Bombers, Lions the teams to beat

B.C Lions wide receiver Geroy Simon (R) signs autographs for fans during a Grey Cup celebration...

B.C Lions wide receiver Geroy Simon (R) signs autographs for fans during a Grey Cup celebration night at BC Place in Vancouver, British Columbia, last year. (REUTERS)

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:59 AM ET

WINNIPEG - The team to beat in the CFL this season? That appears rather obvious.

"B.C. is the team to beat, because they won the championship last year," the league's top defensive player, Jovon Johnson of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, said.

By extension, then, Johnson's Bombers, who lost to the Lions in the 2011 Grey Cup, should be the team to beat in the East.

Johnson, though, stayed clear of that notion like he's sworn off Twitter controversies.

He's not alone.

In short, the Bombers are lousy frontrunners.

Take last season's Cinderella-like, 7-1 start, after which they went into the tank, winning just three of their next 10 to finish 10-8.

Show the Bombers an underdog, though, and they'll want to walk it, feed it, groom it and take it home.

"The underdog role is always good," Johnson said. "Because it puts the pressure on the other team."

That's how the Bombers will kick off 2012, against the Lions in Vancouver, scene of Winnipeg's Grey Cup crime last year.

B.C. is expected to be as good, if not better, while the world has the Bombers right where they want to be: almost nobody's pick to win it all.

Translation: the Grey Cup rematch will be more lopsided than the original.

"The guys in this locker-room, we kind of like that," quarterback Buck Pierce said. "We kind of like that feeling. A lot of the guys from last year, so many people were counting us out right from the get-go. We proved a lot of people wrong. We're going to take that same attitude into this season."

With four straight road games to start -- an unheard-of schedule the Bombers hoped would allow them to get their new stadium ready -- they'll need all the help they can get if they want to repeat in the East.

But Pierce figures any questions about who's the team to beat are a tad premature, anyway.

"The CFL's crazy," Pierce said. "B.C.'s riding on a lot of momentum. But it has been six months, and changes have been made as well. I'm not going to come out and say anybody's the team to beat. I'm confident in what we have here and what we can do."

With Toronto and Hamilton boasting new head coaches and starting quarterbacks, Winnipeg is not the sexy pick to defend its division title.

Losing all-stars on the offensive (Brendon LaBatte) and defensive (Odell Willis) lines, plus the retirement of venerable nose tackle Doug Brown, has turned the Bombers into more of a curiosity than a contender in many minds.

"We feel we have made improvements," Pierce said. "If you walk through our locker-room and look at the guys we have, and really look at the talent we have -- if you've been out here to training camp and see what we can do -- you'd be pretty excited about it. I am."

When healthy, the Bombers project seven different starters from the team that played in the Grey Cup, including two on the offensive line.

Because of injuries, they'll field 11 new starters, Week 1 -- three of whom will try to protect No. 4.

The regular season doesn't wait for anyone.

"Ready or not, here it comes," Pierce said.

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @friesensunmedia


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