REGINA - They're the overwhelming favourite as Grey Cup hosts and are carrying the weight of an entire province's expectations.
But the presssure is off the Saskatchewan Roughriders, according to head coach Corey Chamblin. He says getting to Sunday's CFL championship was the real challenge.
"The biggest pressure for our team was making sure no one else sat in our locker-room," Chamblin said Wednesday at the annual Grey Cup coaches news conference. "It's about working all off-season, all year to protect your house and that was the biggest thing and the biggest pressure we had.
"We're in it now and as I tell the guys, if we're good enough to be in it we're good enough to win it. It's time for it to be decided now on the football field, not in the media, not with trash talking."
Riders general manager Brendan Taman made it clear early this off-season he was serious about fielding a Grey Cup contender with Regina hosting the big game. He acquired receiver Geroy Simon from the B.C. Lions before adding defensive linemen Ricky Foley and John Chick and defensive back Dwight Anderson in free agency.
Not only are Simon, Foley, Chick and Anderson all CFL veterans but each has a Grey Cup ring, Chick earning his with the Riders in '07 before heading to the NFL. However, adding experienced performers to an already solid core only served to jack up expectations in football-mad Saskatchewan, especially after both B.C. and Toronto had captured Grey Cup titles as the host city the past two years.
The Roughriders, who will face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Moasic Stadium on Sunday, lived up to that billing, winning its first five regular-season games and eight-of-nine before suffering three straight losses. After rebounding with three consecutive victories, the Riders were relegated second in the West Division behind Calgary after dropping a 29-25 decision to the Stampeders on Oct. 26.
Saskatchewan (11-7) lost its final two-regular season games before beating B.C. 29-25 in the West semifinal, then emphatically dispatching Calgary 35-13 at McMahon Stadium in last weekend's division final.
"The thing about pressure is how you deal with it," Chamblin said. "By having some of the veterans we added and just having the core of our football team, we took that pressure and applied it to ourselves.
"We're extreme competitors in our room and we use all the outside pressure to help make sure we're where we want to be."
To claim Saskatchewan's fourth Grey Cup title, Chamblin will have to beat someone who was instrumental in leading the franchise to two championships. Hamilton coach Kent Austin guided the Riders to the '89 crown as the club's starting quarterback, then in '07 as its head coach.
The Riders clearly haven't forgotten — a large banner of Austin hangs outside of Mosaic Stadium and a parking lot still bears his name.
"I actually come in the other way," Chamblin said when asked about seeing Austin's banner every day he comes to work. "There's great history here in Saskatchewan and Kent's been part of that and the one thing I never want to do is remove those ancient landmarks.
"That's part of the foundation . . . so for me to see that is an honour and I try to build on all the things those guys did in the past."
Austin will forever be associated with Saskatchewan's Grey Cup success, but he has also jilted the team's loyal fans.
In '94 while mired in a contract impasse with the club, Austin demanded to be traded and was to B.C., helping the Lions win the Grey Cup. In '07 after leading the Riders to their CFL title, he abruptly left Regina to become the offensive co-ordinator at Ole Miss, his alma mater.
In 2012, he was mentioned as a head-coaching candidate with both the Riders and Ticats but opted to remain at Cornell before ultimately returning to the CFL a year later with Hamilton, again drawing the ire of some Saskatchewan football fans.
But Austin said he will forever cherish his memories of playing and coaching in Regina.
"I'm very honoured to be recognized," he said. "This organization has meant a lot to me and my family and we're proud to have had a history here both with the team and the community.
"It's hard to get here and every one of the Grey Cups are special but that being said, it's best to face Saskatchewan. If I was going to play a team, it would be Saskatchewan. If we're not going to win it, which we hope very much that we do, it will be good to see Saskatchewan in there."
Austin led Hamilton to a 10-8 record and second in the East Division in his first season as the club's vice-president of football operations, coach and GM. The Ticats are in the Grey Cup for the first time since '99, but Austin said that's more a testament to the club's players and not its coach.
"This is a team game and there a lot of people you need to do things at a very high level to win championships across the board," he said. "We (head coaches) are just a part of it, a small part of it.
"Players win football gams, not coaches."
The Riders might be playing on their home field but Chamblin is attempting to reduce distractions by putting players in hotels and imposing a nightly curfew.
"When you look at the Grey Cup, it's a championship game (involving) the two best teams in the league," he said. "The biggest thing is I want them to stay in the routine they've been in, that they only think football.
"I just don't want them to deviate from the norm of what they've had."