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Zeroth Down: The Montreal Alouettes’ three-peat quest

With the CFL season set to kick off in just a week on Thursday, June 30, it's time for us to start looking at each of the league's teams in detail. We'll publish one Zeroth Down (yes, it's a real word; see here and here!) preview each day over the next eight days and wrap everything up with a season preview chat with some special guests at 12 noon Eastern on June 30, the day of the first regular-season game between B.C. and Montreal. Each team will be previewed in order, going east to west across the country. We'll look at a face from their history who represents their current situation, details of their offensive, defensive and special teams units, their predicted biggest strength and toughest challenge and wrap it up with a season prediction. First up, the two-time defending Grey Cup champion Montreal Alouettes, who are heading into this season with some new faces.

Zeroth Down: The Montreal Alouettes’ three-peat questBack To The Future: Running back Lawrence Phillips came to the Alouettes in 2002 (he's seen at right taking a handoff from quarterback Anthony Calvillo that year), following a successful career at the University of Nebraska and stints in the NFL, AFL and NFL Europe. He became a key figure on Don Matthews' Alouettes and was one of the most flamboyant personalities on that team, which is saying something. One of the most memorable parts of Arash Madani's piece on that legendary squad was Adriano Belli's quote about the morning of the Grey Cup game: "I opened the door of the hotel room and there was Lawrence Phillips, in his underwear, in the hallway screaming, 'We're gonna kick their ass... we're gonna (expletive) up those (expletive).'"

Of course, the Alouettes went on to do at least part of that, defeating the Edmonton Eskimos 25-16. Phillips' time with the team wasn't to last, though; he got cut by the Alouettes in the next year's training camp, reportedly for insubordination, and wound up moving on to the Calgary Stampeders. He picked up 486 rushing yards there, but then again got cut, ending his professional football days on a low note. Later, he'd be sentenced to 31 years in prison for attacking his girlfriend and driving his car into a group of teens, a sentence he is currently serving.

Zeroth Down: The Montreal Alouettes’ three-peat questHow does this relate to the modern-day Alouettes? Well, the latter part of Phillips' story fortunately hasn't repeated, but there are some parallels between the early part of his career and that of Avon Cobourne (seen at right taking a 2008 handoff from Calvillo). Cobourne was also a notable NCAA star at a big school, West Virginia, and he came out with the Big East Conference's all-time rushing record. NFL executives didn't put him in the same class as Phillips, though; he went undrafted, while Phillips was chosen sixth overall. He also bounced around the NFL and NFL Europe before winding up with Montreal in 2005, originally as a special-teams player and linebacker. After taking over as the Alouettes' primary running back in 2008, Cobourne racked up three impressive seasons with close to 1,000 rushing yards and over 1,500 combined yards from scrimmage in each. Much like Phillips, he also became known for his exuberance and his trash talk, and he helped the Alouettes to a championship — two straight, in fact.

However, also like Phillips, Cobourne left the Alouettes on terms that weren't the greatest. The team started making plans to replace him early, and he eventually signed as a free agent with Hamilton, stirring up Alouettes' general manager Jim Popp in the process. We'll see how the Cobourne story pans out, but although correlation doesn't imply causation, it's an interesting little tidbit that the Alouettes didn't win a Grey Cup between the time they cut Phillips and the time they brought in Cobourne.

Offence: Cobourne may be gone, but the Alouettes' battle to replace him may be an ongoing story. None of the array of backs they'd brought in looked good in their first pre-season game against Winnipeg, but Wednesday's fog-filled game (seen above) against Hamilton was more promising on the ground (even if it wound up as a 57-20 Tiger-Cats' victory). Brandon Whitaker, Yvenson Bernard and Emmanuel Marc all showed flashes of potential, and DeAndra Cobb, Cobourne's predecessor in Hamilton, is also in the mix (he didn't play thanks to a hamstring injury). The passing game should be rock-solid with Calvillo's return from cancer, the (heavily-Canadian) offensive line mostly returning and a wide array of talented receivers for him to throw to, so the running game may be the biggest question mark here. Given the talent and pedigrees of the running backs they have on the roster, though, it's tough to dock them much. This still looks like one of the league's best offensive squads, and they should put up plenty of points this season.

Rating: Five fake Wikipedia articles.

Zeroth Down: The Montreal Alouettes’ three-peat questDefence: The 57 points Hamilton hung on the Alouettes Wednesday suggest there may be some issues here, but it's worth remembering that Montreal played a lot of backups, while most of the Tiger-Cats' starters played the whole first half. Montreal's defence was an underrated strength last year and a key element of their Grey Cup victory, and most of their key pieces are coming back thanks to an incredible offseason. They've also added one of the league's best corners in Dwight Anderson (pictured at right during his time with Calgary), and Etienne Boulay looks ready to step up into a full-time role at safety after Mathieu Proulx's retirement. There's a lot to like about this defence, and they should continue their strong 2010 former.

Rating: Five Walter Spencer comebacks

Special teams: This might have been the most concerning part of Wednesday's game, as the Alouettes gave up two touchdown returns (one kickoff return by Marcus Thigpen, one punt return by Chris Williams) and several other long ones. However, they should be set to replace veteran kicker Damon Duval, who left as a free agent after not being offered a new contract. Recently-acquired non-import kicker Sean Whyte appears the favourite for that job right now, and he performed very well Wednesday, hitting his only field goal attempt and averaging 44.1 yards per punt. If he falters, the team also has the CFL's career leader in field-goal percentage, Sandro DeAngelis. In the return game, they've got lots of options, including last year's man Tim Maypray and newcomers Bo Bowling and Rashaud Slaughter. The cover teams should get better with time, too, as the Als have plenty of impressive special-teams players.

Rating: Four Marc-Olivier Brouillette successful disease battles

Totals: 14 points out of 15.

Greatest strength: The passing game, with a good offensive line, one of the league's best quarterbacks in Calvillo and an incredible array of talented receivers.

Zeroth Down: The Montreal Alouettes’ three-peat questPotential weakness: The kick-return and cover games. Good things could come from both units, but neither's been especially positive so far.

Season prediction: The CFL does frequently change dramatically from year to year, but on paper, the Alouettes look set for a three-peat. They're incredibly deep at most positions, they've got perhaps the league's top passing offence, and they have great leadership from Popp and head coach Marc Trestman (pictured at right hoisting the Grey Cup in 2009). Look for them to go 13-5 (first in the East), take the East Final and lift another Grey Cup in Vancouver this November.

Remember to stop by 55-Yard Line at noon Eastern on Thursday, June 30 for a season preview chat with some special guests!

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