NEW WESTMINSTER – If the Canada West preseason coaches poll is any indication, the 2016 Canada West football season could be headed towards a Hardy Cup rematch for the ages.
A year after the UBC Thunderbirds stunned the then undefeated Calgary Dinos 34-26 in the 79th Hardy Cup to claim the Canada West title, the T-Birds and Dinos enter the new season expected to duel for conference supremacy yet again.
The conference’s annual preseason coaches poll was released Monday ahead of Thursday’s conference opener between the Dinos and Manitoba Bisons in Winnipeg, with UBC and Calgary finishing tied with 23 points in the poll – both receiving three first-place votes and a pair of second-place votes from the conference’s head coaches.
Both squads enjoyed tremendous 2015 seasons, with Calgary going undefeated during the regular season before falling to UBC in the Hardy, while the T-Birds went on a remarkable run to the program’s first Vanier Cup since 1997.
Leading UBC’s charge last season was freshmen phenom Michael O’Connor, who will be back at quarterback this season for head coach Blake Nill’s team, who lost notable stars like running back Brandon Deschamps and defensive back Taylor Loffler among others.
Also out of the picture this season is 2015 conference MVP Andrew Buckley from Calgary, who is now plying his trade at quarterback for the Calgary Stampeders.
With Buckley out of the picture, along with other key offensive threats like running back Mercer Timmis – now of the Hamiton Tiger-Cats – and star receiver Rashaun Simonise – recently signed by the Cincinnati Bengals – Calgary will need some major contributions from new faces in 2016.
Slotting in behind UBC and Calgary in the coaches poll are the Saskatchewan Huskies (17 points), who under the guidance of longtime head coach Brian Towriss.are hoping 2016 is finally their season to return to the Hardy Cup. Saskatchewan hasn’t been in the big game since a 2009 loss to the Dinos.
Following up the Huskies in the poll are the Manitoba Bisons (13 points), who like Calgary will have some huge holes to fill in 2016, most notably and literally that of defensive lineman David Onyemata, who wreaked havoc last year for the Bisons along the d-line.
Onyemata turned his breakout campaign into an NFL dream, going in the fourth round of the NFL Draft to the New Orleans Saints.
That marked the third time a Canada West player went in the NFL Draft, as Onyemata joined Brian Fryer (Alberta, 1976, Washington, 8th round) and Akiem Hicks (Regina, 2014, New Orleans, 3rd round) as the only other conference players to be selected.
Also notable among Manitoba’s losses in the offseason is running back and return man Jamel Lyles. The 2015 Canada West rookie of the year left the program earlier this year and has now landed with the Westshore Rebels of the B.C. Football Conference.
Rounding out the coaches poll are the Alberta Golden Bears (8 points) and Regina Rams (6 points). Both teams failed to make the playoffs in 2015, with the Chris Morris-led Bears hoping they can leapfrog at least one team in the conference and make the postseason after coming up one game shy last season.
Meanwhile in Regina, the Rams under first-year head coach Steve Bryce will be looking to lay the foundation for success with a program that is now working with its third head coach in as many seasons.
For a complete look at each conference squad, click here.
Thursday’s opener between the Bisons and Dinos can be seen live on local Shaw TV, Shaw Direct 299, Shaw HD where available, and Access Communications’ channel 7/70.
Every Canada West football game can also be seen live and on demand on Canadawest.tv, with early bird pricing available until September 9.
2016 Canada West football coaches poll
Team/Points (first-place votes)
T1. UBC / 23 (3)
T1. Calgary / 23 (3)
- Saskatchewan / 17
- Manitoba / 13
- Alberta / 8
- Regina / 6
NOTES: Teams received 5 points for a first-place vote, 4 for a second-place vote etc. Coaches ranked the conference teams from 1-5, excluding themselves.