The 2012 Canadian Football League season gets underway this weekend and there is no shortage of excitement surrounding the new campaign. With the arrival of new head coaches and starting quarterbacks in different cities across the league, fans are eager to see how their team will fare. One thing about the CFL: It’s almost impossible to make accurate predictions, especially long-term, so I will restrict my vision to a week to week basis. One thing that you can bank on, however, is that the defending Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions will be the class of the league once again.
That is the only sure thing in 2012, maybe.
So with that in mind, let’s take an in-depth look at the Week 1 matchups:
Friday June 29th
Saskatchewan Roughriders @ Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Saskatchewan is coming off a disastrous season that saw them finish with a record of 5-13 and out of the playoff picture. They’ll be looking for a bounce back season in 2012. Corey Chamblin was hired in the offseason and is one of four rookie head coaches around the league this year. He’ll be under the gun in Regina and will have to prove his worth early in the season. Darian Durant returns at quarterback and should provide the Riders with some stability on offence. The defence gave up a ton of yards in the pre-season and is still a big question mark with several new faces. Historically, first year head coaches have not fared well in the CFL which means it could be another long year in the green province.
Hamilton is considered one of the stronger teams in the league entering 2012 and is the early favourite to win the East Division. Of course, that will all depend on Henry Burris, the 37 year-old pivot who was acquired from Calgary in the offseason. That wasn’t the only big splash the Tiger-Cats made, as they also brought in receiver Andy Fantuz to give Burris a big and reliable target. If Burris can recapture his 2010 MVP form, the Cats offence will make some noise. But just like Chamblin in Saskatchewan, Hamilton also has a new head coach in George Cortez. Although it’s his first year as a head coach Cortez has been around the block, with his resume including a short stint in Buffalo as the QB coach for the Bills. He also has a wealth of CFL experience, highlighted by his time in Calgary as the offensive coordinator where he worked closely with Burris. That familiarity with one another will be crucial to their success this season.
This is a tough way to start the season for the Roughriders. The only positive that I can see for them in this game is the fact that Corey Chamblin was the defensive coordinator in Hamilton prior to being hired in Regina, so he might have some insight into some of their tendencies. But if the pre-season is any indication, Henry Burris should continue his strong play and have a big day against the Riders secondary.
Hamilton 31 Saskatchewan 19
Friday June 29th
Winnipeg Blue Bombers @ B.C. Lions
This game will bring back bad memories for the Bombers as they return to the place where they lost the championship game to the Lions in 2011. But it’s a new year and the defending East Division champs have plenty of optimism heading into 2012. General manager Joe Mack, head coach Paul LaPolice and starting quarterback Buck Pierce are all returning for their third year with the organization and exemplify the continuity that Mack has preached since he arrived in Winnipeg. Although the bombers lost a few key players in the off season, they have an influx of talent on their roster particularly on defence. Their defence led the league in almost all statistical categories in 2011 and if they can duplicate that kind of performance this year they’ll win a lot of games. The question mark lies with the offence, a unit that struggled to move the ball consistently last season. Gary Crowton, a highly successful offensive coordination in the NCAA, was brought in to jumpstart the Bombers attack and if nothing else should at least give defences a different look this season.
The Lions enter this season looking even stronger than the team that won the Grey Cup last November and as a result are expected to be the class of the league once again. The main reason for their success has been the emergence of QB Travis Lulay, who is now ranked #1 among all players in the league. If the Lions stay healthy on offence they will likely be the most powerful unit in the CFL. Their defence is also strong and was bolstered by the signings of defensive backs Lin-J Shell and Byron Parker in the winter. The biggest change for the Lions happened off the field with long- time head coach and CFL icon Wally Buono moving upstairs into the GM’s chair, opening the door for defensive coordinator Mike Benevides to take over the reins. Quite frankly, there is just too much talent on this roster for Benevides not to succeed in his first season as a CFL head coach.
This is the first of four straight games on the road to start the season for Winnipeg and this game will likely prove to be their toughest test. The Bombers have been decimated by injuries to their starters in training camp, none more significant than a torn Achilles tendon suffered by starting tailback Chris Garrett in practice on Tuesday. He won’t play this season. Expect the Bombers offence to start slow again this year, and expect Lulay and the Lions to be fired up for their home opener.
B.C. 40 Winnipeg 15
Saturday June 30th
Toronto Argonauts @ Edmonton Eskimos
The Argos appear to have finally found that bona fide starting quarterback that the organization has coveted for years, trading for Ricky Ray in the offseason and making him the face of the franchise. His arrival, combined with former Montreal Alouettes offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich taking over the head coaching duties, should give the Toronto attack an instant boost. The defence is still spotty and there are question marks at receiver, but this team has improved on paper and should be able to eclipse the 6 wins that the organization mustered last season as well as challenge for a playoff spot in the East.
Ricky Ray spent nearly a decade wearing Eskimo colours, so it’s no surprise that eyebrows were raised when Edmonton GM Eric Tillman decided to deal the franchise QB to Toronto. In return, he got journeyman QB Steven Jyles who will begin the season as the Eskimos starter. Jyles hasn’t had much success anywhere he’s played and most observers don’t see that trend changing in the Alberta capital. In a sense, Jyles has come full circle because his career actually began in Edmonton back in 2006. But this team did go to the West Final in 2011 and has playmakers on both sides of the ball in slot back Fred Stamps and defensive back Rod Williams. They also have an inspirational leader in head coach Kavis Reed.
Ricky Ray gets his return to Edmonton out of the way early. Look for him to have a solid outing against his old mates. On the other side, if Steven Jyles struggles Edmonton will not only lose this game, but will lose plenty more and likely be in for a rough season. Expect a low scoring affair, with Ray and the Argos coming out on top.
Toronto 20 Edmonton 17
Sunday July 1st
Montreal Alouettes @ Calgary Stampeders
After winning Grey Cups in 2009 and 2010 the Alouettes uncharacteristically exited the playoffs early last year, losing to Hamilton in the East Semi-Final on home turf. Future hall of famer Anthony Calvillo returns for another season under centre. He’ll turn 40 in August. Montreal has arguably the best receiving corps in the league so Calvillo and company should be right near the top in offensive production again in 2012. Former Eskimo linebacker Rod Davis should give the Als a boost defensively after signing in the off season. This organization always puts a championship- calibre team on the field and there is nothing to suggest that won’t continue under the guidance of head coach Marc Trestman, who returns for a fifth season.
Calgary went 11-7 last season and bowed out early in the playoffs. But what has Stamps fans excited these days is the emergence of their young quarterback Drew Tate. The former Texas high school star and Iowa standout took over the starting gig from Henry Burris late last year and showed a lot of potential. The Stamps are hoping Tate continues to develop under the watchful eye of head coach and former QB John Hufnagel, a man who demands a lot from his quarterbacks. There are a lot of weapons on offence for Tate to work with and the defense is solid. If this team fires on all cylinders, they could challenge B.C. for first place in the west division.
There is no doubt that there will be some growing pains for Drew Tate this season and as a result Calgary will probably play inconsistent football, especially early on. On the flip side, it’s been there done that for Anthony Calvillo and Montreal always starts strong. Look for them to get off to a good start again in 2012.
Montreal 30 Calgary 24