Divisions have been meaningless since the Crossover rule
As the country prepares for the 102nd contest for the Grey Cup on Sunday, the disparity between the Canadian Football League’s two divisions is as evident as ever. The Calgary Stampeders, the cream of the Western crop and the league’s best regular season team with 13 wins – 5 losses, take on the Hamilton Tiger-cats, representatives of the East with a identical record of 9 wins – 9 losses.
The top three teams in each division advance to the postseason. However, since 1997, a 4th place team in one division can take the playoff spot of the 3rd place team in the other division, provided that the 4th place team has more wins. This is the CFL’s Crossover rule, and the reason why the B.C. Lions (9-9) qualified for the playoffs ahead of the Toronto Argonauts (8-10).
The purpose of a regular season is for clubs to jockey position for the playoffs — in a league where nine teams battle for six spots, the division champions are awarded a bye in the first round, automatically advancing to their respective Division Final. However, under the current Crossover format, it is possible for a 4th place team from the opposing division to gain entry into the Grey Cup, albeit representing the wrong division — this has yet to occur, but the plausibility of reading ‘B.C. Lions – East Division Champions’ is a ridiculous prospect (the 2009 Lions defeated Hamilton in the East semi-final, before losing the final to Montreal).
The modern-day CFL alignment is merely a fossilized relic from when the league was formed from rugby unions of last century. In 1958, the CFL coalesced from the eastern Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, and the Western Interprovincial Football Union (precursors to the current divisions). The tradition of East vs. West for the Grey Cup stems from this history. Until 1961, the two unions (later, Conferences) did not meet until the big game, and following some limited interlocking play for twenty years, a full merger in the regular season schedule occurred in 1981.
The Canadian Football League has shown it’s ability to adapt — the advent of the current Crossover rule is apparent. The time has come for the league to shed it’s outdated divisional playoff format and adopt a simple ranking table, while still qualifying six teams. In lieu of division champion bye-weeks, the top two clubs after the regular season are awarded the rest and host the two semi-final contests. The remaining four teams face off in the quarter-finals — 3rd vs. 6th, and 4th vs. 5th (home-field advantage belonging to 3rd and 4th). The winners are re-seeded, with the lowest ranked team playing the top semi-finalist.
This updated format allows the possibility of a Grey Cup game between rivals like Toronto vs. Hamilton, or Calgary vs. Edmonton, while maintaining the variety (and competition) of the current system, and rewards clubs after an 18-game/20-week regular season. Traditionalists may cry foul, but the CFL has never shied away from improving it’s product, which is currently enjoying massively increased popularity across Canada.
(with files from CFL.ca & Wikipedia)