Join sports handicapper Ian Cameron as he provides a betting preview of the West Division for the upcoming 2016 Canadian Football League season that kicks off on Thursday.
Saskatchewan Roughriders (3-15 SU, 5-12-1 ATS, 12-6 O/U Last Season):
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in 2015 for the Saskatchewan Roughriders who had a dismal 3-15 season which included a season ending injury to #1 QB Darian Durant, the dismissal of head coach Corey Chamblin midseason after he won the Grey Cup in Saskatchewan back in 2013 and a defense that was absolutely horrendous and couldn't get stops against anyone. In comes Grey Cup champion head coach Chris Jones to save the day? Well that is what Rider Nation is hoping for anyway.
Maybe the most significant offseason move of any team in the CFL was Saskatchewan hiring Chris Jones as not only their head coach but also their defensive coordinator, General Manager and VP Of Football Operations. Jones, a slick talking southerner from Tennessee who has brought some southern drawl into the Canadian Football League, has been the architect of numerous top defensive teams in the CFL for over a decade as a defensive coordinator and in his first stint as a CFL head coach in Edmonton, he took a bad Eskimos team and in two seasons with them, they were a playoff team getting to the West Final in his first year on the job in 2014 and then winning the Grey Cup last year. Jones has won wherever he has gone in the CFL.
Montreal won the Grey Cup in 2002 when he was their defensive line coach, now they are the second favorite at the betting odds. Calgary won the Grey Cup in 2008 when Jones was DC. Toronto won the Grey Cup in 2012 when Jones was the DC there and he notched his first Grey Cup as a head coach in Edmonton last season. I'm almost willing to blindly accept that Chris Jones in time will make this a better football team. The question is how quickly does Saskatchewan improve from last year's awful season? Jones immediately went to work revamping the roster letting veterans WR's Weston Dressler and Chris Getzlaf, DE John Chick and CB Macho Harris all walk. He brought in several players from last year's championship Edmonton team including prospective starters WR Shamawd Chambers, OL Andrew Jones and CB Otha Foster (U. West Alabama) plus special teams specialist and WR Kendial Lawrence.
The team will be better offensively just from having Darian Durant back on the field, healthy and ready to go as the veteran CFL QB apparently feels great heading into the season. The WR corps has some new faces on it and at RB Curtis Steele and Matt Walter are not an overly impressive duo on paper but the offense should at least be more stable and productive just by having Durant back and it should help having an offensive line with four of the five returning starters back this season. Last year, the OL led the CFL in rushing yards, rushing yards per game and average gain per rush but also allowed the most sacks in the CFL with 64 although a lot of that was due to QB inexperience and panic behind the line later in the season after Durant was injured.
There are still holes to fill with several players retiring from the CFL that were with Saskatchewan last season including safety Tyron Brackenridge, LB Shea Emry and DT Tearrius George on the defensive side of the football. The good news is that Jones brought in a pair of immediate impact players on defense with the additions of defensive linemen Shawn Lemon and Justin Capicciotti. The secondary is totally revamped as Chris Jones got out the hammer and crushed last year's group which was abysmal in pass defense looking to remold that unit and while it might take time, there are playmakers within this group and with a defensive wizard like Jones at the helm of this team, they are likely to improve there as the season progresses.
The Edmonton Eskimos went 26-10 SU, 23-13 ATS during the regular season in two seasons with Chris Jones as head coach in 2014 and 2015. That shouldn't be lost on anyone as this guy simply knows what it takes to win. Saskatchewan will have some bumps in the road but don't be surprised if this team is peaking late in the season and challenging for a playoff spot and possibly beyond in the West Division this season and a 3rd straight winning SU and ATS season for Chris Jones as a CFL head coach absolutely can't be ruled out.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers (5-13 SU, 8-10 ATS, 6-12 O/U Last Season)
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are hoping this is the season in which they can finally get back into the playoffs which they have failed to participate in since 2011 when they got to the Grey Cup game. The pressure is absolutely ramping up this season on 3rd year Winnipeg head coach Mike O'Shea who will be looked upon to lead this team to a better campaign after sub .500 seasons in each of the last two seasons and a 21-51 record in the last four years combined.
Winnipeg has major question marks along an offensive line that underachieved despite some solid additions prior to last year and those issues reared their ugly head in the preseason as the OL had difficulties once again holding up in pass protection for what has become an injury prone QB in Drew Willy and the ability for that offensive line to pass protect for Willy is an absolute concern and one of the things the Blue Bombers simply must shore up to have any sort of successful season because the QB depth for this team is not all that great. Matt Nichols is a solid backup option but he is still very erratic and after that, the drop off in production and experience in the CFL is immense. Making matters worse for a still questionable OL is the preseason injury to starting center Jeff Keeping who will be out 8 weeks with a knee injury and that puts even more duress on this offensive line coming into the new season.
The team brought in former BC Lions RB Andrew Harris to become their #1 back but he's had injuries and a drop in production in recent seasons so his durability and how much gas he has left in the tank is up in the air. Willy was lost for the season in Week 7 and after that, Winnipeg was forced to play Brian Brohm and Robert Marve and neither played well and both actually ended up retiring from football after the season and Nichols came to the team late but never got on track either and it's worth noting Winnipeg in their 5-13 season last year never beat a single team with a winning record. Winnipeg hired former head coach Paul LaPolice to take over as offensive coordinator so there could be some time taken for the unit to gel and that was on display in the preseason. The defense should be the strength of the team but even they will be in tough facing some very good offensive teams within the division.
Calgary and Edmonton can put up points. BC has shown offenses glimpses of potential with Jonathon Jennings at the controls and Saskatchewan is going to be a capable offensive team as along as Darian Durant can stay healthy and on the field. If the offensive line can improve and give Drew Willy time be effective in the pocket, there is some potential for Winnipeg to put a competitive team on the field but all bets are off if the Bombers OL struggles again and Willy ends up hurt again. This division looks too tough on paper in terms of the four other teams to expect Winnipeg to take major strides forward. This team could end up being your cellar dweller in the CFL West in 2016.
BC Lions (7-11 SU, 8-9-1 ATS, 10-8 O/U Last Season)
The BC Lions , top betting picks to win Grey Cup, managed to make the playoffs in the West Division with a very unimpressive 7-11 record only because Winnipeg and Saskatchewan had abominations of a season behind them, however, the Lions did have a changing of the guard at QB as dual threat QB Jonathon Jennings clearly established himself as the future #1 guy under center for BC. Jeff Tedford lasted just one season as Lions head coach before he stepped down (AKA was likely going to be fired).
Wally Buono (who has been in the CFL as a coach and GM for 30+ years) has returned to the sidelines to take over as head coach of the Lions after being only the GM for the last 4 years and it would be unwise to forget the last time he patrolled the sidelines with BC as head coach, they won the Grey Cup back in 2011. Buono kept both BC coordinators last season with Khari Jones returning as OC and Mark Washington returning as DC. However, before we assume this team is a Grey Cup contender again just because Buono is back as the HC, there are still several questions on this football team.
Can Jennings have a very productive full season as a #1 QB and continue to improve? Can the defense get back to being one of the better units in the CFL with a healthy Solomon Elimimian back on the field? The BC Lions will be an immensely better defense with Elimimian back as he is one of the single biggest impact players in the CFL and him alongside Adam Bighill are a daunting combination at LB. On offense, they resigned their top WR Emmanuel Arceneaux which is huge.
The offensive line was spotty at times last season but they have a solid mix of young players and veterans this season and should takes strides forward and playing in front of a mobile QB should help their cause too. I think there is some $$ to be made with BC as they are a team that could be an ATS sleeper this season but how that translates into SU wins and being able to compete with the West Division behemoths like Edmonton and Calgary remains to be seen.
Calgary Stampeders (14-4 SU, 8-10 ATS, 5-13 O/U Last Season)
The Calgary Stampeders were upended by the Edmonton Eskimos in last year's West Finals as they attempted to repeat as Grey Cup champions after winning it all in 2014 but year after year, this team is in the hunt to win a division title and a Grey Cup and I expect nothing less from the perennially consistent Stamps in 2016. They should enjoy an absolutely seamless transition with long time head coach John Hufnagel retiring from coaching (although he remains the GM) and handing over the reins to offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson who has been with the Stampeders in a coaching capacity since 2009.
Calgary will have a new face at running back after veteran RB Jon Cornish retired after last season due to his recent injury problems but Jerome Messam who was brought in to Calgary late last season was resigned and figures to be the starting RB for the Stamps this season. Calgary should have a very good offense again led by QB Bo Levi Mitchell who is clearly one of the best QB's in the CFL and although they lose a pair of dynamic receivers from last season with Eric Rogers and Jeff Fuller departing for the NFL, the team did bring in veteran WR Bakari Grant in the offseason to join the likes of Anthony Parker, Joe West and Marquay McDaniel.
Rogers being gone really hurts as he led the CFL in TD's and receiving yards but the Stamps did a solid job addressing that void. The defense should be extremely good once again as they have added to an already strong defense by bringing in Taylor Reed at LB from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats which should provide a strong replacement for the departed Juwan Simpson and Reed should form an awesome LB combo with Deron Mayo.
Charleston Hughes remains the ring leader of a ferocious defensive line for Calgary and the secondary is loaded with playmakers so the stop unit should be one of the best in the CFL again for Calgary in 2016. This organization is extremely well run and they still possess some of the best Canadian player depth in the league which is vital considering a certain number of Canadian players must suit up in every game. Calgary will be in the mix for another division title and Grey Cup in 2016.
Edmonton Eskimos (14-4 SU, 11-7 ATS, 9-9 O/U Last Season)
The Edmonton Eskimos will have a target on their back as they look to repeat as Grey Cup champions following a tremendous 2015 season but it will be a challenge because the offseason was not particularly kind to the Eskimos. Edmonton saw their very smart and winning head coach Chris Jones depart after he completely turned around this franchise in two seasons taking them to the playoffs in his first year and leading them to a Grey Cup in his second year. He took the head coach and GM job in Saskatchewan with the Roughriders but the Eskimos moved quickly to hire a quality replacement in Jason Maas, a former CFL QB, who was the architect of a very prolific Ottawa Redblacks offense as their OC last season.
Maas will be installing his familiar up tempo, no huddle offense in Edmonton and the Eskimos took very well to the change in offensive scheme in training camp and this offense could be downright scary for the opponent as the Eskimos were hard to stop late in the season led by QB Mike Reilly who has quickly become an elite QB in this league. Edmonton does have some personnel issues to deal with though as Chris Jones managed to woo several of his starters in Edmonton with him to Saskatchewan including WR Kendial Lawrence, WR Shamawd Chambers, OL Andrew Jones and DB Otha Foster who have all gone with Jones to Saskatchewan.
Meanwhile, two key members of last year's very solid Edmonton secondary left for the NFL with Dexter McCoil signed by the San Diego Chargers in the offseason and Aaron Grymes heading to the Philadelphia Eagles. In addition, starting DL Willie Jefferson will be in Washington Redskins training camp next month so there are some holes to fill on defense for Jason Maas in his first year as head coach and matters got even worse with the season ending ruptured Achilles injury in training camp to one of their top corners John Ojo.
On the positive side, Edmonton signed veteran receiver Chris Getzlaf from Saskatchewan to bolster an already solid receiving corps led by Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker. Edmonton has their entire offensive line intact from last season's Grey Cup winning team so there is no reason this team shouldn't have one of the best offenses in the CFL this season especially with the newly implemented no huddle attack but it is on defense where the question marks are especially in the secondary where the pass defense will have some personnel holes to fill and with former BC Lions head coach Mike Benevides. Benevides taking over as coordinator, there could be a learning curve at the onset of the season for this Edmonton defense.
The offense will be scary but the defense will in time be good but have a hard time matching the dominance on that side of the football they exhibited last season and the secondary depletion looms large and could result in Edmonton having to win a few more shootout style games in 2016 if they hope to get back to another Grey Cup.
Recommendations: BC +900 and Saskatchewan +800 at Bovada to win the Grey Cup are value laden wagers that are worth a shot IMO as both the Lions and Roughriders offer the potential to be surprise teams in this division here in the 2016 season. Saskatchewan Roughriders Over 7.5 wins at approximately -150 and asking Chris Jones to navigate this team to an 8-10 season or better is worthy of a wager as well.