- You ain't seen nothing yet: It will be pretty difficult for the Bisons to improve on their 2007 campaign, where they went 8-0 in the regular season and 4-0 in the playoffs, claiming the Vanier Cup with a 28-14 win over St. Mary's. A season that great breeds lofty expectations for future years, and the Bisons may not be able to catch lightning in a bottle again. If they can live up to the pressure and repeat despite the turnover from last year, that would be pretty amazing.
- They've come a long, long way together:That Vanier win was a bit of an unusual experience for Manitoba, though, as they hadn't claimed a national football championship since their back-to-back Vanier victories in 1969 and 1970.
- The West is the best: Last season's Vanier victory also was an unusual one for Canada West. No Western Canadian team had won the Vanier since Saskatchewan's 24-17 triumph over Concordia in the 1998 title game.
- You've got another thing coming: In most sports, back-to-back championships tend to be rather rare. That's not the case with the Vanier Cup, though, as four of the last seven Vaniers were won back-to-back (St. Mary's took the 2001 and 2002 titles, while Laval won in both 2003 and 2004). Manitoba will have a tough time trying to repeat, as they've lost 13 of last year's starters, but there's plenty of precedent to show that back-to-back championships are possible at this level.
Coach: Brian Dobie, who's entering his thirteenth season at the helm of the Bisons. Dobie won the Frank Tindall Trophy as the CIS Coach of the Year for the Bisons' campaign in 2001, where they won the Hardy Trophy as Canada West champions and the Mitchell Bowl (between the OUA champion and Canada West champion), but came up short against St. Mary's in the Vanier Cup. He's been named Canada West's coach of the year five times, and has spent 34 years coaching football at the high school and university levels. His regular-season record with Manitoba is 55-40-1-1, and his playoff record is 9-6. Dobie also played with the Bisons in the early 1970s.
Co-ordinators: Stan Pierre is the Bisons' assistant head coach and defensive co-ordinator. This will be his eighth year of coaching with the Bisons. He also played five seasons with them, beginning in 1989. According to the Bisons' coaching roster (which doesn't seem to have been updated recently, as it still says that Dobie will be entering his twelth year with the team while the more recent previews say he's going into his thirteenth), the Bisons don't have anyone listed as an offensive or special-teams co-ordinator. There's a good chance Vaughan Mitchell will hold the offensive co-ordinator slot, though. Mitchell is a long-time Bisons' coach who held the offensive co-ordinator role from 1999-2002. According to the coaching roster on the Bisons' site, Mitchell now has the title of Protections and Run Game Co-ordinator, as well as running backs coach. According to the Bisons' training camp roster, he's been promoted to full offensive co-ordinator. The training camp roster also says that Dobie will co-ordinate the special teams himself, with help from Lloyd Orris (running backs and special teams coach) and Dimitris Scouras (kickers coach).
Enrolment: 23,640 undergrads, 3,160 grad students [according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada].
Alumni in the CFL: According to Duane's July list, Manitoba has seven alumni in the CFL. That's tied with Laval for the fifth-best number among CIS schools. They've also got quite the geographic distribution: every team except Hamilton has a Manitoba alumnus. The alumni are B.C. offensive lineman Lorne Plante, Edmonton defensive lineman Justin Cooper, Calgary safety Wes Lysack, Saskatchewan kicker Jamie Boreham, Winnipeg offensive lineman Matt Sheridan, Toronto safety Chris Hardy and Montreal linebacker Cory Huclack. Another notable Manitoba football alumnus is Israel Idonije, a defensive tackle with the Chicago Bears.
Famous non-football alumni: Media mogul Izzy Asper; former Chief Justice of Canada Brian Dickson; Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz; former Minister of Transport and notable independent MP David Kilgour; communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase "The medium is the message"; former Manitoba premier and Governor-General Edward Schreyer; Let's Make a Deal host Monty Hall; and President of the Treasury Board Vic Toews.
Three-year record: 20-3, for an astounding .870 winning percentage. During that span, they outscored opponents by an average of 16 points per game.
2007 units ranking: The Bisons' offence ranked 12th in CIS competition last year with an average of 25.8 points scored per game, 9.8 per cent above league average. Their defence was the real key to their success, though: they conceded a measly 13.8 points per game, fourth-best in CIS competition and 41.4 per cent better than the league average.
Key losses: The Bisons lost a total of 13 players from last year's squad, four on offence and nine on defence. Defensive end Justin Cooper, defensive lineman Simon Patrick and cornerback Mike Howard were all Canada West all-stars last season: their presence will be missed on the 2008 Bisons. Cooper's departure in particular is a big loss for the team, as he was named Canada West's outstanding lineman last season. The Bisons also lost two of their starting offensive linemen, so the new trench warriors will need to step up on both sides of the ball.
Returning starters: The Bisons have many of their top offensive players returning, including quarterback John Mackie, receivers Terry Firr, Simon Blaszczak and Randy Simmons, and running back Matt Henry. Henry finished fifth in Canada West with 616 rushing yards (on 104 carries, giving him a 5.9 yards per carry average) and tied for second in Canada West with eight touchdowns. He suffered a severe leg injury in the Vanier Cup game, but should be back in form when the season starts. Makie had a solid year as well, finishing seventh in Rob's QB rankings with 6.9 adjusted yards per pass attempt, 19 per cent above conference average. He completed 150 of 238 passes last year for 2022 yards, but threw eight interceptions along with his nine touchdown passes. He was also named the Vanier Cup offensive MVP.
Players to watch: Keep an eye on linebacker Jim Jeavons, defensive lineman Kenton Onofrychuk and cornerback Ryan Payette: they're the only defensive starters returning from last year. For the Bisons to have success, they'll have to use their experience to weld a group of rookies and former backups into a cohesive defensive unit.
For future reference: Offensive lineman Doug Amouzouvi has impressed in camp. He's 6’5” and 330 pounds, huge by CIS standards, but has just made the transfer from the defensive line to the offensive line. Nevertheless, as Pierre McGuire often says, "You can't teach size!"
Schedule(swing games in bold):
Aug. 30 vs. Regina
Sep. 6 at Calgary
Sep. 13 vs. UBC
Sep. 19 at Alberta
Oct. 3 at SFU
Oct. 11 vs. Saskatchewan
Oct. 18 vs. Calgary
Oct. 24 at Regina
Defending the Vanier Cup won't be easy for the Bisons: they've lost a lot of their stars, while other Western teams like Saskatchewan, Calgary and Regina have reloaded and will be out to knock off the defending champions. Their schedule doesn't help either, with two tough tilts against both Regina and Calgary. Fortunately, they have home-field advantage against Saskatchewan, which may be a factor. I don't see them going undefeated again, but they'll be a team to contend with and they may make a run in the playoffs.
Prediction: A 7-1 campaign.
(Contributors to this preview: Rob Pettapiece, Duane Rollins.)