This is going to be a good team. I realize I tend to say that about almost every team in my CFL previews this year, but with Montreal it is easy to express analytical optimism for many reasons.
First is quarterback Troy Smith. There is nothing really physically outstanding about Smith; he is 6'0, 224 pounds with a good arm and good mobility. I sum him up as thick and quick. But there is something about him, a genuine confidence expressed through experience in football at a high level. An articulation and intelligence that you "pick up on" when he is in front of a camera talking about himself and the league. And a unique level of humility that says in order to perform, I have to learn; not the other way around.
I have always looked at humility as a strength and maturity; arrogance as a weakness and insecurity. When you consider the short amount of preparation time Smith experienced last year, his solid on field performance in yes, limited games, was very impressive. You have to feel good that as the team's starter from the outset, improvement is inevitable.
I know of the other Alouettes QBs, but I would be immensely surprised if, outside of injury, Smith is not the No. 1 quarterback wearing No. 1. And with Anthony Calvillo retired, I am sure Smith looks at this training camp as a career opportunity, not a wait-and-see situation.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Alouettes have an exceptional unit with just one unknown: who will play middle linebacker now that Shea Emry is an Argonaut? This issue is more a ratio adjustment problem than a personnel problem.
It would be great if you could replace a Canadian with another good Canadian but if not, you will have a market of linebackers ready throughout the United States. The two positions of numeric wealth in NCAA football are running back and linebacker; simply said there are a lot of them.
Last year Montreal was first in some significant defensive categories: fewest yards allowed at 314 per game, fewest rushing yards allowed at 88 per game; fewest 2nd down conversions allowed, most two and outs forced, most quarterback sacks with 59, and a key one, most takeaways with 56. All they need is to find or develop a new middle linebacker. That's a manageable situation.
On offence, Brandon Whitaker will be back and with Jamel Richardson and SJ Green it is hard to argue that the two best slot receivers are anywhere but Montreal.
The Chad Johnson experiment will be an interesting one. He's closer to 40 than 30 but the bottom line is can he still move like he is 20? Answers will be given early but if he is competing for a roster spot with someone younger and equal in talent, the younger guy will get it. The single biggest mediating factor in athletic performance is age. You know it is coming but you can't stop it, you can only slow it down.
Special teams will improve with Larry Taylor and Duron Carter as returners, but also a rededication to blocking effectively for the returners as a priority.
And finally there is Tom Higgins, the new Alouettes head coach. More than a few years removed from coaching, Higgins is about as much a polar opposite from the previous full-time head coach as you can get. And that is a good thing. Higgins is pragmatic and calculated; he's an administrator and no one knows the rules better. He's been named CFL coach of the year and is a Grey Cup-winning coach. He is not the next youthful flash of success, quite the opposite.
This decision comes from the experience of decades being the front man of the organization. This one is logical and safe compared to last year's decision, which was risky and a novelty.
It does not happen very often but every now and then games are determined by experience or inexperience with CFL rules. This year, that's an advantage with Higgins in Montreal.
In the East, Toronto has to keep Ricky Ray healthy for 18 games because assuming the next Zack Collaros is on the roster is unrealistic. Hamilton has to continue to improve and may be the team to beat early. Ottawa is brand new, if they make the playoffs it will be a successful season.
So where does that leave Montreal? With a new coach, new quarterback, new receivers, and maybe more adversity than any CFL team last year, they still finished 8-10, only three games out from first place. Another 8-10 finish this year is very unlikely; expect Montreal to surprise come November in BC.