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CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 24: Andrew Harris #33 of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during the 107th Grey Cup Championship Game at McMahon Stadium on November 24, 2019 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

DEREK LEUNG/Getty Images

The CFL’s return to play will be missing a few familiar faces.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will visit the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Thursday night to kick off the 2021 season. It will mark the league’s return after teams didn’t play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teams will play a 14-game schedule instead of the traditional 18. And given the layoff and teams not having played any exhibition contests this year, injuries will certainly be a factor throughout the campaign.

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It hasn’t taken long for that issue to rear its ugly head as both Hamilton and Winnipeg will be without some proven performers at IG Field.

The Bombers, who defeated Hamilton 33-12 to win the ‘19 Grey Cup, will be without stalwart running back Andrew Harris. The Winnipeg native was a pivotal figure in the club’s first CFL championship since 1990, rushing for 134 yards and scoring two TDs to become the first player to be named the game’s outstanding player and top Canadian.

But after missing much of training camp due to injury, the 34-year-old Harris will miss the 2021 season opener. Joining him on the sidelines will be receiver Darvin Adams (47 catches, 549 yards, five TDs in 2019) and linebacker Kyrie Wilson (63 tackles, three sacks).

Hamilton will come in short-handed also. Defensive back Tunde Adeleke (hamstring), tight end Jake Burt (unspecified), offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl (thumb) and defensive lineman Ted Laurent (knee) on the one-game injured list while receivers DeVier Posey (calf) and Bralon Addison (knee) were placed on the six-game list.

Van Zeyl was the CFL’s top lineman in 2019 while Laurent is a two-time CFL all-star. And in 2019, Addison (95 catches, 1,236 yards, seven TDs) was a nice complement to CFL MVP Brandon Banks (112 receptions, 1,550 yards, 13 TDs).

The good news for both teams is at least their starting quarterbacks are healthy. Zach Collaros capped a 4-0 run as Winnipeg’s starter with the Grey Cup victory while Jeremiah Masoli returns under centre for Hamilton after suffering a season-ending knee injury versus the Bombers in 2019.

Dane Evans stepped in and won nine-of-11 regular-season starts and led Hamilton to the Grey Cup. He’ll serve as Masoli’s backup Thursday night.

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Winnipeg will unfurl its ‘19 Grey Cup banner before the opening kickoff, which will force many Ticats to re-live and remember the bitter disappointment of that loss as well as serve as a powerful incentive for them to spoil the party in Manitoba.

The absence of Harris – who has led the CFL in rushing the past three years – is big. But the key of Winnipeg’s offence is the offensive line anchored by towering tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick.

Even without Laurent, Hamilton still counters with a solid defensive line that includes Ja’Gared Davis (team-high 13 sacks in 2019), Dylan Wynn (career-best 11 sacks) and Julian Howsare (six sacks). Simoni Lawrence (CFL-high 98 tackles in 2019 and East Division’s top defensive player) anchors a linebacking corps that includes former Bomber Jovan Santos-Knox.

Many football pundits have made the Ticats heavy favourites to win the ‘21 Grey Cup, which will be played Dec. 12 in Hamilton. What better way to prove that than down the defending champion in its home stadium?

Pick: Hamilton.

B.C. Lions at Saskatchewan Roughriders (Friday night)

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At Regina, a sold-out Mosaic Stadium will welcome back a Riders squad that finished atop the West Division in 2019 at 13-5. Quarterback Cody Fajardo threw for a CFL-high 4,302 yards that season but the absence of all-star guard Brendon LaBatte (COVID-19 restrictions) is big. Rick Campbell makes his head-coaching debut for B.C. (5-13) with proven quarterback Michael Reilly in tow. But the Lions must do a better job of protecting him after allowing a league-high 58 sacks in 2019.

Pick: Saskatchewan.

Toronto Argonauts at Calgary Stampeders (Saturday night)

At Calgary, the faces have changed but a constant for the Stampeders has been quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell winning games. Mitchell enters his ninth CFL season in Alberta having compiled a tidy 77-18-2 record. He’s been named the league MVP twice and guided his team to two Grey Cup titles. There’s plenty of former Stamps now with Toronto (4-14-0 in ‘19) including head coach Ryan Dinwiddie, who served as Calgary’s quarterback coach (2016-19). The Argos should be better but it’s not hard to think they’ll need time to mesh.

Pick: Calgary.

Ottawa Redblacks at Edmonton Elks (Saturday night)

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Jamie Elizondo will make his CFL head-coaching debut for the Edmonton Elks, while quarterback Trevor Harris will have a new weapon in receiver Derel Walker (65 catches for 1,040 yards and six TDs in 2019 with Toronto). The CFL’s top rookie in 2015 is a nice complement to veteran receiver Greg Ellingson (86 catches, 1,170 yards, five TDs). Paul LaPolice makes his first appearance as head coach for Ottawa (CFL-worst 5-13 record in 2019). Veteran quarterback Matt Nichols is slated to be the Redblacks’ starter.

Pick: Edmonton.

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