CIS Countdown 2011: Alberta Golden Bears

In 50 words or less: Jerry Friesen is out as head coach, and offensive coordinator Jeff Stead now has the reigns of the Green and Gold. Once again there's renewed hope in Edmonton that the Bears will make real strides towards being Canada West contenders, but there's lots of work that needs to be done to make that happen.

Burning questions:

1) WILL an offensively-minded head coach help the Bears move the ball consistently and keep the defence fresh?

2) CAN QB Julian Marchand reach his potential as an athletically gifted athlete?

3) HOW will the Bears fill the gap left by kicker extraordinaire Hugh O'Neill?

2010 recap: 3-5 (4th place Canada West); lost to Calgary in the Hardy Cup

After coming out of the gate fast with two wins on the road to open the season — including an impressive 31-6 victory in Winnipeg week two — the Bears went into a funk losing four consecutive games. Losses to Calgary and Saskatchewan back-to-back weeks at home didn't come as a shock for Alberta, but a 40-8 drubbing at the hands of the Rams in Regina represented the low point of the regular season for the Bears.

The Green and Gold surrendered nearly 500 yards of total offence that fateful October night at Mosaic Stadium in the Queen City, and crawled home losers of three straight. The next week was another poor showing for Alberta, losing at home to UBC thanks to 13 T-Bird points in a span of 1:47 in the fourth quarter, including the winning TD with only 11 seconds to go.

The Bears would then go onto split their final two games of the regular season, downing Manitoba at home before a 37-5 loss at the hands of the Dinos to head into the playoffs at 3-5.

Alberta went into their Canada West semi-final game against Saskatchewan as the heaviest of underdogs, and for three quarters it was obvious why, as the Sled Dogs went into the fourth quarter with a commanding 30-10 lead. That fourth quarter, however, would be one of the most remarkable in Bears playoff history as Alberta mounted the greatest comeback of the Jerry Friesen era. The Bears scored 21 unanswered points to walk out of Griffiths Stadium with a stunning 31-30 win.

That win set up an all-Alberta Hardy Cup, which would be a 180-degree swing in terms of emotion for the Bears after their stunning semi-final win. Calgary put it on the Bears, dismantling the Green and Gold in an abysmal football game that ended in a 56-3 final and gave Calgary their third straight conference title.

Overall it was a remarkably up and down season for Alberta, with the biggest of losses and one of the most incredible wins in recent program history.

Departures: Kevin Chave, Craig Gerbrandt, Matt Jarvis, Jean-Marc Jones, Terriss Paliwoda, Dale Stevenson, Blaine Bartoli.

Arrivals: High schoolers - Brandon Foster, Michael Hansen, Connor Ralph (of the famous Ralph football family), Greg Severin, David Beard, and Tyler Lewis.

Keep an eye on: KK Sonuga. Chris O'Leary of the Edmonton Journal has been all over Bears football camp this week with some articles on potential standouts for Alberta, and Sonuga is one of them. A linebacker in high school, Sonuga toiled on the special teams side of the ball for the Bears his first two years with the team before getting some time at the running back position last year compiling 256 yards on 25 carries. That was before an MCL sprain sidelined the promising option in the Bears' backfield.

With an average of over 10 yards per carry last season expectations are sky high in Edmonton for this local high school product who has all the athleticism to be an elite CIS tailback. Sonuga, who will be one of the Bears captains on the offensive side of the ball, has come into camp in the best shape of his career and put on 10 pounds of muscle over the offseason. The starting job is his, and now he'll truly be looking to run with it.

Coach & coordinators: Jeff Stead has stepped in as interim head coach of the program, but he's taken the position with anything but a one-year stint on his mind. Stead has paid his dues in the CIS coaching ranks with more than a dozen years of experience, and is looking to take control of a program that has been far from impressive over the last several seasons. His personality seems perfectly suited to lead the program in a new direction, and his energy should translate to a different brand of football on the field.

Alberta will be a faster, albeit smaller team at certain positions, but will definitely be more exciting than last year's edition. Stead will continue to guide the offence, and expect somewhat of a new direction on the offensive side of the ball, as Stead will have free reign to mould the offence how he sees fit.

Off-the-field factors: There's no real off-the-field factors to speak of at Alberta. The fact that Stead is leading the program on an interim basis could be considered something that could pose challenges, but from the way things have gone so far that isn't the case. Athletic Director Ian Reade has had interim coaches in the past, and it hasn't seemed to hinder the teams.

One factor that is an issue for the Bears is their funding situation which is pennies compared to the budgets of Calgary and Saskatchewan who do a tremendous job of bringing in dollars to their elite programs. That financial hurdle is one the Bears will have to deal with for years to come.

From last season's preview: Oddly enough I was on the mark with my prediction for the Bears last season saying they'd be down slightly from a 4-4 record in 2009. I had a feeling Julian Marchand's development would be slow after being under utilized, and that seemed to be the case.

2011 outlook: Like I said earlier, there's hope in Green and Gold land. Alberta has a new head coach who is hungry to turn this program around, and it seems his players are ready to shake their mediocre past. Jeff Stead will run a faster, more exciting offence that should feature lots of no huddle. On the defensive side of the ball, speed will also be a key element of the Bears attack.

Whether or not they can compete in all of their games with the conference's elite from last year remains to be seen, but the Bears should be a playoff team this year again. Don't expect a 6-2 campaign from this team, but they could push above the .500 threshold. Either way, Alberta should finish with at lest a 4-4 record, and will do it in far more exciting fashion this season.

Swing games:

Saturday, September 24 vs. Regina
After being absolutely dismantled by the Rams last year in Regina, the Bears will be looking to avenge that loss at home in Edmonton. The game also marks the end of the first half of the season for both teams, and should be a true test of where Alberta is when it comes to their new look defence taking on quarterback Marc Mueller.

Saturday, October 29 vs. Saskatchewan
Another home game will be key to the Bears' season, as they'll play host to the Huskies to wrap up the schedule. By this point the playoff picture could already be solidified, but regardless of that this game will be huge in determining whether or not Alberta will have a chance moving into their semi-final matchup — which very well could be against these Huskies.

Stock up or stock down: Up. There's some energy back in the Bears for this season, and that's a much needed change. They will improve on their three win total from last year, but there's still some building to do before this team is among the conference elite. Regardless, it's shaping up to be a better year for Alberta.
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