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 cisfootball.org 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.