Sunday, November 02, 2008

Bleeding Tricolour: Realignment revisited; working out anger through the majesty of Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree

One day we'll have a Canada which can have a collegiate football spectacle one-10th of the scale of Texas Tech's last-second win over No. 1 Texas on Saturday.

How would that ever happen? For starters, conference alignments and playoff formats that emphasize that every Saturday matters a hell of a lot better than the OUA, and by extension, Canadian Interuniversity Sport. It's the best against the best down there every week, produce or perish. There is no coming back from losing four games.

That is not meant to diminish the Ottawa Gee-Gees' win over the previously unbeaten Queen's Golden Gaels on Saturday. Ottawa can say it was the better team all along after its 23-13 win. Hey, it might speak well for our system that teams have more leeway if they go through an injury bug or had some close losses. To forgive is divine, eh?

Down south of the border, Texas Tech will not go back next Saturday and face a team it can beat 71-0, 71-3 or 80-0 (that is more for the first two weeks of September). The Red Raiders have No. 9 Oklahoma State, same bat time, same bat channel, since it's the national Saturday night game on ABC. They face No. 4 Oklahoma on the road the following week.

Granted, it's easier in the U.S. to line up top teams every week. They have 120 teams instead of 27, bigger budgets and don't have to pay usurious Air Canada surcharges. However, the past two years in the OUA, where three of the four teams who have earned byes have bit the dust in the semi-final, is either an anomaly or a catalyst for change.

Perhaps with a different setup would spark a different attitude about an Ottawa-Queen's playoff matchup (just look back at 2006). When one team is 8-0 and another is 4-4, there is a certain expectation for how it's going to go, even as a long-time fan. This is probably the geek lashing out, but whatever. It's not that the OUA rewards mediocrity, but it does excuse it to an unforgivably large extent.

The way it is becoming in the OUA, it's almost like you have to drop a couple games and have that feeling of no tomorrow, balls thisclose to the bandsaw, just to counter-balance the effect of cupcake opponents. I kick myself for being too stubborn to bend to this before now, but am more willing than even to accept that the regular season does not matter in the OUA.

That's fine for the teams who win. More power to them. It is completely wrongheaded when it comes to growing the game. How do you build season-long sustained interest in Canadian university football when everyone suspects the first eight weeks do not matter that much? Of course, here I am, obviously the biggest pathetic four-eyed geek who ever lived, posting about Canadian university football every week.

Competitively speaking, the bye week which can rob a team of momentum has been a mighty leveller over the past two seasons. Western got by Saturday vs. Laurier, but even the Mustangs had trouble finishing some drives.

The other part of the problem is the second tier of the OUA. As several commenters have pointed out, Queen's might have been more prepared if they had interlocking games against the likes of Concordia, Saint Mary's or Sherbrooke instead of walkovers against the you-know-whos.

The result suggests the Gee-Gees, much like Western last season, had a more well-honed ability to play desperate. It's OK that Queen's lost. Life goes on. What is not OK is going through a full regular season and having no certainty how it might shake out when the team batting 1.000 faces the one hitting .500. People want to believe; some of us want to know.

The OUA, at a conference level, should do some self-examination after back-to-back years when the No. 1 seed lost in its first post-season game. Is the bye really a good idea? Look into interlocking games, look at the competitive balance of the league.

Or it could rest on the laurels of Laurier's 2005 Vanier Cup. That ought to be good until well into the next decade, barring what the Ottawa-Western winner does against Saint Mary's in the national semi-final Nov. 15.

The idea of interlocking games should be explored. Next season, have the six playoff teams play the five good Quebec teams and Saint Mary's. The four also-rans can play McGill and the other three Atlantic teams.

The second suggestion is a realignment, already suggested this summer at The CIS Blog. There could be a Big East drawn from the schools which really value football. Concordia, Laval, Montreal and Sherbrooke come to mind; Saint Mary's from down East; Queen's, Ottawa, Laurier and Western from Ontario. There would not be that big a cost increase, and teams would probably draw more fans and more advertisers.

The other schools would have their own division. They, like Davidson or Valparaiso in the NCAA basketball tournament, would still have an outside shot at a national championship. It would be for the schools such as Mount Allison or Toronto, who still retain a bit of the 1970s view that football is just a student activity. They could have their own schedule, their own championship, be akin to the Patriot League in the NCAA. Perhaps there could be a promotion-relegation system akin to professional soccer, just to keep it interesting. This might encourage other universities to form teams, if they knew they didn't have play Laval right off the hop.

Play an eight-game regular season. Have each conference's top two teams play off in a championship game akin to those in major NCAA conferences. Then have a selection committee pick an eight-team national championship.

Imagine the interest you would have two weeks ago for a Saint Mary's-Western game in Week 8, both teams 5-2 and the winner likely to get a bid for the national playoffs. That sounds a lot better than matchup of two 3-4 OUA teams playing for the final OUA playoff berth, which is what The Score aired Oct. 18. (After all that, McMaster got shut out the following week.)

Ottawa-Western in the Yates Cup will draw a decent TV audience, but why settle for that?

Every team across the country would be better off in that situation. Solid programs such as Ottawa and Western would not take a mulligan on half their season -- they would rise to the level of competition. I believe they would -- it all comes back to motivation.

Texas Tech's rise is an example of having to meet a tougher standard. It was a non-entity in the old Southwest Conference, which by the mid-1980s had ceased to be competitive nationally (for proof, check out the highlights of Miami's infamous 1991 Cotton Bowl shellacking of the aforementioned Texas Longhorns). When that league broke up in the '90s, Texas Tech joined the Big 12, and once it got Mike Leach as coach, it became a powerhouse. As for its former foes which ended up in smaller conferences, none of them will ever get close to playing in a major BCS bowl game.

It all comes back to the notion of produce or perish. In Queen's case, it has now gone 6-2 or better four times in the past seven seasons, but reached the Yates Cup only once. It is almost to the point where taking Bishop's place as a plucky underdog in the cutthroat Quebec conference would be welcomed. Sure, for any school that's not Laval, that league can be a hellhole, but like Spinal Tap sang, you know where you stand in a hellhole.


Big V said...

Personally if there was something I would change about the OUA it would be to make 2 divisions... so everyone could play eachother twice during a season...
Then extend the length of the season to 10 games so there can be a couple crossover games.

The playoffs could be top 2 per division, eliminating the quarter final week, so the season would only have to start a week earlier.

Of course there would be an argument of where to draw the line... would Queen's, Ottawa and Guelph be with york and toronto?.... Windsor, Western, Mac, Laurier, Waterloo in the other.

I like the idea of plaing a team twice in a season... you never know that one game you play nothing could go your way... then the next you fix things up and are more competative.

I think this format would produce some awsome rivalries.

Jordie Dwyer said...

Not to throw cold water all over your suggestion - but the OUA isn't the only place where teams can (and do) perform lukewarm during the year and then produce or get the upset during the playoffs (aka the last time the UoS Huskies won the Vanier, heck the last time they made it to the Vanier, and why not throw in SFU's defeat of the Huskies Saturday).
Simply because the bye doesn't work the way it's supposed to or that, good heavens, the better regular season team falls flat on its face doesn't mean the system needs to be revamped or is failing.
Granted, I agree the OUA has to have something done to avoid the nearly guaranteed wins against the lowly Yorks of the provincial scene, but that is fixable if only the OUA has the political will to do so.
The real problem lies with the Q and the AUS and the fact the CIS gives two semifinal berths to what is essential a league and a quarter - not two different leagues.
Why not make the AUS and Q one league, split the OUA into two and leave the CW the way it is. Then do either one of two things - take a wildcard for one of the semifinal spots (rotated annually through the three leagues) or rotate a bye to the Vanier. It's good enough for Junior football in this country.

Ranting as always....

Rob Pettapiece said...

Big V's got the idea.

If they don't want to change the divisions, a better solution is to cut back from 6 OUA playoff teams to four (or even three with a first-place bye). There's no point having a regular season if half the teams advance anyway, and this goes double for the AUS.

craigchurch said...

Definitely some good thoughts there, but do you really want to go down the 'selection committee route?' That is the biggest point of contention in the NCAA every year.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Yeah, I like the idea of potential realignment or tiering, but I hate the very idea of a selection committee. Look at how much contention there is over the Top 10, which really doesn't mean a whole lot: I don't want that bleeding over into choosing teams for the playoffs. Rankings and selections are fine for discussion, but give me a playoff system, however flawed, any day over a selection committee.

Anonymous said...

Would Queen’s have been better prepared had they played Concordia this season (or hadn’t played weak teams like Toronto and Waterloo)? Perhaps.

But this is a bit of a red herring: to me the real issue is the OUA’s lack of competitiveness on the national stage (I know, 2005) despite Ontario’s sizable pool of football talent.

The OUA is not weaker because it produces mediocre players: a perusal of current CFL rosters dispels that notion.

Rather, the talent is spread too thin: there are 10 rosters to fill from a population of roughly 12.5 million, not to mention players leaving the province for Bishop’s, Saint Mary’s, Concordia, the NCAA, etc. (Of course, OUA schools can draw from other provinces, but you get the general idea.)

On the other hand, the three Quebec Francophone schools have a base of roughly 7 million to draw from when the Anglo population is stripped out.

OUA: 1.25 million population base / school.
QUFL (Franco): 2.3 million population base / school.

I think the OUA winner will get past the Atlantic champs, then receive an ass-kicking of epic proportions by Laval in the Vanier, thus showing the chasm between Ontario and Quebec. (I recently spoke to a CFL eastern scout who said he had no doubt the top three QUFL schools would comfortably beat Queen’s or Western.)

Would getting rid of two Ontario schools that aren’t serious about football reduce this gap?

Concerning Laval’s dominance – soon to be four Vaniers in six years – I’m convinced their dominance would end by adding one or two Francophone programs. This would eat away at the Red and Gold’s recruiting base and end this “hellhole” state for us non-Laval fans.

sager said...

I'm not so sure one or two more Francophone programs would bring Laval down ... and are there any on the horizon (UQTR, UQAM)?

Part of it in Ontario is budgets; the QUFL schools put a lot more money into football because they understand its importance.

Again, can we agree that we're not cool with the OUA staying as is?

Anonymous said...

Three Rivers is semi-serious from what I've heard.

There were rumblings a year or two ago about UQAM joining, but the university is in dire financial straits (bankrupt, actually) so I'd guess they're a real long shot.

sager said...

Interesting ... anything in the French-language press about that?

Anonymous said...

Lots of stuff in the press about UQAM's sorry financial state lol.

I saw a short piece in the Journal de Montreal last year about UQAM and UQTR joining, but IIRC it was more of a "Gee, wouldn't it be great" piece with little concrete info on what was being done.

I heard of UQTR's interest from a guy connected to the Patriotes hockey team: he said the athletic dept. had done some preliminary work to see if it was feasible.

UQTR makes the most sense to me: geographic location, adequate facilities already exist (I think the stadium where the CEGEP Diablos play holds 3,000), had a team until the mid-70's.

sager said...

Sounds the same articles that get printed about UNB ... and Dalhousie ... and UPEI ...

UQTR must come in just because it would wear orange. This is important, darnit!