The wait is over: the Hamilton Tiger-Cats kick off their 2018 campaign in Calgary against the Stampeders on Saturday night.
The Ticats are one of a number of teams — pretty much anyone who isn’t Edmonton, Calgary or Toronto — who are tough to figure out. Will they be as good as their 6-4 record after Labour Day last year showed (with all four losses coming by one score or less) or have teams caught on to what head coach and offensive guru June Jones likes to do?
That is but one of many questions this team needs to answer in 2018. Here are three more.
1. Masoli or Manziel?
The question of “when will Johnny Manziel start a game” will hover over this team until, well, Johnny Manziel starts a game. The predictions vary wildly: from him starting in Week 2 to him getting the gig by Labour Day to him leading the team to a Grey Cup (!!). But the long and short of it is none of it is in Manziel’s hands – whether he plays or not is entirely up to Jeremiah Masoli.
Masoli was phenomenal over the final 10 games of 2017 and here are the stats to prove it: 3,032 yards, 15 touchdowns, four interceptions and 384 yards rushing. His almost 3:1 TD-to-INT ratio was second-best behind only Matt Nichols meaning Masoli protected the ball as good or better than any other QB in the league. That is not an insignificant stat. One of the knocks on Masoli is that he is too loose with the football but he obliterated that narrative over 10 games last season. If he keeps that up, the Ticats will win games and there will be no reason to put Manziel on the field.
2. Can they weather the Western storm?
Quick, how many times in the last decade has Hamilton been above .500 after the season’s first six games?
The answer is twice, 2009 and 2015.
Outside of those two seasons, the Ticats have finished the first third of the season with records of 1-5, 2-4, 3-3, 3-3, 2-4, 1-5, 3-3 and 0-6. In other words, this team starts slow and is usually forced to claw their way back into playoff contention.
The Ticats look to be in tough to reverse their early-season woes. Hamilton opens the season with five straight against West Division opponents (Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan) and seven of their first nine come against teams from the admittedly much stronger division. That could be a recipe for another horrendous start.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom for Hamilton. Hamilton tends to play Edmonton tough — they have won three of their last five at Commonwealth, and their two loses came by a combined nine points — and Winnipeg will be without quarterback Matt Nichols. If they can split with Saskatchewan, they could head into game six against Ottawa with a chance to go 4-2. It won’t be easy, but Hamilton has a chance to start the season with a few wins despite their tough schedule, which will make things much easier on them post-Labour Day.
3. Will the secondary solidify?
When mini-camp opened less than two months ago, it looked like Hamilton was going to field a very solid secondary: Courtney Stephen, Richard Leonard, Abdul Kanneh, Demond Washington and Don Unamba had the makings of a very formidable unit. Fast forward to today and Kanneh is gone, Unamba has moved to SAM, Washington has been demoted and it appears Stephen has been, too. Now it’s a lot of unknowns, as it has been for the last few seasons.
It seems like every year the team is starting from scratch in the backend save for one or two holdovers. Sometimes this unearths gems like Leonard, who was a revelation and legit rookie-of-the-year candidate last year. But it also doesn’t allow for the unit to be as cohesive as it needs to be to be successful, especially at the beginning of the season. Going up against the last two MOP-winning quarterbacks to start the season is not exactly the place you want to play an inexperienced and untested secondary.
Maybe the Ticats find another diamond in the rough like they did with Leonard a year ago, but if they don’t teams are going to have a field day throwing on them