Vanier Cup preview: Montreal favoured against UBC, but Thunderbirds' time is coming

Vanier Cup preview: Montreal favoured against UBC, but Thunderbirds' time is coming

UBC Thunderbirds coach Blake Nill has been party to a watershed moment in Canadian university football; now he's trying to create another one.

The university games goes in cycles in terms of which conference monopolizes the Vanier. This is the era of Quebec, as the Montreal Carabins of Danny Maciocia aim to make it back-to-back national titles when they try to stymie phenom quarterback Michael O'Connor and the rather prolific T-Birds passing game on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET/9:30 a.m. PT, Sportsnet/Sportsnet 360).

It's convenient to flash back to Nill's first Vanier as a head coach,  which was also the Rouge et Or's first and was the last one of the last century. People who were around that week in 1999 before Laval shaded Saint Mary's 14-10 for the first of its now eight championships couldn't help but notice the contrast in resources between the well-bankrolled arriviste from Quebec City and the traditionally powerful Huskies, and in how they practised and prepared.

The cycles tend to tie directly to which conference's best teams are flush with investment. The '90s and early aughties belonged mostly to Canada West and Saint Mary's, which Nill made into a national program with stars from every country. Then came Laval, and it was a spark for Montreal to bring back football and for Sherbrooke to start a team, and for Carleton to give it another whirl in the OUA.

The Thunderbirds' time is coming. They have Nill on the sideline. Even more importantly, although there's a chance you won't hear his name mentioned on the broadcast, uber-booster David Sidoo is also rallying confreres from the glory days of the 1980s, when UBC won two Vanier Cups, to the cause. That gives UBC the right movers and shakers aligned behind a program that was in the wilderness for nigh on two decades. On the field, with O'Connor and cogs such as wide receiver/return specialist Trivel Pinto and slotback Marcus Davis going up and down the field, UBC has generational skill position talent on a Canadian Interuniversity Sport scale. Defensive coordinator James Colzie could be in line to be a head coach somewhere else, but UBC has the resources to pluck someone very good from the off-season coaching carousel.

In the here and now, the Thunderbirds aren't in the "traditional mould" of the Vanier contender whose stock-in-trade is stout offensive and defensive lines. That could pose a problem against the Carabins.

Montreal, playing in a Quebec conference that offers few weeks off, somewhat unlike the OUA stereotype, is a rugged outfit on each side of the ball. Defensively, with all-Canadians in linebacker Jonathan Boissonneault-Glaou and halfback Maïko Zepeda, Les Bleus shut down nearly any play that reaches the second level about as well as anyone in CIS. Defensive lineman Junior Luke is capable of a disruptive play. Montreal had 25 takeaways in the regular season, which stands out given the Q's reputation for conservative offense. A sagacious defence could also create some challenges for O'Connor, although the UBC passer has an acuity far beyond that of the typical 19-year-old university foootballer.

When Montreal has the ball, it secretes its identity through pushing front sevens anywhere they want to push them. Its best people-mover, Ottawa Redblacks prospect Alexandre Laganière, went down with a season-ending injury at the start of the playoffs. Yet Gustave Sylvestre, Rémi Giguère, Jean-Christophe Labrecque, Jason Raymond and Marc Glaude facilitated a 246-yard rushing day last week against a very good Guelph Gryphons defence in the Mitchell Bowl. Running back Sean Thomas-Erlington has 1,098 rushing yards across the 11 regular- and post-season contests despite being kept in reserve for the first eight games. Moreover, Thomas-Erlington has one fumble in 157 carries this fall, which would seem to work against UBC's M.O. of forcing turnovers.

The Carabins pass just well enough. Fifth-year senior Gabriel Cousineau is a fine game manager who can become the first quarterback to start and win successive Vanier Cup titles since Jamie Bone with the 1976-77 Western Mustangs.

The T-Birds have hope as long as they keep O'Connor happy, healthy and upright, not just on Saturday but in the long run. It will be a longshot on Saturday, but to know about Nill is to know he will not stop trying to build a western dynasty. Under the bowl rotation, assuming it stays intct, Canada West hosts a national semifinal in 2016 and '17 and will send its representative to Ontario in '18. The window is very open.

Getting back to O'Connor, those, it is understandable why many were askance at an ambitious QB decamping from Penn State for UBC. The 6-foot-5 Orléans, Ont., native, though, counting UBC's August trip to play Laval, will be playing his 13th game of the season on Saturday, the same as a major-college schedule. It's going to be a trip to see where O'Connor can take it.

Saturday might prove to be too-much, too-soon for the T-Birds, but a new challenger to Quebec's hegemony taking the fight to Montreal is worthy of a watch.

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