We've done team previews in our Three-Down Theatre series (each individual post is linked at the beginning of this final one) and talked with commissioner Mark Cohon about the state of the league from a business standpoint, so now it's time to take an overall look at the league similar to what we did last year. Remember, this CFL season starts Friday night with a doubleheader; the first game will feature Andy Fantuz's Hamilton Tiger-Cats taking on his former team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders (7 p.m. Eastern), while the second game's a rematch of the 2012 Grey Cup between B.C. and Winnipeg (10 p.m. Eastern). Toronto and Edmonton play Saturday at 7 p.m. Eastern, while Montreal and Calgary will face off at 7 p.m. Eastern Sunday. All games are on TSN in Canada and ESPN3 in the U.S., plus a variety of local and national radio broadcasts. It should be a great kickoff weekend, and one that sets the stage for an outstanding season that will culminate in the historic 100th Grey Cup.
If there's an overarching theme to this CFL season, it's the change in roles of the divisions. For most of the last decade, the East has been dominated by the Montreal Alouettes, with just about everyone else regularly rebuilding. (There were exceptions, of course, including Toronto's 2004 Grey Cup championship and Winnipeg's surprising runs to the title game in 2007 and 2011, but the East has four Grey Cup championships in 10 years to the West's six, and three of those came from the Alouettes, who were also runners-up in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008.) Meanwhile, the West has been full of parity; every Western team's won a Grey Cup in that span, with only B.C. and Edmonton claiming two. Judging by this offseason, though, that seems to have flipped; it's now the East that looks dangerously deep with the always-fearsome Alouettes out for revenge following their early 2011 playoff exit, the Argonauts and Tiger-Cats looking to take big steps forward with new head coaches and new veteran quarterbacks, and the Bombers as reigning-and-still-scary division champions. The CFL has been known for its parity in recent years, but a lot of that has come from the deep West. Now, it's looking like the East that's legitimately up for grabs; any of these teams could come out on top in the regular-season standings without their victory being a massive shock, and they might go on to lose in the playoffs after that. It should be a season-long war of attrition out East, and it should be fascinating to watch.
[Photo Gallery: 2012 CFL pre-season action]
By contrast, the once-deep West appears to be a stratified and shallow shell of its former self. Yes, the defending Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions will still be a team to be reckoned with, and they may even be legitimate favourites to win another title. Beyond them, though, the pickings get slim mighty quickly. The Calgary Stampeders are probably the second-best team here on paper, but they're heavily relying on players who are relatively untested at the CFL level, including quarterback Drew Tate and running back Jon Cornish. They've also lost long-time defensive coordinator Chris Jones to Toronto, and their offseason has seemed more farcical than brilliant at times. Still, they look great compared to a Saskatchewan Roughriders team coming off a 5-13 season and a Edmonton Eskimos team that elected to blow up a roster that made it to the 2011 West Final, sending star quarterback Ricky Ray to Toronto in a trade so lopsided it's spawned conspiracy theories. This is the unpredictable CFL, after all, so any team really can win, but it would be quite shocking if either the Riders or Eskimos managed to win the Grey Cup this season. Only two teams have managed back-to-back championships since 1982, though, so the Lions coming out on top is anything but a guarantee.
It should be a season full of great individual performances, from B.C. receiver Geroy Simon setting the all-time receiving yards record (which could happen Friday night) to Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo continuing to defy time, Fantuz settling in in Hamilton and returning to form and Cornish and Andrew Harris continuing the rise of the Canadian running back. There will be plenty of thrilling on-field action, too, as most teams should have high-powered offences that will put up points. When all the dust has settled, though, the most likely outcome from this corner is B.C. knocking off Montreal in the 100th Grey Cup this November. It's the CFL, though, so absolutely anything can happen, and it will be well worth tuning in along the way to see just how the league will defy predictability this year.