In 50 words or less: It's the last year of eligibility for three offensive leaders and it seems like the best chance in years for Regina to advance to a national bowl game.
1) HOW MANY penalties will hurt this team in 2011, after being whistled for 112 yards per game in 2010?
2) HOW FAR can they go with this defence (20 forced turnovers last year, fewest passing yards allowed) and the veteran-heavy, Mark Mueller-led offence?
3) WILL they grab their first playoff win in four years?
2010 recap: 5-3 in the regular season, lost to Calgary 40-33 in the conference semifinals.
The Rams certainly didn't have a bad year, losing only to Calgary (three times) and Saskatchewan (splitting their series). They had their way with the rest of the conference, beating Manitoba 45-11 and 41-19, UBC 41-6, and Alberta 40-8 — and all those wins helped their point differential, as they finished seventh nationwide in SRS (+9.4 points per game).
As mentioned, their playoff loss came at the hands of the Dinos, 40-33, which sounds close but not when you remember how they got their last 15 points. Or, more importantly, when they got them: with fewer than five minutes left in the game, the Rams were still down 40 to 18. After the first quarter alone it was 16-0; at the half, 26-10.
The year before they were destroyed by Saskatchewan, 53 to 23. In 2008 they rode eligibility issues to the fourth seed and actually had a lead late in the game, but lost to Calgary 24 to 17. You have to go back to 2007 to find their last playoff win, 19-13 over Saskatchewan, but eight days later they lost, um, by a lot to the Vanier Cup-winning Bisons.
Departures: The Rams return most of their starters, but defensively they lose S Matt Yausie and MLB Bruce Anderson.
Arrivals: Among their recruits, OL Joel Hrycyk was an All-Canadian in the CJFL last year and has the opportunity to start right away. That link has more of their arrivals; also see here for more arriving players.
Keep an eye on: RB Adrian Charles. I'll get into his extracurricular activities below, but 2011 is his last year of eligibility and he led the conference in rushing last season. DT Benton Gieni and CB Jamir Walker also return, and both took part in the East-West Bowl in May.
Coach & coordinators: "Head Coach Frank McCrystal is the only head coach the Rams have known since they entered CIS football back in 1999. McCrystal has been the head coach of the Regina Rams Football Club dating back to 1984 when they were members of the Prairie Junior Football Conference. McCrystal guided the Rams to a Hardy Cup championship and Vanier Cup berth back in 2000 in only the program’s second year competing in CIS, and in 2007 he was recognized as both Canada West and CIS Coach of the Year. The Rams coordinators are: offensive coordinator Bernie Schmidt, and Paul Dawson on the defensive side of the ball."
(The above was copied from last year's preview, which was itself a copy from 2009's preview. 2008's preview, then an Out of Left Field production, contained much of the same information. If they change the coaching staff, we'll change the paragraph.)
Off-the-field factors: Two months ago, Adrian Charles was "acquitted on drug and weapons charges after the judge in the trial threw out key pieces of evidence." These weren't the first set of charges he's faced (sorry, "legal troubles"), and the acquittal here wasn't quite due to a technicality — Charter rights, they're important — but if people keep asking questions during the season (not that they do now) it may prove awkward for the team. It wouldn't be in good taste to make a "criminal element" joke, so of course I won't.
From last season's preview: "With [Jordan Sisco] gone, big losses to the defense, and two games against Calgary and Saskatchewan to contend with, the Rams will have a slog getting to .500 this season, even with their intriguing additions." — Justin McElroy.
Thankfully for Regina, the four games against the bottom of the division were all very winnable, essentially guaranteeing a .500 finish or better.
"While [Adrian Charles] looked good during spring camp in May, there's still little word out of the Rams' camp of where he'll fit into their plans for this season."
Either they were keeping him under wraps or they didn't know how explosive he would be, because Charles broke the team's rushing-yards record with 972, good for second in the country.
2011 outlook: It could be Regina's year. (For what it's worth, 29% of respondents to the Canada West online poll as of Sunday evening think Regina will finish first.) It's not out of the question. The Huskies may take a step back, the Dinos have a lot of turnover, the Bears aren't quite there yet, the Bisons aren't expected to break out, and the Thunderbirds are maybe playoff-bound but not much more than that.
Swing games: Sept. 9 at Saskatchewan and Sep. 16 vs. Calgary. The rematch in Regina against the Huskies (Oct. 22) may matter just as much, but not if the Rams get off to a 3-0 start (they play UBC first). Their last five games are Alberta-Manitoba-UBC-Saskatchewan-Manitoba, and you have to think they'll win four or five.
Stock up or stock down: Up. They certainly look like they could end up hosting a few November games, don't they?