By: Monty Mosher
Matt Ouellet De Carlo has an engaging perspective on Canadian university football. Entering his fifth season as an all-star offensive lineman with the Bishop's Gaiters, he played in the Quebec conference (RSEQ) and took his lumps against national powers Laval and Montreal.
Last season, he joined the Gaiters in their first season of play in the AUS, making new rivalries with Acadia, Saint Mary's, Mount Allison and St. Francis Xavier.
The Gaiters, from Lennoxville, Que., went 3-21 in their last three seasons in Quebec.
They went 1-7 in their first swing through the AUS, losing their last five. It was the first season for head coach Cherif Nicholas.
Losing is losing teams will always say, but the defeats in the AUS weren't as one-sided, except for one or two. There is plenty of room to believe the lessons of the first year will offer benefits in the second season starting next month.
Bishop's never feared RSEQ competition
For one thing, Ouellet De Carlo never believed the Gaiters were entirely out of their depth in Quebec. They went 6-2 for second place, losing to Montreal in the semifinals, in 2013.
"I felt like when we were playing some of the bigger schools, they had more resources and we weren't really equipped to compete with the kind of firepower that Laval and Montreal would have," Ouellet De Carlo said of his first seasons in the RSEQ. "But, even saying that, in 2013 Bishop's wasn't able to beat Laval in Montreal, but they still gave them a good fight. So, it's not impossible, but the odds are definitely greater."
He said he never thought any player rejected Bishop's out of a sense of hopelessness over having to face national contenders much of the time. But Bishop's, a school of 2,800 students far closer to the size of its AUS brethren, has other hurdles.
Location might hamper recruitment
Quebec players wishing to stay home might have Laval, Montreal and Sherbrooke if they want to study in French. They have McGill, Concordia and Montreal if they want to be in Montreal and Laval for Quebec City.
"I think our issues with recruiting are we are a really small school and we don't have the luxuries the big cities have," Ouellet De Carlo said. "I think that has something to do with it."
The six-foot-five, 310-pound Ouellet De Carlo chose Bishop's because he wanted to study in English and become a teacher. He liked the school's academic program.
He said he was excited, as were many of his teammates, when news arrived in 2017 that the Gaiters would be joining the AUS. The leagues had sampled each other's product since 2003 with an interlocking schedule.
Eager to compete
"I thought it was a good opportunity for us to play some competitive football because we certainly like to compete," Ouellet De Carlo said. "When we had the crossover games, it was always fun to see some fresh faces and to play against people who you weren't overly familiar with. I think everyone was really excited to start playing some competitive football."
It was thought that Bishop's might struggle with four regular-season trips to the Maritimes. But they flew, making that part of it easier. The one-hour time difference was a minor adjustment for some.
There were some adjustments between the lines, but not many of those either.
"The game is played more or less the same everywhere you go," Ouellet De Carlo said of changing conferences. "It's competitive football in every Canadian conference. It's just a matter of where you're playing. I think it is going to be fun in the coming years to see what these new rivalries are going to be."
The interlocking games provided some familiarity, but not enough for comfort. It certainly wasn't like the familiarity the Gaiters had while playing in Quebec.
"It was interesting that first time preparing for each team," he said. "Who is on Acadia? Who is on Mount A? Who is on St. F.X.? Who is on Saint Mary's?"
But that is all in the past. "It is business as usual now. We've been preparing since the start of the off-season to come back and really compete and start playing some (playoff) football in November."
No easy ride in AUS
The Gaiters haven't played for a conference title since 1994. It would be easy to suggest that Bishop's viewed the AUS as an easier way back into the hunt for a Bowl game.
Not so, said Ouellet De Carlo.
"Whether you make it to the Uteck Bowl though the AUS or the RSEQ you are still going to be playing some top-tier competition. I never thought the AUS would have been the easier path to take. There is some really good football out there as well."
It was odd year in the conference with the Loney Bowl initially scrapped and the title awarded to Acadia in a dispute over the eligibility of a Saint Mary's player. By the time Acadia beat Saint Mary's for the conference banner there were only a few days of preparation time for the national semifinal against the powerful Western Mustangs.
As expected, the Mustangs battered the Axemen on their way to a Vanier Cup and an unbeaten year. Still, the 81-3 result left many to wonder if the AUS even deserved an automatic berth in the national final four anymore or if a new playoff format was needed.
Axemen unfairly criticized for Uteck Bowl loss
"I think Acadia gets a bad rap for that because, if you look at how Western was playing all season, they were doing that out in the OUA as well," said Ouellet De Carlo. "Just that it was in a Bowl game is what made that really stand out."
"I think everyone in the AUS is going to be using that as fuel to say that we're not a joke out here. We're here for real. We deserve to be playing in the national semifinals."
Football training camps start on Aug. 10.
Bishop's plays on the first weekend of the regular season with a road game at Mount Allison on Aug. 25.