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Three-down renown - A CFL preview

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Looking ahead to the Canadian Football League season.

Considering the mid-June heat, it’s understandable if your thoughts haven’t yet turned to football. After all, the NFL and college football seasons are still almost three months away.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to wait that long.

If you’re looking for a football fix, may I suggest our neighbors to the north, the Canadian Football League? It’s everybody’s favorite familiar-yet-different football – and the kickoff date is June 22.

The quest for this year’s Grey Cup championship – the 105th in CFL history – begins with the Montreal Alouettes hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders. What follows is 20 weeks of football, with each of the league’s nine teams playing 18 games and striving to make the postseason. (Fun fact: a scheduling quirk means that last year’s Grey Cup participants – Ottawa and Calgary – play each other twice in a row to start the season.)

Let’s take a quick look ahead at the 2017 CFL season.

(x = playoff team)

East Division

Ottawa Redblacks - x

Montreal Alouettes - x

Toronto Argonauts

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Not a single team finished above .500 in the East last year. Despite that, they still hold the Grey Cup thanks to a performance for the ages by Ottawa. The Redblacks are probably going to struggle thanks to the departure of QB Henry Burris, but with Trevor Harris at the pivot, there shouldn’t be too much of a drop-off in performance. However, they’ll need someone to elevate the running game and find a way to reinvigorate the defense to avoid another sub-.500 season.

Montreal has the potential for a real bounceback season following a forgettable 2016. Darian Durant is manning the ship at quarterback, a huge step forward from last year’s QB quagmire. Veteran slotback Nik Lewis is still on duty along with a talented, but largely unproven receiving corps. Some defensive development is vital.

Putting Toronto this low feels weird, due largely to the number of variables in play, but they really were pretty bad last year. They’ve got a new coach – CFL legend Marc Trestman is back in the league, with his track record of success. They resigned top-performing RB Brandon Whitaker and gave the keys to a hopefully-healthy Ricky Ray at QB. If those guys play like they can and the defense gels, this prediction might look REAL dumb come November.

Hamilton has some talent, but they look just a little too uneven to make any real noise this season. Of course, QB Zach Collaros could prove me wrong, but the truth is that they just don’t seem to have the horses, even in the weakened East. The Ti-Cats look unlikely to end their lengthy Grey Cup drought – currently at 18 years and counting – anytime soon.

West Division

Calgary Stampeders - x

Edmonton Eskimos - x

B.C. Lions - x

Winnipeg Blue Bombers - x

Saskatchewan Roughriders

Sure, the Stampeders lost a heartbreaker in last year’s Grey Cup against an upstart Ottawa team, but they’re looking primed for a return. They still have all-everything QB Bo Levi Mitchell at the helm, after all. Plus, they’ve got Jerome Messam, who was only the best running back in the league. Add in a talented receiving corps and a stout defense led by dominating defensive lineman Charleston Hughes and you’ve got a squad poised for vengeance.

Edmonton’s awfully good as well; QB Mike Reilly was on a record-setting pace for much of the season and still looks great. However, the loss of transcendent receiver Derel Walker to the NFL will be hard to overcome, even with the continued presence of elite wideout Adarius Bowman. There’s some organizational turmoil as well, with GM Ed Hervey replaced by Brock Sunderland. Still, don’t count out the Esks.

The Lions have some of the league’s best defensive talent, led by linebacker and reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player Solomon Elimimian. The offense is powered by the strong arm of QB Jonathan Jennings and the deft receiving of Emmanuel Arceneaux. They have the look of a playoff team, but if things click the right way, they might prove to be a significant force this season.

Winnipeg might be pegged for fourth place in the West, but that doesn’t mean they’re a bad team. Quite the contrary – there’s a lot to like about the Blue Bombers this year. Mike Nichols looks ready to take a step forward into the CFL QB elite. Running back Andrew Harris looks like one of the league’s strongest rushers. The pass defense looks as opportunistic as ever. They could make a run.

The same probably can’t be said for Saskatchewan. The Roughriders are looking at a rough season. The most interesting thing about them was the fact that former NFL QB Vince Young was trying to make a comeback with them – an effort that sadly ended when Young was cut last week. There will be flashes, but expect a long few months in Riderville.

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