From The Sports Network
By Greg Xenakes, CFL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS (0-0) AT HAMILTON TIGER-CATS (0-0)
DATE & TIME: Friday, June 29, 7:00 p.m. (ET).
GAME NOTES: The action is now for real in the Canadian Football League, as the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats kick off the 2012 campaign on Friday night at Ivor Wynn Stadium.
Not only is this season leading up to the 100th Grey Cup Championship, but this year also marks the final campaign in which the Tiger-Cats are scheduled to play at Ivor Wynn as well.
While this might be the end of the historic venue, one that has been utilized since 1928, it is also a time for new beginnings for the Ticats as well, as Henry Burris assumes the role of starting quarterback.
A former league MVP who helped guide Calgary to postseason success just a few years ago, Burris endured a lackluster 2011 campaign as he threw for 3,687 yards and 20 touchdowns, against 12 interceptions. In the previous seven seasons, the signal-caller had thrown for no less than 4,200 yards each time out, so perhaps his best years are now behind him as he starts a new life in Hamilton.
Wide receiver Chris Williams will likely be a primary target down the field for Burris, after the New Mexico State import led the Ticats in receiving a year ago with 1,064 yards on 70 catches, leading to six majors. Dave Stala had just 59 receptions last season, yet he still managed to produce a career-best eight TDs, accounting for more than one-third of his career total in the process.
With the loss of Martell Mallett to injury, the running back position was reassigned to Avon Cobourne who not only ran for a team-best 961 yards and eight TDs, but he also placed fourth on the squad with 459 receiving yards, making him a dual-threat coming out of the backfield. Not to be left out of the equation is quarterback Quinton Porter, who is often put in on short-yardage situations near the goal line, resulting in nine rushing scores a year ago.
From a defensive standpoint, Hamilton is hoping to improve upon its numbers from 2011 that showed the squad intercepting a league-low 10 passes and ranking last in the league with just 81 total return yards on those picks.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Saskatchewan defense rose up to snag 21 interceptions, third-most in the CFL. However, these were the same Roughriders who managed to acquire a league-low five fumbles and also obtained the ball on turnovers a mere five times as well. Put it all together and Saskatchewan was tied with Toronto for the worst turnover margin in 2011 at minus-17.
The Riders were roughed up last season as they finished with just five wins and were the only team from the West Division to miss the postseason, which means new head coach Corey Chamblin has his work cut out for him.
Chamblin, who was most recently the Defensive Coordinator for Hamilton ironically enough, should be taking a special interest in improving the defensive unit for Saskatchewan for sure and may even have a slight advantage in this season opener due to his familiarity with the opposition.
The offense appears to be headed once again by Darian Durant, even though he had a less-than-spectacular 2011 campaign as he recorded almost as many INTs (14) as he did TDs (18). Among the starting QBs who were able to make it through the season mostly unscathed, Durant also had the lowest yards per attempt at 7.5, something that will need to be addressed in order to get this group back on the right track.
Providing Durant with his best options down the field will again be Chris Getzlaf and Weston Dressler, both of whom recorded 1,000-yard seasons through the air. The former was third on the team with 60 receptions, but was able to stretch those for an average of just under 18 yards per catch and a total of 10 TDs, the latter logging a team-high 79 grabs but landing in the end zone just five times.
One major difference in the receiving corps on both sides is Andy Fantuz, the former Roughrider receiver who is now wearing Hamilton colors. While he may not be the deciding factor in the meeting, his presence will certainly be a key storyline for sure.
With the Riders not offering a contract to Wes Cates (680 yards, four touchdowns), that leaves Durant as the top returning ground gainer for the squad after putting up 381 yards, but the fact that he fumbled the ball nine times and was forced to take all of those additional shots from the defense can't be something Saskatchewan wants to continue.
In terms of the series between these two clubs last season, they met only twice with drastically differing results. In the first meeting on July 16, the Tiger-Cats rattled Saskatchewan at home by a score of 33-3. In late October, the Riders returned the favor with a 19-3 rout.
Taking into account only regular season matchups, Saskatchewan has won three of the last four and 14 of 16 versus the 'Cats.
Durant is going to be asked yet again to do more than his share for the Roughriders and Hamilton will probably be ready for just such a game plan. As long as Burris can fit in comfortably and not try to do too much, this should be a win for the home team.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Hamilton 27, Saskatchewan 18
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS (0-0) AT BRITISH COLUMBIA LIONS (0-0)
DATE & TIME: Friday, June 29, 10:00 p.m. (ET).
GAME NOTES: A rematch of the 99th Grey Cup takes center stage during the first week of the CFL's 2012 regular season, as the British Columbia Lions entertain the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at B.C. Place Stadium.
The Lions, who began the 2011 campaign with five consecutive defeats and six setbacks in the first seven outings, could have easily packed it in and cruised through the second half of the season, but instead head coach Wally Buono lit a fire under his players and eventually led them to an eight-game win streak and victories in 12 of their final 13 contests, the last of those being a 34-23 triumph in the title game in their own building.
A lot has changed for the Lions since then, chief among them being Buono's move from the sidelines back behind a desk with the organization and turning the head coaching duties over to Mike Benevides.
Benevides will be leaning heavily on quarterback Travis Lulay for on-the-field guidance to begin the season. Lulay had a breakout year for the Lions in 2011, throwing for more than 4,800 yards and 32 touchdowns, while keeping his interceptions (11) to a minimum. Although he completed only 58.7 percent of his pass attempts, he was still among the top-ranked signal-callers when it came to efficiency rating (95.8).
Not afraid to try his hand at running the ball, Lulay was second among quarterbacks in rushing in 2011 with his 391 yards and while the prospect of catching defenses napping is certainly one that should work in favor of Lulay and BC, putting the starting quarterback in harm's way too often is also a prescription for disaster.
What the Lions really need is for someone to emerge as an efficient running back to take some of the pressure off Lulay's shoulders. Andrew Harris could fill that role, having led the team in rushing with 458 yards on 96 carries a season ago, but the fact that he had more fumbles (three) than touchdowns (one) is something that cannot be completely overlooked.
The job of making Lulay look good down the field again falls on Geroy Simon, who finished second in the league last year with 1,350 receiving yards. Simon, who had one of the better per-catch averages (16.1 yards) in the CFL, landed in the end zone eight times for the Lions. One of the all-time leaders in CFL history in terms of receiving yards (15,087), Simon now has nine straight campaigns with at least 1,000 yards receiving (matching the second-longest streak in CFL history), but players typically begin to decline after years of wear and tear on their bodies and Simon is no different.
Simon might not be the receiver in the cross hairs for the Lions every week if someone like Arland Bruce were capable of maintaining a consistent level of production. An enigmatic player to say the least, Bruce is a talent who should be shredding defenses on a regular basis, but you can never be sure what is going on in his head which might be why he has been bouncing from one team to the next for the last few years.
Make no mistake, Bruce is certainly a skilled receiver who has more than 10,000 yards in his career, it is just that he can be high maintenance and the payoff is not always worth the price.
Another slotback, Shawn Gore, had just one TD a year ago on 60 catches and somewhat faded in the second half of the season after a strong start, but he is someone that Lulay should be able to lean on as well.
Over on the other side the Blue Bombers, led by head coach Paul LaPolice, got some sobering news within the last few days as they found out that running back Chris Garrett had been lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon suffered on Tuesday. Garrett was projected to be the lead runner for the Bombers after delivering 576 yards and four TDs a year ago, but now the team has to regroup and figure out the next best mode of attack.
The loss of Garrett will probably add some more pressure to starting quarterback Buck Pierce, as he attempts to rebound from a 2011 season filled with both highs and lows. Pierce was able to get the Bombers into the championship round where he threw for 250 yards and a pair of majors, but too often he and the Winnipeg offense stalled.
Perhaps Pierce wasn't completely 100 percent following his injury in 2010, but you can bet that he's determined to put forth just as much effort moving forward.
With the running back position now up in the air, it is even more important for receivers such as Terrence Edwards to assume more of the responsibility. The leading receiver for the Bombers the last two years, Edwards has delivered at least 1,000 yards in four of the last five seasons and will again be a prime target for Pierce.
These two squads faced off a total of three times last year, with Winnipeg capturing the two regular-season tilts (25-20 and 30-17), but the Blue Bombers would have gladly traded those in for a more favorable outcome in the championship game.
Obviously the Blue Bombers have revenge as a motivating factor for this meeting, but having to play in the same building where they bowed to the Lions in the title tilt will again be tough to overcome.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: British Columbia 28, Winnipeg 20
TORONTO ARGONAUTS (0-0) AT EDMONTON ESKIMOS (0-0)
DATE & TIME: Saturday, June 30, 7:00 p.m. (ET).
GAME NOTES: As one of the two teams that failed to make the playoffs in 2011, the Toronto Argonauts are the club with the most to prove in the East Division of the CFL as they kick off the 2012 campaign this weekend against the Edmonton Eskimos at Commonwealth Stadium.
A mere 6-12 a year ago, the Argos had the weakest defense in the league, allowing opponents to connect on 67.0 percent of their pass attempts for a massive 421.7 ypg and a league-high 27.7 ppg. Perhaps it wouldn't have been as bad if the offense had been able to keep up, but the group was second-to-last in points scored (22.1 ppg) and its time of possession (26:22 per game) was the least among all eight clubs.
Toronto won only twice through the first 11 games of last year, a trend that rookie head coach Scott Milanovich hopes he can prevent from happening this time around as he and quarterback Ricky Ray begin a new era of Argos football.
Ray, who got off to a scorching start a year ago while with Edmonton, has been slow to respond in the preseason in his new surroundings and that's something that coach Milanovich has taken personally leading up to the opener. For Ray, a signal-caller who has thrown for at least 4,500 yards six times in his career and has completed 66.8 percent of his pass attempts, it is only a matter of time before he finds his groove with his new team.
Hoping to make the transition a bit smoother now that the games count, Chad Owens should be a more integral part of the Toronto offense moving forward given the type of numbers he has put up in the last couple of years. Owens was again a stat machine for the Argos in 2011, easily leading the league in combined yards with a staggering 3,345. To put that in perspective, only two other players were able to crack the 2,000-yard barrier and the highest among them was just 2,019.
Owens is obviously a catalyst in the kick-return game, but he is going to be used far more on offense this year in order to take full advantage of his speed and elusiveness.
With back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons under his belt, running back Cory Boyd will also play a central role on the Toronto offense coming out of the backfield. Also expect him to figure more into the passing game since he proved in 2010, with his 38 catches for 363 yards and two touchdowns, that he can be a producer in that role as well.
Now in his second season at the helm of the Edmonton Eskimos, head coach Kavis Reed may just have a bigger job before him in 2012 than he did when he broke in a year ago.
For a team that finished 11-7 in the regular season and bowed to eventual Grey Cup Champion British Columbia in the playoffs, making a major switch at the quarterback position was somewhat of a surprise.
Ray was one of the top signal-callers in the league a year ago, especially during the first few weeks when he could do no wrong, yet Edmonton opted to trade him to Toronto for Steven Jyles, with other players and future considerations factored in as well.
Now entering his seventh season in the CFL, Jyles has had a tough time finding a permanent home, having made stops in Saskatchewan, Winnipeg and Toronto since breaking in with this same Edmonton squad back in 2006. Jyles hasn't been an overwhelmingly successful passer with just 31 aerial majors and almost as many interceptions (29), but Reed still has him sitting at the top of the depth chart heading into the first week of the regular season.
Making the transition to Jyles a bit easier will be slotback Adarius Bowman, who matched Fred Stamps with 1,153 receiving yards in 2011. Stamps has now put up three straight years with at least 1,100 receiving yards and is consistently a big-play threat.
Last year, the Esks had the third-leading rusher in the league in Jerome Messam (1,057 yards), but he is attempting to catch on with the Miami Dolphins of the NFL and that means coach Reed needs to find an able replacement. Hugh Charles could fit the bill even though he was used sparingly in 2011, as he logged 277 yards and a score on 46 attempts. But because of the question at the running back position, Jyles can waste little time in establishing himself as a solid passer.
Edmonton won the most recent meeting between these two squads last October, claiming a 31-24 triumph on the road. The victory was the third straight for the club over the Argos and the fifth in the last six matchups.
In terms of the all-time, regular-season series dating back to 1949, Edmonton is ahead by a count of 43-38-1. The clubs are slated to meet once again in late August on Toronto's turf.
Even though Ray has been slow to catch on with his new offense, playing in his former stadium might be just what he needs to get the Argos into the win column this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Toronto 26, Edmonton 20
MONTREAL ALOUETTES (0-0) AT CALGARY STAMPEDERS (0-0)
DATE & TIME: Sunday, July 1, 7:00 p.m. (ET).
GAME NOTES: Another year of Canadian Football and another season for Anthony Calvillo to defy the odds and continue to rewrite the CFL record books. The ageless signal-caller didn't see much action during the preseason, but he will be the one calling the shots on Sunday night when the Montreal Alouettes hit the field against the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium.
As has been the case now since 1998 when he came over from Hamilton, Calvillo is the catalyst once again for the Als. As someone who now owns almost every major passing record not just in the CFL, but in all of professional football, the Utah State product was used sparingly during the preseason this year because head coach Marc Trestman already knows what he has in this national treasure.
Even though he took a few more hits than usual last year and saw his completion rate drop to 61.8 percent, the lowest since 2003, Calvillo again threw for more than 5,200 yards and tied for the league lead with 32 TDs. Say what you will about growing old, this football player just gets better with age.
Because of the efforts of Calvillo, Montreal led the league in scoring with 28.6 ppg, but the Als struggled down the stretch as they dropped their last three regular-season bouts and then came up short in a 52-44 overtime affair in the playoffs against Hamilton. Needless to say, Calvillo and company have something to prove right out of the gate this year.
Helping to make Calvillo's job a bit easier is slotback Jamel Richardson, a four-time East Division All-Star who erupted for a staggering 112 receptions for 1,777 yards and 11 TDs in 2011. Richardson has now posted four straight 1,000-yard campaigns and has landed in the end zone 43 times during that span.
Even though he recorded just four majors through the air last year, S.J. Green is another valuable weapon for the Als who posted career highs with 87 catches for 1,147 yards and is poised to put up similar numbers again this year.
The Stamps, led by head coach John Hufnagel, have made a major change heading into this season, trading quarterback Henry Burris in order to give either Kevin Glenn and/or Drew Tate more time under center.
Glenn, acquired from Hamilton in the trade that sent Burris to the Tiger-Cats in early January, has plenty of experience and should be a valuable asset for Calgary moving forward, but a career quarterback rating of 88.5 isn't all that impressive in a league that is predicated on the pass almost exclusively.
Tate doesn't have as many miles on him from a CFL standpoint, but that's partly due to being a backup and having worked through injury last season which had him on the sidelines for the first five games.
The player who should be taking the majority of the hits coming through the line of scrimmage for the Stamps is running back Jon Cornish, who finished fifth in the league last season with a career-best 863 yards and nine touchdowns. Averaging better than seven yards per carry, the good news about Cornish is that he is someone who takes great care of the football, fumbling it away just four times in 256 career carries.
A former rookie of the year and a CFL All-Star in both 2010 and 2011, receiver Nik Lewis has spent his entire career with Calgary and has registered no less than 1,000 receiving yards every season since 2004 when he broke into the league. A clutch possession receiver who may not make the flashy plays or always end up in the end zone, Lewis will help the Stamps transition to life after Burris.
The bigger question for the offense is how well receivers like Ken-Yon Rambo and Romby Bryant will respond. Rambo, who spent some time in the NFL early in his career, isn't getting any younger so he'll need to step up his efforts in order to remain a key part of the offense for the Stampeders moving forward. Bryant, someone who has never missed a CFL game due to injury, registered a modest 51 catches and five touchdowns a year ago. He will need to elevate his play to continue to get looks down the field.
The teams met twice last season, with the Stamps claiming both matchups. The first, held in late August, turned into a 38-31 victory for the hosts and then two months later, Calgary again took care of business on the road with a 32-27 decision.
Dating back to 1946 and only taking into consideration regular-season meetings, Calgary owns a slight 32-31-1 advantage in the all-time series with the Alouettes, taking three of the last four and five of the last eight matchups overall.
Montreal, which is set to host Winnipeg and then the Stamps in the coming weeks, need to get a strong performance out of Calvillo in order to restore the confidence that the team has had in one of the greatest players ever to suit up in the CFL.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Montreal 37, Calgary 28