It would be easy to believe that having five new head football coaches would create a level of uncertainty prior to the 2023 Big Sky season.
Although they comprise the most changes in any FCS conference, there’s plenty of familiarity because all five coaches are well-versed in the 12-team conference, and Big Sky opponents likely feel they know their styles as well.
Many of the coaches and key players were getting to know each other even more during the Big Sky Kickoff media day events since Saturday. Montana State, whose candidacy is as entrenched as any program, was installed as a prohibitive favorite in both the coaches and media preseason polls. UC Davis was picked second to the Bobcats among the coaches and Idaho second in the media poll.
The Bobcats, who shared last year’s Big Sky title with Sacramento State and has advanced to at least the FCS playoff semifinals in their last three seasons, also had the most selections on the Big Sky preseason all-conference team – seven, including fullback Derryk Snell, defensive tackle Sebastian Valdez and defensive end Brody Grebe back from last year’s postseason first team.
Four of the new head coaches were a part of staffs that previously won the Big Sky title, and the other one coordinated the offense of a 10-win team last season:
- Cal Poly’s Paul Wulff was Eastern Washington’s head coach from 2000-07, earning co-titles in 2004 and ’05 and guiding a third playoff squad in his final season. Most recently, he was on former Mustangs’ coach Beau Baldwin’s staff for nearly three years, and he says increasing consistency as a team will be a focal point this season.
- Idaho State’s Cody Hawkins basically grew up in locker rooms, now the 35-year-old son of UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins who served on his father’s staff for six seasons, including the 2018 tri-champs. Their father-son matchup on Nov. 11 in Pocatello, Idaho, will be the first in Division I since the final Bowden Bowl (Bobby vs. Tommy Bowden) in 2007 and it may be a first for the FCS level.
- Northern Colorado’s Ed Lamb had been a BYU assistant since guiding Southern Utah from 2008-15, which included the Thunderbirds’ first four seasons in the Big Sky and their 2015 co-champs. He doesn’t necessarily believe UNC is rebuilding, he says the Bears can enjoy quick success.
- Sacramento State’s Andy Thompson has been in the Big Sky as a player or coach for every season since 1999 except 2004, most recently serving as coach Troy Taylor’s defensive coordinator on 2019, ’21 (outright) and ’22 title-winning teams.
- Weber State’s Mickey Mental has succeeded the highly successful Jay Hill, having been his offensive coordinator on last year’s 10-3 squad which posted a playoff win. Previously, Mental was 16-2 in two seasons as Division II Notre Dame College’s head coach.
“Yes, they have deep connections within our league,” Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill said on the ESPN+ broadcast of media day. “They all kind of know each other, they either worked together or worked for one another, so that’s a lot of fun to see. The bottom line is, when you have good people that care about the right things, big things can happen. And there’s big things ahead for us.”
The most notable story with the Big Sky preseason team involved a talented group of quarterbacks. UC Davis’ Miles Hastings was the first-team selection and Montana State’s Tommy Mellott the second-teamer after last season, but Idaho’s Gevani McCoy, the 2022 Jerry Rice Award recipient as the FCS freshman player of the year, leap-frogged them both in being voted the preseason selection.
Idaho’s six picks represented the second-highest total to Montana State, with Montana and Sacramento State tied for the third-most at five each, and Eastern Washington and Weber State gaining four each to tie for the fifth-most.
Big Sky Conference Preseason Polls
- Montana State (12-2, 8-0), 120 points (10 first-place votes)
- UC Davis (6-5, 5-3), 96 (1)
- Sacramento State (12-1, 8-0), 94 (1)
- Weber State (10-3, 6-2), 91
- Idaho (7-5, 6-2), 89
- Montana (8-5, 4-4), 84
- Eastern Washington (3-8, 2-6), 52
- Portland State (4-7, 3-5) 45
- Northern Arizona (3-8, 2-6), 44
- Northern Colorado (3-8, 2-6), 37
- Cal Poly (2-9, 1-7), 25
- Idaho State (1-10, 1-7), 15
- Montana State (12-2, 8-0), 447 points (26 first-place votes)
- Idaho (7-5, 6-2), 410 (8)
- Montana (8-5, 4-4), 359 (2)
- Sacramento State (12-1, 8-0), 334 (3)
- UC Davis (6-5, 5-3), 330
- Weber State (10-3, 6-2), 320
- Eastern Washington (3-8, 2-6), 216
- Northern Arizona (3-8, 2-6), 178
- Portland State (4-7, 3-5), 167
- Northern Colorado (3-8, 2-6), 109
- Cal Poly (2-9, 1-7), 103
- Idaho State (1-10, 1-7), 69
Preseason Offensive MVP
Hayden Hatten, WR, Idaho
Preseason Defensive MVP
Winston Reid, LB, Weber State