Calgary Stampeders (-2.5) vs. Toronto Argonauts
Sunday, Nov. 25, 6:30 p.m. ET
Rogers Centre, Toronto
I preview a lot of games every year, but this one is more special than most. I can see the home field of the Calgary Stampeders, McMahon Stadium, from my office window. It is close enough that I can stumble home with ease no matter how many strong Canadian beers I have had during the game — something I have proven more than once. These are my hometown boys.
Don’t get me wrong — the Canadian Football League is not a superior product. I would take college football or the NFL every single day over the CFL, and it’s not even close. It’s not great football. It’s a quirky and often wildly-entertaining league, though, and defense is rarely the dominant characteristic of any game.
I grew up with the CFL, so the strange rules and the characters are second nature to me. If they aren’t for you — and unless you live in Canada they almost certainly aren’t — then let me help you out:
The basic rules
The CFL does a lot of things a little differently than the NFL or college football does. Some of the differences are positive, but most are not. The biggest, of course, is that it is just three-down football. That means that teams are more aggressive, and offenses are often more productive as a result. There are plenty more oddities, too — there are 12 players per side, the field is 110 yards long, teams get a point for a missed field goal, and so on. Once you get used to it, though, the changes aren’t really a big deal.
Calgary Stampeders - Calgary finished second in the Western Division with a 12-6 record, and then they beat defending champions B.C. last weekend to make the big game. Their starting QB at the start of the season was Drew Tate, who starred at Iowa, but he was injured in the first playoff game and is out of action. In his place, Kevin Glenn, who holds 25 school records at Illinois State, is in charge. He was brilliant against B.C., so there is no concern about starting a backup.
There are a few players on this roster that American fans might recognize. Jon Cornish, the running back who is the favorite to be named CFL Most Outstanding Player, holds the single-season rushing record at Kansas — bettering Gayle Sayers, among others. Linebacker Deron Mayo is the younger brother of New England’s linebacker, and former NFL defensive rookie of the year, Jerod Mayo. Juwan Simpson started 32 games at Alabama from 2003-06, and he was freshman all-SEC while platooning with DeMeco Ryans in 2003.
The head coach is John Hufnagel. He was a starting QB at Penn State for two years, and he was sixth in Heisman voting in 1972. He won a Super Bowl as Tom Brady’s QB coach in New England in 2003, and then he spent the next three years as offensive coordinator for the Giants — during which time Tiki Barber set and then broke the franchise rushing record.
Toronto Argonauts - Toronto was 9-9 in the weaker Eastern Division, but the Argonauts upset perennial Eastern power Montreal last weekend to earn a spot in the Grey Cup, which is being played in their own home field. Their QB, Ricky Ray, is a Sacramento State alum who was third stringer for the Jets behind Chad Pennington and Quincy Carter in 2004. He is a Grey Cup champ in 2003 and 2005 for Edmonton, and he was the MVP of the game in 2005. This is his first year in Toronto. Fun fact — his nickname is Frito Ray because he worked delivering potato chips before breaking into the CFL. He has accomplished more than Glenn, but either player is capable of a big performance here, and neither team has an edge at the position.
As with Calgary there are a few names that might stand out to American fans on the roster. Backup QB Jarious Jackson was a two-year starter at Notre Dame, and he set many of the passing records that Brady Quinn broke. He spent four years as a backup for the Broncos. Cornerback Ahmad Carroll was two times all-SEC at Arkansas, and he was a first-round pick for the Packers in 2004. He was much better at committing penalties than shutting down receivers, and he bounced around to Jacksonville and the Jets before heading to Arena Football and then the CFL. Gerald Riggs Jr. is, not surprisingly, the son of Gerald Riggs. Father was a three time Pro Bowler with the Falcons, while the son rushed for 1,000 yards at Tennessee in 2004.
Head coach Scott Milanovich set passing records as a QB at Maryland, though he missed four games in 1995 — his senior year — because he was suspended for betting on college football and basketball. He spent four years with the Buccaneers — mostly on the practice roster — before serving as Tommy Maddox’ backup with the L.A. Xtreme in the XFL. As a coach he started in NFL Europe as a QB coach, and he was most recently the offensive coordinator of the Montreal Alouettes before this, his first year as a head coach.
The bottom line
This is the third time the two teams have met for the Grey Cup. Calgary won in 1971, while Toronto was victorious in 1991. Toronto won both games between the squads this year. The first, on July 7 in Toronto, was a crazy 39-36 shootout in which Drew Tate was hurt and Glenn entered in relief. On Aug. 18 in Calgary the Stampeders couldn’t run the ball and the Argos won 22-14.
Despite the 0-2 record on the season, the home game for the Argonauts, and my obvious bias, the Stampeders are the right pick at this spread. Calgary has a much better record against a much tougher division, and they beat two very good teams in the playoffs in Saskatchewan and Grey Cup favorites B.C. to get here. They are the deeper team, and John Hufnagel’s experience in big games will be a big advantage. Argo’s fans are notoriously fickle, so home field advantage will not be significant. Calgary’s passing game has been potent recently, and that will be the difference here.
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