CFL West preview: Blue Bombers aim for rare three-peat

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros (8) throws the ball against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during first half football action in the 108th CFL Grey Cup in Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, December 12, 2021 (Nathan Denette/CP).

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have a chance to start entering the dynasty conversation this year. 

The two-time defending Grey Cup champions have a chance to be the first team to win three titles in a row since Warren Moon led Edmonton to five consecutive titles from 1978 to ’82. 

The Bombers have become the class of the CFL with a dominant defence, a league-best offensive line and a quarterback in Zach Collaros, whose career was heading in the wrong direction before he was acquired by Winnipeg in a late-season trade in 2019. 

The Saskatchewan Roughriders have been right with the Bombers in the past two CFL West finals before ultimately falling short. This year, the Roughriders have the added incentive of hosting a Grey Cup game in Regina. 

Meanwhile, the Calgary Stampeders haven’t been in the Grey Cup game the past two seasons — which is a rarity. The last time the Stamps went three years in a row without being in the championship game was from 2009 to ’11. 

We previewed the East Division on Monday, now here’s a look at the West Division with teams listed in order of predicted finish. 

SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS 

Last season: 9-5, second in West Division, lost in West final 

Head coach: Craig Dickenson (22-10 in two seasons in CFL, both with Saskatchewan. Has lost in past two West finals) 

Starting quarterback: Cody Fajardo (Entering sixth season in CFL, third with Saskatchewan) 

The skinny 

Like the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who have lost two Grey Cups in a row against Winnipeg, the Roughriders have been stuck at the West final stage the past two seasons thanks to those same Blue Bombers. Despite having winning records the past four seasons, the Roughriders have not advanced to the Grey Cup game. In fact, they haven’t been to the title tilt since they won the championship at home in 2013 — the last team to do so. Dickenson and Fajardo are back along three excellent receivers in Shaq Evans, Kyran Moore and Duke Williams, though the team lost top running back William Powell to Ottawa. Defensively, the Roughriders’ big free-agent addition was former Calgary linebacker Darnell Sankey, the league’s leading tackler. 

WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS 

Last season: 11-3, first in West Division, won Grey Cup 

Head coach: Mike O’Shea (67-55 in seven seasons in CFL, all with Winnipeg. Has won the past two Grey Cups) 

Starting quarterback: Zach Collaros (Entering 11th season in CFL, third with Winnipeg. CFL’s most outstanding player last season) 

The skinny 

It obviously is very hard to three-peat. But these Bombers have the look of a team that will be tough to knock off come playoff time. Collaros is the reigning MOP, and he’s joined by 2021 top defensive player Adam Bighill and top offensive lineman Stanley Bryant. The Bombers did lose star running back Andrew Harris to Toronto and receivers Kenny Lawler and Darvin Adams to Edmonton and Ottawa, respectively, but the team has depth in the backfield (hello Johnny Augustine) and signed veteran receiver Greg Ellingson to help in that department. Defensively, the Blue Bombers were the best team in the CFL last season easily — and the nucleus returns. 

CALGARY STAMPEDERS 

Last season: 8-6, third in West Division, lost in West semifinal 

Head coach: Dave Dickenson (61-23-2 in five seasons in CFL, all with Calgary. Won 2018 Grey Cup) 

Starting quarterback: Bo Levi Mitchell (Entering 10th season in CFL, all with Calgary. Two-time CFL MOP (2014, ’18) 

The skinny 

Mitchell has the best resume of any CFL quarterback, but he hasn’t been the same in recent years — with injuries and inconsistency becoming issues. If Mitchell can return to top form, the Stampeders figure to be one of the top teams in the CFL. But if there are problems, the Stampeders also have a promising backup in Jake Maier, who looked good when replacing Mitchell last year. After appearing in three Grey Cup games in a row, the Stampeders have lost in the West semifinal each of the past two seasons. That’s simply not good enough for an organization that has been as good as any in the CFL over the last few decades. GM John Hufnagel didn’t make huge changes in free agency, so he seems to believe the talent is there for the team to return to elite status. 

B.C. LIONS 

Last season: 5-9, fourth in West Division, missed playoffs 

Head coach: Rick Campbell (49-71-2 in seven seasons in CFL, one with B.C. Won Grey Cup with Ottawa in 2016) 

Starting quarterback: Nathan Rourke (Entering second season in CFL, both with B.C.) 

The skinny 

The big story is Rourke, the rare Canadian quarterback to be a No. 1 starter heading into the season after the retirement of veteran Michael Reilly. The product of Oakville, Ont., who played his college ball at Ohio, looked good in the pre-season and was 52-for-82 for 754 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions as the backup last year. The Lions scooped up veteran QB Antonio Pipkin after he was cut by Toronto in the pre-season and also have another Canadian pivot in Michael O’Connor. On defence, a key player figures to be two-time CFL all-star defensive back Delvin Breaux Sr., a former New Orleans Saint who sat out last season. 

EDMONTON ELKS 

Last season: 3-11, fifth in West Division, missed playoffs 

Head coach: Chris Jones (53-37 in five seasons in CFL — two with Edmonton and three with Saskatchewan. He last coached Edmonton in 2014 and ’15, capturing a Grey Cup in the final year) 

Starting quarterback: Jones hadn’t named one as of Monday. Veteran Nick Arbuckle seems to be the best bet.

The skinny 

Jones is back for his second go-around at the helm of Edmonton after serving as defensive co-ordinator for Toronto in the latter part of the 2021 season. He has his work cut out for him. The Elks were a disaster last season, not winning a single game at home before firing their team president, GM and coach. The Elks are the only team in the CFL without an obvious No. 1 quarterback to start the season. Arbuckle had good moments in two seasons as a backup with Calgary, but has seen his career stall recently — and he missed the final pre-season game with a hand injury. Fellow QB Taylor Cornelius also has CFL experience with Edmonton last year. Whoever throws the ball will have a top receiver — Kenny Lawler led the league in receiving yards last year with Winnipeg.

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