Prize fight brewing

IAN BUSBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:45 AM ET

Last season, it was the year of the horse.

Now it's an eight-horse race for the Grey Cup in Cowtown.

The Calgary Stampeders are the defending champions and will try to overcome the daunting task of repeating, plus doing it with the pressure of a hometown title game.

While the Stamps stayed quiet during the off-season, several other teams juggled their lineups with the hopes of finding the right mix.

What it means heading into the 2009 regular season is there are hardly any givens, and that's what makes the CFL so great.

There will be minor rule changes as the league listened to suggestions from fans.

The most exciting of these is the 'wildcat' formation, which was borrowed from the NFL. The wildcat allows for the quarterback to move around and line up wherever he would like, and coaches have spent the past few months drawing up schemes.

The CFL lost more players to the NFL this off-season than in previous seasons. Gone is two-time defensive player of the year Cam Wake and 2008 special teams player of the year Dominique Dorsey, among others.

But that could be a sign the CFL is getting more respect in the U.S.

Certainly the league is attracting top coaches. A year after Marc Trestman and John Hufnagel took over the Alouettes and Stamps based on loads of NFL experience, the Argos hired Bart Andrus from the staff of the Tennessee Titans.

There are three new head coaches with longtime Riders defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall taking over the reins in Edmonton, and former Eskimos receivers coach Mike Kelly heading to Winnipeg.

The season kicks off July 1 with every team facing a few questions marks.

In Hamilton, the Tiger-Cats are trying to change a losing culture over the past six seasons. Head coach Marcel Bellefeuille has the task of doing this and he is putting his faith in a young quarterback. Can Quinton Porter become a bona fide CFL starter and lead the Ticats to a winning record for the first time since 2004?

In Toronto, the Argos are hoping to steal a move from the Als with a first-year head coach with no CFL experience. Andrus cleared out a great number of veterans while the Argos also lost their MVP to the NFL. Will the Boatmen find enough suitable replacements for the likes of Dorsey, defensive back Byron Parker and kicker Mike Vanderjagt, etc?

In Winnipeg, the Bombers have had the most turnover of the league's eight teams. There will be a lot of new players trying to mesh together with a first-year starting quarterback at the helm in Stefan LeFors. What exactly is Kelly's game plan?

In Montreal, the Alouettes have another season of Bryan Chiu, Anthony Calvillo and Ben Cahoon as a centre, QB and receiver combo. They still are the class of the East and will have the other three teams chasing them. But is this the year age catches up to them?

In Saskatchewan, the Riders survived a plethora of injuries last season to finish second in the division, but they were picked apart in free agency. The biggest loss could be defensive co-ordinator Hall. Will the Riders cope with losing the base of a great defence?

In Edmonton, the Eskimos now have Ricky Ray AND a defence. With Hall at the helm as head coach, the Eskimos could suddenly be a force because Ray is still an elite quarterback and new running back Jesse Lumsden can be explosive if he plays. Will oft-injured Lumsden stay on the field and be a force in the West?

In B.C., the Lions lost Wake and running back Stefan Logan but then cut several other veterans. Wally Buono is once again the longest-serving coach in the CFL. Is a successful nucleus still intact?

In Calgary, the Stampeders are still deep on offence with an elite quarterback. They play strong defence and special teams. Can they handle being the hunted instead of the hunters?

Let's kick this season off and find out.

ian.busby@sunmedia.ca


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