It was only a few short years ago that Ontario university football was a bit of a mess.
There were two or three powerhouse teams at the top of the standings — for a long while, McMaster and Western with different schools occasionally tossed into that mix — and then a massive drop-off. The standings didn’t always show this disparity, because the weak teams had to play the other weak teams and someone had to win those contests. Those games plumped up point totals even among the soft entries. But the gap on the field between the elite and the rest of the field was chasmic.
Which is what made this weekend so refreshing.
Going into Saturday’s action, only Western had its playoff positioning locked up. The rest of the teams were basically a bunch of rather comparable ingredients you were tossing into a food processor to see what popped out the other end.
The playoff smoothie that emerged has McMaster in fifth place and facing Carleton (a school it didn’t play this year) in Ottawa next weekend. More on that in a moment.
What made things so palatable this time around was how unpredictable everything was. And is. Granted, Western is going to win the Yates Cup unless the players are given the wrong game time and show up late, so it’s not a complete mystery. But nearly everyone else felt — and feels — they have a shot of at least getting to the Ontario final.
When Saturday’s games five kicked off simultaneously, Ottawa was 5-2, Carleton was 5-3, Waterloo, Mac, Guelph and Laurier were 4-3, and Queen’s was 3-4. That’s eight teams in contention for six playoff spots. All had won games and lost games against other teams on that list. More intriguing was the situation that pretty much everyone, but Western, was potentially in position to host a home playoff game or miss the post-season altogether.
No sense breaking down how it could have all played out. That would take more ink than has been spilled on the LRT debate over the years. All you really need to know is when it was done, Western and Ottawa finished 1-2 and got the first-round byes. Guelph jumped to third and will host Waterloo, while the Ravens host the Marauders.
It’s a snapshot of how the world of Ontario university football has changed. The last time Ottawa hosted a playoff game was 2010. Which is nothing compared to Waterloo’s 15-year wait for a return to the post-season. It’s been eight years since one of Mac, Laurier or Guelph didn’t have a first-round bye.
This parity is terrific for this league.
Admittedly, it’s a little less wondrous for the Marauders. Fans of the team might not like being just one of the pack, instead of one of the superpowers — winning big is a lot more fun — and its less-than-dominating 17-5 victory over one-win Windsor in a series of challenging and changing weather conditions on Saturday doesn’t imbue anyone with a sense of overwhelming confidence for the playoffs.
Mac just hasn’t looked great over the last three games of the regular season. A paper-thin victory over Queen’s followed by a big loss to Waterloo and Saturday’s way-closer-than-it-should’ve-been win over a Windsor team whose only victory had been over winless Toronto doesn’t suggest big things are looming. Add to that the disruption and instability that continues to swirl around having their head coach on indefinite administrative leave. Then throw in an injury to their starting quarterback Andreas Dueck, who appeared to do something to his shoulder on Saturday.
On top of everything is the daunting path they’ll have to take to get anywhere. In each of the past eight seasons, the teams that have finished first and second — those that received first-round byes — ended up being the two teams in the Yates Cup final. It’s become all but a guaranteed path to the title game. Mac doesn’t have that.
This could change this year for the reasons mentioned above. There’s no longer the massive drop-off from those top teams to everyone else. Perhaps that’ll cause the streak to end. But until it does, it remains a big deal. Without that advantage, Mac is facing an uphill battle.
But at least they’re in the playoffs. Laurier played in the championship game the past two years, yet it didn’t even make the tournament this time. So Mac will surely take what it’s got and see if the unpredictability of Ontario university football in 2018 can extend for another week.