Fearless predictions, part one
Hamilton, ON (Sports Network) -
The CFL season begins on June 29 and ends with the playing of the 100th Grey Cup at the Rogers Centre on November 26.
After an offseason that saw some huge trades, new coaches and player signings, the questions are starting to be asked ... who makes the playoffs, who won't and who will be in the big show?
Glad you asked.
Here's one man's fearless predictions.
First place - Montreal Alouettes.
Coming off a 10-8 season last year, the Alouettes lost the Eastern semifinal at home, when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats beat them 52-44 in overtime. Coaches never like to use injuries as an excuse, but the fact remains that the Als defense was decimated heading into that game.
In the offseason, the Als concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, signing defensive tackles Aaron Hunt (BC), Luc Mullinder (Hamilton), linebackers Rod Davis and Mark Restelli from Edmonton and safety Kyries Hebert, who formerly played in Hamilton.
The new defensive coordinator is Jeff Reinebold, a former head coach in Winnipeg. His defense will be a lot more aggressive than in years past, and perhaps, because of that, two veteran players were released last week: linebacker Diamond Ferri, who was starting his sixth season, and safety ?tienne Boulay, a second-round draft pick in 2006. Meantime, defensive end John Bowman will miss at least the first four weeks of the season, after he suffered a torn ligament in his right knee at training camp. That could be a big loss for Montreal because he's led the team in sacks for the last three seasons, picking up 12 in 2011.
The skinny: no surprise here, the Alouettes will go as far as Anthony Calvillo takes them. The 40 year-old quarterback, is pro football's all-time passing leader. If he stays healthy, with the quick release that he employs, the Montreal offense can be the thing of beauty it's been for the last few years. If not, look for the defense to carry the load until Calvillo gets back. In 2011, the Als failed to appear in the Grey Cup for the first time in Marc Trestman's four years as head coach.
Don't think that won't drive him.
Second place - Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The Tiger-Cats were very active in the offseason, after a third-place, 8-10 finish and a loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Eastern Final.
Head coach Marcel Bellefeuille was fired shortly after that, and was replaced by former long-time Calgary assistant George Cortez, who joins the Tiger-Cats after two seasons in the NFL as the Buffalo Bills quarterbacks coach. Prior to his tenure with the Bills, Cortez spent 18 seasons with four teams in the Canadian Football League and four years in the NCAA as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the University of California.
The Tiger-Cats also acquired Henry Burris, the CFL Most Outstanding Player in 2010, in a trade with Calgary, sending Kevin Glenn out west.
Slotback Andy Fantuz, the biggest free agent available in the offseason, also became a Tiger-Cat, as did WR Sam Giguere (a 2008 draft pick), who spent the last three seasons in the camps of the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants.
Unfortunately, Martell Mallett, the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie in 2009 as a member of the BC Lions, suffered a torn Achilles injury at camp, and will be gone for the season. His replacement? Ironically, it's Avon Cobourne, who asked for his release in the offseason when he heard of Mallett's signing. Cobourne ran for 961 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011.
The skinny: simply put, the offense is loaded and has more speed than it's had in years. The offense can score a ton, and they'll have to. The Tiger-Cats need two defensive ends to replace Justin Hickman, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts, and Stevie Baggs, who was released. Throw in a secondary that has a lot of question marks, and this is a team that could win every game by a score of 35-30.
Cortez has run a tough training camp, with a lot more discipline than we've seen in the past.
They'll be fun to watch.
Third place - Toronto Argonauts.
It all starts with quarterbacking, and the Argos didn't have it last year. Cleo Lemon was awful, and Steven Jyles and Dalton Bell weren't much better, which was a big reason why the Scullers ended up with a 6-12 record.
In a shocking trade, the Edmonton Eskimos sent 32-year-old Ricky Ray to the Argos for Jyles. Ray is coming off a 2011 campaign that saw him throw for 4,594 yards and 24 touchdowns.
The Argos also named former Montreal offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich as their new head coach and picked up a favorite target of Ray's in Edmonton, slotback Jason Barnes.
Some familiar names will run the ball, including Cory Boyd, Chad Owens, Chad Kackert, Spencer Watt and Andre Durie.
Defensively, it'll be a "no-name" defense, as in no one will know their names. Gone are Byron Parker and Lin-J Shell, who both went to BC, as well as Willie Pile and Kevin Eiben, who retired. Defensive tackle Claude Wroten, a former third-round pick of the St. Louis Rams who started all 18 games last season, was a training camp casualty.
Clearly, new defensive coordinator Chris Jones wants to change the Argos' defensive numbers, which in 2011 were awful: either last or next to last in almost every category.
The skinny: like it or not, there's always more pressure on a team when they're the host the Grey Cup. They might not want to talk about it, but fans and the media will be asking them about it.
And, if you ask linebacker Jason Pottinger, he'd love to talk about it.
"If I was a betting man, and if it was legal for me to bet on this team, I would put a lot of money on the Toronto Argonauts to be hoisting the Grey Cup at the end of the year," he told the media last week.
Oh they'll be at the Grey Cup alright.
Fourth place - Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Yes, the Bombers finished first with a 10-8 record, and yes they went to the Grey Cup.
But keep in mind, the Bombers were two teams last year: the team that started the season at 7-1 and ended 3-7.
A lot was made of the team "Swaggerville" -- a name that the trash-talking Bomber defense gave themselves.
But, some key components of that defense are gone: DE Odell Willis, the self- appointed mayor of Swaggerville (traded to Saskatchewan,) DL Doug Brown (retired) and MLB Joe Loebendahn, who is now in Calgary.
Also, defensive back Jonathan Hefney caused a firestorm via Twitter, when he opined that GM Joe Mack should have been more proactive in the free agent market. Many are now wondering if Hefney should spend more time playing, and less time tweeting.
Offensively, the Bombers lost offensive lineman Brendan LaBatte, who signed with Saskatchewan, center Obby Kahn (retired) and WR Greg Carr, who went to Edmonton.
The skinny: during a preseason conference call, the Bombers said they wanted to do three things this year -- protect the football, protect the quarterback and be in second-and-short a lot more this year.
They led the CFL in two-and-outs in 2011, and unless the offensive line can protect quarterback Buck Pierce, it could be a long season in Winnipeg. No way the Bombers start this season at 7-1, especially because they'll be playing the first four games of the season on the road.
The plan was to move into their new state-of-the-art home, Investors Group Field, this summer, but on Friday it was announced that the team will play the entire 2012 season at Canad Inns Stadium because of weather-related delays.
A bad start could mean a bad year on the prairies.
When it's all over, the difference between first and fourth could be as little as eight points, or four wins.
Eastern Semifinal: in the last game at Ivor Wynne Stadium, the Tiger-Cats beat the Argos.
Eastern Final: Montreal exacts its revenge for last year, beats Hamilton, and will represent the east in the Grey Cup.
Up next: the West Division.
Ted Michaels is the host of the Fifth Quarter on AM900 CHML.
Comments? Criticism? Applause?