The Canadian university football season is starting soon, and Out of Left Field is here to provide a look at all 27 CIS teams. Presenting: the Manitoba Bisons.
Players to watch: DE Justin Cooper, WR Terry Firr, RBs Matt Henry and Karim Lowen, QB John Makie, DT Simon Patrick, DE Justin Shaw
Head coach: Brian Dobie (12th season)
Co-ordinators: Stan Pierre (defensive), Jeff Stead (offensive), Vaughan Mitchell (protections and run game)
In '06: 9-1, lost 32-15 to Saskatchewan in conference final
Last league title: 2001
Big ones: Sept. 22 vs. Saskatchewan, Oct. 6 at Alberta
On the web: umanitoba.ca/bisons
Strengths: The Bisons pick up where they left off last season. Only four starters are gone from the team which ran off nine straight wins before losing to the U of S Huskies in the Canada West final. The team is deep in fourth- and fifth-year players and there's a feeling of having something to prove after the disappointing playoff loss to the Huskies.
Mountains to climb, rivers to cross... The Bisons have talent but must avoid putting themselves behind the eight-ball. They played turnover-free football in 2006 (only eight lost fumbles and interceptions in the regular season) but were the second-most penalized team (112 yards per game) in the country and gave up a 95-yard punt return touchdown in a home playoff game vs. Regina. If those are the biggest nits to pick, though, they must be doing well.
Centre Terry Watson is the only player gone from an O-line which enabled the Bisons to led the CIS in scoring while being nearly mistake-free in the passing game last season (Makie threw just two interceptions and was sacked only eight times in more than 200 pass attempts). Tackle Darryl Conrad and 6-foot-3, 300-lb. guard Ryan Karhut each spent time in CFL camps, which bolsters the argument the Bisons might have the country's best line, or at least the best one outside of Quebec. This seems to be where having a coach, Vaughan Mitchell, as the "protections and run game co-ordinator," pays off huge.
The skill position guys aren't slouches. Henry and Lowen provide a true 1-2 punch at tailback (1,345 yards, 19 TD in '06). Six-foot-five slotback Simon Blaszczak should have a bigger role as Terry Firr draws most of the defensive backs' attention. It's a good group, to put it mildly, although wideout Randy Simmons has ben put under team suspension.
Jordan Witzel, a former weatherman with the Canwest Global, is trying to make the Bisons as a fifth receiver. It's not a publicity stunt -- Witzel is 6-foot-6, 235 lbs. and he was a tight end for NCAA D-1 Temple University in Philadelphia at the turn of the decade. Former Queen's QB Max Bruce has transferred in to compete with Nate Friesen to be Makie's backup.
The Bisons are deep: Linebacker Cory Huclack, the Can West defensive player of the year, is gone, but projected starting 'backers Kenton Onofrychuk (fourth year), Jeff Alamoholda (fifth) and Jim Jeavons (third) have each been around the program for a while. The Bisons' only other losses on D were two players from last season's defensive tackle rotation, which means ends Justin Cooper and Justin Shaw (six sacks each in '06) might see more double-team blocks. Veteran Simon Patrick is back at the tackle spot and the secondary returns basically intact.
The D was the best in Canada West vs. the run and the pass last season. There's a fair bit to work with here.
Peter Scouras, the kicked and did some of the punting in 2006, has competition for each job. Scott Dixon, who set a Canadian Junior Football League scoring record with the Nanaimo Raiders (he also kicked the winning field goal in the CJFL final), has joined the Bisons. Dixon can also punt. Fifth-year wideout Brad Black was the primary punt returner last season.
The Bisons typically play the chaser's role in Canada West. In sports, that can foster a brash confidence that only lasts until the pressure's on against an equally strong opponent (see, Senators, Ottawa, any year before this one).
That's how it might be for Dobie's Bisons until they knock off the Saskatchewan Huskies in a playoff game, but if they are ever going to do it, this would be the year. Their lone regular-season meeting with Saskatchewan is at home, so there will be less fear of the unknown if there's a rematch in the Canada West final on Nov. 10. This is the favourite but it's a team that can be labelled as one that has to ignore the hype.
Canada West's champion will host the OUA winner in a national semi-final on Nov. 17. The Bsons could be on a collision course with the Ottawa Gee-Gees, who are a similarly veteran team built around an experienced passer and a tight defence.
That's all for now. Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.