CIS Countdown 2011: UBC Thunderbirds

In 50 words or less: With an enviable number of returning starters, and a weakened Canada West conference, this could be the year that UBC returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2006—if they can stay healthy.

Burning questions:

1) CAN starting quarterback Billy Greene finally break through to become the leader this team needs in the game's most crucial position?

2) IF year one of the Sean Olson regime saw improvements to the team's culture, will year two see improvements to the team's win-loss record?

3) DOES the removal of the chance of moving to the NCAA give this program the stability it needs to compete year in and year out with their prairie rivals?

2010 recap: 2-6, T-5th regular season, out of playoffs.

Following a miserable 2009 season where UBC only outscored their opponents in one game, head coach Ted Goveia was sacked and replaced with 1997 Vanier Cup hero and SFU Offensive Coordinator Sean Olson. There was a notable uptick in team morale, a newly-renovated turf field, and an early season upset over the Saskatchewan Huskies—but a pair of losses to rebuilding Manitoba doomed their chances for a playoff berth.

LB Nathan Kanya (5th on team in tackles and 2nd in sacks despite only playing half the season), WR Victor Marshall (6th on the team with 10 catches), LT Cody Husband, DT Zack Kotilla, LB Mark Bailey

RB Sam Adu, S Adam Konar (BC AAA Championship MVP), DT Cole Allinger, LB Cody Hillhouse, OT Patrick Sullivan, DB Kofi Kuma-Mintah, QB Cam Canales

Keep an eye on: Running back Dave Boyd. A Canada West all-star in 2009 with 816 rushing yards, Boyd struggled to stay healthy last year, playing only in three games. When he did get action, he struggled, averaging only 4.9 yards per carry. The result was an offense that relied too heavily on Billy Greene's arm (not to mention feet, as he led the team with 596 yards rushing), and as a result struggled in the red zone.

Coach & coordinators: Sean Olson left SFU to take on the dream job of coaching the team he led to a Vanier Cup in 1997 as quarterback. His expertise in offense paid off, as the team jumped from 13.8 points per game to 20.5—and with virtually all of their offensive weapons returning, it's a number that could go higher this season. However, the defense, supervised by defensive coordinator Jerome Erdman, continued to struggle, giving up 31.9 a contest. Whether the defense improves in his second season will determine if this team will easily win games against teams (*coughManitobacough*) they're supposed to win.

Off-the-field factors: Stability. For many years, the football program was treated like the ugly red-headed stepchild at UBC, with other teams getting facility upgrades and regular attention from Athletic Director Bob Philip. And the never-ending flirtation with the NCAA (which, as SFU found out in an 0–8 first season in Division II, requires a lot more investment in football than any other sport)
left the very future of the team in flux.

But last year saw Thunderbird Stadium renovated, allowing UBC to have a football field that wasn't decimated by rain by October. A renewed commitment to alumni and team culture by coach Olson gave the program a greater sense of purpose. And with UBC President Stephen Toope making the decision to reject membership in the NCAA, for the first time in years the football program can actually enter into this season knowing more or less what the next 12 months will hold.

From last season's preview: "Make no mistake, this was a bad team that needed to be overhauled. But you can't fire all the players/student-athletes, so the head coach would have to do." The overhaul did already pay off in 2010 to one extent. Although UBC's record dropped from 3-5 to 2-6, they actually won one more game in 2010, as two of their 2009 "victories" were actually 36-10 and 30-1 losses (to Manitoba and SFU respectively) that they later claimed by forfeit. The Thunderbirds have a ways to go, but they've already started to make some improvements.

2011 outlook: This is a team that has had a full year to adjust to coach Olson, and is returning all of their key players at quarterback, running back, receiver, and in the secondary. It's a team that, if they had swept their fellow cellar-dwellers from Manitoba last year, would have made the playoffs. And with Manitoba continuing to rebuild, Calgary beginning a rebuild, and Alberta seemingly not ready to make a major leap, the opportunity is there for UBC to break through in what will be a weaker Canada West conference than in previous years.

Swing games: Tough games to start the season in Regina and Calgary greet UBC before their first home game, a Week 3 matchup against Alberta. It'll be in front of a big crowd (well, what passes for big at Thunderbird Stadium), and a win will put them in the driver's seat against the Golden Bears before their October 22 rematch, where a playoff berth could very well be on the line.

(Not only will there be no swing game against crosstown rivals Simon Fraser University, but it looks as though the annual Shrum Bowl game between the two schools may not be played for the first time since 1986. To date, neither school has commented on the possibility of an exhibition game being scheduled for later in the year.)

Stock up or stock down: Up, because with so many senior players returning, the only thing that can stop this team from improving on their two-win total from 2010 is injuries. UBC simply doesn't have the depth that schools out east have, which makes any injury to a skill position all the more costly. But if they stay out of the hospital, the T-Birds should get one of the four Canada West playoff berths.

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