For the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the last couple of seasons have been close, but no cigar. Their recent regular seasons haven't been special, with 10-8 and 9-9 records (oddly enough, the latter gave them first place in their division, which says a lot about the East in 2014), but they've done well in the playoffs, making it to the Grey Cup both years. They got even closer last year, too; while 2013 saw them blown out 45-23 by Saskatchewan, they narrowly lost 2014's Grey Cup 20-16 to Calgary, and might have won if not for Brandon Banks' potential game-winning touchdown return being nullified by an illegal block. The Tiger-Cats return what looks like a strong team this year, though, one with more continuity and greater experience in head coach and general manager Kent Austin's systems, and the rest of their division doesn't look great. Will that be enough to let Hamilton have a third consecutive shot at a Grey Cup, and might they pull it off this time?
There's a lot to like about the Tiger-Cats, and that starts with quarterback Zach Collaros. The 26-year-old Collaros is one of the CFL's most promising young pivots, and he did very well in his first season as a full-fledged starter in 2014. Giving him that role was risky; Hamilton signed him in free agency based on the impressive showings he turned in while filling in for Toronto's Ricky Ray during Ray's 2013 injuries, but becoming a starter can present a new set of challenges, especially with a different team and a different offensive system. Moreover, signing Collaros led to the Ticats ditching Henry Burris, who'd taken them to that 2013 Grey Cup. It's not often you see a team part ways with its starting quarterback in the offseason after a Grey Cup appearance (oddly enough, the previous one also sort of involved Austin; Kerry Joseph won the 2007 Grey Cup with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where Austin was the head coach, but Austin left in the offseason to take Ole Miss' offensive coordinator job, and general manager Eric Tillman traded Joseph to Toronto), and it's a move that certainly could have gone south for Hamilton.
Collaros justified Austin's faith in him, though, completing an impressive 65.8 per cent of his passes in the 2014 regular season with 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He only threw for 3,261 yards, but that was largely thanks to injuries that caused him to miss significant time. Collaros was a key part of the Tiger-Cats' stretch drive, and he helped them finish second in passing yards per game, passing first downs, and completion percentage on the season. He was a big reason why Hamilton was able to recover from a 2-7 start and make a 7-2 stretch run to finish first in their division, and he threw for 342 yards and a touchdown in the Grey Cup with a 75.8 per cent completion mark. Collaros has been clicking again this preseason, and there's every reason to think he'll continue that once the games start to matter.
The Tiger-Cats are more than just Collaros, too. Keep in mind that a lot of their success last year was thanks to their defence, which was particularly stout against the run. They conceded the least rushing yards per attempt (4.6) and per game (76.8), plus the fewest rushing first downs (90). Their defence was weaker against the pass, allowing 260.4 passing yards per game (second-worst in the league), so that will need improvement, but if they can stuff the run the way they did in 2014, that will help substantially.
There are some concerns, though. This team lost league all-star cornerback Delvin Breaux to the NFL this offseason, and they faced some other losses, with linemen Greg Wojt and Marc Dile, receivers Greg Ellingson and Sam Giguere and quarterback Dan LeFevour all heading out in free agency. Moreover, they've already had incredible amounts of serious injuries; receiver Spencer Watt (their big free-agent acquisition) and defensive tackle Linden Gaydosh suffered torn Achilles tendons, while running back Mossis Madu received a serious shoulder injury and defensive tackle Brian Bulcke tore his ACL. All are expected to miss the entire season. That's a remarkable amount of attrition, especially when you consider that those are all prominent players who were expected to play key roles this season.
Still, the greatest factor in expecting Hamilton to do well this season isn't so much about them as it is about the rest of their division. Keep in mind that the East's four teams only won a combined 28 games last season; Hamilton and Montreal were 9-9, Toronto was 8-10 and expansion Ottawa was 2-16. Yes, there's reason to expect the Redblacks to be somewhat better in their second year of existence, but that doesn't mean they'll instantly become even an average CFL franchise. Meanwhile, Montreal lost stars like Duron Carter and still has big quarterback questions, and Toronto's dealing with utter inactivity in free agency, a brutal opening schedule and an injury to starting quarterback Ricky Ray that will have him miss at least the first six games. The Tiger-Cats look like the best of the East, and the division's overall weakness should help them have another solid year.
Prediction: 11-7, first in East, win in East Final, loss in Grey Cup.