The CFL season's set to get rolling Thursday night at Winnipeg's new Investors Group Field with the Blue Bombers hosting the Montreal Alouettes (8 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NBCSN). I'll be running a live chat from the press box during the game, and there should be plenty to talk about, both with those teams and with the rest of the league. Heading into the 2013 season, it looks like it may be a campaign filled with parity: while B.C.'s a deserving betting favourite in the race for the Grey Cup and Winnipeg's a popular pick to finish last, the Lions aren't so far ahead of the pack that they can't stumble if things go wrong, and the Bombers aren't so far behind it that they can't make a run if things work out according to their plans. When you consider that those seem to be the biggest extremes we have, it's clear the six teams in the middle are very close: Edmonton may look a little weaker than some, and Montreal and Toronto may seem on the stronger side, but there isn't a lot of obvious separation. Any team might wind up lifting the 101st Grey Cup in Regina this November, but an overarching theme of this season is that every team has some crucial questions to answer as the season starts. Here's one vital question for each team that, going from first to last in order of predicted regular-season finish.
2012 record: 13-5, West Final loss.
Projected 2013 record: 12-6, first in West, West Final win, Grey Cup win.
Key question: Will a young receiver or receivers will step up? The team's offseason moves to cut Arland Bruce and trade Geroy Simon made some sense given their plethora of promising young receivers, including non-imports Shawn Gore, Marco Iannuzzi, Seydou Junior Haidara and Akeem Foster and imports Emmanuel Arceneaux (newly returned from the NFL), Courtney Taylor, Korey Williams and Nick Moore. That's a lot of talent. However, most of those guys don't have extensive CFL resumes, and there's going to be intense competition for balls in this crowded offence. If a couple of them can step up and become reliable targets for Travis Lulay (Gore and Arceneaux have done the most there so far), it could be a great season for B.C., but if these guys can't translate potential into production, the Lions may be in trouble.
2012 record: 9-9, Grey Cup win.
Projected 2013 record: 11-7, first in East, East final loss.
Key question: Can they generate a pass rush? After losing or jettisoning every DL starter from the Grey Cup, plus primary backups Ejiro Kuale and Kevin Huntley, it's going to be a new-look defensive front for the Argos. Defensive coordinator Chris Jones likes to be aggressive, so expect to see some blitzers helping the DL out, but they'll still need some consistent pressure from up front. We'll see if any of the DL newbies can provide that.
2012 record: 11-7, loss in East Final.
Projected 2013 record: 10-8, second in East, East Final win, loss in Grey Cup.
Key question: How quickly will Dan Hawkins adapt to the CFL? The Alouettes' new head coach will face a stiff learning curve, as he's never coached three-down football before this year and spent the last few years working as a TV analyst for ESPN NCAA football broadcasts. Unlike, say, Bart Andrus, Hawkins has suggested he's willing to learn what it takes to succeed in the CFL, but how long it takes him to figure that out may be huge for the Als' destiny.
Can Drew Tate stay healthy and solidify himself as the Stampeders' starter?Calgary Stampeders:
2012 record: 12-6, loss in West Final.
Projected 2013 record: 10-8, second in West, West Final loss.
Key question: Will the quarterback situation be resolved? Last year saw the Stamps flip back and forth between Drew Tate and Kevin Glenn thanks to Tate's injuries. Tate's the starter heading into 2013, and he has enough potential that they'll likely stick with him as long as he's healthy and playing well. However, Tate has been a bit injury-prone, and Glenn played well enough in relief last year that pressure to play him may mount if Tate struggles.
2012 record: 8-10, loss in West semi-final.
Projected 2013 record: 9-9, loss in West semi-final.
Key question: How much will the pressure get to them? With Regina hosting the Grey Cup this year, there are a lot of people who'd love to see the Riders win on home turf. That likely was a factor in them bringing in veterans like Simon; this is an important year for the franchise, and they want to do all they can to win now. Those kinds of expectations can sometimes hinder rather than help, though. We'll see how it plays out.
Can former Argo Orlondo Steinauer help turn the Ticats' defence around?Hamilton Tiger-Cats:
2012 record: 6-10, missed playoffs.
Projected 2013 record: 8-10, loss in East semi-final.
Key question: Will the defence get in gear? Much of the hype in Hamilton's about Kent Austin returning to the CFL as the Ticats' head coach and general manager, but Austin has always been an offence-minded guy, and the Tiger-Cats' problems were all about defence last season. Defensive coordinator Casey Creehan is gone, and replacement Orlondo Steinauer has a good reputation from his days as a DB coach in Toronto (and an interim defensive coordinator in 2011), but that may or may not translate into actual results. Then again, it would be hard to be worse on defence than this team was last year.
2012 record: 7-11, loss in East semi-final.
Projected 2013 record: 8-10, miss playoffs.
Key question: Is Mike Reilly the real deal? Reilly, the quarterback Edmonton brought in this offseason, was very impressive in limited action in B.C., but that was a small sample size. Now, with Matt Nichols hurt, Reilly is pretty much the Eskimos' first and only option at QB: Kerry Joseph has become ineffective in recent years, while Jonathan Crompton and Jacory Harris are just starting to learn the CFL game. Reilly has great potential, but we'll see if he can reach it this year, especially behind an offensive line that has some question marks.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers:
2012 record: 6-12, missed playoffs.
Projected 2013 record: 5-13, miss playoffs.
Key question: Can they keep Buck Pierce healthy? This team really doubled down on Pierce at quarterback this offseason, jettisoning veterans Alex Brink and Joey Elliott in favour of the less-experienced Justin Goltz and Max Hall. Developing those guys is all well and good, but they'll need to bring them along slowly, and that could be difficult given Pierce's injury history. If he can stay upright and effective, it might be a surprisingly good season in Winnipeg, but if not, it could be a long one for their fans. At least they have a new field to enjoy...
Make sure to join us at 55-Yard Line for a live chat during the Winnipeg-Montreal game Thursday night, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern.