The 2021 AUS football season was the StFX X-Men, then everyone else. But in perhaps the least predictable conference in U SPORTS football, anything can happen in 2022.
After all, a lot will change. For the first time since 2019, teams will play eight games, twice against each opponent. And despite more games than the six last season, each matchup arguably counts more, with three playoff spots up for grabs. Last year, tiebreakers came down to the final game when a temporary fourth playoff birth was up for grabs. Imagine the chaos in the Oct. 29 games at the regular season’s end.
While the X-Men, led by quarterback Silas Fagnan’s offence, remain the team to beat, each team has a case to challenge for the Loney Bowl title and a spot in the Uteck Bowl, which the conference champion will host in November. With action underway on Aug. 27, fans won’t have to wait long for the AUS dogfight to begin.
The 2019 Loney Bowl champs didn’t recess dramatically in 2021 despite the departures of quarterback Hunter Guenard and running back Dale Wright. But in the shortened season, the Axemen won just once (initially twice but were stripped of a win versus the Saint Mary’s Huskies because of an ineligible player). The silver lining? Acadia lost just one game all year by more than six points. That includes the conference semifinal against the X-Men, where a fourth-quarter drive from StFX forced the Axemen to the wrong side of the scoreboard once more. How coach Jeff Cummins’s team gave the eventual AUS champs such a scare late in the season exemplifies how the Wolfville-based squad developed their identity through the year.
Like 2021, Acadia is tasked with establishing a new starting quarterback. Gone is last year’s starter Duncan Patterson (to SMU) and Daniel Hashem, who started the StFX semifinal. Newcomers Dante Tabacu and Caine Harrison, plus 2021 non-roster player Mitchell Tufts, will compete for the spot. The team will also have to replace star running back Cole Estabrooks, top receivers Matthew Gledhill and Scott Perry, and top-of-the-conference linebackers Kameron Bell and Franck Kemayou.
Third-year Ethan Phinney will get the closest look at the running back position after picking up 3.9 yards per carry in 2021. Julien Poirier-McKiggan is the most exciting returnee in the receiving corps as he picked up 23 yards per game despite just 11 receptions last season. On defence, Kyle Chappus will be looked upon to stifle the opposing scoring after registering 5.6 tackles per game (T-fourth in AUS) and four sacks (second in AUS) last year. Kicker Ben George, third in made field goals in the conference in 2021, is back for his fourth year.
The Axemen fell to the Bishop’s Gaiters 13-5 in their Aug. 27 season opener. They will travel to SMU for a Friday night matchup on Sept. 2.
A mediocre 2021 overall for the Lennoxville, Que. program turned out not too bad by November. Fielding the worst defence in the AUS by points allowed (135, second-worst if including the points SMU allowed in the Acadia forfeit), Bishop’s flipped the script in the playoffs. After trouncing Mount A 23-5 in the semis, the Gaiters put up a spirited Loney Bowl despite falling 25-17 to StFX. After missing the playoffs in 2017 and 2018, its first two AUS seasons, Bishop’s has made the Loney Bowl in the two most recent campaigns. If coach Cherif Nicolas maintains the cleaned-up game this year as they developed last playoffs, perhaps a non-Maritimes team will win the Loney Bowl for the first time.
Bishop’s juggled between Mason McGriskin, Liam Kennedy and Maxime Bouffard in 2021. McGriskin, who had the lion’s share of play, including starts in both playoff games, is the only one returning of the trio and will take on that additional responsibility. He will have to do so without star running back Louis-Phillippe Gregorie, who dominated last year with 98.5 rushing yards per game (second in AUS). David Chaloux will start in that spot in 2022 after eight rushing attempts last season.
A pair of crucial 2021 receivers, Nykolas Pierre-Masse and Lokmen Nadjem, are back. So are linebackers Gabriel Royer and Liam Patton, who finished a respective seventh and 15th last season in AUS tackles. However, fellow linebacker Keagan Hughes (fifth on that list) will not be back. Noah Laurson will once again wield the all-important boot for the Gaiters on special teams.
After taking game one of the season over Acadia 13-5, the team’s road trip continues on Sept. 3 at Mount A’s home opener.
Mount Allison Mounties
Coming second in the 2021 regular season standings, no team had the defensive game down quite like the Mounties. Forcing their way to wins via low-scoring games, the team was by far the best in terms of points allowed in six regular season games (not accounting for Acadia’s altered points due to a forfeited game). Given the whole “defence wins championships rhetoric,” they drew a lot of eyes heading into their semifinal versus Bishop’s. But as the Gaiters cracked the armour, Mount A had no offence to save them despite going against what had been a below-average defence team all year. So as the defence will remain a priority, the Mounties will have to incorporate an attack that can get them by those of Bishop’s and StFX.
Julian Wyntink, Mount A’s starting quarterback since 2019, has moved on. Coach Peter Fraser has five different QBs to choose from, but it will likely come down to fourth-year Justin Vogels or rookie CJ Valenti based on limited preseason samples. With running back Jack Estabrooks gone, the run game will fall to Adam Bennett. Although Bennett ran for the fifth-best yards per game ratio in the AUS last year, newcomer Brandt Burzuk has been pushing for the spot hard in camp.
The receiving core from last year, featuring Drew Besco, Adam Shambemiradam and Cody Barton, are still around. So are several key defenders including Daniel Bell, Lucas Cormier and Reece Martin. The latter had a conference-leading five sacks last year, with the former two a respective second and ninth in tackles AUS-wide. On the kick, James Parker returns for a fifth and final year. His 43-yard field goal versus Saint Mary’s on Oct. 16, 2021, was the longest of the season.
The Mounties host the Bishop’s Gaiters, an AUS semifinal rematch, in their season opener on Sept. 3.
Saint Mary’s Huskies
A last-place finish in the 2021 standings showed not even a year off due to COVID-19 could put the Huskies back in the championship conversation. Another thing might be the return of beloved coach Steve Sumarah after a decade leading the Carleton Ravens. Sumarah was in charge when SMU won their last AUS championship in 2010, on top of the numerous other accomplishments he has been around for. Even with a familiar face back, the Huskies are still starting at square one. That starts with winning a game, which they haven’t done since 2019 (Acadia forfeit win notwithstanding) and replenishing an AUS-worst offence and defence.
Former Acadia QB Duncan Patterson has joined the fold after throwing for 133.3 yards per game in 2021. He was just one of five AUS quarterbacks to average over 95 yards per game in 2021. Two others are returnees Brett Maisonneuve and Kristian Stembridge, doing so despite the team’s middling results. While three top QBs in the conference are in the lineup, the latter two haven’t seen much action since camp, so Patterson is Sumarah’s go-to guy for the time being.
The running back slot is crowded, too, with Malik Williams, A’dre Simmonds and Teon Alexander-Amour gunning for play. Although Williams and Simmonds ran for the sixth and seventh most yards per game last season, Alexander-Amour has gotten the most action early in 2022. The receiving setup will be a bit different, with Devin McGuirk and Trehjen Bhullar seeing more action than in their past two seasons with the team. The defence will have the company of 2021 team tackles leader Isaiah Okoli and sophomore Aidan John at the line. Ethan Nagler is favoured to start again at the kicking spot. He kicked a 100 per cent field goal efficiency in 2021. The catch? He had just three attempts all year.
The Huskies dropped game one to X 25-12. They will hope to respond on Sept. 2 when Acadia comes to Huskies Stadium for SMU’s home opener.
Saint Francis Xavier X-Men
After taking the Loney Bowl in 2021, their third in six seasons, nothing suggests the StFX X-Men won’t be favourites to win again this year. No team was remotely close to their offence, which scored 193 points (the subsequent most comparable offence, Mount Allison, had 94). And despite being a middle-of-the-pack team defensively, they showed their chops by playing at their best when most needed. Look at last year’s Loney Bowl. Bishop’s pressed late with two second-half touchdowns, but after an early fourth-quarter score, the Gaiters didn’t even come close enough to kick a field goal. Anything less than a Uteck Bowl game in Antigonish will be a letdown for coach Gary Waterman’s team, who will have eyes on them across Canada in 2022.
Silas Fagnan won AUS MVP as a rookie last year and shows no signs of slowing down. Passing for 259.4 yards per game, almost double that of the second-highest passer, he’s the centrepiece of the defending champs. Running back Malcolm Bussey is no one to sleep on either, rushing for a league-leading 111 yards per game in his debut year. New faces will have to step up in the receiving corps in 2022 to replace Benoit Cormier and Isaac Fagnan, their two top receivers last season. Zakariya Arim and Ben Harrington were Silas’s most frequent targets outside of Cormier and Isaac; they will lead the way.
Alex Fedchun had a standout season on the defensive line, with his 5.3 tackles per game good for the sixth best mark in the 2021 AUS season. Elsewhere against the ball, Nathan Cayouette and Ethan Mastin tied for the AUS lead with three interceptions last season. At the tee, Max Capriotti will do his best to surpass the conference-leading numbers he set in 2021, including 14 field goals.
The X-Men have a 1-0 record after their home opener win over SMU. They have a bye week before welcoming Acadia to StFX Stadium on Sept. 10.
Regular Season Standings Prediction
- StFX X-Men
- Bishop’s Gaiters
- Mount Allison Mounties
- SMU Huskies
- Acadia Axemen