The Saskatchewan Roughriders will encounter something this year that they haven't experienced in nearly a decade: moderate expectations.
Sure, there'll be the foolish fans who'll expect them to win every game by 20 because those fans don't know anything about the league. They don't know any better. But among knowledgeable fans who follow the game, they recognize that the Riders aren't regarded as a powerhouse entering this season.
It's a switch from recent years. From 2003 to 2010, the Riders reached the Western Final six times and the Grey Cup game three times. They won the Grey Cup in 2007, and came very close in 2009 and 2010.
But an abysmal 5-13 season last year left fans disappointed, pundits perplexed, and many wondering how many changes would occur.
The off-season brought a complete overhaul. Corey Chamblin is the new head coach. Darian Durant is, thankfully, back at quarterback, but his offensive personnel is very different. The defence has a lot of new faces, too.
Even the stadium is different, with stadium seats, new end zone seating and some added video screens, which will allow the Riders to accommodate more fans, while supposedly enhancing the fan experience.
Durant should be better for no other reason than his offensive line will be better. It could take time for the linemen to gel, but even in Week 1, they should be better than they were a year ago. An improved offensive line will mean more time for Durant, which will yield better results.
The Riders brought in East Division all-star centre Dominic Picard and CFL all-star guard Brendon Labatte at the start of the free agent signing period. The interior of the Riders line should be as good as any in the league. If the Riders find the right players at the pivotal tackle position, then their line will be as good as any in the league.
When the Riders signed Picard and Labatte, it meant they wouldn't be able to keep all-star receiver Andy Fantuz, which is unfortunate. But if given a choice between two all-star offensive linemen, or an all-star receiver, I'll take the all-star linemen.
You win and lose games on the offensive and defensive lines. The B.C. Lions proved that last year when they won the Grey Cup. People talk about how great quarterback Travis Lulay was for the Lions, and how much the acquisition of receiver Arlan Bruce helped B.C.'s offence. But they forget that the Lions offensive line surrendered a sack a game after Labour Day. B.C.'s defence also had the second-most sacks in the league.
The Riders' defence is riddled with question marks. Jerrell Freeman is trying out for the NFL; if he comes back, it likely won't happen until after Labour Day. The great Barrin Simpson has retired. The defensive secondary looks like it could be vulnerable. When your most proven defensive back is your safety, it is a cause for concern.
The wildcard is off-season acquisition Odell Willis. In the first half of last season, the all-star defensive end was a candidate for league MVP. But his production waned in the second half, and he fell out of favour in Winnipeg.
If the "Mayor of Swaggerville" regains his form from late 2010 and early 2011, then he'll be good for a double digit sack count, and the attention he'll draw from opposing offensive linemen will make the rest of the Riders' defensive line that much better. But if he struggles, then Willis could become a distraction – a word that was applied to him during last year's Grey Cup.
Chamblin is young at age 35, and the Riders mark his first opportunity as a head coach. Many will question his age and his lack of head coaching experience, but he wouldn't be the first under-40 coach to succeed in the CFL. He's a good communicator and motivator; we'll find out soon whether he's a good head coach.
Nobody should be surprised if the Riders make the playoffs, especially if Willis plays like an all-star. But to expect this team to return to the Grey Cup might be asking too much. Expect them to be good, but not great, in 2012.