The Laval Rouge et Or and reigning Vanier Cup champion Western Mustangs have looked just as strong this year as they did last year.
Both teams posted undefeated records over the regular season and will begin their quest to get back to the USports title game starting Saturday with their respective playoff openers.
The top-ranked Mustangs (8-0), who enter the Ontario playdowns as the top seed for the fourth straight year, will entertain Carleton while second-ranked Laval welcomes Sherbrooke.
Laval (8-0) was only tested by fourth-ranked Montreal this season.
“I think we had a different approach for the full year,” Laval head coach Glen Constantin said Friday from Quebec City. “Just basically don’t fall asleep during the season, don’t read the press clippings, don’t judge how we play by the scoreboard … it’s the process versus the result.
“We’ve been working on that because obviously last year we got humbled by a very good football team.”
The Mustangs topped the Rouge et Or 39-17 in the 2017 championship game.
Fourth-year quarterback Chris Merchant helped Western pick up right where it left off as the Mustangs led all U Sports teams this season with 384 points scored over eight games. Laval (307) and third-ranked Calgary (352) were the only other teams to crack the 300-point barrier.
The third-ranked Dinos (8-0) also posted a perfect record to lead Canada West. The Montreal Carabins (6-2) and Ottawa Gee-Gees (6-2) rounded out the top five in the national rankings.
The Rouge et Or crushed the Vert & Or 53-0 in their last meeting Oct. 21. The eighth-ranked Ravens (6-3) are still underdogs against Western, but can draw confidence from the fact they pushed the visiting Mustangs to overtime in their season opener Aug. 26.
Post-season play kicked off last weekend with a pair of Ontario games. Carleton got by McMaster 30-25 and Guelph outscored Waterloo 45-34.
The No. 6 Gryphons (6-3) head east to play Ottawa in the other Ontario semifinal. No. 10 Acadia (5-3) visits St.FX (6-2) in the lone Atlantic conference game with the winner to meet Saint Mary’s (7-1) next weekend.
In Canada West, the Dinos are home to Manitoba (3-5) and No. 7 Saskatchewan (5-3) visits No. 9 UBC (5-3). The other Quebec semifinal pits McGill (2-6) at Montreal.
After the conference finals next weekend, the Ontario champions will host the Canada West champions in the Mitchell Bowl on Nov. 17 while the Atlantic champions visit the Quebec champions in the Uteck Bowl.
The winners will meet in the Vanier Cup on Nov. 24 at Quebec City. Tim Hortons Field felt like home for the Mustangs in last year’s title game since many supporters made the 90-minute drive from London, Ont., to Hamilton.
With three more victories, the Rouge et Or will get a chance to raise the Cup on home turf.
“It’s a good thing but it also comes with a sense of duty of being part of that game,” Constantin said. “We have to manage that with the coaching staff to make sure our kids don’t feel (overwhelmed). It’s a double-edged sword that way.”
Laval leads all universities with nine Vanier Cup titles. Western is next with seven.