This looks to be one of the closest seasons in CFL history. I look at all eight teams and I don't see one truly dominant squad that will run away from everyone. Each team has its strengths and weaknesses, and it will be accentuating the former and disguising the latter that will dictate who wins the divisions and ultimately the Grey Cup.
2011 CFL Regular Season
(Links provided to each team's individual preview)
1) Hamilton Tiger-Cats, 12-6
2) Montreal Alouettes, 11-7
3) Toronto Argonauts, 8-10
4) Winnipeg Blue Bombers, 6-12
It will be a vicious battle all year between Hamilton and Montreal. With four games against one another, the hate-on these two teams already have for one another will only grow. It won't be easy, but I think that the Cats will just get by Montreal to secure first in the East. Toronto will have to develop a QB before they can be taken seriously as a Grey Cup contender. They are definitely a playoff team, but I think they take a small step back before they go all-in for 2012 (when the Grey Cup is in Toronto). Winnipeg will go as far as Buck Pierce takes them. With his injury history, it's hard to bet on him to stay healthy. The Bombers are still at least one year away.
1) BC Lions, 11-7
2) Calgary Stampeders, 11-7
3) Saskatchewan Roughriders, 9-9
4) Edmonton Eskimos, 4-14
The Lions are motivated by the fact that the Grey Cup is in Vancouver. If the Leos can win the West, that means they stay home for the entire playoffs. They will be in tough with the Stamps, but they will edge them out by the slightest of margins. Calgary is still a top team, but with the losses on defense, it's likely they falter a tad at the start of the season, which allows BC to leapfrog them for first. Saskatchewan needs to replace a slew of go-to players and will find it hard to replicate their past success, so they will slip a bit. Even Edmonton fans would tell you they aren't there yet. Maybe next season.
2011 CFL Playoffs
East Division Semi-Final
Toronto at Montreal
The East Division Semi-Final is an unfamiliar place for the Als. They haven't been there since 2007, haven't hosted one since 2005, and have only been in it six times since their return in 1996. Montreal will be disappointed at not winning the East, and they will take it out on Toronto in a big, bad way. The Als romp to the East Final for a date with the Ti-Cats at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
West Division Semi-Final
Saskatchewan at Calgary
Calgary and Saskatchewan stage another epic playoff battle in 2011. However, unlike the last two seasons, the Stampeders will emerge victorious and march into BC with the hopes of getting back to the Grey Cup.
East Division Final
Montreal at Hamilton
The game that the Ti-Cats (and Ti-Cat fans) will want all year. Every move the team made was in preparation for this showdown. Avon Cobourne will prove that letting him walk was a big mistake, and in the biggest game of his Ti-Cat career, he will lead the Tabbies past the Als and into the 99th Grey Cup.
West Division Final
Calgary at BC
BC will have visions of hosting the Grey Cup... and they will do what Toronto did in 2007 and fail. The Stamps will have found their rhythm by the time this game rolls around, and they will take down the Lions, setting up a rematch of the 87th Grey Cup.
Hamilton vs. Calgary
If will feel like déjà vu as the Ti-Cats and Stampeders dual in the Grey Cup in Vancouver once again. The last time these two teams met on the CFL's grandest stage was in Vancouver in 1999. The Cats, coming off a disappointing loss the year prior to Calgary, hammered the Stamps en route to their 15th championship. This will be one of those classic back-and-forth contests, with the winner being decided by who has the ball last. In the end, the Cats will find a way to pull it out. Once again, Hamilton will beat Calgary in Vancouver for the championship.
2011 CFL Awards
Most Outstanding Player
West Nominee: Henry Burris (Calgary)
East Nominee: Anthony Calvillo (Montreal)
In a rematch of sorts from last season, both Anthony Calvillo and Henry Burris will represent their respective divisions as nominees for the Most Outstanding Player award. Last year, Burris took home the trophy, denying Calvillo a third straight MOP. This year, with several league records about to be broken by the Als' pivot, Calvillo will win the fourth MOP trophy of his career.
Winner: Anthony Calvillo
Most Outstanding Canadian
West Nominee: Jon Cornish (Calgary)
East Nominee: Dave Stala (Hamilton)
This award could have been dominated by Andy Fantuz for years to come had he stayed in the CFL. Picking someone to replace him as the West's nominee proved rather difficult. I went with Cornish because I think he will get more work in Calgary's backfield in an effort to keep Joffrey Reynolds fresh for the post-season. Dave Stala could eclipse his career numbers if he stays healthy. The only Canadian who outperformed Stala last year was Fantuz. With Fantuz no longer around, Stala will take home the trophy.
Winner: Dave Stala
Most Outstanding Defensive Player
West Nominee: Solomon Elimimian (BC)
East Nominee: Chip Cox (Montreal)
Probably the hardest award to narrow down to two players. You could easily make a case for Juwan Simpson, Markeith Knowlton, Stevie Baggs and Jamall Johnson, to name just a few. In the end, I went with Elimimian and Cox. Elimimian won the Most Outstanding Rookie Award last season, and he will have to have a big year for my BC prediction to come true. Cox could have easily been the nominee for the East last season, but was beat out by Knowlton, who eventually won the award. As much as I'd like to pick one of the Ti-Cat defenders, I think they will end up canceling each other out, allowing Cox to split the middle and take home the nomination. In the end, though, Elimimian will have one of the best years a Linebacker has ever had in the CFL, and because of that he will take home the award.
Winner: Solomon Elimimian
Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman
West Nominee: Patrick Kobongo (Edmonton)
East Nominee: Marwan Hage (Hamilton)
Probably the second-hardest award to pick nominees for, because the best O-Linemen are the ones that make the least amount of news. Hage was last year's East nominee, losing to Calgary's Ben Archibald (now with BC). Kobongo is a behemoth of a man who can dominate if he puts his mind to it. I'm going to select Hage as the winner. He has been viewed by many as one of the best Linemen of his time, so he'll finally get his due in 2011.
Winner: Marwan Hage
Most Outstanding Rookie
West Nominee: Anthony Parker (Calgary)
East Nominee: Perry Floyd (Winnipeg)
By far the hardest award to name nominees for, especially at the beginning of the season. It's hard enough trying to find out who qualifies as a rookie, let alone pick one from each division to be recognized. In the end I simply selected two players who I think could have productive years by rookie standards. Chances are that neither of these two individuals will pick up the hardware. So I'm picking Anthony Parker because I think he's the most talented rookie entering the CFL in 2011. Returners tend to get a lot of praise, especially when they come from out of nowhere. So I'm taking a flyer on Winnipeg rookie return man Perry Floyd. He could be the surprise player, like Thigpen and Owens were last year. In the race between the two, I'm going to take Floyd. Floyd will have more opportunities to touch the ball than Parker, and with one or two dynamic returns, Floyd could capture the imagination of CFL fans.
Winner: Perry Floyd
Most Outstanding Special Teams Player
West Nominee: Rob Maver (Calgary)
East Nominee: Marcus Thigpen (Hamilton)
Believe it or not, this is not a homer pick. I fully appreciate what Chad Owens did last year for Toronto. In fact, from one perspective, he could have been the Most Outstanding Player, period, in the CFL last year. The reason I don't think he'll take it this year is because I believe that he will be more featured on Offense for the Argos, which would lessen his impact on Special Teams. That is why I chose Thigpen. In the West, I went with the best Kicker in the division in Rob Maver. Maver led the league in scoring in 2010, and a repeat performance will land him on the awards podium accepting his first CFL award.
Winner: Rob Maver
Coach of the Year
Nominee #1: Wally Buono (BC)
Nominee #2: John Hufnagel (Calgary)
Nominee #3: Marcel Bellefeuille (Hamilton)
Coach of the Year nominees boil down to two categories: (1) coaches who take bad teams and make them respectable, (2) coaches of the Grey Cup finalists. Since I don't expect Winnipeg or Edmonton to make much noise, Wally Buono would fit the first criterion. The Lions were 8-10 last year, and I expect them to be the best team in the West during the regular season, so that covers Buono. Hufnagel and Bellefeuille fit the second criterion, since Calgary and Hamilton are my picks to make the Grey Cup. When all is said and done, Marcel Bellefeuille will walk away with the CFL's Coach of the Year Award.
Winner: Marcel Bellefeuille
I'm not going to lie: making these predictions was a lot tougher this year than it was last year. The top six teams – Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Saskatchewan, Calgary and BC – are all so even that picking one over the other is difficult. They aren't all created equal, but if one of those six teams took home the Grey Cup, no one would be surprised.
So what do you think? What are your predictions for the 2011 CFL season? Are the Cats ready to take the next step? Will the Lions make the jump? Will Winnipeg or Edmonton surprise everyone? Are the Argos being underestimated? Are the Als poised to repeat yet again? Can Calgary gel in the defensive backfield quicker than expected? These are just some of the questions that will hover around during the season. The only thing I can guarantee is that we will have one heckuva season in 2011. That is the only prediction I am confident in, but one that I think is shared by fans of all teams.