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CFL season preview: The Hamilton Tiger-Cats

So who needs the NFL? Professional football, Canadian-style, begins this week with the CFL kickoff on Thursday, June 23. Before then, Os Davis presents previews for each of the Canadian Football League’s nine teams right here on The Grueling Truth. This time out, a look at the East division champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

The history: Of all the wonderfully unique team names in the CFL (like Alouettes and Argonauts, RedBlacks and Roughriders), the Tiger-Cats moniker has perhaps the strongest ties with Canadian football history: The hyphenated name is the result of a merger of two Hamilton football teams, the Tigers of the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union and the Wildcats of the Ontario Rugby Football Union, in 1950, ultimately joining the newly-organized Canadian Football League later that decade.

In the subsequent 65 years, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have played in 19 Grey Cups, winning eight – though none of those wins and only two championship game appearances have occurred in the 21st century. In fact, five of Hamilton’s titles and 10 of the team’s Grey Cup bids came during the period of 1953-1967, a 15-season stretch which included an incredible 11-year run in which the Tiger-Cats played in the ‘Cup game nine times.

Though the far greater share of success was enjoyed by the franchise pre-2000, Hamilton has recently been knocking on the door of CFL titledom for a few years. After a 6-12 season in 2012, former player Kent Austin was hired away from a gig at Cornell to become the Ticats head coach – a position he still holds today, and a good reason for former Big Red players on the roster. Despite being forced to play home games at the University of Guelph stadium (with temporary seating to expand capacity to 13,000), the Tiger-Cats compiled a 10-8 regular-season record and took out the East-winning Toronto Argonauts on the way to their first Grey Cup game since 1999.

Hamilton lost that Grey Cup, as well as the subsequent year’s game. Over the first half of last season, the Tiger-Cats became the prohibitive favorites to break their title drought, but…

Last season: The story of the 2015 Hamilton Tiger-Cats can be neatly divided into two parts: pre-Zach Collaros injury and post-Zach Collaros injury. Quarterback Collaros (formerly of U. Cincinnati) was enjoying a Most Outstanding Player-level season through game 11; at that point, the Tiger-Cats had run up an 8-3 record, good for first-place standing in the East ahead of the upstart Ottawa RedBlacks.

After stumbling out of the gate to a 1-2 record due in part to a stunning preseason in which the Ticats lost some eight key players – including WR Luke Tasker (Cornell U.) and DE Eric Norwood (U. South Carolina, Carolina Panthers, San Jose SaberCats) – Hamilton went on to run up a crazy 304 points (or 36 points per) in the next eight games while going on a 7-1 run.

The numbers alone don’t indicate just how monstrous the Tiger-Cats looked in that eight-game run; the scoreboard showed ample evidence, however. Check out the 38-8 thumping of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the 52-22 blowout of the BC Lions and, most impressively, that ridiculous 49-20 immolation of the eventual champion Eskimos at Edmonton in week 11.

And then.

In week 13, Collaros went down with a torn ACL and would miss the remainder of the season; the second half of the proverbial “tale of two teams” began, to the chagrin of Ticats fans. They’d go 2-4 the rest of the way with Jeff Mathews (Cornell U.) at the helm, as the replacement QB managed just 142 attempts, including six interceptions thrown against six TD passes.

The Tiger-Cats backed into the playoffs after dropping their last three games, including the season-closing home-and-home set against the RedBlacks. After escaping the Toronto Argonauts on a last-second field goal in the East semifinal game, the Ticats dropped the East final to their new nemeses from Ottawa to conclude their 2015.

But regardless of the quarterback’s importance, football is a team game, right? Well, the world-class defense Hamilton fans had enjoyed for most of the season suffered its fair share of injuries as well, ultimately surrendering 40 points to the BC Lions and 44 to the RedBlackswithin those final weeks.

The offseason: Ticats fans cannot be ecstatic about the Tiger-Cats’ offseason performance, in which the new arrivals were far outnumbered by the key departures. Gone through free agency were some 12 players from the 2015 roster, including standouts such as WR Bakari Grant (UC Davis) to Calgary, DB Ed Gainey (Appalachian State) to Saskatchewan, DB Arnaud Gascon-Nadon(Rice U.) to Ottawa, DE Justin Hickman (UCLA, Los Angeles Avengers) to Toronto, DE Brandon Stewart (E. Arizona College) to BC, LB Taylor Reed (SMU) to Calgary, and even kicker Justin Medlock (UCLA, Carolina Panthers). Plus, LB Eric Harris (California U. of Pennsylvania) was signed by the New Orleans Saints.

Coming in? Well, the additions of LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis (Washington State, Sacramento Mountain Lions) and OL Brian Simmons (U. Oklahoma)were certainly nice. Six-year CFL veteran WR Chad Owens (U. Hawaii, Jacksonville Jaguars, Colorado Crush) will certainly get his catches no matter who’s throwing the ball for Hamilton.

However, from the Every Silver Lining Has A Cloud Department, the Tiger-Cats’ perhaps most crucial signing – that of DB Demond Washington (Auburn U.) – will be missing the first six games of the season due to preseason injury. Meanwhile, the very career of oft-injured DB Chase Minnifield (U. Virginia, Washington) may be at risk after an Achilles injury taken in the preseason opener; Minnifield was subsequently released by the Ticats.

Probably the most valuable pickup from the CFL Draft for the Tiger-Cats was RB Mercer Timmis (Calgary U.), who is likely to start game one, though rumors are emerging after he missed Hamilton’s second preseason game.

Expectations for 2016:Even beyond the Beckettesque game of “Waiting for Collaros” that Hamilton fans will be playing for potentially quite some time, these Tiger-Cats enter the season with truckloads of question marks brought about by the free agent exodus. Clearly this team is no longer the defensive juggernaut we saw in the first half of last season, and a pair of preseason games appears to indicate that either Mathews or Jeremiah Masoli (U. Mississippi, Omaha Night Hawks) represent comedowns for the passing game.

So maybe everything will work out once Collaros is back in the driver’s seat of the offense; maybe by week six (or seven or eight or…), the defense will again gel thanks to the mastery of OrlondoSteinauer, who’s served as defensive coordinator in Hamilton since 2013. Maybe the Ticats can at least manage a respectable record from the go, with six of their first eight games against teams which had a losing record in ’15.

But that’s a lot of maybes and ifs. A .500 or sub-.500 record seems a heckuva lot more likely for these Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Next: The Toronto Argonauts

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Os Davis has been a sportswriter for [redacted] years, covering and enjoying way too much pro football (American and Canadian), basketball (NBA and international), World Cup soccer and cricket in turn. Basically, if it's a ball game and Os has a forum, he'll write about it. Os is of the opinion that advanced stastical metrics are awesome, that the addition of offensive lines to fantasy football is absolutely necessary and that the Los Angeles Lakers shall rise again. He is firmly against price-gouging of fans, Americans pooh-poohing CFL football and that @#@#$@#$ing Washington football team's name. Os currently appears on way too many podcasts, co-hosting the Rouge, White & Blue Fantasy Football Podcast, The Truth About Fantasy Football Podcast, the CFL Weekly Pick 'Em Show and the L.A. Rams 2.0 Weekly Show -- plus often the NFL Weekly Pick 'Em Show.