First test the toughest

IAN BUSBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

There's nothing like starting off a new regime against the best the CFL has to offer.

Although the B.C. Lions didn't win the Grey Cup last year, they finished with the best overall regular-season record (14-3-1) and boasts a roster full of veteran all-stars.

Head coach John Hufnagel's Calgary Stampeders kick off the 2008 season against the Lions tonight at McMahon Stadium (8 p.m., TSN, subject to blackout).

"We're excited about this game," said Hufnagel in his first official pre-game press conference yesterday.

"The players have responded very well throughout camp to try and become a good team. We have a very good test ahead of us.

"The B.C. Lions are a veteran team, a first-place team, a very well-coached team. Personally, I'm thrilled about being on the sidelines for the first time as a head coach in the CFL. I get to coach against a good friend of mine. He's helped me throughout my career.

"But our first game was a benchmark for where our team is at anyway."

Over on the other sidelines, Wally Buono has built a solid roster of returning players such as receivers Geroy Simon, Jason Clermont and Paris Jackson, defensive linemen Brent Johnson and Cam Wake, and linebackers Otis Floyd and Javier Glatt.

This core group has been together for several years and has finished first in the West four straight seasons.

But Buono understands the window is closing on these veterans, which puts an onus on adding another Grey Cup title to the one they claimed in 2006.

"Everybody knows there is a certain life span with a core group," Buono said. "We want to make sure we take advantage of that core group right now.

"When you look at your team, you have to be honest with yourself and ask if this team can compete and win it all. I believe this team (can). A lot will occur between now and November, but you have to start with a point of optimism."

For the first time since Buono took over the Lions in 2003, he won't have Dave Dickenson to rely on as his quarterback. Dickenson signed as a free agent with Calgary this off-season.

Buck Pierce and Jarious Jackson battled throughout camp for the starting role with the Lions.

Pierce came out on top and gets the nod tonight.

But just because Pierce starts the season as the No. 1 QB, he knows that doesn't mean he will finish on top of the depth chart.

"Jarious and I have sat down and said, it's Week One," Pierce said. "The CFL season is long and hard, you take a lot of hits. The team is going to need both of us."

The Stamps closed practice this week to shield the things they are trying to do with a revamped defence.

Pierce said the Lions will need to get a feel of what the Stamps are doing before opening up their playbook.

"We have to be consistent early," Pierce said. "We don't have a lot of film on these guys. We have to stay patient and take our shots when they come."

Things are much more clear for the Calgary offence. Aside from three new starters on the offensive line, the playmakers remain the same.

Henry Burris is once again the man at the helm, but even he is anxious to see the difference Hufnagel has made as head coach.

"You are curious to see how things will work," Burris said. "We'll see a real offensive game plan against a real defensive game plan.

"To play B.C. is a good yardstick because they are the class of the league. Everybody wants to beat them.

"This is a chance for us to see where we're at as a team. We're going to do everything we can to get a victory."


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