The college football fan's guide to watching the CFL

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There is actual, real football happening this summer and it features actual, real former college football players. It’s the CFL, and the regular season starts on Thursday night with the Toronto Argonauts taking on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. While there are plenty of sports viewing options over the next few weeks (this summer, especially), there is only one way to get your pigskin fix until training camp and fall practice begin. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: The CFL is football, and even with some wacky rules, there are some faces you might recognize.

To help fans better understand Canadian football, we turned to an actual Canadian football fan. Andrew Bucholtz heads up Yahoo! Canada’s CFL blog, and he's here to answer questions about the game as it’s played in the North.

What is the CFL?

The Canadian Football League is one of North America's most unique sporting institutions; it's a professional football league, one that only has teams in Canada, and one that's remarkably long-lived. The league was officially formed in 1958, but it has been in essentially its current form since '54. Most of its teams go back even further, including the Toronto Argonauts, formed in 1873, who claim to be North America's oldest professional football team. 

What are the notable rule differences?

The CFL is more similar to NCAA football (particularly with its spread offenses) than the NFL. It involves lots of high-scoring games, four- and five-receiver sets and pre-snap motion. However, there still are plenty of changes. Among them: There are 12 players on each side instead of 11; there are three downs instead of four; the field is 110 yards instead of 100; the goalposts are at the front of the end zone (which can occasionally cause problems) instead of the back; it is almost impossible to kill the clock; there are fewer timeouts; and the rouge is a thing. That means we get crazy kicking plays, too, and they sometimes involve (former) Auburn players.

There are former college stars in this league?

Yes, and notable ones, too! The CFL currently has at least five members of the "Hall Of Fame Of That Guy": Bear Woods (Montreal), Robert Marve (Winnipeg), Pat White (Edmonton), Jonathan Crompton (Edmonton) and Rennie Curran (Edmonton). The CFL also features former college stars such as Troy Smith (Montreal), Drew Tate (Calgary), Dan LeFevour (Hamilton) and Jeremiah Masoli (Hamilton). 

What are the teams in this league?

The CFL has nine current teams. Seven of those teams have continuously existed since at least 1954. The eighth, Montreal, existed from '46 on but went away from '87 until '96, when Baltimore moved to Montreal as part of the collapse of CFL USA. The Alouettes have been there ever since. The ninth, Ottawa, existed from 1876-1996, then from 2002-06. They are returning as an expansion team, the REDBLACKS (all-caps intentional!), this season. 

Wait, the CFL had teams in the U.S.?

Yes. The CFL had one U.S. team in 1993, four in '94 and five in '95. The experiment didn't last long, but it brought in some expansion fees that helped a desperately struggling league, and it led to some amazing stories. An American team (Baltimore) even won the Grey Cup in '95.

What is the Grey Cup?

The Grey Cup is currently the CFL's championship trophy, but like the Stanley Cup, it predates the league that currently claims it. The Grey Cup was commissioned in 1909 by Earl Grey (not the tea one, but his grandson, who was governor-general of Canada at the time), and it was initially supposed to be for a hockey championship, but Montreal businessman Sir H. Montagu Allan beat Grey to the punch. Grey then decided to make his trophy for the Canadian football championship. It has been awarded 101 times since.

Have unusual teams won the Grey Cup?

Yes. Universities initially competed for it, as well as city teams, with the University of Toronto (four times) and Queen's University (three consecutive times) being the only schools to win. Other unusual champions include Toronto Balmy Beach (1927 and '30) and the Toronto RCAF Hurricanes in '42 during World War II (a story so odd they made a documentary about it). 

How can I watch?

All regular-season (and some preseason) games are televised in Canada on TSN. In the U.S., things can be a little trickier, and the league hasn't yet announced U.S. broadcast coverage for 2014. Last year's deal saw occasional games on NBCSN and ESPN2, with the majority on ESPN3. Something similar this season would seem likely.

When is the Grey Cup this year?

Sunday, Nov. 30 in Vancouver at 6 p.m. ET.