TORONTO, ON – It’s the most wonderful time of the year. (Don’t lie – you sung that, didn’t you now?)
It’s not quite Christmas, but for 12 teams in the OUA and RSEQ, it’s most certainly the university football equivalent, as they each begin their quest to capture the 56th Vanier Cup to be held, once again, at the venerable Stade Telus, home of the Laval Rouge et Or, for a third consecutive edition.
This year may see the most parity we have seen across the entire U SPORTS football playoffs. This is especially the case in the OUA, as two of the four quarter-final games feature teams facing off against one another who tied in the standings.
In Quebec, each of the four teams that qualified for the RSEQ playoffs finished with different records, but anyone who has followed the RSEQ specifically in 2021 knows there’s been tons of wacky stuff happening there (that’s pretty much universal across the country), so even the differences in record make it hard to solidly predict what will occur on game day.
So, instead of doing that, we’re going to break down Saturday’s six matchups and examine how each team stacks up against its opponent. We at 49 know everyone lives for predictions. Usually, I enjoy making them, but this season has rendered almost any game-to-game prognostications uttrly meaningless. That said, we do of course invite you to make your own predictions, no matter how much they may be influenced by bias.
Here we go…..
 CARLETON (2-4) @  QUEEN’S (6-0)
This is perhaps the one game in the OUA playoffs where you can reasonably-confidently predict the outcome. Carleton is the lone team in the playoffs that doesn’t at least have a .500 record, and their task is a tough one against the undefeated Gaels. The teams played twice during the regular season and the game at Richardson Stadium ended 45-0 in favour of the Gaels. That was the only game where Carleton was blown out of the water, so if they can keep the game close like they did in their opening-week loss to Queen’s, they stand a shot. To stand a shot, however, they’ll have to contain the nation’s second-leading rusher Rasheed Tucker, who, depending on how far Queen’s goes, could garner some OUA MVP consideration. The good news for Carleton, they largely did contain him, holding him to his two lowest yardage outputs of 79 and 74 in the two games, while only allowing him in the end zone once. The key for Carleton will be red zone efficiency; they only scored eight touchdowns in 14 trips, and Queen’s has allowed just two red zone touchdowns this season, the fewest in the OUA. Queen’s is the best all-around team in the province, allowing the fewest points (7.3) while scoring the second most (28.7), so for Carleton to pull off the upset, they’ll need a game similar to their 18-6 loss in Week 1, while taking advantage of any breaks they may receive.
 OTTAWA (3-3) @  TORONTO (3-3)
This is one that is impossible to predict given two factors: the teams’ matching records and the fact their only meeting of the season was an 11-10 Toronto win at home in the season’s opening week. That victory allowed the Varsity Blues to host this game, their first postseason contest since 1995. Toronto had a slow start to the season, but managed to get its offence going in the later two thirds of the season (granted, two of those games were against the winless York Lions). Toronto is a quick-strike offence, but will need QB Clay Sequeira to rediscover his form, at least in terms of yardage, from the first three games. He has really struggled his last three games, and has had difficulty with accuracy all season long. The Blues have the deep-ball weapons in guys like Will Corby and Nolan Lovegrove to win this game, but will Sequeira be crisp enough to find them? On the other side, Gee-Gees QB Ben Maracle has had a better statistical season than Sequeira, but not by much. He did, however, have one of his best performances of the year against Toronto in the opener. So, all in all, expect this to be another low-scoring game, less due to outstanding defence (although both teams boast solid defences), and more because of a lack of offensive continuity.
 WATERLOO (3-3) @  WESTERN [5-1]
Judging by the dominance displayed by the Mustangs in these two teams’ only regular season encounter in Week 6 – a 48-13 Western win – you’d think this one would be easy to judge. However, the Warriors come into this game on a high note after beating their rivals from Laurier to earn a playoff berth. Their high-powered offence, led by OUA MVP frontrunner Tre Ford has also massively underachieved for much of the season. They’re hoping it may have recaptured some of its magic in the Laurier win. From a Mustangs perspective, obviously, their running attack forged by the two-headed-monster of Trey Humes and Keon Edwards will be front and centre as it has been all season. Humes didn’t play in Waterloo on October 23, but Edwards did and scored three times, including runs of 44 and 97 yards. Obviously, Waterloo will have to do a better job keying in on Edwards, but that proposition is much easier said than done, and now adding Humes to the mix makes it an even more unenviable task. The one place where Waterloo has a clear edge is at quarterback. Ford was largely quiet in their last meeting, but if he can play even close to as well as he’s capable, the Warriors have a legitimate shot. These teams played to a 30-24 result in the 2019 OUA semi and a 45-42 scoreline in their 2019 regular season meeting, so it’s clear Waterloo can hang with Western. The Mustangs are going to score points in this game, so if Waterloo is going to win, it’s likely going to be a shootout. That means red zone efficiency, a weakness for the Warriors this year, and points off turnovers are going to be crucial. Chris Bertoia knows the Mustangs better than anyone, so don’t be surprised to see him get creative on more than one occasion in this one.
 GUELPH (3-3) at  LAURIER (3-3)
Despite some early-season struggles in the absence of star QB Connor Carusello, his return in Week 5 was just what the doctor ordered. Despite an eventually-lopsided loss to Waterloo to close out their regular season, they get to host a playoff game and will play a Guelph team they never faced during the regular season. Laurier is another team that has more talent than their record would indicate in the likes of Kevantye Bailey and Ente Eguavoen among others. Guelph comes in to this game as what many would consider the weakest of the four OUA West playoff teams, even though they were the only team to beat the high-powered Mustangs. They have the second-least points scored per game among the four West division teams at just over 23, ironically ahead of only Laurier, and also put up the third-fewest yards per game at just over 320. The thing Guelph has going for them is their defence, as they boast one of the best front sevens in Canada. If they’re able to slow down Carusello and a Laurier offence that has had its fair share of difficulties, they will have a great chance to win. Their one big-play offensive name is Clarke Barnes, who is also a top returner in the province. If he can make some plays, Guelph’s chances increase even moreso. Laurier has the offensive firepower to win if they can play to the level they’re capable of, but they have the weakest defence of any OUA playoff team. If they’re going to defend home field, they’ll have to hold Barnes down while playing at the top of their offensive proficiency.
 SHERBROOKE (3-5) at  MONTREAL (7-1)
This game is the only other where you can surmise with a considerable degree of conviction which way this one will go. Sherbrooke comes into this game as the only sub-.500 team in the RSEQ playoffs, and will need a lot to go right for them if they are to pull off a massive upset. The Vert et Or struggle to score, averaging only 19.9 points a game, a figure that was aided largely by putting up 79 points in their showdowns with Concordia. In their other six games, they averaged under 10 points a game. Their two games against the Carabins this season went about the way you would expect. Montreal beat Sherbrooke 26-9 in the season opener before throttling them 43-7 in Week 6. The Carabins are led by U SPORTS freshman and UConn transfer Jonathan Senecal, who is 2nd in the RSEQ in yards per game and touchdown passes behind Hec Creighton frontrunner Olivier Roy, who we’ll discuss momentarily. They also have a stud running back in Betrand Beaulieu, who has only rushed for less than 79 yards once this season. Hassane Dosso is the Carabins leading receiver, and is second in the country in yards per game. The Carabins have perhaps the deepest team in the country, and that leaves Sherbrooke as massive underdogs, but as results like their win over Laval earlier this season have taught us, anything can happen in the 2021 RSEQ.
 CONCORDIA (4-4) @  LAVAL (5-3)
The Concordia Stingers have been the most exciting team to watch in the province this season. Guided by the consensus favourite for the Hec Creighton trophy and an ultimate flare for the dramatic, they have endeared themselves to U SPORTS football fans across the country. There isn’t anything that Olivier Roy hasn’t done. He leads the country in yards, completions and touchdown passes, while being near the top in many other categories. Jacob Salvail and Jaylen Greaves are the two big weapons for Roy, and those three will be the biggest reason Concordia wins if they’re able to pull it off. Laval is no slouch, either, of course, and could exploit a Concordia defence that has struggled to keep teams out of the end zone, allowing better than 30 points a game. The Rouge et Or are piloted by Arnaud Desjardins, who started the final four games after Thomas Bolduc started the first four. The Rouge et Or haven’t had the same high-powered offence we’re used to seeing, and while their defence has been stout, is there room for Concordia to potentially exploit it? If their two meetings during the season are any indication, a lot will have to change for the Stingers if they’re going to pull this off; the Rouge et Or won the two games 33-7 and 36-10. That said, the visitors just so happen to have one of the best, if not the best quarterback in the country on their side, and in a one-game, winner-take-all playoff, that’s not a bad spot to be in.