The national champion keeps coming out of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but the Big Sky Conference has become a definitive No. 2 among the heavyweights of FCS college football.
The Big Sky finished last season with the most Top 25 teams – six – and the same group combine on the high again to begin the 2023 season. Montana State rates as the preseason favorite, but defending co-champion Sacramento State enters with a 19-game conference winning streak.
Here’s a preview of the upcoming Big Sky season:
Predicted Order of Finish
*-FCS Playoff Qualifier (With 2022 Record)
1. *Montana State (12-2, 8-0; preseason No. 3 ranking) – The Bobcats are built strong in the trenches, and that’s helped pave the way to at least FCS semifinal-round appearances in each of their last three seasons (they sat out the 2020 pandemic-shortened campaign). Quarterbacks Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers combined for 1,882 yards and 30 touchdowns on the ground while directing the nation’s No. 2 rushing attack, which had a Big Sky-record 4,366 yards. The ‘Cats open the season with a 20-game home winning streak, but detours loom ahead: They go on the road five times against opponents that had a combined .773 home winning percentage last season – the second-highest in the FCS.
(Bobcats gain six spots, Big Sky 19 on Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team)
2. *Idaho (7-5, 6-2; preseason No. 8 ranking) – Quarterback Gevani McCoy, who passed for 2,719 yards and 27 TDs while earning the 2022 Jerry Rice Award recipient as the FCS freshman player of the year, can throw to two returning 1,000-yard receivers, Hayden Hatten and Jermaine Jackson. The transfers who joined the program should be particularly influential on a defense that returns linebacker Paul Moala and cornerback Marcus Harris, but is the schedule a freak-out factor?
3. *UC Davis (6-5, 5-3; preseason No. 16 ranking) – The loss of stalwart Ulonzo Gilliam at running back is pivotal, but the offense returns last year’s All-Big Sky first-team QB Miles Hastings (3,048 passing yards). The defense has an all-conference standout in each unit with defensive end Zach Kennedy, linebacker Teddye Buchanan and safety Rex Connors.
4. *Sacramento State (12-1, 8-0; preseason No. 10 ranking) – New coach Andy Thompson has been a part of the Big Sky in every season except one since 1999, most recently the defensive coordinator on the Hornets’ 2019, ’21 and ’22 conference champions. All-America tight end Marshel Martin (157 receptions, 25 TDs in career) is a big-time target for South Dakota transfer QB Carson Camp, who also will rely on new No. 1 running back Marcus Fulcher.
(Five new head coaches help to highlight Big Sky football media day)
5. *Montana (8-5, 4-4; preseason No. 14 ranking) – A cushy schedule in September suggests the Grizzlies will get off to a 5-0 start for the second consecutive season. While steadier play is needed behind center, there are solid offensive weapons in wide receiver Junior Bergen, and running backs Isiah Childs and Nick Ostmo. Out of last year’s top four tacklers, the only returnee is linebacker Levin Janacaro (87).
6. Weber State (10-3, 6-2; preseason No. 13 ranking) – The Wildcats have led the Big Sky in total defense (325.2 yards allowed per game in 2022) and scoring defense (20.4) in five of the last six seasons. Mickey Mental, who was promoted from offensive coordinator following coach Jay Hill’s departure, has a defense that features linebacker Winston Reid, the conference’s preseason defensive player of the year, and cornerback Maxwell Anderson. Abraham Williams had four 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns.
7. Eastern Washington (3-8, 2-6) – The Eagles figure to turn to redshirt sophomore Kekoa Visperas at their vaunted quarterback position (junior college transfer Jared Taylor was added as well), with wide receiver/returner Efton Chism III the go-to weapon. Their run of 15 consecutive winning seasons ended a year ago when they ranked second-to-last in the FCS in total defense and third from the bottom in scoring defense.
8. Portland State (4-7, 3-5) – While particularly dangerous on the ground, dual-threat QB Dante Chachere (2,565 total yards, 26 total TDs) will work with a number of experienced receivers. It will be hard to replace four starters on the defensive line, but the newcomers are supported by linebacker Parker McKenna (122 tackles in just 16 career games).
9. Northern Arizona (3-8, 2-6) – The Lumberjacks haven’t quite broken through under coach Chris Ball (15-24 overall, 11-18 Big Sky in four seasons). QB RJ Martinez departed via a transfer, but the new starter will benefit from last year’s pair of 60-catch wide receivers, Coleman Owen and Hendrix Johnson. Defensive end Eloi Kwete (28 tackles for loss, 15 sacks in career) too often flies under the radar.
10. Northern Colorado (3-8, 2-6) – New coach Ed Lamb guided Southern Utah to the 2015 Big Sky title before he left for a position on BYU’s staff. Linebacker David Hoage was sidelined by injury last season after racking up 22 TFLs and 10.5 sacks in 2021. Safety Jordan Knapke had the opposite scenario, missing almost all of the ’21 campaign before returning to record 90 tackles last season.
11. Cal Poly (2-9, 1-7) – Reflecting on how Cal Poly’s old triple-option offense is in the rear-view mirror, the Mustangs easily led the Big Sky in passing yards per game (333) last year. For his first season, coach Paul Wulff has brought in Washington QB transfer Sam Huard. No FCS defense allowed more yards per game (551.8) than the Mustangs, and they were last in the conference in scoring defense (45 ppg).
12. Idaho State (1-10, 1-7) – Circle Nov. 11 on the calendar: the Bengals and new coach Cody Hawkins will host UC Davis, where the 35-year-old previously worked on his father Dan Hawkins’ coaching staff. The Bengals are in rebuilding-mode after being outscored 402-151. Their secondary boasts safety Calvin Pitcher and cornerback Josh Alford.
How the Conference Predicted the Race
Five Players to Watch
Armon Bailey, LB, Sacramento State (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – Using a sixth season of eligibility to build off a breakout campaign with 88 tackles (team high), 12.5 TFLs and six sacks.
Miles Hastings, QB, UC Davis (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Led the conference in passing yards (3,048) and was second in passing efficiency (154.2).
Hayden Hatten, WR, Idaho (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – Following an outstanding final two months of his season, Hatten is the only returning player in the FCS to have led his conference in receptions (83), receiving yards (1,209) and TD catches (16).
Tommy Mellott, QB, Montana State (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – One of two FCS signal callers to surpass 1,000 rushing yards (1,061) last season.
Winston Reid, LB, Weber State (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – The Big Sky’s top-returning tackler (112) had eight or more nine times a year ago.
Five Must-See Matchups
1. Montana State at Montana (Nov. 18) – Big enough for ESPN’s “College GameDay” last season, the bitter series turns 122. Montana leads 73-42-5 with one vacated win, but Montana State has won five of the last six meetings, and it’s a 10-10 tie since the series became the “Brawl of the Wild” trophy series in 2001.
2. Montana State at Sacramento State (Oct. 21)
3. Montana at Idaho (Oct. 14)
4. Montana State at Weber State (Sept. 23)
5. Eastern Washington at UC Davis (Sept. 23)
Sacramento State’s second all-time matchup with Stanford pits the Hornets against their former coach, Troy Taylor, who led them to Big Sky titles in each of their past three seasons (2019, ’21 and ’22).
This season’s 13 Big Sky matchups against FBS programs:
Cal Poly: San Jose State (Sept. 9); Eastern Washington: Fresno State (Sept. 9); Idaho: Nevada (Sept. 9) and California (Sept. 16); Idaho State: San Diego State (Sept. 2) and Utah State (Sept. 9); Northern Arizona: Arizona (Sept. 2); Northern Colorado: Washington State (Sept. 16); Portland State: Oregon (Sept. 2) and Wyoming (Sept. 9); Sacramento State: Stanford (Sept. 16); UC Davis: Oregon State (Sept. 9); Weber State: Utah (Sept. 16)
Bobby Hauck is within striking distance of being the winningest head coach in Big Sky history. His 116 victories at Montana (2003-09, 2018-present) rank second to Jerome Souers’ 123 at Northern Arizona (1998-2018).