AUS FOOTBALL PREVIEW: The gap between first and last will be razor-thin

HALIFAX, NS – The road to the Loney Bowl, Mitchell Bowl and potentially Vanier Cup begins this weekend for four of the five AUS football squads. 

On Friday night, StFX, fresh off a preseason win over the defending champions from Acadia, travel to SMU to battle the Huskies. The next day, Acadia will be on the road on a visit to Mount Allison. Bishop’s will have to wait until next week to begin their journey back to the Loney Bowl, where they fell short to the Axemen in 2019. 

But how all these games and returns work out for everyone will be nothing short of fascinating. 

Acadia and the X-Men are expected to make strong pushes for an AUS title in 2021, having been the last two champions and the only ones since 2014. But, as colleague Ben Browne said in his U SPORTS football preview for 49 Sports, there might not be a tighter conference in the country.

Every team can make a case. Acadia and StFX have the recent championship experience. SMU has an offensive flair and Mount Allison has more of a defensive one. Above all, Bishop’s will be the most inclined to ride off momentum and motivation, with a roller-coaster playoff run in 2019 fizzled out as Acadia blew them out. 

The AUS is bound to see a lot of new faces in the spotlight this year, with many 2019 veterans, league leaders and award winners not expected to return in 2021. The break provided by the pandemic could very well begin a new era altogether in AUS football and thus, a less predictable one than past years. But, those are the most fun to examine.

*Note: this preview was completed with the best available info to 49 Sports with some projections made based on the most recently available rosters for every team. Some details here could change if any rosters released in the coming days change beyond expectation.*

Acadia Axemen

Photo by TIM KROCHAK / The Chronicle Herald
(Acadia Axemen Athletics)

Acadia was by and far the best team in 2019. Going undefeated in the AUS, they finished eight points up on second-place Bishop’s while every other team was within four points of one another. They cruised through the AUS playoffs too before getting stopped in their tracks by a powerful Montreal team in the Uteck Bowl. But as much of the league has caught up to them over the break, the Axemen could be turning a bit of a new leaf this season. Key 2019 pieces like AUS MVP Hunter Guenard, defensive player of the year Bailey Feltmate and the league’s rushing yards leader Dale Wright, will not return. Head coach Jeff Cummins will lean on new guys to step up quick, especially as the six-game schedule in 2021 makes every game more valuable.

Those candidates to step in include quarterback Duncan Patterson who, although only made 10 passing attempts in 2019, threw for two touchdowns backing up Guenard. Cole Estabrooks worked as Wright’s understudy two years ago, rushing for an impressive 403 yards in 46 rush attempts. In other words, that’s half of Wright’s yardage in a third of the rushes. The receiving core has been shaken up too, with names like Glodin Mulali and Cordell Hastings gone. The returning Matthew Gledhill, among others, will be tasked with stepping up offensively.

In Feltmate’s place on defence, Acadia has some good returns with Riley Gabriel, Brett Switzer and Anderson Recker (in my opinion, the best name for a DL in the conference) coming back. Franck Kemayou, who had four interceptions in 2019, the second-most in the season, is another great return. So is defensive back/kicker machine Ben George, who was one point back of the AUS’s leading scorer James Parker from Mount A last season.

Bishop’s Gaiters

The Gaiters’ 2019 was anything but smooth. They opened the season with a 1-2 record but pulled together two wins in their last three regular season games to seal second place in the conference. They booked their ticket to the Loney Bowl with an exciting win over Mount Allison but the Acadia Axemen, a team that had Bishop’s number all year, were too much in the end. With many of the AUS’s teams expected to close the gap this year on Acadia, this could be the Gaiters’ time to shine. And since head coach Cherif Nicolas’ team gets a week one bye, now more than ever is their chance to pull some surprises. 

After an impressive freshman campaign, quarterback Charles Aubry will not be with Bishop’s, leaving the quarterback spot between several candidates including 2019 backup Liam Kennedy. But Louis-Phillipe Gregorie, who finished with the second-most rushing yards last season, will be back to provide a significant offensive boost. The Gaiters’ go-to receiver in 2019, Nathan Walker, has moved on, leaving fellow top-ten AUS receiving yards leader Melvin Palin and Nathan Lupien to lead the charge in that department.

Aarron Franklin, Digaan Gomis and Alexandre Prevost will be key on Bishop’s defence this year, as Maxx Toutant and 2019 leader in tackles and sacks Louve Moussenguet have departed. Franklin and Gomis tied for fourth on the team in 2019 for tackles per game, each with 3.3. Punter/kicker Noah Laursen, following a successful 2019 including the second-most made field goals in the AUS with 18, will be big for the Gaiters’ chances in 2021.

Mount Allison Mounties

(Mount Allison Athletics)

The Mounties have a lot to be proud of from their 2019 performance heading into 2021. Putting together the best defensive team in the conference, they rang off three wins in their final four regular season games to seal a playoff berth. It stung losing in the semifinals to a Bishop’s squad that they more or less clobbered two weeks earlier, but they know they can keep up with them and therefore any team this season. 

The Mounties, like many AUS teams, will work with a new starting quarterback after the departure of David Patry. Julian Wytinck played quite a bit in 2019, but rookies James Laceby and Justin Vogels have made strong cases in camp too. The team’s leading rusher Jack Estabrooks is back after finishing with the third-most rushing yards in the AUS in the previous campaign. But, they lose 2019 receptions leader Josh Hicks. Head coach Peter Fraser will lean on Robert Walker and Drew Besco to thrive with Hicks’ important reception roles.

The Mounties’ acclaimed defence will be familiar-looking in 2021, with 2019 AUS rookie of the year Daniel Bell and the Cormiers, Lucas and Dylan, leading the way on the defensive line. Lucas led the conference with five interceptions last season and Bell had four sacks, the most on the team. Dylan, meanwhile, led the team in tackles. James Parker, whose 78 points and 19 made field goals led the conference in 2019, is another important returnee that can’t be understated for this Mounties team looking for redemption from last season’s playoffs.

Saint Francis-Xavier X-Men

Photo credit - Bryan Kennedy
(Bryan Kennedy)

The X-Men were nowhere near the title defence they wanted in 2019. With a 2-6 record in a screwdriver-tight playoff race, they were one win short of tying Mount Allison for the final playoff berth. A few consecutive midseason losses, including getting shellacked by the Mounties team they were chasing, were of poor timing and ultimately spelled the end of their season. We can’t look too much into the fact they placed last given how wide open the league is and how much has changed since. This year, they’ve already beat the defending champion Axemen, showing how the hierarchy in the league, and the X-Men’s own fortune, can turn on a dime. 

Quinn Stewart and Bailey Wasdal had relatively even playing times in 2019, with Stewart getting the bigger assignments and throwing for more yards. Wasdal will have that this year with Stewart moved on. Running back Chase Bowden isn’t back either, meaning Zacchary Kuhn and rookie Caleb Fogarty will force coach Gary Waterman to make a tough choice at the position. Isaac Fagnan, who was fifth in receptions per game with 4.1, will be key for the X-Men offence, along with fellow receiver Benoit Cormier.

StFX will miss Gordon Whyte, the AUS’s busiest tackler in 2019, on defence but still have the third-busiest tackler Alex Fedchun. He had 39 of them, on top of five sacks. Ben Von Muehldorfer and Cole Virtanen also provide valuable returns, the latter two providing at least five tackles a game last season. The team’s 2019 leading scorer, Keiran Burnham, is no longer on the team but Max Capriotti is poised to take on full-time duties now. He made one extra-point kick on his only attempt in 2019.  

Saint Mary’s Huskies

Saint Mary's drops final game to StfX
(SMU Huskies Athletics)

SMU is an interesting team that feels like they could either go boom or bust. They went bust in 2019 after starting the season 3-1, only to drop their next four and miss the playoffs. But they look to be leaning more toward the ”boom” side so far. Dispatching Mount Allison, a team that gave the Huskies a rather hard time two years ago, in exhibition play 26-6 helps their case. But the question is how long head coach James Colzie III’s troops can keep the good times rolling, because they will need a full season of work to push for an AUS title.

The Huskies will have mixes of new faces and returnees on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Joshua Shim, who threw the second-most yards-per-game and touchdowns behind Acadia’s Guenard in 2019, won’t return. Neither will leading rusher Tyrique Dixon-Bowden or Josh Henry. But the offence will have big returns in leading receivers Shedler Fervius and Liam O’Brien. Teon Alexander-Armour has the resume to fill the running back void and while the quarterback competition isn’t over yet, first-year Kristian Stembridge impressed the most in SMU’s tuneup versus Mount A.

The Huskies defence will welcome back the likes of Jarek Richards, Jacob Battenfelder and Markcus Jean-Loescher for 2021, their three top tacklers from 2019. Aidan John, who had 5.5 sacks the last full season, will also be a welcome piece on the defensive line. With kicker Brian Hope moved on, Owen MacRae and Ethan Nagler will compete for the spot after decent performances last week. 

Regular season predictions

  1. StFX
  2. Bishop’s
  3. Acadia
  4. SMU
  5. Mount Allison

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