Sports·THE BUZZER

What to know for a big weekend of Canadian football

CBC Sports' daily newsletter previews Saturday's Vanier Cup and Sunday's CFL division finals.

Vanier Cup, CFL division finals on tap

The Blue Bombers celebrated a Banjo Bowl win over Saskatchewan earlier this year. Their defence will be looking to pump up the volume for Sunday's playoff rematch. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

It's a big weekend for Canadian football

After being lost to the pandemic last year, Canadian football's two biggest championships are back. On Saturday, the top university team in the country will be crowned at the 56th Vanier Cup game in Quebec City. On Sunday, the pros will fight for a spot in next week's 108th Grey Cup game when the CFL's division finals are played in Winnipeg and Hamilton.

Here's some stuff to know about all three games:

Vanier Cup: Western Mustangs vs. Saskatchewan Huskies (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)

Though Laval holds the record for most Vanier Cup victories with 10, Western has played in the title game more times than anyone. This is the 15th appearance for the London, Ont., school, which has won it seven times.

If the Mustangs are able to raise their Vanier Cup record above .500, it'll likely be due to their running game. Lead back Keon Edwards topped the country this season in rushing yards per game (139.7) and rushing touchdowns (nine). But it doesn't even seem to matter who carries the ball. In last week's 61-6 annihilation of StFX in the Mitchell Bowl, three Western backs helped the team rack up an astonishing 469 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. After Edwards (104 yards, 1 TD) and Trey Humes (91 yards, 3 TDs) put the game out of reach, third-stringer Edouard Wanadi stepped in and romped for 238 yards and three scores.

Powerful as Western's ground attack is, it was actually Saskatchewan that led the nation in yards per carry this season at 8.3. The Huskies' go-to guy is Adam Machart, who ran for 158 yards and the winning touchdown with five seconds left in last week's 14-10 Uteck Bowl nailbiter vs. Montreal. The previous week, he piled up 223 yards and three TDs in a playoff rout of Manitoba.

Saskatchewan is making its first Vanier Cup appearance since 2006. The last of its three titles came in 1998.

Given the strength of the opposing running games, Saturday's matchup is shaping up to be a land war (most Canadian university football games are). That's perfect for Quebec City's Laval Stadium, where the wind is known to wreak havoc on passing attempts and the temperature at kickoff is expected to feel like minus-13 C. Read more about how the harsh setting could impact the Vanier Cup here. Watch the game live from the coziness of your own home on the CBC TV network, CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.

CFL East final: Hamilton Tiger-Cats vs. Toronto Argonauts (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET)

Not much separates these two rivals — both literally and figuratively. Hamilton and Toronto are just a short drive apart on the Queen Elizabeth Way, and this game is a pick 'em in the betting markets. Makes sense: though the Argos (9-5) had a slightly better record than Hamilton (8-6), are playing at home (where they went 6-1) and are rested coming off a bye, their 14 opponents outscored them by a total of nine points this season. The Ticats were a robust plus-68 in point differential (second only to Winnipeg) before handling Montreal 23-12 in last week's playoff game. But the defending East champs didn't fare well against the Argos this year, losing three of their four matchups — including a 31-12 beatdown in Toronto three weeks ago with first place in the division on the line.

Hamilton's strength is its defence, which forced five turnovers last week and held CFL rushing champion William Stanback to a paltry 29 yards on 12 carries. The Ticats' defensive line dominated that game, and the D also features the East nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player — linebacker Simoni Lawrence, who had four sacks, three interceptions and a pair of touchdowns this season. Hamilton will be hunting turnovers against Toronto QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who threw 11 picks in 14 games.

CFL West final: Saskatchewan Roughriders vs. Winnipeg Blue Bombers

It's the Banjo Bowl, playoff edition. Saskatchewan vs. Winnipeg is the CFL's best rivalry, so it's a treat to see it renewed under such high stakes.

The Blue Bombers waited 29 years between championships, but now they're a good bet to win their second in a row. They didn't skip a beat coming out of the cancelled season, finishing this one with the CFL's best record (11-3), most points scored (361) and fewest points allowed (188). That means the average Winnipeg game this year ended 26-13 for the Bombers. They're eight-point favourites over Saskatchewan this Sunday, and clear favourites to hoist the Grey Cup next week in Hamilton.

Winnipeg's defence is historically frightening. The team's average of 13.4 points allowed per game was the CFL's lowest mark in 51 years. Anchoring the D is linebacker Adam Bighill, who's up for his third Most Outstanding Defensive Player award. Pass rushers Jackson Jeffcoat and Willie Jefferson combined for 16 sacks, while rookie defensive back DeAundre Alford tied for second in the league with four interceptions. Where exactly are you supposed to attack these guys?

And how are you supposed to stop their offence? Quarterback Zach Collaros led the league in passing touchdowns (20) as he found a dynamite connection with Kenny Lawler, who was the only player to top 1,000 receiving yards this season. Oh, and star Canadian running back Andrew Harris — the CFL rushing leader in 2017, '18 and '19 and reigning Grey Cup MVP — appears on track to return from a knee injury that's kept him out since October.

For Saskatchewan to pull off the upset, QB Cody Fajardo will have to do better than the four interceptions he threw in last week's 33-30 overtime win vs. Calgary. The Riders could also really use another spark from return man Jamal Morrow, who ran back a punt for a touchdown last week and also appeared to take a missed field goal 124 yards to the house before it was called back due to an illegal block.

What to expect at the 2021 Vanier Cup

6 months ago
Duration 4:41
CBC's Signa Butler and Justin Dunk sit down to discuss the game-breakers and tactical battles to watch for when the Western Mustangs take on the Saskatchewan Huskies in Laval, Que. at the 2021 Vanier Cup.

Quickly...

The Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final was cancelled. This is the first significant blow to Olympic sports from the omicron variant. The Grand Prix Final is one of the most prestigious events on the figure skating calendar, and this year's (scheduled to start next Thursday in Japan) was going to be our only chance to see the world's best skaters all in one place before the Olympics. But after Japan banned foreigners from entering the country in an effort to hold off the new variant, Grand Prix organizers announced today that the Final is cancelled for the second year in a row. Ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were the only Canadians to qualify for the Final, which is reserved for the top six in each discipline. Read more about the cancellation here.

Major League Baseball is officially shut down. No surprise here, but the owners triggered the sport's first work stoppage in more than a quarter century by immediately locking out the players once their collective bargaining agreement expired just before midnight last night. The owners would like business to continue just the way it is (they're making money hand over fist). But with the players demanding changes (their average salary has flattened in recent years despite skyrocketing revenues) the owners wanted to lock them out now so they don't go on strike later when they have more leverage (ie. closer to the playoffs). Signings and trades are frozen during the lockout, which many fear could stretch into the start of spring training in mid-February and even Opening Day at the end of March. If you missed Tuesday's newsletter, read it here to learn more about the various issues causing this labour fight.

Brian Williams retired. Best known for his work as the main host for CBC Sports' Olympic coverage, Williams spent five decades as a broadcaster. The Winnipeg native started out in 1967 calling university basketball games before his professional career began at a Toronto radio station. Williams covered his first Olympic Games in 1976 in Montreal and was the lead studio anchor for 13 of them, mostly with the CBC. He also hosted the network's CFL coverage before leaving for CTV/TSN in 2006. Read more about Williams' career here.

Coming up on CBC Sports

Here are the sports you can live-stream on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem on Friday:

Freestyle skiing: Watch the World Cup women's, men's and mixed-team aerials season openers in Finland at 3:20 a.m. ET, 6:15 p.m. ET and 9:30 a.m. ET.

Skeleton: Watch the women's and men's races at this week's World Cup stop in Germany starting at 4 a.m. ET.

Floorball: Watch Canada vs. Singapore at the men's world championship at 5:30 a.m. ET.

Figure skating: Watch competitions from the Skate Canada Challenge starting at 12:35 p.m. ET

Alpine skiing: Watch the World Cup men's super-G race in Colorado at 12:45 pm. ET, and the women's downhill at Lake Louise at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Swimming: Watch the International Swimming League finals at 1 p.m. ET.

Cycling: Watch the track cycling Champions League at 2 p.m. ET.

Speed skating: Watch this week's World Cup meet in Salt Lake City at 2:20 p.m. ET.

Rugby sevens: Watch men's and women's matches from the World Rugby Sevens Series event in Dubai starting at 11:50 p.m. ET.

See full streaming and broadcast schedule details here.

You're up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.

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