The CFL is back, minus its Most Outstanding Player

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The 2024 Canadian Football League season kicks off on Thursday night as the Grey Cup champion Montreal Alouettes visit the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for a rematch of last year’s title game. Here are some things to know for this CFL season:

The Bombers look like the team to beat again.

The story of the league over the past four seasons has been Winnipeg’s transformation from a perennial also-ran to the CFL’s dominant franchise. The Blue Bombers won back-to-back Grey Cups in 2019 and 2021 (the 2020 season was cancelled because of the pandemic) to end a nearly three-decade-long championship drought, and they’ve now played in four straight title games. Yes, they got upset in the last two — by Toronto in 2022 and Montreal last year — but the Bombers are 40-10 over the past three regular seasons, topping the West Division each time. They are the (blue and) gold standard.

Winnipeg is once again the betting favourite to win the Grey Cup, thanks largely to journeyman-turned-star quarterback Zach Collaros. After arriving in a late-season trade in 2019 — the second time that year he was dealt — Collaros took over the Bombers’ starting job and promptly led the franchise to its first championship in 29 years, which is an eternity in a nine-team league. Beginning in 2021, he won two consecutive CFL Most Outstanding Player awards while adding another Grey Cup. Collaros did not become the first three-peat MOP since Doug Flutie, but he still threw for a career-high 4,252 yards last season while leading the league in passing TDs (33) for the third year in a row.

WATCH | Lions, B.C., prepare to host 2024 Grey Cup:

B.C. gears up for November’s Grey Cup football tournament

As B.C. gets ready for another busy sports year. This biggest one-time event will be the Grey Cup in November where the two top teams in the CFL will battle it out. Earlier this week, we spoke with the CFL’s commissioner alongside the iconic trophy, as the B. C. Lions and the league announced a big act for the halftime show.

Collaros, 35, ceded some of the spotlight last year to breakthrough running back Brady Oliveira, voted the West nominee for MOP and the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian after piling up more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and scoring a league-high 13 touchdowns for his hometown Blue Bombers.

Winnipeg’s top competition in the West looks to be the B.C. Lions. They went 12-6 last season as new quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., led the league with 4,769 passing yards and placed second with 31 TD throws — both career highs for the now 31-year-old — before the Lions lost to the Bombers in the West final.

Is Montreal the new Toronto?

In 2022, the Argonauts started the season 4-5 before their ball-hawking defence helped them go 9-2 the rest of the way (including playoffs) and beat Winnipeg as a sizable underdog in the Grey Cup. Last year, Montreal was floundering at 6-7 in mid-September before engineering an even more stunning turnaround. The Alouettes never lost again, closing the regular season with five straight wins before stomping Hamilton in the first round of the playoffs and then shocking heavily favoured Toronto 38-17 with five takeaways in the East final. In their first trip to the Grey Cup since 2010, the 8½-point-underdog Als upset Winnipeg 28-24.

Some people dismissed the 2022 Argos as a fluke, but in hindsight it’s clear that something clicked for them late that year. They followed up their Grey Cup win by going 16-2 last season before falling to Montreal in the playoffs.

The Alouettes hope to follow their rivals’ lead (minus the post-season failure) as most of their championship core returns. That includes Grey Cup MVP quarterback Cody Fajardo, big-play safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy (the East finalist for Most Outstanding Canadian) and young Canadian receiver Tyson Philpot, who scored the go-ahead touchdown with 13 seconds left in the Grey Cup. Philpot could be poised for a bigger role as Austin Mack, Montreal’s top receiver last year, tries to make it in the NFL.

The reigning MOP is MIA.

After coming off the bench in the fourth quarter to spark Toronto’s comeback Grey Cup win in 2022, Chad Kelly blossomed into a star in his first season as a starter. The nephew of Buffalo Bills legend Jim Kelly won the Most Outstanding Player award after leading the Argonauts to a league-best 16-2 record while throwing for 23 touchdowns and rushing for another eight. Last August, he signed a three-year contract extension for $1.865 million, making him the highest-paid player in the league.

Kelly threw four interceptions and lost a fumble in Toronto’s brutal upset loss to Montreal in the East final, but more big things were expected from the 30-year-old in his second season as the Argos’ starting quarterback.

Instead, Kelly will miss at least the first nine games of the regular season for violating the CFL’s gender-based violence policy. The suspension followed an investigation into a lawsuit brought by a former Argos strength and conditioning coach against Kelly for sexual harassment and the club for wrongful dismissal. The lawsuit was reportedly settled yesterday, but Kelly must still underdo assessments and complete counselling sessions before the league will allow him to play again.

In the meantime, backup Cameron Dukes will try to keep Toronto afloat. The 25-year-old served as the Argos’ short-yardage QB last season, scoring eight rushing touchdowns and passing for a couple more.

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