The 2023 CFL season kicks off on Thursday, June 8 and we get you ready for the action with our season preview.
Big questions can be asked of what fans can expect in 2023. Can the East Division bring itself up to the level of the West? Can the Winnipeg Blue Bombers return to glory after falling a point shy in the Grey Cup? Speaking of the championship game, does 2023 have another surprise winner in store? We’ll discuss all of that today.
East Division: Toronto Argonauts Enter as Champions
Football, be it of the American or Canadian variety, often carries itself with a frisson of the unexpected. “Any given Sunday” or, in the Canadian context, “Any given week” is a powerful notion. Nothing is guaranteed and, when a scant 60 minutes of play can determine a club’s entire year, you get the 2022 Grey Cup.
Someone had to come out of the East. It ended up being the Argos. But the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were back-to-back champs and once again a heavyweight. It didn’t matter last November, as Toronto fought for a deserved 24-23 victory, stunning naysayers, the Winnipeg faithful, and perhaps even some Argonauts fans too.
Toronto finished 11-7 last year, which gave them home field advantage in the East’s postseason bracket. They were neither the best offence (fifth best), nor the best defence (fourth best). Even their point differential was rather slim (+18). None of that mattered in their playoff games against the Alouettes and Blue Bombers. Grey Cup winner McLeod Bethel-Thompson is gone. In is place his backup, and fourth quarter Grey Cup hero Chad Kelly. Kurleigh Gittens Jr. led the squad in receiving with 1,101 yards.
“Alouette, je te plumerai.” So goes one of the most famous lines of a French-language children’s song in which the the eponymous bird has its feather plucked. One could argue that was the fate reserved for them in late 2022 and in early 2023. Not only did the season not conclude with a championship – they lost to Toronto in the East final – but the CFL had to take ownership of the franchise in the season’s aftermath.
In came renowned Québécois businessman and former politician Pierre Karl Péladeau in March, buying the club and providing it with some financial stability. But will there be stability on the field? CFL legend Jason Maas is head coach, which can be a good thing.
The club went 9-9 in 2022, good for second in the East. They only scored 10 more points than they conceded all year and were not especially better or worse whether they played at home (4-5) or away (5-4). In that sense they’re a strange bird to predict. How good, bad, or average are they?
Cody Fajardo gets the nod as starting QB. Eugene Lewis, who led the team in receiving yards and TDs, has flown to Edmonton. Time for Reggie White Jr. to step up. They also signed RB Caleb Evans from Ottawa.
The classic blue-collar club of the East Division. Their 2022 was by no means a train wreck (we’ll get to a couple of those) but nor was it a campaign that will live on lovingly in the hearts of Ticats fans.
As far as the East goes – and has for a few seasons – 8-10 was somehow good enough for a playoff spot. The problems weren’t they played in front of their traditionally boisterous home crowd (6-3) but when they travelled (2-7). Those issues reared their head immediately in the East semi-final with a road defeat to the Als.
Dane Evans left for Vancouver, replaced under centre by former Stampeder Bo Levi Mitchell. They’ll need all the passing yards they can get. WR Tim White will be incredibly important. In 2022 no Hamilton running backs cracked the top 10 in rushing yards or rushing touchdowns. This is a nine-team league we’re talking about. They also had the third-worst defence for total points conceded. Hamilton fans may need to be a bit patient before things get better.
If winning is positive and losing is negative, the Redblacks were in the red a lot more than they were in the black in 2022. 4-14, an ignominious 0-9 at home, and almost 100 points conceded more than they scored. Suffice to say things can only be better in 2023. At least that’s what Ottawa fans are telling themselves.
One of their few bright spots, running back Caleb Evans, went up the St. Laurence river to Montreal in the offseason. Jaelon Acklin, who led the club in receiving yards, is still around at least, as is QB Nick Arbuckle, whose 3, 292 passing yards look all right until one notices he threw for six touchdowns and 14 interceptions. At the very least, CFL sack leader Lorenzo Mauldin IV – he tallied 17 in 2022 – will look to terrorize opposing QBs once more.
The Redblacks fanbase probably shouldn’t hold its breath. But as we’ve seen often in the past, things change quickly from one year to the next, especially in a league as closely knit as the CFL.
West Division: Blue Bombers Aiming for Redemption
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
So close. The pain of the 2022 Grey Cup must have taken time to subside. Perhaps it still hasn’t fully gone away. Clear cut favourites to win their third consecutive ring, they fell 24-23 to the Toronto Argonauts. It was close, but for once in their case, not good enough.
While letting a Grey Cup slip away stings, positives must be taken from 2022. Their 15-3 win-loss record was clear and away the best in the CFL. They sported the second-best offence, the best defence and heading to IG Field was usually a disastrous proposition for visiting clubs. It also isn’t because they didn’t get the job done that they lack championship blood in their veins. They won it all in both 2019 and 2021 – 2020 did not feature a CFL season.
The terrific Zach Collaros is still under centre. Thousand-yard rusher Brady Oliveira means not everything needs to be predicated on the air game, although WR Daulton Schoen is one heck of a stud. The West is a slugfest when compared to the East, but Winnipeg has looked good three seasons in a row. Big problems would have to arise for that not to be the case again. That and a closing championship window.
2022 was an all-around pretty good year for the Lions. They sported an enviable 12-6 record,, which pegged them second in the West, and they won a playoff game against rivals the Calgary Stampeders. They were just as good away (6-3) as they were at home (6-3), and mustered one of the better point differentials in the league, having scored 525 points and only given up 405.
Quarterback Nathan Rourke played a large role in the team’s success in 2022, tossing 25 touchdowns, good for second in the CFL. He went down south and is part of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ roster now. Vernon Adams Jr. looks to be the number one guy this season. One wonders how the offence will cope with really only one obvious running back on the roster, Taquan Mizzell. WR Dominique Rhymes, who finished second in the league in both receiving yards and TDs, will have to be a big factor this season.
Who knows what might have happened if the 12-6 Stampeders had in fact hosted the 12-6 Lions in the West Division semi-final and not the other way around. The clubs shared identical and very strong regular season records but B.C. earned second place off tie-breakers. Ironically, Calgary was a far better road team (7-2) than a home team (5-4) yet still fell to their foes in Vancouver in the playoffs.
Calgary was one of only two defences to not give up 400 points in 2022 (397). They also scored 562, which put them second only behind the Blue Bombers. The departure of defensive lineman Shawn Lemon to free agency could hurt the defence. He tallied an impressive 14 sacks in 2022. Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund is still around and put QBs to the turf eight times. The biggest change, in many respects, is that the Bo Levi Mitchell era is officially over. The air game reins are handed over to Jake Maier.
It will be interesting to see which of the three West teams we’ve discussed so far earns the first round playoff bye. Winnipeg was dominant that it made solid seasons from both B.C. and Calgary seem like small fry, but the truth is the Stampeders are a pretty good football team.
The team with so much history and pride is one that hasn’t won the Grey Cup all that often. 19 appearances and only five wins. Last year the club didn’t even sniff the postseason, fishing 6-12, playing pretty bad football at home (3-6) and away (3-6). They also allowed almost 100 more points than they scored during the regular season.
One of their lone bright spots, QB Cody Fajado, is now an Alouette. Another star, linebacker Darnell Sankey, is now an XFL player. He had a CFL-best 120 tackles in 2022. Rest assured, Larry Dean, who was third with 101 tackles, is still on the roster. Moreover, another defensive weapon is still around: Pete Roberston. He finished with nine sacks last season, which is more than the team can ask for given their recent plights.
If anything is going to go their way in 2023, it will most likely be on the defensive side of the ball despite the departure of a key figure. They didn’t have a great offence last season and lost their star quarterback. This could be a rebuilding year on the prairies.
The name change made sense. The product on the field in 2022 didn’t. Like their East Division brethren the Redblacks, the Roughriders finished 4-14 and, incidentally, didn’t win a single game at Commonwealth Stadium. 2022 was a funny year for home teams in the CFL, with a number of clubs performing better on the road.
But even with those four wins away from home, the Elks were still a bad operation overall. Not only did they have the worst points differential, but it was also by a 200+ margin (354 scored, 599 conceded). There are no two ways about it: that’s awful.
Taylor Cornelius will lead the charge under centre. He was fine if unspectacular in last season. Fun fact: he also led the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. That’s both a good and bad thing. It’s nice to know Edmonton has a player who can handle multiple roles. It’s also a sign they don’t have much else going for them. Defensive end Jake Ceresna provides the defence with some backbone. He tallied 10 sacks, good for third in the CFL.
Grey Cup Prediction
This is a tough one, especially as to who can come out in the East. The race was tight between Montreal and Toronto. Maybe, just maybe, with the offseason additions the Alouettes made and more stable ownership, they can get over the East hump. On the flip side, whoever they meet from the West in the Grey Cup will be the superior team. Then again, that didn’t help the West champion last year…
BC Lions defeat the Alouettes to win the Grey Cup.