What stands out most about Saturday's Canadian university football national semifinals is that although it's the same four teams as last year (the first time that's happened in CIS history), we have different matchups, and while one looks like a potential blowout along the lines of those we saw last year, the other looks like perhaps one of the best CIS matchups of the year. Of course, anything can and frequently does happen in CIS football, so the expected blowout might not materialize and the predicted good game might turn into a dud. The way this looks right now, though, there's likely to be at least one impressive CIS game today. Let's break them down (rankings from the final Football Reporters of Canada-CIS poll Oct. 30, spreads from Rob Pettapiece of The CIS Blog):
Uteck Bowl: #9 Acadia Axemen +27.5 at #2 Laval Rouge et Or (1 p.m. Eastern, TSN):
That's a massive line, but it says a lot about this game that most of our panelists on The CIS Blog Podcast this week took the Rouge et Or to not just win, but cover that spread as well. Sure, Laval didn't have the most dominant season they've ever had (which is probably good for CIS), and the Rouge et Or aren't even defending Vanier champions or the top-ranked team (thanks to McMaster on both fronts), but they still have an incredible team.
Laval's one loss this year came to another impressive team in the Montreal Carabins, and it was in a game the Rouge et Or didn't try all that hard to win at the end (as point differential mattered more for playoff seeding than the result). They're also coming off a dominant 40-17 thumping of Sherbrooke in the Dunsmore Cup. Meanwhile, Acadia went 7-1 in the regular season this year, but that loss was to Laval in interconference play, and the Axemen also just barely edged 3-5 Saint Mary's 17-9 in the Loney Bowl. There's no question that the Rouge et Or have the better resume, and history's also on their side: Laval's 5-0 in national semifinals played at home, and Acadia has lost in their last six national semifinal appearances. Their last win at this stage came over Queen's in 1981.
How do these teams actually match up? Well, what stands out about the Rouge et Or is their defence, which allowed just 12.7 points per game this season, second-best in the country. They're particularly effective against the run, allowing a league-low 57.8 yards per game on the ground this year. However, their passing defence is a bit more of a work in progress; it allowed 240.4 yards per game this year, 14th in the country (and well behind Acadia's fourth-best 193.4 yards allowed per game). You can throw on these Rouge et Or at times, and Axemen quarterback Kyle Graves (who had a training-camp opportunity with the Montreal Alouettes this year) might be able to take advantage of that. The trick will be converting position into points.
On the other side of the ball, Laval's offence hasn't been dominant from an overall yardage perspective (415.2 yards per game, 12th in the country), and quarterback Tristan Grenon hasn't been outstanding. Still, they pick up 202.1 rushing yards per game, sixth-best nationally. A lot will depend on if Acadia's defence can stop the run; they allowed just 119.8 rushing yards per contest this year, sixth-best in CIS, but they haven't faced many opponents as good as the Rouge et Or.
Prediction: Laval 45, Acadia 17
Mitchell Bowl: #3 Calgary Dinos at -4 #1 McMaster Marauders (4 p.m. Eastern, TSN):
This sets up as a fascinating clash, as much of the national debate this season has revolved around which of these teams is better. Calgary's been more dominant from a statistical point of view, but McMaster isn't far behind, and the Marauders are the only team not to lose this year (the Dinos dropped a close one in Regina during the regular season). There's no real effective way to compare the top-to-bottom quality of opposition across these teams' conferences, as Canada West and OUA teams don't play each other in non-exhibition action before these national semifinals, so there's a real debate about which of these sides is better. Conference pride's on the line, especially considering that Canada West teams have been anything but dominant in these games recently, but so are school honours: the Marauders are looking to move on and try and win their second-straight Vanier Cup (and only their second one ever), while the Dinos have won a record five-straight Hardy Cups, but need a national title to really solidify their dominance.
What about the matchups? Well, Calgary has a slight edge on defence from a scoring standpoint (the Dinos allowed 14.6 points per game against Mac's 15.6), but both teams are pretty strong there (third and fourth in the country, respectively). Where the Dinos really stand out is in yards allowed, though; they allowed 272.1 yards per game, second-best in CIS, while the Marauders conceded 340.2, sixth-best. The Dinos make their bread-and-butter stopping the pass, too, allowing a league-low 167.2 passing yards per game; the question is if they can do that against Mac superstar quarterback Kyle Quinlan.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Calgary quarterback Eric Dzwilewski is no slouch himself. The Dinos actually averaged more passing yards (374.6, tops in CIS) than the Marauders (370.0) this year. The key question is if the Marauders can stop the Dinos' strong ground game, which racked up a league-high 217.5 yards per game this season. Of course, McMaster can run the ball too, averaging a second-best 212.5 yards per game. Can Quinlan lead the Marauders back to the Vanier Cup, or will the Dinos and their defence bar the way?
Prediction: Calgary 31, McMaster 28