With veteran, talent-laden teams abounding this fall, the Big Sky Conference seeks to get back to its dominating level of two years ago rather than a disappointing campaign this past spring.
In 2019, the 13-member conference – the largest in the FCS – was the first to gain four national playoff seeds. This past spring, though, Montana, Montana State and Sacramento State – three of the seeds – opted out of participating in the pandemic-delayed conference schedule due to health concerns, joined by Northern Colorado and Portland State. Both of the Big Sky’s spring playoff qualifiers – Eastern Washington and Weber State – were ousted in the first round.
But the conference is back in a way, with No. 6 Weber State, No. 9 Montana, No. 11 Eastern Washington, No. 12 Montana State and No. 23 UC Davis ranked in the Stats Perform FCS Preseason Top 25.
Here’s a preview of the upcoming Big Sky season:
With Spring Season Record Unless Noted
1. Weber State (5-1, 5-0 Big Sky) – Coach Jay Hill has led the Wildcats to four straight Big Sky titles. Wide receiver/returner Rashid Shaheed (3,975) and running back Josh Davis (3,711) rank fourth and sixth, respectively, among current FCS players in career all-purpose yards. Linebacker Connor Mortensen was the Big Sky’s defensive MVP in the spring.
2. Montana State (2019: 11-4, 6-2) – New coach Brent Vigen, the former North Dakota State and Wyoming offensive coordinator, called North Carolina State transfer quarterback Matt McVay the “clubhouse leader” over incumbent Tucker Rovig following spring practice. One definite is the fierce play of linebacker Troy Andersen and defensive end Amandre Williams.
3. Montana (2-0) – The Grizzlies are a popular pick to surpass their quarterfinal-round appearance in the 2019 playoffs. Quarterback Cam Humphrey will connect with wide receiver Samuel Akem, while linebacker Jace Lewis and safety Robby Hauck gobble up tackles (a combined 260 in 2019).
4. UC Davis (3-2, 3-2) – Running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. (3,301 career yards and 31 touchdowns from scrimmage) needs a healthier season than in the spring, while tight end McCallan Castles appears ready for a breakout.
5. Eastern Washington (5-2, 5-1) – Quarterback Eric Barriere’s 20-9 career record as a starter includes 13-0 at home. Montana, Weber State and Montana State will be among the visitors to The Inferno to play on the red turf.
6. Sacramento State (2019: 9-4, 7-1) – The new starting quarterback (likely Jake Dunniway) has plenty in the skills positions, including running back Elijah Dotson, wide receiver Pierre Williams and tight end Marshel Martin.
7. Northern Arizona (3-2, 3-2) – Don’t forget the special teams because the Lumberjacks may have the nation’s best duo in place-kicker Luis Aguilar and punter DJ Arnson.
8. Idaho (2-4, 2-4) – The Lumberjacks have finished below .500 (overall and in conference) in three straight seasons since they dropped back to the FCS and Big Sky.
9. Idaho State (2-4, 2-4) – Transfer quarterback Tyler Vander Waal (1,843 yards and 12 TDs through the air, but also 10 interceptions) was named the Big Sky’s newcomer of the year this past spring.
10. Portland State (0-1) – Quarterback Davis Alexander (3,445 yards of total offense, 30 total TDs) and cornerback Anthony Adams (FCS-high 24 passes defended) posted banner seasons in 2019.
11. Southern Utah (1-5, 1-5) – In their final Big Sky season, the Thunderbirds won’t lack for physicality with left tackle Braxton Jones, defensive end Francis Bemiy and linebacker La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis.
12. Cal Poly (0-3, 0-3) – The Mustangs’ former triple-option offense continues to adjust to coach Beau Baldwin’s multiple, pass-heavy attack. Linebacker Matt Shotwell seeks to lead the team in tackles for a fourth time.
13. Northern Colorado (2019: 2-10, 2-6) – Hired in December 2019, coach Ed McCaffrey finally hits the field on Sept. 3 at Colorado. His son Dylan, a transfer quarterback from Michigan, is expected to be behind center.
PRESEASON OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR
Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere – The Walter Payton Award runner-up in the spring season tops all active FCS signal callers in career passing yards (8,739), touchdown passes (75), TD-to-interception ratio (3.57), yards per attempt (8.16) and total offense (10,102 yards).
PRESEASON DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR
Idaho linebacker Tre Walker – In a conference full of some of the FCS’ best linebackers, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound sideline-to-sideline tackler has 192 stops and 13.5 tackles for loss over his last 16 games.
2022 NFL PROSPECT
Southern Utah left tackle Braxton Jones – The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Jones isn’t just strong, he’s detail-oriented with his technique. He will seek to end the Big Sky’s two-year draft drought and be the conference’s first offensive line selection since 2015.
The Big Sky’s 23 selections on the Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team led the nation. Ten of the schools had a selection, including Weber State and Montana with five each.
There’s no getting around the unbalanced schedule in the largest FCS conference: 13 teams playing eight Big Sky games each. Among the top five teams in the Big Sky coaches and media polls, Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington face three others and Weber State two, but Sacramento State only takes on one of the teams (Montana).
3 MUST-SEE GAMES
Montana State at Weber State (Oct. 16) – A showdown between 2019 FCS semifinalists. Weber’s average time of possession is nearly 13½ minutes better during a three-game win streak in the series (2016-18).
Eastern Washington at UC Davis (Nov. 13) – This may be a potential separator with playoff contention. Eastern won 32-22 at UC Davis in the spring season.
Montana State at Montana (Nov. 20) – UM holds a commanding 73-41-5 series lead, but the visiting Bobcats have won the last four meetings of the Brawl of the Wild.