11/09/2012 02:33 EST | Updated 01/09/2013 05:12 EST

CIS football playoffs this weekend filled with David and Goliath struggles

Canada's best university football teams meet this Saturday in four conference finals across the country to start determining who will compete for the Vanier Cup.

The favourites were locked in on the first day of the season — Acadia in Atlantic Canada, Laval in Quebec, McMaster in Ontario and Calgary in the West.

The teams they're facing are a much more mixed bag.

The St. Mary's Huskies, for example, opened their season by losing their starting quarterback to a neck injury.

But while they lost all three meetings with Acadia, the games weren't blowouts. St. Mary's did the best job in the conference of containing the Axemen with scores of 21-16, 26-10 and 12-5.

They did it with a ground game that replaced the passing attack they lost when Jack Creighton went down.

"Offensively, it's no secret we run the ball," says coach Perry Marchese.

"We've got two, three, even our fourth guy is very good in the backfield, we try and get them all involved as much as possible, but between Melvin Abankwah and Mike Dawes, they're a great combination. One's a power guy and one's a speed guy."

Axeman coach Jeff Cummins is well aware of the threat.

"That's a major concern for us," he says.

"They're not a big passing team. They're not a team that's going to put up 300 or 400 yards in the air. But they definitely will grind it out and try to pound the ball.

"We've got to make sure we can stop that."

Like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, the good-hearted social misfit from "Caddyshhack" and other 80s comedies, Sherbrooke Vert et Or just isn't getting much respect this year.

But despite being shut out of Canadian Interuniversity Sport's Quebec conference all-star team, second-year coach David Lessard's squad is battling for the conference title against mighty Laval Rouge et Or, with nine conference championships in its trophy case.

Lessard even used that all-star slight to help motivate his team, which stunned higher-ranked Montreal with a 42-24 win to get into the final.

If fact, Lessard isn't ashamed to say he used it twice, right after the announcement, to get them ramped up for practice and again just before the game.

"That's what I said last week . . just go out there and show you're better than your Montreal counterparts."

He says their defence will win or lose this game for the Vert et Or.

"It's all about the d line at this point . . . If we can stop the run, get some good pass rush in there, we have a chance."

Guelph, ranked fifth in the CIS at the end of the season, couldn't really be considered an underdog, unless of course you compare the Gryphons to the McMaster Marauders, last year's Vanier Cup champions.

Guelph lost only one game all season and that was to McMaster — a 50-9 season opener that rocked the Gryphons on their heels.

"I'm glad it happened at the beginning of the year," said coach Stu Lang. "It allowed us to sort of rethink things . . . It was a good wake-up call."

One thing his Gryphons have going for them this year is their refusal to give up, no matter how hopeless things might appear.

They were behind 22 points in the fourth quarter last week yet still came back to beat the Queen's Gaels 42-39 in overtime with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Michael Fortino.

McMaster Marauders coach Stefan Ptaszek, one of the nominees for coach of the year this season, isn't taking them lightly.

"Of all the teams we've faced, I think they're going to be the most dangerous, simply because they believe in themselves more than any group in the CIS right now," he says.

The Calgary Dinos also face the only team in the West that gave them any real trouble this season as they meet the Regina Rams in this Saturday's CIS Canada West playoff in Calgary.

The Rams broke Calgary's winning streak in week seven with a 12-9 win that showed the Dinos' formidable offence led by quarterback Eric Dzwilewski could be shut down.

"Regina did a good job of taking us out of our game plan and we've got to make sure that doesn't happen again," says Calgary coach Blake Nill.

"This team I think has flown under the radar a lot with the injury to their quarterback but, with their quarterback back . . . they're a formidable opponent."

With Mark Mueller back in the slot after missing two games, Regina is a lot more confident, coach Frank McCrystal agrees.

"He's a great player but he's (also) really good with his teammates . . . It's just so valuable all around, technically and athletically and with the intangible leadership thing."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version referred to the Regina Rams as the Regina Pats.