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Three-down breakdown: A CFL season preview

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It’s June. The sports landscape is in flux. Baseball is in full flower, but both the NBA and NHL have just crowned their champions, bringing their respective seasons to a conclusion. And while the NFL is a year-round sport in many ways, we’re definitely in the league’s largest lull right now.

But all is not lost! There’s football being played! And not just World Cup football … although it is an international game.

The CFL’s season kicks off on June 14, with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers playing host to the Edmonton Eskimos. All told, each team plays 18 games in 21 weeks (as of this season, each squad gets three byes backed into the schedule), all leading up to the 106th Grey Cup, to be played in November at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

The Canadian game has its quirks and differences from what we see on Sundays in this country, but it’s those quirks and differences that make it fun to watch. It’s a fast-paced, wide-open game that offers plenty of action and excitement.

Here’s a quick look ahead to the 2018 CFL season.

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(x = playoff team)

East Division

Hamilton Tiger-Cats – 10-8 (x)

Toronto Argonauts – 9-9 (x)

Ottawa REDBLACKS – 8-10 (x)

Montreal Alouettes – 6-12

In what has become oddly typical, the East Division didn’t feature a single team with a record better than .500 while also serving as the home of the eventual Grey Cup champ (Toronto in 2017). Toronto won’t top the division again, but one team will win in double digits.

Hamilton is the team that made the biggest splash of this (or any recent) offseason. They signed Heisman Trophy winner and NFL first-round pick Johnny Manziel, who instantly becomes the highest-profile player to head north of the border in years. Of course, Jeremiah Masoli is the starter – and a good one – so it might not be Johnny Football time for a while yet. Luke Tasker caught over 100 balls last year, but the running game is in flux following C.J. Gable’s departure. Still, they look poised to handle the East.

The reigning Grey Cup champs are probably going to have a fairly similar regular season to last year, likely to land right around .500 again. However, their chances of repeating their playoff success are slim. They’re led yet again by CFL quarterbacking legend Ricky Ray, coming off the best season of his long career, and James Wilder Jr., one of the best running backs in the league. A repeat of last year’s improbable run will still be tough to pull off. Keep an eye on CFL newcomer Brandon Burks; the running back has shown flashes this preseason.

We here at The Maine Edge have a special fondness for the Ottawa REDBLACKS – UMaine Black Bear veterans like Sherrod Baltimore and Danny Collins are currently on the roster. And they look like they could squeak into the playoffs this year. Their depth on both sides of the line is a major strength. Trevor Harris is one of the league’s top QBs. Receiver Dominique Rhymes looks like he might be special and Cedric O’Neal definitely is. If the defense keeps up with the offense, Ottawa might wind up closer to the top.

Bringing up the rear are the Montreal Alouettes. The past few seasons have been less than stellar for the Als and there’s no real reason to think 2018 will be any better. Drew Willy is the uninspiring choice to start at QB, and with the dearth of impact talents at the skill positions (though wideout Chris Williams has shown glimpses), there’s no reason to expect much in the way of scoring. It’s going to be a long season in Montreal.

West Division

Calgary Stampeders 11-7 (x)

Edmonton Eskimos – 11-7 (x)

Winnipeg Blue Bombers – 9-9 (x)

Saskatchewan Roughriders – 8-10

BC Lions – 6-12

As usual, the West Division plays host to the class of the CFL – at least in terms of regular season performance. But again, the West has come up short recently against their ostensibly weaker East rivals when it counts – in the Grey Cup. They’ll try and reverse that trend this season.

Atop the division – again – are the Calgary Stampeders. They’re led by Bo Levi Mitchell, considered to be one of the best (if not THE best) QB in the league. And the offense is loaded – again – although the loss of stud RB Jerome Messam will sting. Still, with Mitchell slinging the ball, they’ll score a ton of points regardless of who is catching it (although DaVaris Daniels seems like he’s on the verge of breaking out and becoming a game-changing player). And they’ve got linebacker Alex Singleton, maybe the best all-around defensive force in the CFL. 11 wins might be low.

However, the Stamps won’t run away with the division, thanks to an Eskimos team that looks very good – particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Mike Reilly has been the CFL’s most prolific passer the last two years; there’s no reason to think that won’t continue, especially now that the Esks have added a legitimate rushing force in C. J. Gable. Losing Brandon Zylestra will sting, but guys like Derel Walker and Vidal Hazelton are poised to pick up the slack. The defense looks great, and lest we forget, UMaine alum Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga is there at linebacker.

It seems odd to put the Blue Bombers finishing at 9-9, what with Winnipeg having perhaps the league’s best offensive player on their roster. Running back Andrew Harris was one of just a handful of CFL players to rush for over 1,000 yards while also leading the league in receptions with 105. He’s a tremendous force. Slotback Adarius Bowman and receiver Weston Dressler are both awesome as well. Elite LB Adam Bighill is back in the CFL after a season with the New Orleans Saints; he’ll elevate the Winnipeg D in a major way.

The Sakatchewan Roughriders have the misfortune of playing in the West; they’d likely sit atop the East if they were there. The team acquired Zach Collaros to serve as their quarterback; he’s got a chance to bump their offense up a notch or two. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a whole lot of weapons. And the defense looks improved, but still subject to potential torching by the high-octane offenses of the teams above.

Finally, we have the BC Lions, a team forced to come to terms with irrelevance for the first time in years. They had a great run, but last year’s playoff absence is likely to be repeated. Jonathan Jennings had his 2017 struggles, but the QB looks ready to bounce back. I like slotback Emmanuel Arceneaux to have another strong year (though maybe not another 100-catch season) and linebacker Solomon Elmimian is one of the CFL’s best. Still, expect BC to bring up the rear.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 June 2018 21:42

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