CIS Countdown 2009: Manitoba Bisons

Burning questions:

WILL Nate Friesen solidify a shaky quarterback position for the Bisons?

WHICH Matt Henry will show up at running back: The 2007 version (5.9 yards per carry, 8 TDs) or the 2008 one (4.3 yards per carry, 1 TD)?

HOW critical will the regular-season ending game against SFU on Halloween be, with Saskatchewan and Calgary the acknowledged top dogs of the conference?

2008 recap and record
— (3-5). A post-Vanier letdown? It certainly looked that way, as the defending national champions from Manitoba simply could not put together any momentum in 2008, with no game more emblematic of their frustrating season than a 28-0 home loss against conference bottom-feeders UBC early on in the season. Somewhat surprisingly, while the defense only returned two starters from the championship squad, they often carried the team, while an offense that retained all the key weapons from 2007 (QB John Makie, RB Matt Henry, WR Terry Firr and Randy Simmons) struggled, averaging just 15.9 points a game.

Setting up '09
— Fifth-year pivot Nate Friesen (40 for 83 last year, with one touchdown and zero interceptions), will start the season as the Bisons' quarterback after backing up former Vanier Cup MVP Makie last year. How he plays is perhaps the biggest question mark for this team—if he can solidify the position, then the team has very few other holes to worry about, though the dangerous Matt Henry returns to the running back position (681 yards, 4.3 per carry) and will be well-served by a offensive line that sees all of its starters returning. The Bisons have a revamped receiver corps, with Terry Firr and Randy Simmons departing the program. However, the strength of last year's team was their defense (the Bisons finished 1st in run defense and 2nd in pass defense in Canada West), and that should continue with most of the starters on that side of the ball returning, including last year's sack leader Everton Black (5 sacks, 28 tackles).

Returning starters
— 6 offence, 9 defence

Stepping out (graduated players) — QB John Makie, WR Terry Firr, WR Randy Simmons, WR Mike Mizerski, LB Kenton Onofrychuk, DL Donald Oramasionwu, LB Riley Shogan

Stepping up — QB Nathan Friesen, QB Khaleal Williams, WR Clancy Doiron, WR Stu Schollaardt, LB Thomas Hall

Coach & coordinators
Brian Dobie (overall record: 58-45) enters his fourteenth year as Manitoba coach. Dobie has been Canada West coach of the year 5 times, and took the Bisons to the Vanier Cup in 2001 (a loss) and in 2007 (a win). Defensive coordinator Stan Pierre enters his ninth season as defensive coordinator, and offensive coordinator Vaughan Mitchell enters his fourteenth season on the Bisons large coaching staff, having bounced around in a variety of positions underneath Dobie.

Enrolment — 29,932 (26,238 undergraduate; 3,694 graduate)

— The Bisons play, as they have for years, at University Stadium, a soccer/football/track facility that seats 5,000. Last year, they got 2,000 out for the home opener, and 4,000 for the homecoming game against UBC, but as their season (and the weather) went south, attendance dropped to the triple digits.

Alumni in CFL — Roughriders P Jamie Boreham; Blue Bombers C Lorne Plante; Blue Bombers DT Don Oramasionwu; Blue Bombers DT Brady Browne; Eskimos DE Justin Cooper; Alouettes LB Cory Huclack; Stampeders DB Wes Lysack.

From last season's preview — "I don't see them going undefeated again, but they'll be a team to contend with and they may make a run in the playoffs."

Stock up or stock down
— Up. They won't be at the level they were at from 2006-2008, but with the already strong defense returning mostly intact, the Bisons should return to the playoff fold.

Schedule (all times Central)
Friday, Sept. 4 vs. Regina, 8 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 11 at SFU, 9 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 19 vs. UBC, 2 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 3 vs. Alberta, 2 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 10 at Calgary, 2 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 17 vs. Saskatchewan, 12 p.m. (Shrum Bowl/Shaw TV)
Friday, Oct. 23 at UBC, 9 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 31 vs. SFU, 2 p.m.
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