Sports

Bo Levi Mitchell, Matt Nichols are friendly rivals as CFL quarterbacks

There's much more to Bo Levi Mitchell and Matt Nichols than just being the quarterbacks of the CFL's two hottest teams.

Mitchell succeeded Nichols as the starter at Eastern Washington in 2010 after Nichols served as Mitchell's host when he transferred from SMU. The two have been good friends since but will put the friendship on hold Saturday when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers visit the Calgary Stampeders in a key West Division matchup.

"Matt was a huge reason why I went to Eastern Washington," Mitchell said during a CFL conference call Wednesday. "He was my host . . .  me and Matt had a hell of a night that night.

"I went there and picked up where Matt left off and ever since we've always kept in touch, we've always been friends. I want him to do well on the field when I'm not playing against him. When I'm playing against him, I want him to ball out but lose the game."

Ditto for Nichols.

"Sometimes we're watching Calgary play (and) my wife will cheer when Bo throws a touchdown or something," Nichols said. "I'm kind of looking at her, 'Hey, actually, we need them to lose.'

"Bo is one of those guys I always root for unless we're playing against him. We're friends before and after the game and we're definitely going to compete."

Mitchell has led Calgary (10-1-1) to nine straight wins and an 11-game unbeaten streak while Winnipeg (8-4) has recorded seven consecutive victories under Nichols. According to the CFL, the combined 16 wins in the same year is a league record.

But that's of little solace to Mitchell.

"It's obviously great for both teams to be on the win streaks that we're on but at the end of the day somebody's win streak is going to (end)," he said. "It's just our job to make sure we go out, don't over-think it, don't see them as guys who've won seven in a row.

"Just see them as who they are, a football team coming in trying to take a win in the division on the road against you and make sure you don't let that happen."

Nichols agreed.

"It's just another challenge for us," he said. "That's the type of stuff you guys (media) like to talk about.

"We didn't listen to anyone when we were 1-4 telling us how bad we were and we're not listening to people now telling us how good we are after seven wins."

Nichols, 29, has entrenched himself as Winnipeg's starter. The six-foot-two, 215-pound Californian has completed 171-of-241 passes (71 per cent) this season for 1,927 yards with eight TDs and only one interception.

Winnipeg's offence has just five turnovers during the win streak. The Bombers' defence has registered 29 turnovers resulting in 89 points scored, which is 40 per cent of the Bombers' total over the seven-game span.

Winnipeg's average margin of victory during its run is 13 points per game.

But Nichols credits much of his success this season to getting the opportunity to start games with Winnipeg after being acquired from the Edmonton Eskimos on Sept. 2, 2015.

"Last year was big for me, I just feel like the game has slowed down a lot," he said. "The more reps you get, you start to get comfortable seeing defences and where to go with the ball and be able to trust yourself out there, trust your eyes, trust your feet."

Nichols took a long, twisting road to Winnipeg. A four-year starter at Eastern Washington, Nichols signed with the Dallas Cowboys as undrafted free agent in 2010 but was released during training camp.

He went to Edmonton and spent parts of five seasons there. In 2012, he suffered a devastating leg injury but returned the following year to battle Mike Reilly for the starting position before enduring a season-ending knee injury.

With Reilly firmly established as Edmonton's starter, Nichols was dealt to Winnipeg.

Despite starting last year, Nichols opened 2016 as Drew Willy's backup before being promoted following Winnipeg's 1-4 start. The Bombers, who subsequently sent Willy to Toronto, haven't looked back since.

Over his two seasons at Eastern Washington, Mitchell led the school to an NCAA Division I title and also earned the Walter Payton award as the top offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division 1-AA. But after being bypassed in the 2012 NFL draft, Mitchell signed with Calgary and has quickly become one of the CFL's top quarterbacks.

He led Calgary to the 2014 Grey Cup title, earning MVP honours. This season, he's leading the CFL in TD passes (22) and stands second in passing yards (3,936) and while the Stampeders have already clinched a playoff berth Mitchell believes they'll need 16 wins to clinch first in the West Division.

But most importantly, Mitchell has a 38-7-1 record as a CFL starter. And while Mitchell sees championship potential with Calgary, he says the club is quick to temper that enthusiasm.

"I think we're younger and faster than I've seen," Mitchell said. "I do see championship potential but that can change in an instant.

"That's really what decides this game in the CFL. It's who's playing hot at the end of the year and who can stay healthy and who's got the most depth."