The Western Mustangs kick off their Vanier Cup defence on August 26 as they travel to Ottawa to take on the Carleton Ravens. While they return most of their championship roster and head into 2018 as the clear favourites to win the Yates Cup and compete for a second national title in a row, question marks still surround the team heading into the season. Here are five burning questions for the 2018 Mustangs football team.
Will Chris Merchant continue to dominate?
Western's third-year quarterback is coming off a year in which he emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in Ontario University Athletics, throwing for 2,959 yards and 18 touchdowns while picking up 700 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. It wasn't a Hec Crighton-winning season and didn't earn him a spot on the All-Canadian team. But it was a performance that led the Mustangs to a national championship.
With another Vanier Cup run highly anticipated, much is expected of Merchant in his third season in the purple and white. And throughout the off-season, he's taken steps to improve on his already impressive 2017 performance. He attended Hamilton Tiger-Cats training camp over the summer, which should go a long way in his development. He played in the U SPORTS Valero East-West Bowl alongside the nation's top players, and he's taken on a bigger leadership role in the program, organizing throwing sessions with his receivers over the summer.
After a year under Steve Snyder, can the Mustangs offence become even better?
Snyder coordinated an offence that led the OUA in nearly ever major statistical category. In his first year with the program, Snyder's offence scored 10 more points per game and 109 more yards per game than any other team in the OUA. In the post-season, they scored 261 points in four games and put up 39 points against a Laval Rouge et Or team that had allowed a meagre 9.6 points per game during the regular season. They were unstoppable both through the air and on the ground.
Now with a year of experience under Snyder's system and many of the key pieces of the offence returning, the Mustangs could be even more prolific this season. Merchant returns from his summer with the Tiger-Cats. Receiver Harry McMaster returns after a season in which he surpassed the 1,000 yard mark. Three time All-Canadian running back Alex Taylor also comes back after rushing for over 1,000 yards in 2017. The offensive line remains largely intact and the Mustangs have incredible depth at every offensive position. Together, it has all the makings of a scoring machine that should run roughshod over the rest of the OUA.
Can the Mustangs overcome a dreadful schedule?
While the Mustangs have more than enough talent to repeat as Vanier Cup champs, their schedule won't do them any favours.
In 2017, the Mustangs' farthest away game was in Windsor. This year, the team will travel to Ottawa twice and Kingston once.
Last year, they also had a prime late bye week which allowed them to rest up before the start of the playoffs. This season's bye, however, comes early in the year, which is less than ideal for a team poised for a deep post-season run. While the bye does come before a pivotal date with the OUA rival McMaster Marauders, allowing the Mustangs two weeks of preparation, Marshall and his coaching staff would prefer the bye to come later in the schedule.
The tough slate will test the Mustangs' mettle and resilience. Thankfully they have the depth to overcome any potential injury or rest issues that might come about as a result of their schedule.
How will the Mustangs fill key roster holes?
The Mustangs bring back much of the core of their Vanier Cup team. Taylor, Merchant and McMaster are three of the best offensive threats in the country. Cedric Joseph was a playoff hero who found the end zone 12 times in the 2017 post-season. Philippe Dion, Fraser Sopik and David Brown return to anchor a stout Western defence. However, there are a handful of roles that will need to be filled as September approaches.
The Mustangs played much of last season with four linebackers on defence. Linebacker Jean-Gabriel Poulin was the leader in that system. He has since departed from the program to join the CFL's Montreal Alouettes. Poulin's departure will probably force the Mustangs to switch to a three-linebacker defence, with Dion in the middle. Thankfully the Mustangs have reinforcements coming in at the linebacker position with the incoming transfer of Michael Moore, a fourth-year starter at Queen's University and a CFL draft pick. At the free safety position, the Mustangs will also lose Jesse McNair, who started for the program for five years. And at the SAM linebacker spot, Nick Vanin's departure will have a big impact. However, Marshall anticipates the program should replenish itself at these positions with a number of talented youngsters in the pipeline.
Will post-championship complacency set in?
Winning championships is hard. Winning two straight is even harder. There have been examples of teams, like Laval, who have sustained excellence year after year. But there are also programs, like McMaster, the UBC Thunderbirds and Queen's Gaels, who all won Vanier Cups and then quickly fell back to the middle of the pack.
The Mustangs have the talent to create the next great Canadian university football powerhouse. They have a great coaching staff, the depth and the resources to maintain success. But they must avoid the danger of becoming stagnant, which has forced many a potential dynasty to come crashing down.
According to Marshall, however, the dearth of talent within the program should prevent complacency. Younger players will be gunning for jobs throughout training camp and the early stages of the season.
The Mustangs 2017 season will go down as one of the greatest in university football history. And, on paper at least, they should be even better in 2018. But championships aren't won in August or September. After last year, the Mustangs know that as well as anyone.