By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TV Personality
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett
There is a perception out there that the AUS is the ugly duckling of CIS football conferences.
I’ve heard discussions spanning from “they should be absolved and put in the RSEQ” to “the RSEQ should no longer have to water down their schedule to play them in the regular season” to “they should be forced to expand and add teams.”
The one notion I hear more than any other is that they shouldn’t get an automatic bid to the national semifinals, sentiments that I’m sure come from a good place but don’t really address the balance of power inequities we see from conference to conference.
For as long as I’ve been around CIS, I’ve heard assertions that there should be a division one and division two set up. That is a longer conversation but as it pertains to the AUS, none of the member institutions as currently constituted would lose by 60-plus to Western or 70-plus to Calgary as York and Alberta did last week. So the AUS schools by and large would not fall into a theoretical division two as some intimate.
There has always been some jealousy from the other conferences regarding how small a kingdom the AUS is to rule. Take all-star recognition, for example. The fact that once an AUS player becomes a starter on his team he has a 1-in-4 chance of becoming a conference all-star is awkward in comparison to players in the other conferences who are constantly scrutinized and evaluated when considered for postseason awards.
However, unless we are going to do away with a conference championship being an automatic bid to the semifinals as a whole, I’m not sure banning the AUS from national postseason play is the right answer – mainly because I’ve yet to hear of a better way to decide a national champ.
Even expanding the “CIS playoffs” to six or even eight teams instead of the current four is problematic as you could have multiple teams who didn’t win their conference vying for a national title. The do-or-die aspect of trophies like the Yates and the Dunsmore is what makes them special. They would lose a bit of luster if the possibility existed for a possible rematch in two weeks.
The reason the conference titles in football mean so much more than they do in CIS soccer and basketball is because of what is at stake when the ball is kicked off. At most other conference championships, both schools know they’ll still be practicing on Monday despite the outcome.
If you want to have the top 4-seeded teams play off in the postseason as appointed by a committee ala NCAA, get ready for some blowouts all year in every conference. The style points that are required when comparing teams from different conferences would have coordinators going deep and blitzing late in contests already decided in order to ensure they get ranked high in the national polls.
That’s not the regular season culture we want to create. If you are doing it at the end of the season to better your team’s plus-minus after carefully charting out tiebreaker scenarios, I get it. That’s being competitive. If we are picking on rebuilding programs to gain style points, that’s incompetent and incredulous.
Is it fair that the four best teams more often than not won’t be playing in November? No. But crowning a champion in college football has never been inherently fair. In all, teams from all four conferences play an unbalanced schedule. The way we determine who makes the playoffs and who gets home field advantage isn’t perfectly fair, but it’s the best way to do it so that over time it is fair to all parties.
Take a breath. Eventually the pendulum will swing and another conference will be the weak sister. I remember a time when the OUA was seen as being “less than”, when its dominant representative – the McMaster Marauders – lost at the national semis in four consecutive years in the early 2000’s. Since that time, three different OUA schools have won the Vanier Cup and four have appeared in it, the most by any CIS conference by far.
These things tend to be cyclical. Let’s not over react and change policy in the interim.
But just why has the AUS fallen off? Let’s get something clear. It’s not coaching. Kelly Jeffrey of Mount Allison and Jeff Cummins of Acadia are, in my opinion, two of the top five coaches in CIS. It’s not talent either. Year in and year out StFX is one of the schools CFL talent evaluators make a point of scouting because of their knack for producing pro-ready prospects.
Part of it is random chance. In a conference that small, law of averages says that at some point all four teams are going to be down. That’s where we were at a couple years ago, when average Saint Mary’s teams were winning the conference comfortably. But of late we’ve seen resurgent Acadia and Mount Allison programs who, though not elite, are good. Let’s not discount the last three years – remember, the AUS lost to the eventual Vanier Cup champion in the national semifinals, and in fairness nobody in the country was as good as the 2011 Marauders or 2012 and 2013 Rouge et Or. Let’s not punish the AUS for losing to them as well.
If you drew four programs out of a hat from any other conference and charted their progress over a 10 or 15-year span, chances are you’ll have some down periods.
So what ails them now specifically? Proximity.
We live in a day and age where players are staying on campus and around the facility more and more. CIS football has become a year-round endeavor – voluntarily or otherwise. There is an implied understanding that the bulk of a team is going to stay local during the summer, not simply to join in official team activities but also to take full advantage of the training facilities – by engaging in rehab and prehab with the training staff and running informal workouts and throwing sessions. This continuity throughout the summer breeds execution, understanding, and success in the fall.
This “proximity pain” is most acutely felt by AUS offences where repetition and cohesion are paramount. Defence by nature is an assignment-based task. Do your individual job, the rest takes care of itself. On offence, however, doing your job is not enough. A receiver still has to be in tune with his QB. An offensive lineman has to be in sync with the man beside him. A running back has to be able to read and anticipate the movements of his fullback.
When players are coming in and out throughout the summer, building that understanding and trust in a sport that has high turnover to begin with becomes that much more difficult.
The AUS counts on players from other provinces with bigger populations as well as more competitive high schools to fill out the bulk of its roster. The vast majority of AUS teams are filled by players from Ontario. The top teams in the Canada West, OUA and RSEQ by and large recruit the vast majority of their players from within driving distance of their campus. Even the local players from across the Maritimes often live a plane or boat ride away from their home school.
The other opportunity missed when players aren’t on campus in the off-season is the ability to have quarterbacks watch film with their skill groups, building camaraderie. Seeing plays on the field through the same eyes comes from time spent in the film room and equates to big plays on the field. That’s why offences struggle in the Atlantic and we see low scores from week to week and the quarterback play in the conference has been sub-par as a result.
Last year, the highest-ranked AUS passer was Brandon Leyh of Mount A, at 19th in the nation. He threw five TD’s and 10 interceptions during the regular season, completing 50% of his passes.
The year before it was Clay Masikewich of StFX, who ranked 18th in CIS passing yards and threw five TD’s and six interceptions. The fact that CIS football is more reliant now on explosive plays in the passing game than ever before exacerbates this issue.
Thanks to the proliferation of CFL experienced coaches at the CIS level and a golden generation of Canadian quarterbacks, it seems every year a new passing record is being broken. At times last year it seemed to happen every week. None of these passing milestones, though, are coming from the Atlantic. You just can’t win at the national level throwing five TD’s on the year, particularly since every other conference will have at least one QB that will throw five TD’s in a single game. If you want to find the root of the disparity it’s not the conference that is “less than”, it’s the quarterback play. Already this year we’ve seen more of the same, with three of the lowest-ranked offences as far as yards per game go being AUS representatives.
The task of generating a good offence in the AUS is also more challenging because of schematic flexibility. One of the hidden benefits of going through the gauntlet of the CAN West, or RSEQ, or OUA week in and week out is that you face different challenges – drastically different schemes, teams with different skill sets, coaches with different philosophies, teams that present different challenges. You build strength in your systems when you experience different obstacles. Aside from the few crossover games with Quebec, the AUS faces the same three opponents year in and year out. They lose the opportunity to hone their craft against varying opponents and ultimately don’t have the resources required to pass the test of a CIS bowl.
Again, this is not a new issue, it just appears to be since more games are streamed online and spread via social media, creating greater awareness.
2007 was the last time an AUS team made it to the Vanier Cup. The last time an AUS team that wasn’t long-time powerhouse Saint Mary’s made it to the Vanier Cup was 1996. It was StFX. In the first 49 years of the Vanier Cup era, AUS teams have only won it six times and only appeared in the championship game 11 times. Laval has only had a football team since 1996 and they already have more Vanier titles than the AUS teams combined. Parity in CIS, no matter what region of the country you want to dissect, is a novel concept but hard to achieve.
We live in a now generation. Coaches are judged before they have a full recruiting class. Players are judged before they have a full semester on campus. Let’s take a step back and have some perspective. We won’t be able to put a microwave fix on parity in CIS, when the issue is layered with nuance. There are steep tiers in ability across the 27 schools playing football.
The AUS is no less competitive now on the national stage than it has been historically. However, the AUS is more competitive than any other conference internally where there is some real drama as to who will win it and who will finish last, something the other three conferences can’t say with confidence. The notion that the AUS champion may struggle against other conferences at the end of the year is well documented, but the idea an AUS school would struggle if placed in another conference is a misnomer. Given the built-in challenges that accompany AUS schools, I think they should be applauded for how competitive they actually are.
The bottom line: accept the Atlantic for what it is – a conference with charming stadiums, bitter rivals and close contests. Let’s embrace our four friends from the friendliest part of the land, not ostracize them.