Continuing our previews, Kevin Garbuio and Andrew Bucholtz discuss some key questions about the Canada West teams ahead of Friday's kickoffs.
GENERAL: Just how well does Canada West stack up nationally? The last two years have seen the conference champion (Calgary both seasons) pummelled 41-10 by Laval and 45-6 by McMaster in national semifinals. Are those results indicative that Canada West is behind the best Ontario and Quebec teams, or were they more anomalies?
KG: The West right now is the third conference, but that could soon change. Calgary is a great program, and they should always be in the conversation, but the last two years they ran into the cream of the crop when it came to the CIS. McMaster and Laval were the two top teams and it wasn’t a fluke that they met up in the finals. The rest of the West has been forced to play catch-up, but it looks like the conference is getting stronger. With the Okanagan Sun rumored to join the CIS (with UBC-Okanagan), it shows the game is growing. More players are playing which means more talent should be reaching the university ranks.
The major issue that has plagued the West has been the change in recruiting models. Teams can no longer rely exclusively on the junior ranks. The five in seven rule (players have 7 years to complete their five years of eligibility after high school. CEGEP is excluded) has hurt many programs. Junior-alum-heavy teams like the '07 Manitoba Bisons are things of the past, forcing many teams to rely on developing 18-year-olds with coaching. Great coaching isn’t cheap, and it comes at a cost. McGill, U of T and Carleton recently opened their coffers and spent large sums of money bringing in top level coaching. With CanWest schools like Calgary getting huge donations, it will be interesting to see how the money is spent. Long-term success in the CIS is easy to predict: the team that spends the most money on coaching usually wins.
AB: Calgary's results in the national semifinals the last two years certainly haven't been great, but that doesn't necessarily diminish the whole conference. A two-game sample size against very strong teams isn't a lot to go on. It would be hard to put Canada West's top teams ahead of the best in Ontario or Quebec right now, but it's still quite conceivable a Canada West team could make the Vanier and perhaps even upset Laval. There's good depth at the top of the conference, too, with the Dinos looking strong again but the Huskies, Bisons and Rams looking to knock them off. Kevin's quite right that Canada West schools need to adjust to the new junior eligibility rules and need to catch up to the investments in coaching and facilities many high-profile Ontario and Quebec schools are making, but it may not be as great a divide as those national semifinals suggested. There are good programs out West, and while they have work to do to rebuild the conference's reputation, it's far from a hopeless cause.
Calgary (9-1 in conference last year, +24.3 SRS): Will the Dinos be able to keep their stranglehold on Canada West titles despite some key departures?
KG: The Dinos' ability to send talent to the next level is impressive. Players like Matt Walter, Nathan Coehoorn, Linden Gaydosh, Mike Edem, Steven Lumbala, etc., are all contributing this season in the CFL. These contributions have to come at a cost, though, and at some point CFL U has to rebuild to a certain extent. The Dinos only lost a few starters on offence and return QB Eric Dzwilewski. The fourth-year pivot had an impressive season in 2012 and probably feels snubbed about not receiving an All-Canadian award. On defence they are new, with only one returning starter in the secondary. They will have to overcome growing pains early on but a program like Calgary should be able to reload at many of the spots where they graduated players. This might be one of the weaker teams Coach Nill has fielded at U of C, (remember: the bar is set fairly high at U of C) and this could be the year they are knocked off, but I can’t see anyone knocking off the Dinos. The team should start slow but they have a top coaching staff and a great program. Until someone shows they can defeat Calgary it is hard to bet against Blake Nill.
AB: This definitely is a Calgary team with less big names than we've seen in the recent past, and their defence is going to be tested early and often. However, while it might be a weaker Dinos' squad than recent editions, they still look like the class of Canada West at the moment, and they very well could have some unexpected players step up. The "CFL U" reputation that saw five Dinos chosen in this year's draft and 17 players (more than any other school in Canada or the U.S.) in the CFL to start this year is one that's really boosted Calgary's recruiting, and there are some great players who may well start making an impact for them sooner rather than later. It's a young Dinos' squad, but several of their new starters have already impressed (including new offensive tackles Jordan Filippelli and Braden Schram). They still look like the team to beat.
Regina (7-3, +5.3): How will this team replace Marc Mueller at QB? How will he do in his new role as a QB coach?
KG: If Regina is relying on their next quarterback to be Marc Mueller, they are setting themselves up to fail. While Cayman Shutter has experience coming from the University of Hawaii, he still will have some big shoes to fill. The QB, who is entering his third year of eligibility, should be mature enough (agewise) to live in a CIS legend’s shadow but he should not be expected to match his new coach’s production. That pressure should be on the Rams' veteran group of receivers. That unit is going to have to step up as Shutter adjusts to the Canadian game. The Rams also lost four offensive linemen, which could be a bigger loss than Mueller, but with a veteran at QB and some talent recievers they could elevate some pressure with some early success. As for the question about Mueller at QB, it is always interesting to see how former great players do when coaching immediately after playing football. in the past players like Ryan Pyear, Michael Faulds, Chris Judd and Benoit Groulx have all moved seamlessly from being top quarterbacks to being top coaches so it woudn’t be a shock for him to be successful. In this case, like Judd and Pyear, he is coaching a lot of the same players he played with, which can always be an issue. (A line worker moving to management, a friend becoming a boss, it is the same thing in sports and testosterone.) Mueller brings a wealth of experience (a CFL camp) and comes from a coaching pedigree (grandson of Ron Lancaster.) The easiest answer would be: Mueller will do fine.
AB: I like Mueller's move to coaching: he's a great football mind, and one that should be able to help elevate the Rams' offence. The move to go with Shutter is more of a risky one in my mind, though: he was born in Regina and lived there until he was 10, but has spent most of his football career in the U.S., so he'll have a lot to learn about Canadian football. Bringing him in may pay off down the road, but there are so many differences in the American and Canadian games (the bigger field, the three downs, the 12-a-side game dramatically shifting route and coverage packages) that it usually takes quite a while for U.S. quarterbacks to adapt. That may lead to some growing pains for Shutter early this season, especially with that offensive line turnover. He has a great Canadian quarterback to ask for help in Mueller, but it may take him some time to get used to how things work in CIS.
Saskatchewan (5-4, -3.3): After a rebuilding year with a lot of young faces, are the Huskies ready to break through?
KG: Saskatchewan is certainly a team on the rise. Drew Burko and Kit Hillis had chemistry last season, and with many players returning on offence, it is no surprise the Huskies were placed in the initial CIS top ten (#9) despite going 5-4 last season. While defensively they lost a few starters, judging by the Huskies' recent recruiting success they have players ready to fill and contribute immediately. The Huskies look to be on the right track and setting themselves up for prolonged success with this young talent. They may be a year away from being for real but with Calgary on a down year, U of S might be able to surprise early.
AB: In my mind, the Huskies are the most likely contender to potentially dethrone the Dinos as Canada West champions. Burko might be the best Canada West quarterback behind Dzwilewski, and he's certainly more proven at the CIS level than Shutter or Jordan Yantz. He's pretty efficient (a 65.3 per cent completion rate and 10 TDs against five picks last season) and should have another strong season at the helm of the Huskies' offence. Last year saw this team use plenty of young players in significant roles, and that was part of the reason they took a bit of a step back. In my mind, a lot of that young talent is ready for its spotlight. Just how well they do with the pressure on will determine if they can top Calgary, but they certainly have the potential to.
Manitoba (4-5, -4.9): How will Jordan Yantz do in his transition to the CIS level? Will playing at Investor's Group Field give the Bisons an edge, or will it be too cavernous?
KG: Yantz comes in with an impressive resume. He is one of the most highly touted players to come into the CIS in awhile. Manitoba hasn’t gotten a player with this much fanfare since Matt Henry bursted on the scene. The thing about quarterbacks is that they normally take some time to adjust to CIS. While the CJFL is a talented league and the BC conference has produced plenty of talent, it still isn’t CIS, and it will be interesting to see how Yantz does this season. As for the new stadium, if your name isn’t Laval, smaller is usually better. Big professional stadiums create weak atmospheres. Calgary and McGill struggle to do their high capacity stadiums justice and it usually gives a flat feel. While, it remains to be seen if Manitoba manages to pack in their newly minted stadium, I doubt it will be packed consistently.
AB: I like Yantz a lot, and I think he has the ability to be a great CIS quarterback. It says a lot about his potential that he's been anointed as the Bisons' starter Friday. He'll have some pieces to work with, too, especially All-Canadian RB Anthony Coombs. I'm not sure we'll see that this year, though, especially early on: he'll be adjusting to both the CIS level of play and to his new teammates and coaching staff. However, I do think Investor's Group Field will work out well for the Bisons. It's a fantastic stadium, and with the Bombers struggling, cheaper Bisons' games may look like an appealing option for local football fans to get out and experience the new environment. We'll see just how many they draw, but they may well pick up some new fans from the move.
UBC (2-6, -11.7): Can Shawn Olson lead the T-Birds forward this season, or were last year's struggles suggestive of larger problems?
KG: UBC is looking to be a middle of the pack team this year. They return 14 total starters but returning that many for a team that struggled really doesn’t indicate success this year. Olson has a tough-luck record. His one year of success was wiped due to an ineligible player which leaves him with a 5-21 record entering his 4th season. The Thunderbirds need to prove two years ago wasn’t just a fluke, but realistically, a .500 season would be a triumph this year.
AB: Olson certainly isn't in an easy spot, but there are some reasons to think the Thunderbirds may improve this season. Their offence should start on the ground, where Brandon Deschamps is back after leading the conference with 785 rushing yards in 2012. Through the air, losing Billy Greene hurts, but Carson Williams has showed some promise, and he's learned under Greene for three seasons now. Junior transfers Donovan Dale, Boyd Richardson, Yianni Cabylis, and Bobby Davis may help steady a defence that struggled this year. Beyond that, there are plenty of veterans coming back, and while they didn't all shine in 2012, that year of seasoning may help this team look much better this fall.
Alberta (0-8, -20.5): Is there any glimmer of hope, or are the Golden Bears going to be doormats again?
KG: Again, just because teams are returning starters does not mean that they are going to eventually start winning, (although it does mean they have players who aren’t flunking) especially when those starters struggled so much the year before. Alberta is on the right track, returning talent is important but as mentioned earlier, money is important. Alberta needs to start bringing star recruits in order to create a buzz and change. Star recruits usually get grabbed by top coaches and money gets top coaches. Alberta should be better this year; largely due to the fact they can’t get worse.
AB: There aren't a ton of reasons for significant optimism with the Golden Bears this season, and new head coach Chris Morris will have his work cut out for him. It will be more than just his team adapting too, as he's never coached at the university level before. Morris does have a strong background as a CFL player with the Eskimos and a high school coach and administrator locally, though, so he knows what he's getting into, and there are some intriguing names on his staff, including OL coach Tim Prinsen (who used to hold that position with the Eskimos). Turning the Golden Bears around is going to take time and effort, but Morris does seem to have a clear plan, and the rigorous off-season workout program he implemented is a step in the right direction. Results this year won't be easy, but the Golden Bears could lay the foundation for better years down the road.