June 20, 2011

Obrand: My Top 10 things to look for in 2011

Richard Obrand

The snow has melted, the temperature has risen and the sun is shining coast-to-coast across our beautiful nation.

Yes, all the signs that indicate another CFL season is upon us have appeared and fans throughout Canada are getting themselves ready for the Rona Canada Day Kickoff weekend that begins on June 30 in Montreal in a matchup between the Alouettes and the BC Lions.

Last season, fans were treated with a plethora of riveting, seat-rising, ‘did you see that’ moments from their favourite players, so why should 2011 be any different?

Here now – in no specific order – are my Top-10 storylines of the 2011 season.

Last season, Chad Owens shocked the CFL community almost every time he laid his hands on the ball, will anyone dethrone him as the return king in 2011?

1. Alouettes vs. Roughriders: The Rematch

Though they sit in different divisions, it’s impossible to ignore the burgeoning rivalry between the Als and Riders. There was the ‘13th man’ at the 97th Grey Cup in Calgary, the ‘13th man Part 2’ during the rematch on opening day 2010, and of course the 98th Grey Cup in Edmonton.

It’s a rivalry that is purely supported by on-field play, as made evident by their most recent matchups. Because geographical circumstances don’t allow the Als and Riders to meet very often (they meet just twice in 2011 in weeks two and four) the only time we may be able to see them on the same turf past July is in November in Vancouver.

2. The ‘Underrated’ Calgary Stampeders

Each year, I look at the West Division and have it fixated in my mind that the Lions and Roughriders run the show out there. I then look at the standings and realize that the Calgary Stampeders are there, too – and they’re damn good.

Henry Burris, Ken-Yon Rambo, Nik Lewis, Romby Bryant and Joffrey Reynolds are perennial offensive All-Stars while DeVone Claybrooks, Corey Mace, Juwan Simpson and Charleston Hughes are holding the fort on defence. Simply put, they’re stacked. And John Hufnagel is ready to take them as far they’re willing to go.

3. Next big kick returner

It seems as though that with each coming year, the league is blessed with a new electrifying kick returner. Last year we saw the emergence of Chad Owens and Marcus Thigpen and the year before that we witnessed Larry Taylor’s on-field brilliance.

What usually occurs in these cases is that coaches attempt to utilize their speedy return-men as receivers, thus taking their focus away from returning and more into receiving.

Who’s next in the line of great returners?

4. How much does Calvillo have left in the tank?

Simply put, the Montreal Alouettes will go as far as Anthony Calvillo will take them. The question is, however, how much longer is he willing to do so? There’s no denying that Calvillo is Montreal’s field general – he exudes a commanding presence both on and off the field and he has the accolades to prove it.

The three-time MOP has given the Alouettes a chance to be Grey Cup champs whenever he steps foot on the field. But will his age be a factor?

Last season, Calvillo missed some time with a rib injury – is his age finally catching up to him? Montrealers certainly hope not. Calvillo is also on pace to surpass numerous records this season held by Damon Allen, including career passing yards and career touchdown passes.

5.  The 2011 Rookie Class

There’s always a communal excitement when a rookie begins to succeed at the professional level. Not even a year out of college, rookies are still extremely raw with skill and it almost always seems as though rookies succeed on pure athletic skill rather than a built-in sense of the game.

It’s only three-to-four seasons into their careers that fans begin to see a well-rounded version of said player. For rookies like Henoc Muamba, Nate Coehoorn, Scott Mitchell and Kito Poblah, though they may be oozing with potential and skill in just their first season as professionals, just wait until they fully develop both physically and mentally.

Then you’ll be in for a real treat.

6. Can Avon Cobourne take Hamilton to the next level?

One of the best all-around running backs the league has to offer, Cobourne arrives in Hamilton facing high expectations. Leaving Montreal as a free agent in the off-season, Cobourne is seen by fans in Hamilton as the missing piece to the puzzle.

But is he? Fact is, the Ticats may not have enough support surrounding Cobourne to fully vault them to the next level. On the right path though.

Arland Bruce III and the Ticats, alongside their rivals in Toronto are planning an all-out assault on their divisional-counterparts in Montreal.

7. Can BC do what no team since the ’94 version of themselves has done?

It’s the question that is asked at the beginning of every single season. Can the host team win the Grey Cup on their home turf?

Not since 1994, when Lions kicker Lui Passaglia split the uprights with no time remaining against the Baltimore Stallions has a team achieved the elusive feat. Since that day in late November, only two teams, (Montreal 2008 and Edmonton 2002) have had the opportunity.

Can BC relive their glory from ’94?

8. Is third time the charm for the Roughriders?

These days, it’s no easy feat being a fan of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Coming up short in two straight Grey Cup games to the same team is certainly no easy pill to swallow.

However, their gigantic fan base continues to remain optimistic and that is absolutely something you have to admire. For them, it’s a new season, with a new coach and an entirely new slate. While losing Rob Bagg to injury and Andy Fantuz to the NFL may be a blow to their cause, it’s hard not to believe in the Riders with the Regina fateful screaming in your ears.

9. The Eastern Renaissance

In years past, the CFL’s East Division has been the main source of ridicule by fans and players in the West Division. Having been won by the Alouettes in all but three seasons since the start of the new millennium, this may finally be the year where the transition period begins.

Last season saw the Ticats and Argos both prove to be thorns in the Alouettes’ sides and now both teams preparing for an all-out assault on their counterparts in La Belle Province.

10. How long is Ricky Ray’s leash?

Since winning the Grey Cup in 2003, Ricky Ray has adjusted to five different offensive coordinators – Marcus Crandell marks number six – and three head coaches, now that Kavis Reed is in charge.

It may seem slightly unfair to actually give the former Grey Cup MOP a leash at all; however, following Edmonton’s 7-11-0 finish in 2010 and with the recent signing of Kerry Joseph, a leash seems necessary to us. While Reed and the Eskimos brass have high hopes for Ray – the Joseph signing indicates that they may not be high enough.