CIS working on 'business case' for expanding Vanier Cup field

CIS working on 'business case' for expanding Vanier Cup field

The hint, allegation, and thing left unsaid amid Upset Saturday is that the top two teams in the country  —  Monreal and Laval  — might have already played.

For those wondering, only once in Canadian Interuniversity Sport football annals have road teams swept the four conference finals. Prior to the road-warrior efforts by the Guelph Gryphons, Montreal Carabins, UBC Thunderbirds and St. Francis Xavier X-Men, it had only happened once, in 1984. That was a decade before any French-language university got in on the fun.

Football is the only team sport in CIS where a team has to win its conference in order to contend for the national championship, which accentuates the newfound hope in Antigonish, N.S., or a fresh hell for the Western Mustangs. The Vanier Cup playoff format assumes regional balance, though. The CIS doesn't have that in football. Ontario University Athletics accounts for 11 of the country's 27 teams, or 40 per cent. Many do expect St. FX, with the intangibles of a home crowd in Antigonish, N.S., and defensive guru Bob Mullen, will fare better than expected on Saturday in the Uteck Bowl against Blake Nill and UBC. Neverthless, Atlantic University Sport's best have also lost seven consecutive semifinals by an average of 23.57 points. That's almost double the 12.67 average point differential during the OUA's 0-9 run that bridged millenniums.

As it happens, there is some movement in favour of expanding the playoff format from four teams to eight.

"One of our objectives at the CIS is to work with with the regional associations and various groups to try to find creative ways to have a better experience for our student-athletes," CIS chief operating officer Drew Love, who is also director of athletics at McGill in Montreal, said in an interview before the start of the conference playoffs. "So, at the national level, now we're doing a complete review for an expanded national championship that would focus on football. By doing that, I think we're going to add at least one exciting additional cross-over weekend as we build to a national championship.

"We're looking at the business case and the model, how it will be done, and et cetera — to expand the playoff format and introduce a cross-over or interconference games in the championship playdown," Love added. "The theory there would be the four conference champions would be able to host a game. That would make the conference championship more meaningful. They would also be playing for home-field advantage in a Final 8.

"We still have to do the work to see that it's financially viable for the teams that will be travelling."

There certainly is an appetite to see university football break out of its regional model, especially if last weekend's outcomes harbinger increased parity. There is certainly an appetitie to see some overhaul, whether it's the well-subsidized proposal for a Northern 8 interlock series within the regular season or a more open playdown for the Vanier Cup. That said, it's important to remember what grafting another week on to a season might connote. The odd-numbered OUA kicks off in the dog days of August when campus are still semi-halfway empty.

Leaving conference alignments alone

Be that as it may, a common aim with each aforementioned proposal is not to tamper with the conference playoffs, which tends to produce some of most compelling football at the university level. Re-aligning or tiering the sport when there are only 27 teams within the 6,200-km span between Antigonish and Vancouver, the hometowns of the Uteck Bowl opponents.

"Schools have traditions, and they have traditions within conferences," Love said.

Rhetorically, UBC crossing four time zones to play St. FX is a convenience sample that might serve the eight-team argument. Within the Final 8 format that Love outlined, the T-Birds would be host a quarter-final against, say, a runner-up from central Canada instead of travelling. The AUS would have the guarantee of a home game every fall, as it did in the Atlantic Bowl era.

Stretching out that hypothetical, defending Vanier Cup champion Montreal would have one more home game instead of a trip to Guelph for the Mitchell Bowl. Calgary, Laval and Western would get a mulligan on one ill-timed off Saturday, but would have to run a gauntlet to the Vanier Cup.

No Ontario team gone out west for a semifinal and won since 1968.

That is just one idea on the table for CIS, which recently named former Rugby Canada head Graham Brown as its CEO. One outcome during Pierre Lafontaine's 1½-year tenure was implementing uniformity in the other nationals for team sports, which have essentially all adopted a Final 8 format.

Oddly enough, in 1984 Guelph also won the Yates Cup on the road against Western. Those Gryphons were fourth in Ontario during the regular season but bested first-place McMaster and the second-place 'Stangs. Second placce beat first in the other three conferences: Mount Allison against Acadia, Queen's against Bishop's (after blowing a 30-1 lead) and Calgary against Alberta.

The road-team trend was ephemeral. Guelph and Mount Allison won semifinals at home, before the Gryphons won their only Vanier Cup.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger.