The Canadian Football League has been around for a long time, in fact, there was a time when the CFL stole players from the NFL, luring them with more money than they were making south of the border. But, those days are long gone, but there is one thing that the Grey Cup---the coveted prize of Canadian football---has over United States football and that is that this Sunday's title tilt will be the 102nd renewal compared to just 48 in the four down game.
On Sunday, November 30, the Eastern champion Hamilton Tiger Cats will take on the Western champion Calgary Stampeders for Earl Grey's chalice, which will be accompanied by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And, in a true surprise, the Grey Cup will feature the number one seeds from both divisions, unusual for sure.
It's been a tale of two seasons in the 2014 edition of the CFL. For the first half of the season, the East was dreadful and the West was superior, so bad that there were calls for eliminating the divisions and going to an English Premier League style table and taking the top six teams in the standings. During that time former UB Quarterback Drew Willy and surprise Winnipeg Blue Bombers were looking like a power.
Then things changed. The East teams started to turn the table on the West and the East, which at one time had all four of its teams at least four games under .500 started to gather themselves. The Montreal Alouettes were 1-7, then went 8-2 to finish 9-9 at season's end. The ninth loss was the killer; an final week loss at Hamilton that gave the Tiger-Cats the division title and a bye into the Division Final. Montreal went into that game needing to win or lose by seven points or less to claim the top seed. Hamilton won the game 29-15 and waited for Montreal to beat British Columbia in the Eastern Semifinal to set up the rematch.
The CFL allows the fourth place finisher in one division to "crossover," and take the three seed of the other division if they have a better record and that occurred this year as the Lions were one game better than the 8-10 Toronto Argonauts. The Lions went East and were pummeled by the Alouettes, which set up a war of words between the Als and the Tabbies. Well, most of the talk came from Montreal. While the Alouette players yapped about going to Hamilton and winning, the Ticats stayed quiet in preparation for the big game.
For years, the Hamilton Tiger Cats played at venerable Ivor Wynne Stadium, but in 2012, the old dog was torn down to be replaced by Tim Horton's Field, a 24,344 seat state-of-art stadium. The Ticats spent 2013 playing their home games at Guelph University and despite being nomads, won the East before losing to Saskatchewan in the 2013 Grey Cup.
The new stadium wasn't ready for the start of the 2014 season, so once again, Hamilton played home games away from home. The new digs were ready for their Labor Day clash against arch-rival Toronto, even though the stadium wasn't fully completed. Call it what you want, but the Ticats were 7-0 at what Chris Berman calls the 'Donut Box," and for the first time since 1998 and 1999, the Cats are making consecutive Grey Cup games.
The Cats are led by coach Kent Austin. Austin is no stranger to success in the CFL game. He won two Grey Cups as a player with Saskatchewan (1989) and British Columbia (1994), and also coached Saskatchewan to the 2007 Grey Cup title. The 1989 Grey Cup game, a 43-40 win over Hamilton has been called the greatest Grey Cup game ever, a thriller that ended on a 36 yard field goal by Dave Ridgway at the final gun.
The Tiger-Cats are led by quarterback Zach Collaros, a University of Cincinnati product who came over from Toronto prior to the 2014 season. It's been a down year for offense and certainly for quarterbacking in the league this year, but Collaros has been steady this season.
The Calgary Stampeders have been the dominant team not only in the west, but in the league. A glossy 15-3 regular season and a dominating 43-18 win over Alberta rival Edmonton (12-6) in the Western Final will make the Stamps a heavy favorite in the Cup. They are led by running back Jon Cornish, a native of British Columbia who comes home to play in the nations' biggest game. In a league where there are only three downs, it's tough to commit to the run, but the Stamps do and Cornish, despite missing games with injuries carried 139 times for 1,082 yards, an average of 7.8 yards per carry. In the Western Final, he carried 18 times for just 54 yards, but he caught four passes for 120 yards. He will be Hamilton's marked man for to be sure.
The quarterback is Bo Levi Mitchell, a name that most of you have never heard of. Mitchell was a star at Division 1-AA Eastern Washington, where he led the Eagles to the championship in 2010, rallying EWU from a 19-0 deficit to a 20-19 win over Delaware. Mitchell won the Walter Payton Award as the best player in 1-AA in 2011 and after not getting bypassed in the 2012 NFL draft signed with the Stampeders. He's battled injuries in his CFL career, but when healthy, he's been the best QB in the league, leading all passers with a 98.3 rating.
The Stamps are coached by John Hufnagel, who quarterbacked at Penn State, played three years in the NFL before embarking on a 12 year playing career in the CFL. He coached the Stamps to the 2008 Grey Cup title and was the Grey Cup runner-up in 2012, all with Calgary. The winning coach Sunday will add a second Grey Cup title to their respective coaching resumes.
The game is set for November 30 with a 6:30 PM kickoff. Imagine Dragons will provide the halftime entertainment and the game usually is full of excitement and drama. ESPN 2 will carry the game live beginning at 6 PM, and will use the TSN feed and their announcers, Chris Cuthbert and Glen Suitor. The CFL is not the NFL and with the exception of ESPN's Chris Berman, the league doesn't get much mention in the United States media, but the league has been around for many years and might--just might---deserve a peek to cap off your Thanksgiving football weekend.