know.
  • UBC supplants Calgary to finish first in Canada West. Hate to be an armchair-athlete aesthete but enough with deciding the Hardy Trophy in a nearly empty McMahon Stadium.

    Calgary has hosted the CW championship in eight of the last nine seasons. The top two attendance figures don't add up to the 5,186 for the last final played on-campus, which was in Saskatoon, Sask., in 2009. (The Dinos beat the U of S 39-38 in a classic.)

    Calgary is probably better than even money for a 7-1 reg-season and first place again. But UBC has continually added depth since hiring Blake Nill three years ago. The T-Birds have just a single reg-season game against the Dinos, and it's at home on Sept. 29. Win that, avoid more than one stumble, and they could host the rematch.

    Possible spin-off from a championship game at a campus stadium: it might show some directors of athletics at other Canada West schools what kind of atmosphere a football team can create.
  • An all-Quebec Vanier Cup between Bishop's and Evil Empire 1A or 1B. The semifinal rotation is OUA at AUS for the Uteck Bowl; Quebec at Canada West for the Mitchell Bowl.

    This scenario requires Bishop's winning the Loney Bowl in their first crack, then upsetting the OUA rep in the Uteck Bowl. Meantime, Laval or Montréal wins its semifinal out west. The latter outcome is lot more likely, granted.

    It's not likely to happen, but an all-Quebec Vanier matchup in southern Ontario would be a wicked burn on some vaguely defined power-that-be. And if it turned out to be a massive mismatch between Bishop's and Laval/Montreal, then maybe it would be another spur to realignment.

    Hope springs eternal every fall.

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1 comment:

  1. I loved reading this; decent primer for the season (I didn't know Bishop's was in the AUS) and actually challenged my vocabulary several times throughout the piece. My interest for football in any form is small, but this makes me want to follow it this year.