By Carlos Verde
For a number of years, the Ontario University Athletics football conference was pretty cut-and-dry.
Traditional 'big-boy' programs would steamroll oppositions en route to first-round playoff byes and plus-200 point differentials, while cellar-dwellers would regularly be on the receiving end of 50-point beatdowns.
Not so in 2016.
The now-fully rebuilt Carleton Ravens upset the powerhouse Western Mustangs in their Week 2 home opener in the nation's capital. The Windsor Lancers, a team that has struggled to find its identity post-Austin Kennedy, knocked off defending Yates Cup-champion Guelph 33-29 on Labour Day Monday. The following weekend saw the uOttawa Gee-Gees stifle the favoured McMaster Marauders en route to a 30-8 victory.
The set power structure within the conference has been completely shaken.
Entering Week 5, the official halfway point of the OUA season, certain teams have more questions than they began the campaign with while others have turned heads for all the right reasons.
CH- CH- CH- CHANGES
The Laurier Golden Hawks (3-0) and aforementioned Gee-Gees (3-0) — two teams which entered the season with plenty of question marks — are perched atop the OUA standings with near-identical records; both are a perfect three-for-three, have allowed just 37 points, and have scored 128 and 126 points, respectively.
The Guelph Gryphons (2-2) would've expected to be 3-1, if not 4-0, at this point. Instead, Kevin McNeill's team is .500 and staring down the barrel of a second-half schedule that includes dates with Western (home, Sep. 24), McMaster (away, Oct. 1) and Laurier (away, Oct. 14). As it stands, last year's OUA champions could very well miss the playoffs.
McMaster (3-1) and Western (3-1), each with a surprise loss in the nation's capital on their transcripts, still have to face each other in Week 9.
The Carleton Ravens (2-2) have proven to be an enigma, upsetting Western in their home opener and ascending to No. 4 in the national rankings while also dropping disappointing decisions against Mac and Laurier.
The York Lions (2-2) have certainly shown progress under head coach Warren Craney, but with Carleton, Ottawa, McMaster and Guelph — combined record: 10-5 — on the schedule in the second half, YU will be hard-pressed to make any noise down the stretch.
In Kingston, the Queen's Gaels (0-3) have stumbled out of the gate against challenging competition, and with the likes of Ottawa and McMaster still to come on the struggling Gaels' schedule, they'll be in tough to make a run at a playoff spot. The new Richardson Stadium will almost certainly have to wait until at least 2017 to host playoff football.
If there's one thing we've learned in the OUA this year, it's to take nothing for granted. Windsor can beat Guelph. Western can lose a football game.
Trying to predict the outcomes of games are, for the most part, a futile exercise this year. Anything can and will happen: Blocked punts, pick-sixes, 100-yard return touchdowns.
Here are five second-half games you'll want to watch:
1) Panda Game: The battle of the two universities in the nation's capital is always an intense affair, and thanks to a pair of walk-off Carleton victories the past two seasons, this year's edition should be well-hyped. Add the fact that this game could have serious playoff implications in Week 6 and… (Oct. 1, 1 p.m.)
2) Guelph's Last Stand: The Guelph Gryphons are reeling at 2-2, and could very well be 2-3 entering their Week 6 matchup in Hamilton against the McMaster Marauders. For Mac, it will be an opportunity to solidify a playoff bye. For Guelph: A chance to salvage their season. (Oct. 1, 1 p.m.)
3) Capital Clash: Week 7 will see the Western Mustangs visit the uOttawa Gee-Gees in Ottawa — a place Western's already lost once in 2016. If the Gee-Gees can maintain their early-season form, there could be a lot at stake when the purple meets garnet in mid-October. (Oct. 15, 1 p.m.)
4) Changing of the Guard: Week 8's matchup between Laurier and Guelph could be the decisive swing at the top of the OUA, after Laurier's surged out to a strong start and Guelph has stumbled out of the gates. With plenty on the line, the Golden Hawks could clinch a playoff berth — or better — at University Stadium. (Oct. 14, 11 a.m.)
5) Down to the Wire: When McMaster travels to London to face the Mustangs in Week 9, it could be for a playoff bye. Any time two of the league's powerhouses meet it's bound to be a barnburner, and with the added importance of a late-season rest potentially hanging in the balance, it could be a doozy. (Oct. 22, 1 p.m.)