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Canadian Football League fans, rejoice!
Yes, it is June. And that means the CFL season is just a couple of weeks away.
The 2016 season ended with one of the greatest Grey Cup games ever, and included one of the biggest upsets, as Ottawa beat Calgary, 39-36, in overtime, denying the Stamps a chance to validate themselves as one of the all-time best teams.
So, what might happen in 2017?
Here we go!
It’s not fair to call this the division of the misfits, but there doesn’t seem to be much that separates the top from the bottom; and right now none of these teams appears capable of challenging the best from the west.
Of course, no championships are won in June.
HAMILTON: If Zach Collaros is healthy and if the TiCats defense surrenders fewer points (and there’s almost no way the unit can be as bad this season as it was last year), Hamilton should win the division.
Should. That word has hung around the neck of this franchise like an anvil. The TiCats should win, should get to the Grey Cup, should win one. But that hasn’t happened.
Kent Austin begins the season on the coaching hot seat. Yes, he’s guided Hamilton to a couple Grey Cup appearances, but this team has been average over the last four seasons. Anything less than a Grey Cup date and Austin could — no, should — be on the unemployment line.
OTTAWA: Now the guessing game that is the Eastern Division really begins. Ottawa has been lucky and good over the past two seasons, both of which ended with Grey Cup appearances.
At some point, luck runs out. The guess here it does in 2017 and the REDBLACKS take a step back. It could be a big one.
Ottawa’s front office brought in solid talent to replace the big names — most especially on offense — that went elsewhere. But in 2017, Henry Burris will not be around to bail out the REDBLACKS offense, or to provide a spark in the locker room.
Trevor Harris has waited for this moment — to be the undisputed number one quarterback on his team — for three seasons. The weapons don’t appear to be there to make him shine as brightly as he could.
TORONTO: The Argos could finish higher if Ricky Ray gets through the season unscathed and if the young talent around him comes together. And the defense can’t be a sieve. That’s a mighty heavy combination.
With Jim Popp as general manager and Marc Trestman as head coach, Toronto is hoping to channel the success those two had while in those same roles in Montreal. But those Als teams seemed to always have a healthy quarterback and a deep receiving corps.
Guess what the Argos are not likely to have in 2017?
For now, optimism trumps the likely reality; and the quick talent infusion that Popp has made as general manager carries Toronto deep enough into the season that it might be able to steal a playoff spot.
MONTREAL: I admit, I don’t want to put the Alouettes here. I think they’ll be better. But I also think dumping defensive players such as Bear Woods and Michael Klassen sends a chill through the locker room that could undermine whatever confidence exists right now.
Oh, yeah, and then there’s quarterback Darian Durant. The injury bug that destroyed his final two seasons in Regina appears to have followed him to Montreal. If he’s out for any length of time, the Als again are facing doubt at quarterback and with a general manager in Kavis Reed who seems impatient.
At the start of the week, Montreal could have been sneaky good and might have been able to steal a division title. Now, the situation looks unsettled, a term that has defined this franchise for three years.
The 2016 season ended with the league’s four best teams residing in this division, and none of them won the Grey Cup. The 2017 season begins with the league’s four best teams residing in this division. What that means come November is anyone’s guess.
CALGARY: The Stamps couldn’t finish the job last season, but there’s no question they’re capable of another big year. It starts with an offense that can beat up and wear down the opposing defense. Or perhaps it starts with a suffocating defense that often roadblocks the opposing offense.
John Hufnagel continues to make the right calls with the roster, though the decision to let the league’s best offensive lineman leave was a surprise. Dave Dickenson was smooth as glass in his first season as head coach. It’s this partnership — general manager and coach — that makes the Stamps the team to beat. Or maybe it’s that offense. Or defense.
BC LIONS: I don’t think I’m drinking the Kool-Aid here; I think the Lions will be as good as last year.
Quarterback Jonathan Jennings had a solid year; he shouldn’t be a one-year wonder. McMaster receiver Danny Vandevoort, BC’s number one draft pick, gives Jennings another weapon. And don’t forget that one of the league’s top pass catchers, Chris Williams, is on the mend after tearing an ACL.
If Wally Buono’s team can find a replacement for linebacker Adam Bighill, who is taking his chances with an NFL team, then there’s no question BC can stay with Calgary in the west.
EDMONTON: The Eskimos were one dysfunctional team in 2016. The guess here is they will resemble the 2015 champions and not the 2016 chumps.
The offense under quarterback Mike Reilly can deliver a knockout punch from anywhere on the field. In Adarius Bowman, Edmonton has one of the league’s best receivers. John White quietly racks up big yards as the starting running back.
Unfortunately, the Eskimos had to run a defense out onto the field last season. With no significant free agent signings, the lineup should be similar to one year ago. Mike Benavides had better find the right combination of players or he’s not going to be Edmonton’s defensive coordinator for long.
WINNIPEG: This is the stat: +27. The Blue Bombers generated 27 more takeaways than giveaways in 2016. That number will not be repeated. That’s one reason why the Blue Bombers could slide back in 2017.
The other: Winnipeg went from 1-4 to 8-4, before going 3-2 down the stretch. While I doubt the Blue Bombers will be 1-4 bad, I certainly don’t think they’ll be 7-0 good. I’m also not convinced Matt Nichols will repeat his 2016 season.
Put it all together and you have a team that could slide, and do so with teams above them also being the league’s best. Too soon to say crossover?
SASKATCHEWAN: If Chris Jones had a honeymoon in Regina, it’s over. The front office and the fans might accept Jones struggling to get the roster just right. But neither is going to put up with the chronic fines he and the front office have paid over the past couple seasons.
Yes, Durant was injury prone, but he was dealt away; and the starting quarterback could be a 34-year-old who was brilliant in college and then a disaster in the NFL. If Vince Young isn’t the answer, then 37-year-old Kevin Glenn will have to be.
Jones brought in another load of players during the off-season, but right now there are too many questions to project Saskatchewan being anywhere but last in the rough and tumble west.
EASTERN SEMIFINALS: Winnipeg over Ottawa: the team from the west, which might have a better record, ends Ottawa’s dreams of back-to-back titles
WESTERN SEMIFINALS: BC Lions over Edmonton: wouldn’t it be something if Williams catches the winning touchdown pass? Could happen.
EASTERN FINAL: Hamilton over Winnipeg: Crossover teams do not make it to the Grey Cup. The Blue Bombers will not win consecutive road games in Ontario in November. Kent Austin breathes a sigh of relief.
WESTERN FINAL: Calgary over BC Lions: This game will be a lot closer than the 42-15 blowout that was last year’s west final.
GREY CUP: Calgary over Hamilton: Too much talent. Too much depth. Calgary wins its second title in four seasons, which also will be its fourth this century.