CIS Corner: Mitchell and Uteck Bowls feature blowouts, but set up a great Vanier matchup

Okay, so the Mitchell and Uteck Bowls didn't exactly present us with even one compelling game. Laval thumped Acadia 42-7 in the Uteck, as expected, but it was the Mitchell Bowl that really underwhelmed; the #3 Calgary Dinos came out absolutely flat against the top-ranked McMaster Marauders and were demolished 45-6. That could be concerning for the state of CIS football, especially considering that last week's conference games were also lopsided and that (as Neate Sager pointed out) the margin of victory in the last 10 national semifinals has been 25.3 points overall, 29.9 points if you remove the Ontario-Quebec matchups seen in the 2009 Mitchell Bowl and the 2010 Uteck Bowl. However, this sets up a rare rematch of last year's Vanier Cup between McMaster and Laval, and given how remarkable that game was, it's hard to complain there.

Yes, having a second-straight year of lopsided semifinals is troubling, especially considering that these were both televised on TSN. These blowouts seem unlikely to be good for ratings, and they're certainly not going to pull in casual fans. Do they represent a systemic issue, though, or just some bad runs of luck? If it's the latter, it will sort itself out; if it's the former, some changes to the CIS playoffs may be required.

Out East, a systemic issue seems the most likely explanation. Yes, it hasn't always been that way. Just a decade in 2002, Saint Mary's won their second-straight Vanier Cup, and the Huskies also appeared in the big game in 2003 and 2007. However, their program's taken some steps backwards since then, and while Acadia has risen to fill the void in-conference, the Axemen haven't proven able to compete on the big stage just yet. Of course, a lack of strong in-conference competition didn't help: while Acadia went 7-1 in the regular-season (with a loss to Laval), Saint Mary's, Mount Allison and St. Francis Xavier combined to go just 7-14 in AUS play and 1-2 in the interlock against Quebec teams (with the lone win coming from Concordia's forfeit against St. Francis Xavier). National conditions also don't favour AUS teams; other conferences, particularly OUA, have improved their scholarship awards, making it tougher for Atlantic teams to recruit nationally, and all the powerhouses recruit nationally on an extensive scale now (something that used to be an area AUS schools emphasized while few others did). Regardless of exactly what's causing the problems here, though, the calibre of AUS football doesn't look good at the moment.

In the West, it's more debatable if the problem's systemic or just a bad stretch. Yes, the Dinos have won five straight conference championships without a Vanier and with several embarrassing losses, and yes, there are some structural issues (the rise of junior football in particular) hurting Western programs. However, Calgary looked worse Saturday than they did all year, and they faced an exceptionally strong opponent in the Marauders, who dominated OUA opponents. There also were some other reasonably impressive teams out West this year, including Regina, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. How would those programs do in, say, OUA or RSEQ? It's impossible to say for sure, as there's no interlock between any of those leagues, but it's worth keeping in mind that OUA and RSEQ have struggling teams too; predicting at least a mid-table finish for Calgary or another top West team doesn't seem farfetched. Canada West teams do certainly need to step their game up on the national stage, but their poor performance doesn't necessarily require a format intervention yet. AUS is more concerning there.

What could that look like? Well, several suggestions have been bandied, including an expanded tournament, an expanded role for the FRC-CIS Top 10 poll, extra interconference play and an AUS-RSEQ football merger. All have positives and negatives attached, and expressed concerns range from too many playoff games to BCS-esque voting controversies to sky-high travel costs to the possible omission of Atlantic teams from the playoffs following a potential merger. One idea that could really help clear up conference inequity, though? Borrow the CFL's crossover rule and just modify it slightly. If the last-place playoff finisher in a given conference has a better record than the last-place finisher in another conference, give them the option to cross there; priority of who picks first in a given season could be determined by how far the conferences' top teams advanced the previous year (which is used to determine the number of berths each conference gets in many CIS championships in other sports). That would maintain the current playoff structure and the history of the conference championships and the Mitchell and Uteck Bowls, but it would also provide a way for good teams in tough conferences to advance in the playoffs and force teams in bad conferences to earn berths in the semifinals. It could reduce blowouts without dramatically altering the playoff setup, and that seems positive.

Beyond that, though, another important result from these semifinals is that we get to see McMaster and Laval face off again. Their showdown last year was one of the most remarkable CIS games ever, so a rematch sounds like a spectacular idea. That's going to be easy as anything for TSN and the event organizers to market, and it's going to get a lot of attention during Grey Cup week. The blowouts are concerning, and they may require at least considering new ways to run the CIS football playoffs, but the end result of these ones isn't bad at all from a standpoint of growing the game. We have two dominant teams that combined for a spectacular 2011 final facing off again with the Vanier Cup on the line. Get your popcorn ready.

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