CIS football season begins with a wide-open competition for Vanier Cup

One league's loss is sometimes another league's gain, and while various moves that have happened over this year haven't necessarily helped the CFL much, they've set up what should be an intriguing CIS season. There's a lot of CFL-calibre talent that elected to return to the university ranks this offseason, and that should certainly boost some teams, but the even more interesting returnees didn't necessarily come by choice. That would be quarterbacks Billy Greene (UBC), Kyle Quinlan (McMaster) and Kyle Graves (Acadia): Greene, the reigning Hec Crighton Trophy winner as the top player in CIS (despite his team's 0-8 campaign, if you believe the record books) didn't even get a look from a CFL team at quarterback and didn't opt to switch to fullback just yet, while Quinlan and Graves got to spend some of camp with the Montreal Alouettes, but didn't stick for too long. As an illustration of the CFL's Canadian quarterback problem, that's poignant, but it's remarkably good news for the university game. CIS will have a lot of exceptional talent across the board this year, and that's created an environment where any of the top 10 teams in the preseason Football Reporters of Canada poll (disclosure: I'm a voter) could conceivably win the Vanier Cup.

What's perhaps most notable about this season is that every conference looks to have the potential for one form of surprise or another. In Canada West, the No. 3 Calgary Dinos will be favoured, and it will certainly help that CFL draft picks Kirby Fabien and Carson Rockhill turned down the pros for another season of university football. However, there are three strong other contenders in that conference: No. 7 UBC, buoyed by the return of one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Greene and eager to avenge their lost season; unranked Regina, which has a bunch of talented players hitting their stride and has Marc Mueller, a veteran quarterback with some CFL experience, returning from injury; and No. 8 Saskatchewan, which looks to be a bit younger this year, but always has the talent to compete. Even Alberta and Manitoba look to be on the upswing, which could make for some fascinating games. Something else that's interesting is the semifinal setup this year; the Canada West winner will travel to play the Ontario winner in the Mitchell Bowl, so while it's a road game, at least they won't have to face Laval (or theoretical other Quebec winner!) until the Vanier Cup itself.

In Ontario, it's a similar story of depth. OUA has a Canada-high four teams in the top 10, and any of them could be a legitimate title contender. No. 1 McMaster, the defending Vanier Cup champions, will certainly be favoured thanks largely to getting Quinlan back, but there are plenty of contenders for the OUA throne, including No. 5 Western, No. 6 Queen's and No. 10 Windsor. Many feel the Mustangs might take a step back from last year's 7-1 campaign and run to the Yates Cup (where McMaster beat them with a remarkable comeback), but it's always tough to write off Greg Marshall's teams, and they look to have a strong ground game at the very least. The Golden Gaels went 6-2 last year and will be looking to build on that, and they've got an impressive returning cast on offence. Meanwhile, the Lancers look to continue their football resurgence under coach Joe D'Amore; he led them to a 5-3 record and their first playoff berth since 2006 in 2011 as an interim coach, earning the long-term job in the process, and he has plenty of talent coming back. The No. 1 Marauders are favoured for good reason, but the OUA has plenty of impressive teams, and with their champion hosting a semifinal against Canada West, any of these squads could make it to the Vanier.

Quebec? Well, that's largely the same old story. No. 2 Laval's still favoured, and although they've suffered some turnover, the Rouge et Or got boosts from both Frédéric Plesius and Arnaud Gascon-Nadon electing to stay in CIS rather than try the CFL. However, there are some signs that No. 4 Montreal in particular is starting to narrow the gap; former CFL coach and general manager Danny Maciocia has done an excellent job of recruiting in his two years there, and the Carabins put up a pretty impressive 6-3 season in 2011 with a young team. As Maciocia's recruits gain some experience, they might just be able to challenge Laval's dominance. Sherbrooke, which went 7-2 in 2011, could also throw a wrench in the works. Still, no one will be surprised if the Rouge et Or top Quebec once again this season.

Out east, though, things are a different story. The balance of power seems to have shifted a bit, as Saint Mary's didn't win the AUS for the first time since 2006, and the Huskies don't look likely to return to their dominance. They made some very curious offseason moves, including axing head coach Steve Sumarah (who's since landed with Carleton), and some have them finishing as low as third. St. Francis Xavier should be better than the 2-6 mark they put up in 2011, but the real powerhouse here is 2011 Loney Bowl champion Acadia, ranked ninth nationally. Graves' return is huge for the Axemen, and may well be enough to put them over the top out East again. Where the real surprise could come is in the Uteck Bowl, though; yes, Laval (or some theoretical other Quebec champion!) will certainly be favoured, but Acadia has the kind of explosive passing offence that might just be able to pull off an upset. Thus, although they might be the least likely team on this list to win the 2012 Vanier, they can't be ruled out. It bodes pretty well for the state of CIS football when there are at least 10 teams with a potential championship shot, and it should make for a great season of university football action.