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THE MOJ: Nine burning questions as the CFL season set to kick off

A look at the queries that will define each team this season
North Delta’s Tyson Philpot scores the second of two touchdowns Thursday night in Winnipeg. Philpot and the Montreal Alouettes defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 27-12 in the CFL season opener. Montreal Alouettes photo

With the CFL season kicking off this weekend, we decided to look at “Nine Burning Questions” around the league.

BRITISH COLUMBIA: Can B.C. clean it up?

Stopping the run – and establishing the run - is a favorite topic for most. But I’m going in a different direction. The Lions can’t give up the ball and get penalized at the rate they did last year. The Lions turned over the football 44 times in 2023, which was fourth-highest total in the league and only five away from Saskatchewan, which led the CFL with 49 giveaways. B.C. also racked up 1,452 yards in penalties, which was the second-most behind only Edmonton, who had 1,500 yards. If the Leos want to win the West and the Grey Cup, there has to be improvement in discipline and ball security.

CALGARY: Can the Stampeders keep pace in the West?

The Stampeders are in transition and will have trouble keeping up with the heavyweights (Winnipeg and B.C.) and teams that are improving (Edmonton and Saskatchewan). Quarterback Jake Maier needs to take his game to the next level but that will be tough to do with a young and inexperienced receiving corps. On defense, the Stamps need to become more aggressive. In 2023, the Stampeders experienced their first losing season since 2007. They’ll probably have another in 2024 – except this time they won’t be lucky enough to make the post-season.

EDMONTON: How much better does McLeod Bethel-Thompson make the Elks?

After back-to-back four-win seasons in Edmonton, head coach Chris Jones finds himself on the hot seat. With the club in the process of being sold, winning means everything. Would you rather buy a Mercedes or a Pinto? So enter Bethel-Thompson, who will make the green and gold better. The arrival of Kurleigh Gittens Jr. gives MBT his top receiver from Toronto two years ago. Combined with Eugene Lewis, the Elks passing game should be in good shape. Will the Elks be improved enough to save Jones’ job? A lot of that will depend on a defensive unit that won’t have Jake Ceresna, who was traded for Gittens.

HAMILTON: What does Bo Levi Mitchell have left?

Mitchell got hurt last year and never really got a chance to get untracked only playing in six regular season games. At 34, his best days are behind him but head coach Scott Milanovich and the Tiger-Cats still believe he can be an effective quarterback. On defence, Simoni Lawrence decided to retire and the unit has been bolstered by three former Argos in Jamal Peters, DeWayne Hendrix and Brandon Barlow. Milanovich is a quarterback whisperer, so if he’s ineffective look for Taylor Powell to surprise some people. Hamilton should be a playoff team.

MONTREAL: Can the Alouettes carry over the momentum from last year?

The Als were 6-7 at one point last season before going on an eight-game heater that culminated in winning their first Grey Cup since 2010. Cody Fajardo proved his doubters wrong with a clutch performance to defeat Winnipeg in the championship game but he’ll have to do it all over again this year. The Als won’t have William Stanback (B.C) and Austin Mack (NFL), so the offense will have to find replacements. The Alouettes return the same core group for the most part and should be the team to beat in the East. They got off to a good start by knocking off Winnipeg 27-12 in their season opener.

OTTAWA: Is Dru Brown the answer at quarterback?

Brown was brought in from Winnipeg where he served as a back-up to Zach Collaros but can he get the job done as a starting quarterback in the CFL? Losing stud running back Devonte Williams due to an off-season Achilles injury was a major blow and someone will have to step up in the backfield if Ottawa is to compete. The Ottawa fanbase is frustrated after three consecutive last-place finishes in the East with only 11 wins combined. Head coach Bob Dyce and general manager Shawne Burke’s jobs will depend on Brown’s performance.

SASKATCHEWAN: Can Corey Mace change the culture?

Former head coach Craig Dickenson was a nice guy. Too nice of a guy by some reports out of Regina as all you heard about was how the inmates were running the asylum. Enter Mace – a former standout at Port Moody High School – as the new head coach. Mace knows what it takes to win coming from Toronto and Calgary before that. He will also have the services of veteran quarterback Trevor Harris for a full season, which bodes well for the Riders. Harris, who was injured in the fifth game last year and missed the remainder of the season, will give Saskatchewan quality quarterbacking. Throw in the addition of A.J. Ouellette at running back and the Riders should return to the playoffs in 2024.

TORONTO - How much of a drop-off will there be?

Duplicating a 16-win season isn’t going to happen. Most Outstanding Player Chad Kelly will not quarterback the team for nine games due to a suspension while the aforementioned Ouellette now runs over people for the Roughriders. Meanwhile on defence, six starters are gone including three all-stars in Qwan’tez Stiggers, Adarius Pickett and Robertson Daniel. And there are no guarantees that when Kelly does return that he can pick up where he left off last season. There are just too many questions surrounding the Argos to pick them to win the East.

WINNIPEG: Have the Bombers run their course?

You ever watch The Four Falls of Buffalo? It’s the 30-for-30 documentary on the Buffalo Bills and their four consecutive losses in the Super Bowl. Bills receiver Steve Tasker talks about playing the Cowboys in the fourth and final Super Bowl, and how at half-time of that game, it felt like there was ‘nothing left in the tank’ as the toll of the previous four years had taken its toll on the Bills. He explained how the Bills just couldn’t keep playing at that intensity level anymore. I kind of feel Winnipeg will suffer the same sort of burnout in 2024. There’s also been a lot of change in personnel this off-season - particularly on defense. Look for the Bombers to take a step back this year.

Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media.

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