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Three-down renown: A 2019 CFL preview

June 11, 2019
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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 Women’s World Cup football … although it is an international game.

The CFL’s season kicks off on June 13, with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats playing host to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. All told, each team plays 18 games in 21 weeks; the whole thing wraps up with the 107th Grey Cup, to be played in November at McMahon Stadium in Calgary.

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.

And if you’ve ever considered that you’d like to give the CFL a try, but can’t seem to find the games to watch, fear not: a new broadcast agreement means that ESPN and ESPN+ will be making every single league game of the season available on one platform or another. No more barriers to entry – just settle in and get your football fix.

Here’s a quick look ahead to the 2019 CFL season.

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(x = playoff team)

East Division

Hamilton Tiger-Cats – 11-7 (x)

Ottawa REDBLACKS – 8-10 (x)

Toronto Argonauts – 5-13

Montreal Alouettes – 4-14

As has been the case for the last few years, this remains the weaker division of the two – at least in terms of regular season accomplishment. They’ve held their own in the Grey Cup – though not last year. Still, they should have at least one team over the .500 mark.

This year, that looks like it might be Hamilton. The Tiger-Cats have been gradually building some momentum over the past couple of seasons. Yes, the departure of head coach June Jones might throw a wrench into the works, but the main driver of the high-octane offense – quarterback Jeremiah Masoli – is here. Basically, it all boils down to receiver Brandon Banks is; when healthy, he’s one of the most potent offensive weapons in the entire CFL. From there, the Ti-Cats just need a decent back and they’re off to the races – which is good, because the defense doesn’t look much improved.

While the REDBLACKS have undeniably been a force in the East since their inception less than a decade ago, the reality is that their window may have closed. They lost a LOT of guys from last year’s division winner. Quarterback Trevor Harris, running back William Powell, receiver Greg Ellingson, lineman SirVincent Rogers – all among the best in the league … and all gone. There’s not much left but debris (and former UMaine Black Bear Sherrod Baltimore, of course) after that roster demolition. That said, they’ve been to three of the four Grey Cups, so it’s tough to bump them out of the playoffs, talent exodus notwithstanding.

We’re in a rare rough patch for the Argonauts – they’ll right the ship soon, but they aren’t there yet. The offense looks like it might have some potential – James Wilder Jr. could turn out to be something special running the ball, while Derel Walker and S.J. Green can really catch it. Toronto’s biggest wild card – and it is big – is unproven quarterback James Franklin. If he can elevate his passing to match his rushing acumen, the Argos are going to score a lot of points. And they need to, because this defense was bad last year and doesn’t look much better.

I always want Montreal to be good … and they always disappoint me. And frankly, they’re going to continue to disappoint me. Leaving aside their weird organizational situation – they’re currently league-owned – they just don’t have much talent. At least last year, they were bad with Johnny Manziel under center. Now they don’t even have that. There’s no one in the league worse off at quarterback, and the rest of the roster is largely in the same boat. Maybe Antonio Pipken is the answer … but probably not. On the plus side, the Alouettes probably won’t give up 66 sacks again.

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West Division

Calgary Stampeders – 13-5 (x)

BC Lions – 11-7 (x)

Winnipeg Blue Bombers – 10-8 (x)

Saskatchewan Roughriders – 10-8 (x)

Edmonton Eskimos – 9-9

Ah, yes – the West Division. The class of the CFL. Any one of these five teams would likely become the instant favorite if they were to move to the East. Granted, the crossover rules likely ensure a robust West presence in the playoffs, but still.

No team has had a more sustained run of recent success than the Calgary Stampeders. They are the reigning Grey Cup champions and have been to the last three Cups in a row and five of the last seven. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell is among the most accomplished passers of his generation and shows no signs of slowing down; running back Don Jackson should build on a successful first season. However, the loss of some elite defensive playmakers like Alex Singleton and Micah Johnson is going to seriously impact the team’s effectiveness on that side of the ball. Still – can’t go against the Stamps.

The BC Lions made the biggest splash of this offseason – and one of the biggest in recent years – when they tempted quarterback Mike Reilly away from the Eskimos and installed him under center. Reilly is as elite as they come; he’ll be hooking up with Bryan Burnham and the mercurial Duron Carter. While the Lions are still figuring out their rushing attack, the fact that Reilly is going to be out there slinging it certainly takes the pressure off. The BC pass rush is likely to remain effective, even though there’s a chance that some of the aging stars take a step back.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers haven’t hoisted the Grey Cup since 1990. That’s thirty years of disappointed fandom. Heck, they haven’t even played for a Cup since 2011. But here’s the thing – this team could make some noise. Second-year quarterback Chris Streveler is getting the chance to take over; he’s got the potential to be a potent dual threat. Andrew Harris remains one of the best all-around running backs in the CFL. Oh, and they have reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player Adam Bighill at linebacker. This team runs deep; if the results live up to the on-paper talent, I’ve got them too low.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders were a bit of a surprise last year, going 12-6 despite only outscoring their opponents by a mere six points on the season. But they’ve added top-tier talents like Micah Johnson and Solomon Elimimian on the defensive side and William Powell and Emmanuel Arcenaux on offense. If Zach Collaros can manage to be just OK at QB, the defense will likely be good enough to carry the day. Still, the flukiness of last season’s performance can’t be dismissed – it’s hard to imagine there won’t be some sort of step backward, especially with the departure of head coach Chris Jones.

I’ve got love in my heart for the Edmonton Eskimos, so it pains me to put them in this spot. However, they did say goodbye to one of the league’s best-ever quarterbacks when Mike Reilly left; much of the team’s success rides on replacement Trevor Harris’s performance. There’s plenty of offense to like here; for instance, new additions Greg Ellingson and DaVaris Daniels could turn Esks games into track meets. The defense made some additions as well (though as always, we’re here to celebrate linebacker and UMaine alum Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga). Don’t be shocked if they prove me wrong and win a dozen.

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