2018 U Sports Football Preview

merchant_western-1040x572The U Sports season is set to kick-off once again as University teams are looking to begin their journey towards the Vanier Cup.

The beginning of the U Sports season is always interesting as there really isn’t anything known right from the start.

There are assumptions made about every division as the U Sports landscape has shifted but has also shifted into a very rigid competition.

Although the time of the single dominant team is over in every conference there aren’t a lot more competitors in this new era.

The best teams that have been there for years are still standing at the top while the bottom teams are still trying to make it a competition trying to do more with less.

There are more teams pushing those great programs though and it has made things a little more interesting throughout the country.

Teams are no longer walking away with conferences as every conference in 2017 had a fight to get the top spot.

Throughout the playoffs, there were some very close battles and the entertainment of the game seemed to finally be taking a step forward.

For years three teams essentially walked through everyone on their way to the national stage but this time they actually had to earn their way into the national spotlight.

For one, in particular, it wasn’t too much of a challenge but the other two big programs had to fight their way into the national semi-finals.

It was a fun way to get things going for the U Sports playoffs but in the end, there were a lot of familiar jerseys on the national stage.

The competition level has certainly grown throughout the country as more than ever there are teams actually competing for the national playoffs.

Still, there is a big hill to climb when it comes to University sports as the haves and have-nots are still widely separated.

It is the biggest challenge in the university game as there is only so much talent to go around.

When teams go recruiting they are looking to find the best talent to bring their team to the national stage and potentially win a Vanier Cup.

They only have a few years to do that with players having five years of eligibility before they are no longer allowed to play in U Sports.

Within those five years, teams need to build a team that can compete at the top level and that can be a challenge.

What makes it even tough is the fact that the best players want to play for championships every year.

It gives them a chance to truly play for something as well as get seen by both CFL and NFL scouts.

Playing with a team that has struggled to get out of the basement is not going to give a player the best path to playing professionally.football-sidebar

So the best teams often have an easier job when recruiting the top talent throughout the country.

They can simply look at the championships and the fact that they play into November as the best reason to join the team.

It doesn’t guarantee that the top talent will come but it is a great selling point and although there is a lot of work to do to get that talent to play to the best of their ability it is easier with guys that are naturally gifted.

So the best teams often stay the best teams as evident by the recruiting classes this year where the dominant teams throughout the country are among the top five ranked classes.

That will keep them standing at the top of their conferences and getting that shot at more Vanier Cups.

The beginning of the season has everyone even though as nothing is guaranteed and teams are all hoping that they have found the right combination of players and coaches to compete.

There will always be surprises and over the last few years, the path to the national playoffs is not as easy as it once was.

Those dominant teams will remain the favourites and don’t seem like they are going to fall back in the pack any time soon.

They will all look to take the conference titles in their respective groups but might have a little bit of a push from other teams that are beginning to become constant thorns in their sides.

aus

The AUS is often a forgotten conference because they struggle to find success on the national stage. Last season didn’t help things as the Acadia Axemen had a rough road to the national playoffs and then were dismantled by the Western Mustangs. The 81-3 loss was one of the worst in a national semi-final and it only continued to solidify the perception that the AUS schools are not on the same level. The talent level was a problem for Acadia but last season was not an easy one to get through. As the Loney Bowl approached the AUS and U Sports made an impactful decision as they claimed that the Saint Mary’s Huskies were ineligible and handed the Axemen an AUS title. The Huskies had used an ineligible player throughout the year and their punishment was taking away their chance to compete for the Jewett Trophy. Saint Mary’s didn’t take the punishment lying down though as they challenged the ruling stating that the eligibility rule was not clear enough to warrant their punishment. Courts decided that the Huskies were not in violation due to the room for interpretation and the Loney Bowl was back on setting the Axmen scrambling to prepare for a familiar opponent. They were able to get by Saint Mary’s but only had four days to prepare for a team that had been beating up everyone throughout the playoffs. The mix was clearly not a good one and the Mustangs walked over the AUS champions. The new season is a chance for every team to try to battle for their right to play on the national stage and prove that they can hang with the bigger programs. This year all five teams return some of their most important players from a year ago leading to a fight between some experienced teams. The Huskies and Axemen still seem like the class of the conference though as Mount Allison might undergo some growing pains with new head coach Peter Fraser and Bishop’s continues to adjust to their new conference. StFX could throw their hat into the ring of the fight again this year with a solid returning group that hopes to meet their potential after multiple losses set them back in 2017. The AUS season is all about proving something this year as they are bringing experienced and talented groups to the new year in what could be a great three-team battle for the top. Whoever makes it has work to do as they take on the RSEQ champions this year trying to show that they can hang with the best when it matters most.

AUS Champion:
au-axemen.fw

rseq

The Quebec conference has always been one of the best and yet at the same time one of the most boring in the country. They have consistently produced champions with very strong teams coming out of the conference. Whoever can make it out of this conference is usually a favourite to make their way to the Vanier Cup. The problem with that is the fact that the teams coming out of Quebec often have the same name. The Laval Rouge et Or have been the most dominant program in Canadian University Football for almost two decades with 14 Dunsmore Cups and 9 Vanier Cups. Considering this team has only been in place since 1996 and has gathered that many accomplishments, it is pretty spectacular. Despite their dominance and the interest in watching a team that has been that good, it has become boring to see them take almost every title. From 2001 until 2013 the Rouge et Or took ever championship for Quebec leaving the regular season almost pointless. 2014 was the turning point though as that was the year a true contender joined the fray in Quebec. The Montreal Carabins had been making progress for a number of years but in 2014 they finally conquered the unbeatable Rouge et Or. Making sure that it wasn’t just a fluke they followed up with another Dunsmore Cup win in 2015. The Carabins have established themselves as a true contender and the RSEQ now has a real battle on their hands. Unfortunately, that battle remains between two dominant teams while everyone else is left out. The other Quebec teams all struggle to find the talent as there are plenty of great players in Quebec but Laval and now Montreal are the teams everyone wants to play for. Teams like Sherbrooke, McGill and Concordia can’t compete with the recruiting classes that the two big teams bring in. Both Montreal and Laval were among the top five recruiting classes this year while no other Quebec team made the list. They will head into the new season as the clear favourites to take the title once again and it could be an interesting battle for both teams.  It will likely come down to those teams again as the Rouge et Or bring back a strong group of fifth-year starters and Montreal bringing a more experienced group than a year ago. There could always be surprises as McGill and Concordia have looked better in recent years but the talent level is different among the top teams making it seem like a two-team race again this year.

RSEQ Champion:
montreal

oua

The OUA has always been more interesting of a conference than many of the others as their dominant team has not been as consistent as the rest. That is not to say that the Western Mustangs are not consistently in the running for the Yates Cup every season but they have been surprised and have not taken an overwhelming number of championships. Two years ago a new challenger emerged as the Laurier Golden Hawks began to truly challenge the Mustangs for the top spot. They were able to tie the Mustangs for the top spot in the division and took home the Yates Cup beating the Mustangs in the finals. The Mustangs came back with a vengeance the next year as they were simply too good to be beaten by anyone. They went on an 8-0 run through the regular season and put up huge point totals in the playoffs erasing any doubt of them being the best team in the conference. That continued in the national playoffs where they were able to get by the Laval Rouge et Or to take their seventh Vanier Cup. The OUA will always be home to surprises though as the largest conference is a lot harder to predict than most people might think. Heading into a new season the Mustangs are again going to be favourites with that powerhouse offence returning some of their key players. The defence has some losses though and that could be the opening. The Laurier Golden Hawks are right on their tails but will need to rely on their defensive corps as the offence is a young and inexperienced group. The Guelph Gryphons are never far off from that top spot and returning a pretty experienced and talented group they could be in the hunt this year. There are always a number of other challengers as the Ottawa Gee Gees, Carleton Ravens and Queen’s Gaels could all find their way into the playoffs if things go right for them. The real battle will be at the top as the Mustangs still look like the best team but there are a few that could give them a run for their money as they look to unseat the champions. It won’t be easy as the Mustangs can put up big numbers if they get going early and no matter what type of defence they might have it could be too much for everyone. The OUA might have an early favourite but like every year the surprises will come and one could be at the top.

OUA Champion:
wu-mustangs.fw

canwest

Much like the Quebec conference, the CanWest conference has been one of the best and one of the most boring over the last decade. In this conference, it has been the Calgary Dinos who have ruled over everyone taking home more titles than anyone else throughout the conference. They have been the picture of consistency like the Rouge et Or and often find themselves in the same picture as Laval. For years it was almost assumed that the Dinos would be headed to the national playoffs but unlike Laval, there was no guarantee they were going to play for the Vanier. Although not as dominant the Dinos have been one of the best programs for decades producing some of the best talent in the CFL. From 2008 until 2013 the Dinos were the class of the conference taking every Hardy Trophy and walking onto the national stage. Also, like the RSEQ though 2013 was the last year for that complete dominance from one team. In 2014 the Manitoba Bison were able to take home a title while in 2015 the UBC Thunderbirds took their own title. The Dinos have come back though as they are now the two-time defending champions in the west. It hasn’t been all that easy though as one team has made their run at the title for three straight years and have given Calgary everything that they can handle. A lot of it has to do with the recruiting of Michael O’Connor who came to UBC from Penn State and remains one of the most exciting Canadian QB prospects in the country. For three years the Thunderbirds have been on the heels of the Dinos playing them in three straight Hardy Trophy games last year coming up short by one point thanks to a 59-yard field goal with no time left. The conference is full of talented teams as Regina and Alberta remain strong but it seems once again that the title will come down to two teams. The Thunderbirds are still riding their strong team but the window is closing with O’Connor entering his fourth year and potentially heading to the CFL next season. The Dinos are a constant and won’t be knocked off easily but if there is a team that has shown they are up to the task it has been the T-Birds who will go after that top spot once again this year.

CanWest Champion:
ubc-thunderbirds.fw

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