Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON – From the Pacific to the Prairies, the start of the 2017 Canada West football playoffs could not better personify the unprecedented season of parity it follows.
And if you think saying that five times fast is tricky, then try predicting what's about happen on the road to the Hardy Cup.
The UBC Thunderbirds host the Regina Rams (3 p.m. PDT) while the Alberta Golden Bears head to Calgary to meet the defending champion Dinos (1 p.m. MDT) on Saturday, in semifinals that both feature opponents who split their respective season series.
"I've always stated that it doesn't matter what place you are in in this conference, you always have an opportunity to win," says Dinos coach Wayne Harris,
Last weekend's meeting between Calgary and Alberta at McMahon Stadium epitomized football in the New West. The Dinos were unbeaten, the No. 1-ranked team in U SPORTS, and had beaten the Bears in Edmonton by 29 points at the beginning of the season. The Bears, meanwhile, had gone a decade without winning in Calgary, and needed a 'W' just to make the playoffs for the first time in coach Chris Morris' five-season tenure.
Naturally, the Bears won 53-3.
"This conference is so hard," Morris says. "Everybody is such a great coach in this conference, everybody has mature athletes and everybody does a great job in the off-season. It just really is an honour to coach in this conference against these guys that have been so perennially successful."
Incidentally, like the Bears-Dinos matchup, the Rams and T-Birds played each other on the first and last weeks of the season. In Week 1, Regina won at home 36-20, while UBC secured home advantage for the semifinal with a 44-15 Week 8 victory in Vancouver.
"I think we both took a lot of out of the game, and it's a little bit of a chess match," says Steve Bryce, Rams coach of the Week 8 game. "We got a chance to see some of things they were doing to adjust to us, because they've had an entire season of watching our film, and seeing how they were going to approach our run game and what kind of coverages we were going to be looking at going into the playoffs.
"So we both got a good look at what kind of hand we've been dealt going into the playoffs."
In true testament to Canada West's depth, every team from fifth-place Saskatchewan on up lost to an opponent that placed lower in the standings, while every team with the exception of the Dinos and Rams have a win against a higher-finishing team.
UBC's Blake Nill, who is in his 12th season coaching in Canada West and has seven Hardy Cups to his credit, says he's never seen it like this.
"You can measure teams different ways," Nill says. "I look at the Alberta offensive line and their run game, and go 'Wow', you have to be formidable with that. Or the Regina pass game, or the athletes that Manitoba has, or the tradition and the whole environment that Saskatchewan has, and, of course, Calgary been strong for so long.
"I tell my players each and every week, 'You have to bring your A-game to win and you have to execute to win,'" continues Nill. "If we show up on Saturday and we don't complete passes or make blocks or play with emotion, we are not going to win this football game, and it's the same for any team showing up in Canada West now.
"There are no easy wins this year."
Semifinal 1: Alberta (3–5, unranked) vs. Calgary (7-1, U SPORTS No. 4)
Saturday, Nov. 4
1 p.m. MDT
McMahon Stadium – Calgary, Alta.
SaskTel maxTV live local channels 49/349 HD
TELUS channels 997/9997 HD
BellMTS channel 1802 HD
Alberta is back in the post-season for the first time since 2010, a span of six seasons in which the Dinos have won four Hardy Cups, bringing their all-time total to 16, including last year when they advanced all the way to the Vanier Cup.
Expect a shootout: not only are Calgary and Alberta the two highest scoring teams in Canada West, the winner of both of their head-to-head games scored north of 50 points. Alberta features the conference's top rusher in Ed Ilnicki (1468 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground) and pass-catcher in Nathan Rowe (53 receptions for 1013 yards and seven touchdowns), though it won't necessarily be easy against a complete Calgary defence that gave up the second-fewest yards in both rushing and passing.
Dinos pivot Adam Sinagra (178 completions for 2447 yards and 18 touchdowns) leads Calgary's aerial attack against an Alberta team that has steadily improved on the defensive side of the ball, giving up 25 or less points as the team went 3-1 over its last four games after surrendering 41 or more points three times over an 0-4 start.
Semifinal 2: Regina (4-4, U SPORTS No. 9) vs. UBC (6-2, U SPORTS No. 6)
Saturday, Nov. 4
3 p.m. PDT
Thunderbird Stadium – Vancouver, B.C.
SaskTel maxTV live local channels 48/348 HD
TELUS channels 998/9998 HD
BellMTS channel 1802 HD (joined in progress, if necessary)
This marks the sixth time in the last 14 months that these teams have played, including an exciting 2016 Hardy Cup semifinal that saw UBC defeat the Rams 40-34 at Mosaic Stadium.
Since dropping their season-opener in Regina, the T-Birds have been one of the hottest teams in U SPORTS, going 6-1 with their lone loss coming to first-place Calgary at the end of September.
Last year's Hec Crighton award winner, Regina quarterback Noah Picton, has continued to pick apart defenses this season, pacing Canada West in completions (207), passing accuracy (68.8%) touchdown tosses (19), but faces a tough test against the T-Birds, who were the only team in Canada West that kept opponents under 400 yards total offence per game while surrendered a meagre 21.5 points, over 10 less than the conference-wide average.
The T-Birds are much less prolific on offence, its 28.9 scoring average second-last in Canada West, though the Rams come in having given up 40-plus points in four straight. UBC is seeking a third consecutive Hardy Cup final appearance, while a win would be Regina's first in the post-season since 2012.