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The 2016 CFL season: 9 Teams, 10 Questions

It’s June – time for the Canadian Football League kickoff! As any sports fan can attest to, nothing beats the excitement of Opening Day, which we begin knowing nothing of the current season and finish with a glimpse of what’s to come before the season’s fossilized into history.

So sure, we have questions exciting, baffling and/or scary about the 2016 CFL season. The following are 10, some conveniently provided with answers, others completely dodged. (Hey, who knows it all?)

Now let’s get to kickoff!

1 – What will it take for the Edmonton Eskimos to repeat as champions?

The question that every league champion faces is now in Edmonton’s wheelhouse as the defending champs seek to become the first to win back-to-back Grey Cups since the Montreal Alouettes of 2009-10 – but that Cup was hoisted a long time ago and drastic changes while the Eskimos roster and staff has undergone some drastic changes: Some 12 players (most in key roles) have departed for the NFL, other CFL teams or into retirement; head coach Chris Jones left for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, pilfering the Eskimos of their OC, DC, special teams coach, QB coach, OL coach and DL coach. On top of this, at least three Esks’ four West division competitors improved significantly in the offseason. Whatever first-year HC Jason Maas comes up with in 2016, we know that a second straight Edmonton title will be won in completely different fashion than the ’15 win.

2 – How optimistic should Blue Bombers backers be?

The litany of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan is woeful indeed: The team hasn’t made the playoffs in four years (“in an *eight- or nine-team league!!!!!!!!!11!!1* Bombers backers’ll tell you) and hasn’t won the Grey Cup in 25. Yet Winnipeg has cause for optimism – guarded optimism, but optimism nevertheless – heading into the 2016 season. The signing of WR Ryan Smith, who bagged over 1,000 receiving yards for the hapless Rougriders in ’15, headlined a very productive offseason which also saw OC Paul LaPolice return to the sidelines from TV land. The Bombers should most fear the injury bug, which this preseason already claimed free-agent acquisition OL Jeff Keeping and last year wreaked havoc up and down the roster. If the Bombers stay healthy, they’ll go far.

3 – When is too late for Zach Collaros to return to the Tiger-Cats?

Speaking of healthy, Hamilton Tiger-Cats fandom continues to flip calendar pages while trapped in the Beckettesque nightmare of Waiting For Zach. Collaros’ season-ending injury in week 11 wasn’t the sole reason the 8-3 Tiger-Cats morphed into kittens backing into the playoffs on a 2-5 run, but it was certainly the key factor. Since Collaros underwent surgery on a torn ACL in November, Hamilton awaits news of his return – or even a timetable on his recovery. With each passing week without their potential all-star, the Ticats’ odds for success in 2016 will certainly decrease.

4 – Is Henry Burris an ageless mythological creature or a record-exterminating cyborg sent from the future?

Either/or. At the age of 40, Burris starred in one of North American sports’ great Cinderella stories in 2015, taking former punchline-fodder Ottawa RedBlacks all the way to the Grey Cup game – and establishing a new record in connecting with four different WRs for 1,000 yards or more. Checking out five nimutes or so of preseason action should show that the man apparently does not age. And on the field, he can’t be bargained with, he can’t be reasoned with and he absolutely will not stop until you’ve been rung up for about 30 points.

5 – How important is BMO Field?

If you believe Canadian media, the Toronto Argonauts’ new digs are nothing short of football heaven after some CA$150 million was devoted to BMO Field revitalization. So stadium machinations happen all the team, you may say, but last season the Argos were denied four proper home dates altogether thanks to scheduling conflicts and low-dog standing with stadium ownership. Even if the team doesn’t draw the attendance they’re hoping for, stability in a proper football-first venue should be worth a few wins. Not to mention the media’s second-favorite CFL obsession: The return of veteran Ricky Ray at QB.

6 – Is Chris Jones’s willpower enough to carry Saskatchewan?

Grey Cup-winning coach Chris Jones wasted no time in reshaping last year’s 3-15 bottom feeders. As mentioned above, Jones essentially recreated his Edmonton staff in Saskatchewan; he rapidly thereafter began clearing house as though frenziedly seeking to rebuild in less than a season: Some 19 player cuts were made on, what, Jones’s second day on the job, and few free agents were re-signed or extended. The result is what appears to be something of an uneven roster that only Jones will be answerable for. Of course the follow-up question there is “answerable to who?” The guy’s also GM and VP of football operations!

7 – Is this Jim Popp’s final season in Montreal?

Speaking of combo GM/HCs, consider Jim Popp’s situation with the Montreal Alouettes. After shenanigans involving a quarterback carousel and Michael Sam’s game of will-he-won’t-he, then-GM Jim Popp fired Tom Higgins after a 23-13 win at BC in week 9. Popp, who’s been employed by the Alouettes front office since they were called the Baltimore Stallions, then put himself on the sidelines for his fourth turn in that position, in which he’s now gone 20-31. Trapped in salary cap purgatory due to the fat contracts Popp The GM has given out, Popp The Coach benefits from only a couple of offseason signings (WRs Kenny Stafford, Duron Carter) while the quarterback situation is still well messy and the roster’s the oldest in the CFL. We’d say that, despite Popp’s storied time with Montreal, you gotta figure his leash is short this season.

8 – What about Wally Buono in BC?

Probably somewhere between Jones and Popp, both in terms of expectations and hotness of seat. Management is probably expecting a return trip to the playoffs with the CFL’s all-time winningest coach returning to the BC sidelines for the first time since 2011, but no way is Buono fired.

9 – How good are these Calgary Stampeders?

Quite possibly very. Grey Cup champions in 2014, the Stamps entered ’15 as clear favorites. A few misfortunes and nagging injuries (such as that to now-retired RB Jon Cornish) were just enough to keep them out of the big game, however. Cornish has been replaced by Jerome Messam, while Bakari Grant was signed over from Hamilton to fill the vacancy left by NFL aspirant Eric Rogers. Returning are all five of last year’s starting OL and QB Bo Levi Mitchell. This looks quite like the team to beat.

10 – So who do you have?

I like the Stampeders, Bombers, Eskimos, Riders, RedBlacks and Argonauts to make the playoffs, with Toronto topping Calgary in the Grey Cup at BMO Field.