The 2016 Big Sky football season is just about a month away from kickoff. It’s time to start talking about the upcoming football season and what to expect in this year’s Big Sky Conference.
The fall football season is nearly upon us, and even though it’s still summer and fall camp hasn’t yet begun that doesn’t mean we can’t talk some Big Sky Conference football!
The Big Sky Conference just held their media days in Utah and they released their preseason poll. Here’s what the media had to say about this year’s preseason rankings:
The preseason players of the year are Cooper Kupp from Eastern Washington and Caleb Kidder from Montana.
Judging by the rankings above the media seems to think that Case Cookus is primed for a pretty big season, plus playing their games with an advantage at 7000 feet seems to help too.
Montana, under second year head coach Bob Stitt, appears to be in the hunt for a Big Sky Championship again this year as well. Last year’s champion, Southern Utah, was picked to be in the middle of the pack, as well as last year’s runner-up, Portland State. It should be noted that Southern Utah had the most players named to the Big Sky preseason all-conference team.
One reason for Southern Utah’s drop could be due to the fact that their schedule this year sets up to be much tougher than last year with having both BYU and Utah on their schedule, plus having to play Montana, Montana State, and Northern Arizona. They also lose their quarterback, Ammon Olsen, who had a terrific 2015 season for the Thunderbirds. They do return their top running back Malik Brown, and top receiver Mike Sharp.
The case for Northern Arizona at the top isn’t too hard to see. Case Cookus is a pretty big deal in Flagstaff and should easily be in contention for player of the year come end of the season (along with Cooper Kupp) barring any kind of injury. The amazing thing about Cookus is that he’s only going to be a sophomore. Cookus’s favorite target will also be back, Emmanuel Butler. Butler was a third team FCS All-American last year for the Lumberjacks.
The Lumberjacks finished at 7-4 last season. Their best wins coming over Stephen F Austin and Eastern Washington. This year’s schedule shouldn’t prove to be too difficult. They open at Arizona State, then travel to Western Illinois, then a pair of home contests with Eastern Washington and New Mexico Highlands. They also have Montana at home. If they can clear a few hurdles they can win the conference. The showdown with Montana in late October might be the game of the year in the Big Sky.
An interesting pick here is Northern Colorado near the bottom of the conference standings. Last year the Bears finished at 6-5. The media seems to think the Bears may have peaked last year and will regress this year. Given UNC’s history I can’t say that’s too big of a surprise. Were the Bears a one year wonder, comparatively to the rest of their Big Sky history? The Bears return their leading rusher, passer, and receiver, as well as two of their top sack leaders from last year. Their schedule is basically a buzz saw of the Big Sky’s best, plus a trip to Fort Collins to play the Rams. The media might be right here.
If you take a look at the teams you can see that several teams return some very good players, while other teams will be at the bottom of the Big Sky for very obvious reasons. Let’s break down the teams individually and see where they all stand..
Cal Poly Mustangs
The Cal Poly Mustangs finished 4-7 last year despite having the country’s leading rushing offense. Last season they checked in with 387 yards per game, 40 yards more than the next nearest team, The Citadel. The Mustangs will undoubtedly miss the production from quarterback Chris Brown, however, they return two of their offensive backfield in Kori Garcia and Joe Protheroe.
The combination of those two checked in with 1559 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. With that kind of combo returning you have to think that Cal Poly will be in the hunt again next season for the rushing title. Hard to tell of either will be in the hunt for the individual rushing title in the Big Sky considering how many ways the ball is split between ball carriers in their triple option based offense.
One reason you could say the Mustangs struggled last season was their defense, which ranked 112th out of 123 FCS teams. They gave up 6.4 yards per play and 457 yards per game. The combination of those two things don’t typically add up to success, and a reason why the Mustangs finished with four wins. The Mustangs finished +3 in the touchdown category last season.
The Mustangs are picked to finish ninth this coming season and I’d say that’s going to be accurate if they cannot improve their defense. Their schedule sets them up for, in theory, five wins but that’s going to be dependent on the offense keeping the defense off the field. The schedule for the Mustangs isn’t going to be easy. They will start their season at Nevada then host Montana and travel to South Dakota State. They’ll also be at North Dakota and Portland State, and also host Eastern Washington. Difficult schedule for this team, they have a lot of work to do to get to .500.
Eastern Washington Eagles
The Eastern Washington Eagles are returning a good amount of talent on offense this year, but much like last year, will it translate to wins? The Eagles finished at 6-5 last year, which did not earn them a playoff berth. Four times last year the Eagles allowed more than 50 points to be scored on them. Their defense finished ranked 117th out of 123 teams. Folks, I don’t have to tell you that’s bad. Only one Big Sky school was worse than that.
We play some defense in the Big Sky, don’t we?
The Eagles gave up 476 yards per game last year and allowed 58 touchdowns against them. By comparison, as high powered as the Eagles offense was, they only scored 52 touchdowns.
For all the bad things that Eastern Washington does on defense they do some pretty good things on offense. The Eagles return an FCS player of the year candidate in Cooper Kupp and a quarterback to throw to him, Jordan West. Cupp finished with 1642 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. Eastern finished eighth in total offense last year, third in the Big Sky. The Eagles also return their leading rusher from last season, Jabari Wilson, who piled up nine touchdowns himself.
The Eagles may find themselves in a track meet right away to start the season as they travel to Pullman to take on Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars. Eastern doesn’t want a track meet with Leach’s boys if they want to win. From there the buzz saw gets tougher as they travel to Fargo to take on the defending national champion North Dakota State. After that is a home contest with Northern Iowa. After that is an away date with Northern Arizona.
I feel pretty bad for Eastern in September, that’s an absolutely brutal schedule to start the season, and they could easily start 0-4. The schedule lightens up in October with UC-Davis and Northern Colorado at home. They’ll finish with Portland State on the road. This is not an easy schedule and Eastern will be literally clawing its way into the playoffs if it’s close. They need an upset or two in September to be a playoff team.
Idaho State Bengals
The Idaho State Bengals had a pretty rough year last year. They finished the season at 2-9 last season and the media isn’t picking them to be much better than that this year, finishing 11th in the preseason poll. The Bengals do return some talent to their team this year, receiver KW Williams, running back Jakori Ford, quarterback Michael Sanders, and linebacker Hayden Stout.
Idaho State finished 48th in total offense last season which is kind of respectable given their two win season. However, a good offense can be easily outdone by a bad defense. Idaho State had a bad defense, finishing 111th in total defense, giving up 456 yards per game. You don’t win many football games when your defense gives up 100 more yards of offense than you can accumulate. The Bengals finished -19 in touchdown ratio last season.
Idaho State’s schedule won’t be too easy, as they have a pair of FBS teams on their schedule, Colorado and Oregon State. Their conference schedule won’t be easy either as they’ll play Northern Arizona, Montana, Eastern Washington, North Dakota, and Southern Utah. That could be a pile of losses for the Bengals, but they get two of those five at home. The first hurdle they have to clear is something called Simon Fraser, a team from British Columbia. They’ll need that win to get their season any kind of momentum.
With Mike Kramer being in his sixth season at the helm at Idaho State you have to think that at some point he’s going to have to start winning games or be shown the door. He has one eight win season to his credit in Pocatello, but a lot of 1-3 win seasons other than that. His seat has to be getting hot, despite the work he has put in to gut that program and rebuild it. Will he still be the coach of the Bengals in 2017? Time will tell.
The Montana Grizzlies got a new head coach last year and picked up right where they left off, back in the playoffs under new head coach Bob Stitt. The Griz, 8-5 last season, started their season with a thrilling last second win over North Dakota State in Missoula, and ended their season on the opposite side of that, a loss in Fargo to the Bison. The Griz are picked to finish second in the Big Sky this season, behind Northern Arizona.
The Griz finished 28th in the country in total offense, averaging 422 points per game. When Bob Stitt was hired at Montana he promised a fast paced, run as many plays as possible offense. The Griz were one of four teams to run more than 1000 plays last season. The Montana defense was 57th in the country last year, allowing 380 yards per game. The Griz were +4 in touchdowns last season. The Griz had a couple of puzzling losses last season, to Weber State and Cal Poly, that didn’t help their defense.
The Griz return the preseason player of the year, Caleb Kidder on defense. Kidder finished last season with 82 tackles, ten tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. The Griz will need to figure out how they are going to replace their three senior receivers who put up all-time numbers for the Griz. The graduation of Ellis Henderson, Jamaal Jones, and Ben Roberts might slow the Griz down as they will need to rely on a group of fairly green receivers to get them through the year. Senior quarterback Brady Gustafson returns this season looking to build on his Griz career. Montana will return their top two rushers from last season, John Nguyen and Jeremy Calhoun.
The Griz schedule has them playing at home once before October, a home contest with Saint Francis. They will travel to Northern Iowa and Cal Poly. Other highlights feature trips to Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington, as well as a home contest with Montana State in the annual Brawl of the Wild. The schedule should set them up nicely for a playoff seed if they can take advantage of the teams on their schedule.
Montana State Bobcats
Montana State will enter the season with a new head coach, Jeff Choate, who comes to the Bobcats from Washington where he was an assistant under Chris Pedersen. The Bobcats, 5-6 last season, will look to rebound under a new coach. Rob Ash was let go after last season, despite being one of the more successful coaches in Bobcat history. The Cats will also be without quarterback Dakota Prukop who took his talents to Oregon, following in the footsteps of Vernon Adams the previous year.
The Bobcats finished third in FCS last season in total offense. They averaged 519 yards per game and were averaging 6.82 yards per play. That’s an impressive statistic on paper. However, the undoing of the Bobcats last year, and most years under Rob Ash was the lack of defense to keep the games from becoming a weekly track meet. The Cats defense was ranked 115th, giving up 472 yards per game. The Cats finished +10 in the touchdown category.
In an unrelated note, eight of the twelve Big Sky teams had defenses ranked in the bottom 20 of FCS teams.
The Bobcats’ biggest question heading into the season is who is going to play quarterback. They have a transfer from Scottsdale Community College in Tyler Bruggman, and two redshirt freshmen, Ben Folsom and Brady McChesney. You’d have to think the reigns will be handed to the transfer until proven otherwise not fit for the job. The Cats return two of their three top rushers from last season, Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke, both seniors. The Cats have some bodies to replace.
Moving me to the next topic, their schedule. Luckily for the Cats they have a few weeks to get their feet under them before conference play starts. They’ll kickoff their season against Idaho, who is beginning the transition from FBS to FCS and will rejoin the Big Sky. You have to wonder what the state of the Idaho football team is knowing they are about to drop a subdivision in football. Will they be prepared to take on a young Bobcats team? From there the Cats have three in a row at home, with Bryant, Western Oregon, and North Dakota. They also have Northern Arizona at home, and Eastern Washington. Their schedule sets up nicely, but will they have the talent to win enough games for a playoff berth? Time will tell.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
New year, new nickname for North Dakota. This year will be the maiden voyage of their new nickname after the university was forced to change its nickname. Head coach Bubba Schweigert will look to build on the success of last season and carry it forward to this season. The Hawk finished 7-4 last season, barely missing the playoffs despite having a resume that could have gotten them in. A loss to Idaho State and Weber State likely was their undoing, despite finishing with a three game winning streak.
The Hawks return quarterback Keaton Studsrud who had a nice season, as well as sophomore running back John Santiago. Santiago rushed for 1459 yards last season with 16 touchdowns. An impressive year for a freshman running back. The Hawks weren’t all that effective through the air, but seemed to do just enough to win a few football games.
The Hawks finished 62nd in the country in total offense, averaging 379 yards per game. The Hawks finished 41st in total defense, averaging 359 yards per game against. They were +1 in the touchdown ratio. The Hawks weren’t flashy by any means, but playing decent offense and good defense had them improving last season. John Santiago’s rushing yards were good enough for eighth in the country last season. If they can find a way to balance out the offense and work in more of a passing attack this team might be dangerous. The media has them picked to finish fourth in the conference. That’s not unreasonable for this team. Whether or not it gets them into a playoff game is another story.
The Fighting Hawk schedule doesn’t start particularly easy with road games at Stony Brook and Bowling Green. They’ll return home to play South Dakota and go back on the road to take on Montana State. The Hawks should get through October fairly unscathed but if they are scrapping for a playoff spot at the end of the season they are going to need to beat Northern Arizona at home to seal up that spot. If they don’t their fate could be in the hands of the playoff selection committee.
Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
The Lumberjacks are coming off of a pretty good season, finishing the year at 7-4 and just missing the FCS playoffs. A crushing season ending loss to conference champion Southern Utah ended their chance at a playoff spot. There’s a lot to look forward to if you’re Jerome Sauers and the Lumberjacks. They’re returning the FCS freshman of the year as well as an FCS All-American. If that doesn’t pack people in the Walkup Skydome I don’t know what will. The media has picked the Lumberjacks to win the conference this coming season.
Speaking of FCS freshman of the year, NAU has this quarterback playing for them named Case Cookus. He’s pretty good at the quarterbacking. As a freshman last season he threw for 3111 yards and 37 touchdowns against only five interceptions. His completion percentage was 68.9%, playing in all 11 games. He finished 11th in passing yards in FCS last season, and second in passing touchdowns. Those are impressive stats. Also returning is his favorite target from last season, FCS All-American Emmanuel Butler. Butler caught 1208 yards worth of passes and 15 touchdowns. He averaged 109 yards per game. With these two returning it seems like the NAU offense should be in good shape. However, the receiving corps behind Butler are a little thin after graduating three seniors. They will rely on guys who probably haven’t had as much playing time. Will this have an impact on Cookus?
The Lumberjacks finished 11th in total offense last season averaging 470 yards per game. However, I hate to keep beating this dead horse, the NAU defense was ranked 116th in the country last season. They were +3 in the touchdown ratio. The defense gave up 474 yards per game last season. Three times last season their defense gave up more than 40 points including 77 to Arizona. The Jacks have some work to do on the defensive side of the ball if they want to win this conference.
This year’s schedule is a nice balance for the Jacks. They’ll open up the season on the road at Arizona State then head east for a game against Western Illinois. Their home schedule highlights include Eastern Washington, Montana, and Southern Utah at home. If they can manage to win those games they will win the conference. They can’t afford any stumbles though, the conference will be a log jam at the top, much like it was last season.
Northern Colorado Bears
Northern Colorado saw some success last year, more so than they’ve had over the last few years. Was it a sign of the program turning around, or was it the chips falling into place at the right time? The Bears finished last season at 6-5 overall last season, one of their better seasons since joining the Big Sky conference. It could be argued that their schedule set them up for success, but perhaps they made some improvement at the same time? Earnest Collins is making strides with the Bears, but will the fan base give him patience? His record since taking over the Bears sits at 15-41. I would say he needs to turn in another winning season if he doesn’t want to find himself looking for a job after the season is over.
The Bears had a fairly strong offensive showing last season, finishing with the 57th best offense in the country last year, in terms of yards gained per game. They finished with 384 yards per game and 45 offensive touchdowns. Like most Big Sky teams the Bear defense was a dumpster fire. Finishing at 121st defensively that is good enough for third worst in the country and dead last in the Big Sky. The Bears gave up 497 yards per game and found themselves -7 in the touchdowns category. How the Bears finished with a winning record was nothing short of amazing, but considering their schedule last year you have to think that playing a bit better defense would have gotten them into the playoff hunt.
Northern Colorado is returning their quarterback from last season, Jacob Knipp. He played in 10 games last season and threw for nearly 2000 years and 13 touchdowns. They also return their top rusher from last season, sophomore Trae Riek. Riek finished with 817 yards and seven touchdowns. He also had 349 yards receiving and two touchdowns. They also return their second leading rusher, Brandon Cartagena, who finished with 270 yards and three scores. Leading receiver, Stephen Miller also returns, who finished with 448 yards and five scores. The Bears have plenty of veteran players returning on offense, can they improve the defense enough to keep them in football games?
The Bears schedule this season isn’t as forgiving as it was last year. They’ll face fellow Front Range school Colorado State, and also go through the buzz saw of Northern Arizona, Eastern Washington, and Montana, plus a home date with North Dakota. All of those teams are picked to finish at the top of the conference. The Bears will need a few miracles if they want to come close to replicating the results of last season.
Portland State Vikings
Portland State found themselves at the top of the food chain very temporarily last season. They shocked the college football world when they opened the season in a very soggy Pullman, Washington and knocked off Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars 24-17. Barneyball was officially trending right off the bat last season and didn’t show many signs of letting up. Barneyball referring to Vikings head coach Bruce Barnum, the now second year head coach in Portland. The Vikings finished the season at 9-3 and earned themselves a playoff berth for the first time since 2000. The Vikings playoff run was short lived as they were bounced at home by MVFC foe Northern Iowa.
The Vikings finished the season at 31st in total offense, coming in with 419 yards per game. Their offense allowed them to take advantage of bad fields and control the football in tough situations. They made their living by winning a lot of close games last season. The Viking defense wasn’t too shabby either, finishing 62nd and giving up 384 yards per game. They were +20 in touchdowns. The only real lopsided game they had last season was their final game vs UNI. The Vikings showed that playing good offense and playing pretty good defense can really help your team out in the win column.
The Vikings will return their starting quarterback, senior Alex Kuresa who was a threat in the passing and rushing game. Kuresa threw for 1975 yards and 17 touchdowns, while also rushing for 755 yards and seven scores. Pretty impressive for a guy in his first year as a starter. They’ll also return one of their leading rushers from last season, Nate Tago, who piled on another 421 yards and six scores for the Vikings. Their leading receiver, Darnell Jones, will also be back. He caught 478 yards and six scores last season. There is plenty of talent on this team to keep winning.
Portland State has a good chance to pile up some wins this season as they avoid most of the top teams in the Big Sky. Their only drawback is they will play two FBS games, at San Jose State and at Washington. You have to think that they have a chance to beat San Jose State. In the conference they will face Southern Utah on the road and Eastern Washington in Portland. Mixed in with them are teams picked to finish at the bottom of the rankings. Portland State will probably need to beat San Jose State to be taken seriously as a playoff team, but as we saw last year, beating an FBS team and having a good regular season record doesn’t guarantee playoff success.
Sacramento State Hornets
Last year is probably a year the Hornets would like to forget, finishing the season at 2-9, with one of their wins coming against a Division II team. Many of the Hornets losses weren’t even close contests. Needless to say, this was a disappointing season for second year coach Jody Sears. The Hornets went from 7-5 in 2014 to two wins in the following season. What went wrong? For starters the Hornets were breaking in a new quarterback after Garrett Safron graduated. They also had to replace star receiver DeAndre Carter. Needless to say, there were some growing pains in Sacramento.
The Hornets weren’t completely inept on offense last season, despite finishing near the bottom of the Big Sky standings. They had the 71st best offense in the country, finishing with 360 yards per game. The Hornets on defense, however, were not as good. The Hornets finished 108th in total offense, giving up 453 yards per game. You would have to think that the Hornets can improve on that second number this coming season. If they can, the Hornets schedule this season is a nice balance tough and winnable games. The Hornets finished -21 in the touchdown category.
The Hornets will be returning a lot of youth this coming season. They will have two young quarterbacks returning, Nate Ketteringham and Daniel Kniffin. They will also be returning Jordan Robinson, the top rusher from last season who had 808 yards on the ground with four touchdowns. They will lose their top two receivers from last season to graduation. They have a pair of receivers, Isiah Hennie and Jaelin Ratliff who still have a few years left in their eligibility that should contribute for the Hornets this coming season. They also return young linebacker Manoah Pearson who finished with 77 tackles last season and two sacks. He will anchor the defense just as a sophomore.
As mentioned above, the Hornets schedule this season is a mixture of tough teams with games that they could and maybe should win. Their biggest test will be at Fresno State, plus contests against North Dakota, Montana, and Portland State. The Hornets will mix that with Weber State, Idaho State, Northern Colorado, and UC-Davis. With this kind of mixture you have to think the Hornets can improve on that and win some football games. With any luck they can make a run towards .500 for the season.
Southern Utah Thunderbirds
The Southern Utah Thunderbirds made some personal history last season by winning their first Big Sky Conference title. The reward for winning the conference? A road trip to Sam Houston State in the first round of the FCS playoffs. The Thunderbirds, unfortunately, did not win that contest. Their season started off fairly promising, losing a 12-9 contest with Utah State and kept rolling from there after a somewhat large setback against South Dakota State. The big question for the T-Birds this season is can they repeat as Big Sky champions? They have a lot of work to do, especially after losing their head coach to BYU and their senior quarterback, Ammon Olson, left for graduation. New head coach Demario Warren will have his hands full this season, but given his experience at SUU he should be able to transition easily.
The Thunderbirds were quite good on offense last season, finishing 20th in the country, fifth in the Big Sky Conference. They averaged 445 yards of offense per game last season. Compared to most of the rest of the Big Sky they were also quite good on defense, finishing 67th, giving up 390 yards per game. The Thunderbirds finished +20 in the touchdown category, a good indicator that they were a pretty good football team last season. They will need to replicate that kind of output if they want any shot at repeating as Big Sky champions this coming season.
The Thunderbirds will be searching for a new gunslinger this season as the forementioned Ammon Olsen took his talents to adulthood. The T-birds have a few options, one quarterback who got some playing time last season is junior Tannon Pedersen who threw for a whopping six yards last season. They also have transfer quarterback Patrick Tyler, who will be a junior this season. The Thunderbirds will also be tasked with replacing top rusher from last season, Malik Brown, who piled up 829 yards and eight touchdowns. The most likely candidate will be Jarom Healey, a senior from Hurrican, Utah. To ease their new quarterback’s transition they will be returning two talented pass catchers, Steven Wroblewski and Mike Sharp. The Thunderbirds placed more players on the Big Sky preseason team than any other team in the conference.
The Thunderbirds schedule this season isn’t going to be an easy one. They’ll play all three of their in-state rivals, Utah, BYU, and Weber State. They will also host Southeast Louisiana and Portland State. They will travel to Montana and Northern Arizona. This is a tough schedule for a first year head coach and a team that’s replacing a lot of pieces. Finishing at .500 this season would probably be a victory for the Thunderbirds, but they have their work cut out for them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them take a step back this season. With this schedule they have plenty of work to do.
The battle for last place last season was a three way battle and UC-Davis was one of those teams battling for a spot at the bottom of the pile. That’s not a terrific place to be, but unfortunately for the Aggies they’ve found themselves there the last couple of seasons. Ron Gould will be entering his fourth season at the helm of the Aggies and owns a 9-25 record since his arrival. You have to think that if he can’t get this team moving in an upward direction that he might find himself on the hot seat at the end of the season. The boosters will probably not tolerate another season of 2-9. The Aggies have a tough go of it this season but at least they’ll have a senior quarterback to guide them.
The Aggies finished the season at 74th in total offense, gaining 358 yards per game. Not a horrible number for a team that won two games last season. The defense seemed to be your typical Big Sky defense, finishing 104th, giving up 448 yards per game. The Aggies finished -20 in the touchdown category, which by my estimation was probably not good. The Aggies will need to do anything to improve that number if they want to find themselves any more wins this coming season.
UC-Davis does return its senior quarterback, Ben Scott. He threw for 1598 yards last season with 11 touchdowns. Their leading rushers from last season also return, Manusamoa Luuga and Joshua Kelley. Their leading receiver is also back, Chris Martin. Luuga accounted for seven touchdowns last season. He figures to be a bright spot for this football team, as he was also their third leading receiver last season. Chris Martin caught 658 yards worth of passes and five touchdowns for the Aggies. If these guys can somehow build a little more chemistry together, and the defense improve even a little bit they could pencil themselves a win or two more.
The Aggies schedule is going to be a huge test this season. Their first game will be against the Oregon Ducks, then two weeks later will travel to Laramie, Wyoming to take on the Cowboys. They also have games at Eastern Washington, Southern Utah and Montana State. They’ll have Portland State at home. This is a tough task for a team that finished with two wins last season. Looking at their schedule there may not be more than two wins on this schedule, one of them being a game against Southern Oregon, a Division II team. With the Aggies, however, nothing is a given.
Weber State Wildcats
The Weber State Wildcats found themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot last season but ultimately fell short of their goal when all was said and done. The Wildcats basically won the games they were supposed to win and lost the games they were supposed to lose. They escaped Montana with an overtime win, probably their biggest upset of the season. Third year coach Jay Hill might have something brewing in Ogden, and the media has them picked to finish about where they ended last season. The Wildcats return many players from last season on the offensive side of the football, and with any luck can keep their defense right about where they were last season.
The Wildcats finished with the 65th best offense it the country last year, coming in with 369 yards per game. Their defense checked in at 32nd last season, pretty respectable for a Big Sky team. In fact, their defense was the top in the Big Sky last season. They gave up 346 yards per game. The Wildcats were the only team to finish in the top 50 in total defense last season. The team finished -2 in the touchdown ratio, which might explain some of their problems last season. With a defense as good as they were last season the offense seemed to struggle when facing the better teams in the league. In three of their five losses last season they gave up 40+ points in those contests.
As mentioned above the Wildcats will be returning some notable offensive starters, quarterback Jadrian Clark who threw for 1875 yards and ten touchdowns. He also had eleven interceptions on the season. They will also return Eric Wilkes and Treshawn Garrett, their top two rushers from last season. Combined they went over 1000 yards and had ten touchdowns. Their leading receiver, Cameron Livingston will also be back this season, as well as Darryl Denby. They’ll also return junior corner Taron Johnson who led the team in interceptions last season. Linebacker Emmett Tela will help anchor the defense this season too.
The Wildcats will kick off their season in Logan, Utah to take on Utah State. Their schedule has them facing Portland State, Southern Utah, North Dakota, and Northern Arizona. Not a fun schedule but they should be much like last season, win the games they’re supposed to win and lose the games they’re supposed to lose. If they can somehow sneak a few wins away from unfavored contests they could make a push for a playoff spot at the end of the season, but they will need to take down some of the league’s best. Two of those contests will be on the road for the Wildcats.
If you’ve somehow made it to the end of this preview, congrats, you’re now a better informed Big Sky football fan. As you can see there’s going to be another log jam at the top of the conference for the auto-bid to the playoffs. There are realistically four teams that could claim stake to the conference title this season. Those being Montana, Portland State, Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona. North Dakota could be a dark horse in there as their schedule sets up for them nicely, much like Southern Utah last season.
For my personal hot takes on the Big Sky this season I don’t know if I can buy the hype on Northern Arizona yet. They return some terrific offensive weapons, but like many Big Sky teams, their defense is god awful. While that might be nice enough to win the league, it will also mean getting housed in the playoffs. Eastern Washington will continue to do what they do, score a lot of points and hope they can outscore the team on the other side of the field. An interesting strategy. It would be an interesting experiment if Eastern attempted to play some defense. If that was the case they could be a playoff noise maker.
I would like to think that Montana has a legitimate shot at winning the conference but they will be replacing the majority of their defense and look like they will be without starting corner JR Nelson for the first six games due to suspension. Bob Stitt will need to figure out how to keep the offense going into a power outage when facing tougher defenses, as we saw against Weber State and the second game against North Dakota State.
Portland State seems like a good candidate to win the Big Sky, in my opinion. The Vikings have a schedule that will set them up for success, they return many pieces from last season, and Bruce Barnum seems to have them trending very high upwards. They might be the most balanced team in the conference. They will need to win one of their two FBS games to get into the seeding of the playoffs.
Sorry, I don’t buy the hype on North Dakota, despite having a very good running back in John Santiago. They will need to do many other things well to win this thing. They still have to win the games on their schedule.
Since you’re all dying to know, here’s how I see the conference shaking out:
1. Portland State
3. Eastern Washington
4. Northern Arizona
5. Weber State
6. North Dakota
7. Southern Utah
8. Montana State
9. Northern Colorado
10. Cal Poly
11. Idaho State
12. Sacramento State
Agree? Disagree? Let’s hear your thoughts on how right or wrong I am!