TORONTO, ON – The 2021-22 U SPORTS season will be one like never before – the best amateur athletes in the country doing their thing in the thick of a global pandemic.
The case is no different for football, which returns this Saturday, August 28 for the first U SPORTS-sanctioned action since the 2019 Vanier Cup, which saw the Calgary Dinos of Canada West take down the RSEQ’s Montreal Carabins 27-13 on November 23, 2019 from the venerable Stade Telus on the campus of the Université Laval.
Those same Carabins will mark the return to the gridiron on Saturday as they travel to Sherbrooke to tangle with the Vert et Or, a team that has posted three straight 2-6 seasons and has not won more than three games in a single season since a 5-3 2015 campaign.
With the season kicking off Saturday, this piece will give some insight into the upcoming season and give 49 readers a look at two teams to watch in each of the four conferences with some honourable mentions to keep an eye on as well. We figured it apt to kick off the season in Quebec with a peak at the conference that will do the honours of welcoming back U SPORTS pigskin.
Quebec has long been a two-horse race, with the aforementioned Carabins or the Laval Rouge et Or capturing the Dunsmore Cup every year since 2003. That included a remarkable 11 straight won by Laval from 2003-2013. In all, Laval has won 14 of the last 17 Quebec conference championships. You can expect more of the same in 2021, with Laval and Montreal duking it out for francophone football supremacy.
It seems no matter who Laval loses, they have a core of talented replacements that can come in and immediately fill the voids left by graduated players. Glen Constantin, who enters his 20th season as the head man at Laval, is an absolute master recruiter who has made Laval the premier destination for top-of-the-totem-pole talent in Quebec, and one of the most desirable places to play in the country. If you’re talented, you play at Laval, and have the opportunity to make an immediate impact, and if you’re a work in progress, there are few, if any, better places to hone your craft.
Meanwhile, in Montreal, what is old is new again. Marco Iadeluca returns to lead a Carabins team looking to defend its 2019 Dunsmore Cup title. Iadeluca replaces the departed Danny Maciocia, who is currently the general manager of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. He brings a litany of coaching experience to the role and is a familiar face to the Carabins program, helping guide them to a Vanier victory in 2014 as assistant head coach and offensive coordinator under Maciocia.
The two creams of the Quebec crop will do battle twice in 2021, first on September 18 at Stade Telus. The two clubs will then close the season in Montreal October 24.
We go from a conference that has seen next to no parity over much of the 21st century in the RSEQ. to the one with perhaps the most equality in U SPORTS, the AUS. Since 2010, each team in the conference with the exception of the Bishop’s Gaiters (who only joined the conference in 2017) has won at least one Loney Bowl, with St. Mary’s’ only title during that span coming in 2010. Aside from that, Mount Allison has two (2013-2014), Acadia has 4 (2011-2012, 2017, 2019), St. FX has three (2015-2016, 2018).
The AUS has gone to a six-game schedule (as opposed to the regular 8-game season) and 4-team playoff (a deviation from the customary 3-team structure) in 2021. The amount of parity we have seen in the AUS in recent years makes it tough to pick a top dog in the Maritimes, but if I were a betting man (which, luckily I’m not) expect St. Mary’s and St. FX to be contenders for the conference title. These are two veteran-laden teams, but not ones who will lose a bunch of talent with the new 6th year of eligibility that was instituted across the country due to COVID.
Bishop’s is a team to watch, as well, coming off a .500 season at 4-4 and their first trip to the Loney Bowl. After winning a combined one game in two dismal seasons to begin their tenure on the East coast, they appear to have rebuilt their roster to a point where, if everything goes right, the could contend for a home playoff game. What may do in the Gaiters is being forced to play six games in seven weeks following their first bye of the season Week 1.
The season begins September 17 when X-Men and Huskies do battle in Halifax.
Now we head to Ontario, which kicks off its season the same week as the AUS, on September 18. The OUA has adopted a six-game regular season schedule for the 2021 season, and split the conference into two divisions – East and West – with the dividing line being Toronto and Windsor. The East will see Toronto, York, Carleton, Ottawa, and Queen’s face off, while the West side pits Western, Windsor, Laurier, Waterloo, Guelph and McMaster.
The Western Mustangs are always a team to be reckoned with, winning the regular-season conference title in five straight years and six of seven. During their quintet of first-place finishes, the team has gone an incredible 39-1, with their only defeat coming at the hands of the Carleton Ravens – a 38-31 loss on September 4, 2017. The Mustangs, however, haven’t been able to translate that success into national titles, accruing just one Vanier Cup in the last 26 years (2017). The Mustangs will also be without longtime quarterback Chris Merchant who aged out after the 2019 Yates Cup loss to the McMaster Marauders (30-15) in which he was injured in the first quarter.
Could this mean a changing of the guard atop the OUA? There are a few teams that, should they have anything to say about it, think so. One of those is the defending Yates Cup champion Marauders. McMaster went 6-2 in the regular season in 2019, earning an opening round bye before defeating Guelph and Western on the way to the Mitchell Bowl, where they dropped a 30-17 decision to the eventual Vanier Cup-champion Calgary Dinos.
Among other teams that are looking to make some serious noise in 2021 are the Ottawa Gee-Gees and Waterloo Warriors. Waterloo is led by returning dual-threat pivot Tre Ford, who will be a sure-fire top five pick in next year’s CFL draft. They have lost some talent on offence in Tyler Ternowski and Dion Pellerin, but the depth that Chris Bertoia has lured to the black and gold in recent years, plus the return of both Hinsperger brothers, Devon and Jack (who both suffered major knee injuries in 2019 and 2020 respectively) should keep the Warriors in a position to be a legit contender for the Yates.
Ottawa comes into 2021 off a 5-3 season two years ago which ended with a disappointing first-round playoff defeat on home turf to Waterloo. The Gee-Gees are a run-dominant offence led by sixth-year tailback Jordan Burgher, who rushed for 541 yards in 2019, really coming to life in the back half of the season. The Gee-Gee’s quarterback situation is not a certainty, however. Third-year quarterbacks Ben Maracle and Matt Mahler will battle for the starting job after Sawyer Beuttner transferred to Regina following an injury-filled 2019. You would think Maracle, who filled in solidly behind centre for the Gee-Gees last season, would have a slight edge based on that experience, but with both pivots holding the same eligibility, whoever impresses most in camp will get the nod in week one.
To wrap up the season preview, we head out to the Canada West Conference, which has been dominated of late by the Calgary Dinos and Saskatchwan Huskies, who have appeared in the last two Hardy Cups with each team winning one. Calgary returns to the gridiron in 2021 looking to defend its Vanier Cup title from 2019, but will have to do it without longtime standout quarterback Adam Sinagra, who aged out in style with that previously-elusive Vanier under his belt. They could take a step back this season without their seasoned veteran behind centre, but should be in the mix for another shot at a Hardy.
The Saskatchewan Huskies will be looking to avenge that Hardy Cup loss from two years ago, and will be led on that quest by 6th-year man and reigning Canada West Player of the Year and First Team All-Canadian Adam Machart in the backfield. He rushed for a conference-best 1,334 yards last season, also a Huskies record. Among them was a dazzling 227 yard performance against Alberta in the final week of the season. Under centre, they bring back 5th-year starter Mason Nyhus at quarterback. He was Sask’s Offensive Player of the Year en route to the Can West title game, and will try to put the finishing touches on his second conference championship. The Huskies are loaded with depth at receiver as well, including the return of leading receiver Colton Klassen, who was injured in Saskatchewan’s 2019 regular season finale. With veterans all over the field, look for the Huskies to have a dynamic offence that will carry them in ball games.
One other team to keep an eye on out west: The Regina Rams. They were a .500 team in 2019 and missed out on the postseason to the Manitoba Bisons through the tiebreaker. Regina will have a new pivot in 2021, the aforementioned transfer from the Ottawa Gee-Gees, Sawyer Beuttner. Beuttner appeared in just one game in 2019 due to injury, meaning he has played just one game of competitive football in the last three years. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say rust could be a factor early, but if he finds his form relatively quickly, he could be the addition that puts Regina back in the mix in Canada West. They have a good mix of youngsters and veterans on both sides of the ball and have a great chance to take that next step in 2021 if Beuttner can stay on the field.
TEAMS TO WATCH
RSEQ: Laval, Montreal
AUS: St. Mary’s, St. FX
OUA: Western, Waterloo
CAN WEST: Saskatchewan, Calgary
CAN WEST: Regina