The Calgary Dinos head coach entered 2013 with an eye towards rebuilding his roster after losing 10 starters on defence and four offensive linemen to both graduation and the CFL.
To make matters worse for the youthful Dinos, quarterback and reigning Canada West MVP Eric Dzwilewski went down with a broken foot in the first game of the university football season.
All of the negatives could have easily added up to a step backwards following five straight Canada West titles, but Calgary instead posted an 8-0 record and back-to-back playoff victories, culminating with last weekend's 43-28 victory over the Manitoba Bisons and a record sixth straight Hardy Cup.
But the No. 3-ranked team in the country faces its biggest test to date in Saturday's Mitchell Bowl against the No. 1 Western Mustangs at Calgary's McMahon Stadium, with the winner advancing to the 49th Vanier Cup.
"This year, I was hoping to go 4-4 in our conference. I would have understood going 3-5 or 2-6 and I would have been very happy to go 5-3," Nill said this week. "The kind of year we've had speaks volumes to the efforts of the people in my program. What we're trying to do here is build this group for the future."
That future has come much quicker than expected for the powerhouse Dinos, who have lost 15 players to the CFL draft over the last three years.
Nill won Vanier Cups with the Saint Mary's Huskies in 2001 and 2002, but said this season has been one of his most satisfying.
"If it isn't the best, it's one of the top efforts I've seen a program put forth in my career," said Nill, who credited everyone from his assistant coaches to the team's academic co-ordinator. "In terms of the effort made by the program, I haven't see too many like this year."
For all the unexpected success the Dinos experienced in southern Alberta, a similar story played out for the Ontario champions.
Western head coach Greg Marshall also lost a number of veterans to graduation, but still finished the regular season 8-0 before recording two playoff victories, including a 51-22 triumph over the Queen's Gaels in last weekend Yates Cup.
Leading the youth movement in London, Ont., was six-foot-three, 215-pound quarterback Will Finch. The conference's nominee for the Hec Crighton Trophy as the top player Canadian university football, the Burlington, Ont., native set single-season OUA records for passing yards (3,047) and completion percentage (69.7).
Western also became the highest-scoring team in OUA history with 458 points in eight games, good for third all-time in the CIS.
"He's special," Marshall said of Finch. "He's 19 years old and I don't know if there's any 19-year-old quarterbacks out there that are leading their team into a national semfinal and have been nominated for the Hec Crighton.
"I don't remember a quarterback in that position."
Western ranked first in the country in scoring (57.2 points per game), total yards (647.8 yards per game) and passing (422.0), and third in rushing (225.8).
Meanwhile, Calgary finished first in rushing (232.2) and third in both scoring (42.4) and total offence (549.8).
With up to 15 centimetres of snow and winds gusting to 70 km/h expected in Calgary on Saturday, that running game led by second-year back Mercer Timmis could be critical to the Dinos' success.
The six-foot-one, 210-pound Timmis, who like Finch is also from Burlington, led CIS in rushing with 1,157 yards and set new Canada West records for all-purpose touchdowns (19) and rushing touchdowns (18).
"I've got a lot of kids in there. This is going to be a great experience for them," said Nill. "We're going to develop as a program because of this game. I feel fortunate to play the best teams in the country, because that's how you get better."
Calgary is 3-1 all-time against Western, including a 54-24 triumph in the 1995 Vanier Cup, the school's last national title. The Dinos will be hoping for a similar result and a date with either the Mount Allison Mounties or the Laval Rouge et Or in the Vanier Cup in Quebec City on Nov. 23.
The two Mitchell Bowl head coaches have known each other a long time and also have some history together as Nill's Huskies beat Marshall's Mauraders 36-25 in the 2002 national semifinal.
"Saint Mary's was (not only) one of the top teams in the country that year, but one of maybe the top CIS teams ever," Marshall recalled. "They were good."
Nill said he doesn't take much from that game 11 years later, but added that he knows what to expect from a Marshall-led team.
"The style of offence he coaches has changed a bit — the systems have changed — but the philosophical approach hasn't," said Nill. "He's still a coach who believes in the run game and big strong linemen and very tough backs. One thing Greg has always done is put a lot of guys at the point of attack."
Marshall said teams can look at tendencies on film, but there will be a lot of unknowns for both sides when they put their matching 10-0 records to the test on Saturday.
"We really don't know what to expect from Calgary. We haven't played them. We don't have any opponents that played them," said Marshall. "We know they're good. Our players are very wary.
"We know we have a pretty good team but in order to beat Calgary, we're going to have to play our very best game."Suggest a correction