At the start of this season, the B.C. Lions and Montreal Alouettes looked like the most likely bets to represent their divisions in the 100th Grey Cup this fall. Through eight games, that hasn't necessarily changed; while there have been unexpected stumbles (2-6 Winnipeg, 3-5 Hamilton) and successes (5-3 Edmonton), the Lions and Alouettes lead the West and East respectively with their 6-2 and 5-3 records. Are they as good as the records make them look, though, and could Friday night's game (7:30 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NBCSN), the first 2012 regular-season clash between the teams, be a preview of this fall's Grey Cup matchup?
In the Lions' case, there's a lot to support their claim as one of the best teams in the league. Their defence has been historically dominant this season, and that dominance has extended across the defensive board. The CFL's weekly stats roundup tracks 25 different categories of team defence, and B.C. is leading the league in 19 of those, including points allowed per game (17.6), yards allowed per game (281.3), fewest first downs (134), average gain per opposing rush (4.4 yards) and average gain per opposing pass (6.9 yards). There simply doesn't seem to be a weak spot on this defence. The line features sack monsters like Keron Williams (who leads the league with seven sacks; no one else has more than five), Eric Taylor (four sacks), Khreem Smith (three) and Jabar Westerman (three), and they've been doing just fine even without suspended star Khalif Mitchell. Adam Bighill's turned into an absolute star in the linebacking corps and is second in the league with 53 tackles, while the talent collected in their all-star secondary is just ridiculous (and Cauchy Muamba's doing a great job of fitting in there too!). If this defence can maintain its remarkable performance, there's an excellent chance B.C. will be playing in Toronto in November.
The Lions do have some vulnerabilities, but they're slight. Their offence has been reasonably good on the year, picking up the third-most yards per game (379.6), the most rushing yards per game (128.4) and allowing the fewest quarterback sacks (10), but they've been kept in check a little the last few weeks, including in last week's narrow 20-17 win over then 2-5 Winnipeg. Some would also say that quarterback Travis Lulay's fallen off a bit from his 2011 Most Outstanding Player form, as he's fifth in the league with 2,113 passing yards, but the view from this corner is that he's actually playing better; his completion rate's shot up from 58.7 per cent to 67.3 per cent, and he's using his feet more (43 rushes for 302 yards and three touchdowns so far this season; he ran 47 times for 391 yards and three touchdowns in all of last season). The Lions' ground game, including Lulay, Andrew Harris and Tim Brown, is much stronger than it has been. That's why Lulay is throwing less and collecting less yards, but he's throwing more efficiently when he does take to the air. The biggest issue for B.C. is converting field position into points consistently; the Lions are fourth in the league with an average of 25.3 points thus far. If they can improve on that, things look good for them.
Montreal represents a bit of a flip side here. The Alouettes' offence has been very impressive through the air, and pro football career passing leader Anthony Calvillo is having one of his greatest seasons. He's thrown for a league-high 2,657 yards thus far (a ridiculous 332.1 yards per game) and has chucked 18 touchdowns against just six interceptions while completing 64 per cent of his passes. That's been a key factor in Montreal leading the league with 403.4 yards of net offence per game and scoring a league-high 25 touchdowns, although they're second to Hamilton with 29.1 points per game.
However, the Alouettes' ground game has fallen off a bit; they're second-last with 4.8 yards per rush (although primary running back and 2011 CFL rushing leader Brandon Whitaker's a bit better than that with a 5.2 yards per rush average). Their main concern is their defence, which has been good against the run (they're allowing the second-least rushing first downs and rushing yards per game) but has struggled against the pass (allowing the second-worst yards per pass and the worst opposing completion percentage). Montreal's allowing 30.3 points per game, more than they're scoring, and they'll have to work on that if they want to make it to the Grey Cup this fall.
At the moment, these do look like the league's two best teams, but there's enough macro-level parity in the CFL that it's impossible to rule anyone out. Even 2-6 Winnipeg could still get back into things with a run; heck, the Lions themselves bounced back from an 0-5 start last year to win the Grey Cup. Thus, while Friday's contest could represent a Grey Cup preview, you might not want to bet on that just yet. What it should be, though, is a fascinating clash of strengths (Montreal's offence against B.C.'s defence) and less-dominant elements (B.C.'s passing offence against Montreal's passing defence). A loss here won't be devastating for either team, but a win over another strong outfit might be a crucial confidence boost that could carry over the next few weeks, and that's what makes this contest so important.