By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TV Personality
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett
The leaves falling from the trees signals the time off year where CIS football teams fall by the wayside. With added parity across the country, it’s hard to decipher who the true contenders and pretenders are for the holy grail that is the Vanier Cup.
As expected, the top six teams in the nation have once again asserted themselves. But just behind them, we’ve seen movement in the polls all year long. Here’s the case for and against the teams on the bubble of elite status.
Best win: 41-8 vs. Saskatchewan (Oct. 17 – home)
Worst loss: 56-41 vs. Regina (Oct. 25 – away)
The Bisons’ poorer-than-expected record is in part due to their schedule. You can make an argument they have the toughest schedule in CIS this season. They have Calgary next in a game that doesn’t matter for the Dinos. In 2014, Manitoba had both Calgary and Saskatchewan on their schedule twice. Their regular season finale against Calgary on Saturday is at home, where they are undefeated. The issue moving forward is they lost all four of their road games this year. If they are going to make a run to Montreal and hoist the Vanier Cup, they’ll have to string together four wins on the road. They can sling it offensively averaging 313 yards passing which is good for seventh in the country. However, discipline and execution are major issues. They are 18th in the nation in third down conversions making 8 of 21, which is 38%. They also are second worst in CIS in penalty yards giving away an average of 127 yards on 14 flags.
Best win: 39-29 vs. Ottawa (Oct. 10 – home)
Worst loss: 21-18 vs. Carleton (Oct. 18 – away)
Windsor normally finishes the regular season strong but this year they’ve struggled losing their last two. Luckily they have their 4-0 start to the year to cushion the recent blow. With just one win in their last four, the Lancers are looking to reverse their fortunes on Saturday when they host an OUA quarterfinal, which marks their first playoff home game since 2006. A bit of fortune has the Lancers hosting Ottawa rather than traveling east on the 401 to play them. Their first win of the year came by way of a forfeit by Queen’s. If that was counted as a loss, Ottawa and Windsor would switch places in the OUA standings. Windsor’s schedule was also relatively easy as they didn’t play OUA-leading McMaster. What they do, do is play elite defence as defensive coordinator Donovan Carter has turned around what was a putrid D. The Lancers are giving up just 193 passing yards against per game, which ranks second in the OUA, and 361 total yards, good for third in the country. Coach D’Amore’s unit is disciplined taking just 87 penalty yards a contest, which is sixth in CIS.
Best win: 38-31 vs. Manitoba (Oct. 4 home)
Worst loss: 49-13 vs. UBC (Sept. 27 – away)
The Golden Bears have lost their last two but there is no need to panic as it was against the two best teams in the Canada West conference. They also were blessed with a week 1 victory because Calgary forfeited due to a pair of ineligible players. They are a dangerous outfit, losing by 1 to Saskatchewan, but then were blown out by UBC, who are tied for last in the conference. For the Cinderella ride to avoid from stopping the Bears are going to have to learn to stop some people. Alberta allows 29 points and 617 yards per game. Those numbers are partially skewed because of Alberta’s tough sched in an already offensive conference. U of A struggles to stop the run surrendering 231 rushing yards a game, which is third worst in Canada, and 386 passing yards, which is dead last. It’s not because they are dedicated to getting to the passer as they have just six sacks a game so far this year.
Best win: 29-0 vs. Concordia (Oct. 25 – home)
Worst loss: 43-1 vs. Laval (Sept. 13 – home)
The Vert & Or are currently ranked ninth nationally so the consensus is they are closer to elite than many of the teams they are being compared to. When it’s close in big games, I’m liable to choose the best QB on the field and Jérémi Roch is going to break most of the ties. Uncharacteristically, he hasn’t gotten his team in the end zone as much as you’d think in 2014. Just 10 TD passes on the year, that output is normally a month for Sherbrooke, not a season. Roles are reversed for the Vert & Or this year as it’s actually their D winning the games. Boasting the CIS’s fifth-best scoring defence, Sherbrooke has allowed just 17.9 points against on average.
Best win: 29-22 vs. Sherbrooke (Sept 19 – home)
Worst loss: 29-0 vs. Sherbrooke (Oct 25 – away)
The Stingers wish it was still the month of September. As the leaves fall, so has their level of performance. After winning their first four games by a combined 107 points, they’ve managed to lose their way. First-year head coach Mickey Donovan has added a new sense of both calm and confidence. So much so that the team was disappointed to have lost to the defending Vanier champions in a battle between undefeated team on Oct. 5. Laval’s 32-16 win was their only competitive game so far this season. Even in defeat, that contest is still the most impressive outcome Concordia has had all year. Impressive because Concordia was the only team to keep Laval under 40 points. Equally impressive that they are the only team to score over 15 on the Rouge et Or this season. Their offence has since betrayed them. Concordia rush for just 95 yards a game, which lands them 25th in CIS, and produce 17 first downs a game, good for 23rd. Not much better is their 21st -ranked offence with 304.3 yards per contest. Against the elite teams in the nation, they’ll need to be able to score and possess the ball.
Best win: 38-18 vs. McMaster (Oct. 25 – home)
Worst loss: 33-31 vs. Carleton (Sept. 20 – away)
The Gee-Gees just barely squeak in to the national poll, in 10th place, even though most people across the country remember them for being on the wrong end of the “Panda Prayer” hail mary loss to Carleton. One thing head coach Jamie Baressi can do is coach and design offensive football. As Mac learned the hard way last Saturday, the Ottawa offence feeds off explosion plays. Ottawa is fifth in CIS in yards per game with just over 500. The offence is balanced and the 8.5 yards per attempt shows the seventh best passing offense isn’t afraid to chuck it. At the same time, the Gee-Gees have rushed by committee to the tune of 218 yards per game. They beat the previously unbeaten Marauders but lost to a team in the sophomore year of its rebirth. They are a Jekyll and Hyde outfit from week to week.
Best win: 53-3 vs. Carleton (Sept. 27 – home)
Worst loss: 61-20 vs. Western (Oct. 9 – away)
This is the one team I’d be afraid to face in a win-or-go-home situation. The Hawks fly into the playoffs losing their last three to the top three seeds in the OUA conference. The last minute loss to Windsor on September 6th will haunt them. If they get off the field on third-and-long rather than give up a TD, they not only win that game, they are hosting in the first round. For a young team like Laurier, home field would make a big difference. Their 1-3 record on the road is not surprising given their inexperience but is a troubling sign nonetheless. Having said that, when you score 34 points a game, you’ve always got a shot. Laurier’s running game suits the bad weather football that is ahead. The best back in the country, Dillon Campbell spearheads a rushing attack that goes off for 266 yards per game, which incredibly is 55 more than they pass for. As teams continue to stack the box against Campbell, the Hawks will have to throw to loosen up the defence. Their CIS rankings of 19th with seven yards per attempt and 21st with 12 yards per completion need to improve to add balance to their offence. The key to their offensive success is in between the 20’s. Up until last week, they were perfect in the red zone. After a missed chip shot FG against Guelph, Coach Fauld’s has to settle for making good on 25-26 of his attempts to come away with points.
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett