Big Sky looks to fight back into national limelight with depth

(STATS) – All the talk about the best conference in the FCS has moved farther away from the Big Sky.

With good reason, though.

CAA Football had its big run of seasons and the Missouri Valley is riding on the shoulders of North Dakota State to the top perch nationally.

While the Southern Conference has taken a step back, the Southland, Big South and Ohio Valley have been raising their national status.

But the Big Sky is prepared to fight back in a big way – with depth.

The 2015 season is wide open out West with many candidates lining up to win the conference title and make the FCS playoffs. The complexion of the race changed considerably this past February when All-America quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. announced he was transferring from Eastern Washington for his senior season.

EWU has won at least a share of the last three Big Sky titles and is the most recent FCS national champion not named North Dakota State.

"Every game is going to be tough. It’s the Big Sky Conference, every game is going to be a battle," Sacramento State senior linebacker Darnell Sankey said.

"I feel like it’s like that every year. The Big Sky Conference is one of the most competitive conferences there is in the nation. Any team can beat any team."

The uncertainty in the league race was evident in its two preseason polls. Eastern Washington and Montana State had the same number of first-place votes in each, with EWU favored by the media and Montana State the slightest of picks by the coaches.

Montana also made the playoffs last season, and Cal Poly, Idaho State and Northern Arizona were not far behind. They again give the Big Sky six teams with realistic hopes of making the postseason.

"We’re blessed to be in this conference, because it’s very competitive," Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown said. "All we can do is come out and focus on who we are, and compete at the highest level possible, because the other teams are."

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PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Eastern Washington

2. Montana State

3. Montana

4. Cal Poly

5. Idaho State

6. Northern Arizona

7. North Dakota

8. Southern Utah

9. Sacramento State

10. Portland State

11. Weber State

12. UC Davis

13. Northern Colorado

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TEAM CAPSULES=

1. EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES

LOCATION: Cheney, Washington

STADIUM: Roos Field

COACH: Beau Baldwin (67-25 in seven seasons at Eastern Washington; 77-28 overall)

LAST SEASON: 11-3 overall, 8-0 Big Sky (1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

KEY LOSSES: QB Vernon Adams Jr., RB Quincy Forte, RB Jordan Talley, OT Jake Rodgers, LB Ronnie Hamlin, S Tevin McDonald

OFFENSIVE STAR: Cooper Kupp, WR/PR, Jr., 6-2, 195 (104 receptions, 1,431 yards, 16 TDs; 16.2-yard punt return average)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Samson Ebukam, DE, Jr., 6-3, 240 (45 TT, 15 TFL, 7.5 SK, 1 QBH, 2 BLK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jordan West, QB, Jr., 6-4, 220; Jabril Wilson, RB, Jr., 5-11, 200; Jalen Moore, Jr., 5-10, 195; Shaq Hill, WR/KR, Sr., 5-10, 180; Kendrick Bourne, WR, Jr., 6-3, 190; Zach Wimberly, TE, Jr., 6-2, 240; Clay DeBord, LT, Sr., 6-6, 305; Aaron Neary, LG, Sr., 6-4, 300; Cassidy Curtis, RT, Sr., 6-7, 305; Matthew Sommer, NT, Jr., 6-5, 310; Miquiyah Zamora, DE, Jr., 6-1, 220; Alek Kacmarcik, LB, R-Fr., 6-1, 205; Victor Gamboa, CB, So., 6-0, 180; Nzuzi Webster, CB/RS, R-Fr., 5-11, 170; Rashad Wadood, CB, Sr., 5-11, 185; Zach Bruce, S, Jr., 5-10, 190; Todd Raynes, Rover, Sr., 6-2, 210; Tyler McNannay, PK/P, Sr., 6-1, 175.

OUTLOOK: EWU hit its peak with the 2010 FCS national title, but the three-time defending Big Sky champions’ 34 wins over the last three seasons are the most in program history for a three-year stretch (by seven wins). The Eagles would have been one of the favorites to capture another FCS title had Adams not transferred to Oregon for his senior season. The big question is whether West can come close to matching the two-time runner-up for national offensive player of the year. West made four starts when Adams was injured last season, compiling a 3-1 record in the top-scoring offense in the FCS (44.1 ppg). Plus, his receivers corps is ridiculously good with Kupp (197 receptions and 37 touchdowns in only two seasons), Hill and Bourne, and the offensive line could start five seniors, led by the left side of DeBord and Neary. On defense, new coordinator Jeff Schmedding is tasked with improving an underwhelming unit that ranked 95th in the FCS in total defense. The Eagles will employ a new 4-2-5 look, which plays into the hands of a secondary boasting many returning players. Their effectiveness on the back end could be improved by the work up front of Ebukam, converted-linebacker Zamora and Sommer. A brutally tough non-conference schedule means the Eagles are going to have to come out flying sans their former leader, Adams.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – at Oregon

Sept. 12 – at Northern Iowa

Sept. 19 – vs. Montana State

Sept. 26 – at Sacramento State*

Oct. 10 – vs. Cal Poly*

Oct. 17 – at Idaho State*

Oct. 24 – at Northern Colorado*

Oct. 31 – vs. Weber State*

Nov. 7 – vs. Northern Arizona*

Nov. 14 – at Montana*

Nov. 21 – vs. Portland State*

* – Big Sky game

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2. MONTANA STATE BOBCATS

LOCATION: Bozeman, Montana

STADIUM: Bobcat Stadium

COACH: Rob Ash (65-32 in eight seasons at Montana State; 241-131-5 overall)

LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (9 offense/3 defense)

BIG LOSSES: RB/RS Shawn Johnson, RB Anthony Knight, TE Tiai Salanoa, OG Quinn Catalano, LB Alex Singleton, CB Deonte Flowers

OFFENSIVE STAR: Dakota Prukop, QB, Jr., 6-2, 200 (171-for-263, 2,559 yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs; 170 carries, 966 yards, 13 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Taylor Sheridan, NT, Sr., 6-4, 285 (50 TT, 5 TFL, 2.5 SK, 2 PBU, 2 QBH, 3 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Chad Newell, RB, Jr., 6-1, 225; Gunnar Brekke, RB/RS, Jr., 5-11, 200; Mitchell Herbert, WR, So., 6-4, 205; Mitch Griebel, WR, Sr., 5-11, 190; Tanner Roderick, WR, Jr. 6-2, 205; Justin Paige, WR, So., 5-11, 175; Beau Sandland, TE, Sr., 6-6, 260 (Miami transfer); John Weidenaar, OT, Sr., 6-8, 295; Alex Eekhoff, OT, Sr., 6-7, 280; JP Flynn, OG, Jr., 6-5, 320; Kyle Godecke, OG, Sr., 6-5, 235; Joel Horn, C, Sr., 6-4, 325; Zach Hutchins, DE, Jr., 6-3, 215; Devin Jeffries, DE, So., 6-1, 250; Shiloh LaBoy, DE, So., 6-4, 250 (College of the Redwoods transfer); Nate Bignell, DT, Sr., 6-2, 290; Grant Collins, MLB, R-Fr., 6-4, 215; Blake Braun, LB, Jr., 6-2, 220; Bryson Keeton, CB, Sr., 6-2, 190; Bryce Alley, CB, So., 5-11, 175; Luke Daly, PK, So., 6-2, 185; Trevor Bolton, P, Sr., 5-10, 195

OUTLOOK: The Bobcats used last season to set up this one, with the pieces in place for a run at the Big Sky title. Prukop is one of the better quarterbacks in the FCS, a dual-threat who leads a creative offense that has plenty of skill-position standouts at his disposal, led by WR Griebel and the running back tandem of Newell and Brekke. But Prukop often takes off on runs as well, sprung by an experienced offensive line. The big guys up front also added a new partner in Miami transfer Sandland, a 6-6 tight end. The focus of the offseason has been on improving the defense, which surrendered a glaring 486.8 yards per game last season (second-worst in the conference). And this from a unit that lost eight starters. Coach Bo Beck always gets production from the D-linemen, with NT Sheridan and DE Hutchins expected to be the anchors up front. But Keeton, a cornerback, is the only returning starter in the back two units. Experience on special teams will help. Bolton would have been among the FCS leaders in punting average (44.6) had he logged more attempts.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3 – vs. Fort Lewis

Sept. 19 – at Eastern Washington

Sept. 26 – vs. Cal Poly*

Oct. 3 – at Northern Arizona*

Oct. 10 – vs. Sacramento State*

Oct. 17 – at Portland State*

Oct. 24 – vs. East Tennessee State

Oct. 31 – at North Dakota*

Nov. 7 – vs. Southern Utah*

Nov. 14 – at Idaho State*

Nov. 21 – vs. Montana*

* – Big Sky game

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3. MONTANA GRIZZLIES

LOCATION: Missoula, Montana

STADIUM: Washington-Grizzly Stadium

COACH: Bob Stitt (first season at Montana; 108-62-1 overall)

LAST SEASON: 9-5 overall, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

BIG LOSSES: QB Jordan Johnson, RB Jordan Canada, RB/WR Travon Van, DE Zack Wagenmann, DT Tonga Takai, CB Joshua Dennard, S Matt Hermanson

OFFENSIVE STAR: Jamaal Jones, WR, Sr., 6-1, 191 (67 receptions, 1,044 yards, 8 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Tyrone Holmes, DE, Sr., 6-4, 245 (66 TT, 14 TFL, 7.5 SK, 2 PBU, 4 QBH, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Brady Gustafson, R-Jr., 6-7, 235; John Nguyen, RB/RS, 5-7, 180; Ellis Henderson, WR, Jr., 6-0, 185; David Reese, LT, So., 6-7, 270; Ben Weyer, OL, Jr., 6-4, 270; Devon Dietrich, OL, Jr., 6-4, 270; Derek Crittenden, DE, Sr., 6-3, 240; Caleb Kidder, DT, Sr., 6-2, 230; Zach Peevey, DT, Jr., 6-2, 255; Jeremiah Kose, LB, Sr., 6-2, 230; Kendrick Van Ackeren, LB, Sr., 6-1, 220; Herbert Gamboa, LB, Sr., 6-1, 215; Nate Harris, CB, Sr., 5-10, 180; Justin Whitted, S, Sr., 6-1, 195; Chris Lider, PK/P, Sr., 6-1, 199; Stephen Shaw, P, Sr., 6-3, 245

OUTLOOK: That Stitt opens his Montana coaching career against four-time reigning FCS champion North Dakota State underscores the spotlight of leading the Grizzlies’ historic program. Stitt, 51, was hired from outside the program at Division II College School of the Mines. He brings an offensive mindset to UM, where he doesn’t have the luxury of a coaching honeymoon. He’s known for the fly-sweep, which utilizes wide receivers in motion to be potential ball carriers, but out of the fast-paced pro set, new QB Gustafson will want to look downfield often to the likes of Jones and Henderson as receiving targets. The starting linebackers unit (Van Ackeren, Krose and Gamboa) is so strong that the returning Kidder, who was injured last season, has switched from linebacker to defensive tackle to be a playmaker up front. Holmes has always worked in the shadow of All-American DE Wagenmann and is primed for a banner senior season as a pass rusher. The Grizzlies will be in the Big Sky title mix, especially if Gustafson (who stands 6-foot-7) develops an early comfort level, but they have to overcome the loss of a significant senior class. The conference schedule is quite manageable through Halloween, so the Grizzlies expect to have great momentum heading into November.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 29 – vs. North Dakota State

Sept. 5 – vs. Cal Poly, TBA

Sept. 19 – at Liberty

Sept. 26 – vs. Northern Arizona*

Oct. 3 – at UC Davis*

Oct. 10 – vs. Weber State*

Oct. 24 – vs. North Dakota*

Oct. 31 – at Portland State*

Nov. 7 – at Idaho State*

Nov. 14 – vs. Eastern Washington*

Nov. 21 – at Montana State*

* – Big Sky game

—=

4. CAL POLY MUSTANGS

LOCATION: San Luis Obispo, California

STADIUM: Alex G. Spanos Stadium

COACH: Tim Walsh (39-30 in six seasons at Cal Poly; 156-112 overall)

LAST SEASON: 7-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)

KEY LOSSES: FB Brandon Howe, DL Cameron Ontko, DE Chris Judge, LB Nick Dzubnar, S Dave Douglas, S Jordan Williams

OFFENSIVE STAR: Chris Brown, QB, Sr., 6-2, 200 (102-for-171, 1,465 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs; 249 carries, 1,265 yards, 17 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Chris Fletcher, CB, Sr., 5-9, 185 (68 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT, 10 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Koi Garcia, SB, Jr., 5-10, 195; Joe Protheroe, FB, So., 6-0, 230; Jordan Hines, WR, Sr., 6-2, 195; Roland Jackson Jr., WR, Sr., 5-10, 150; Willie Tucker, WR, Sr., 6-3, 200; Stephen Sippel, C, Sr., 6-4, 280; Weston Walker, RT, Sr., 6-4, 275; Nick Enriquez, LG, Jr., 6-5, 280; Billy Shipman, RG, Jr., 6-3, 275; Matt Fisher, LT, So., 6-5, 290; Calvin Sandeen, LT, R-Jr., 6-6, 270; Miles Williams, DE, So., 6-0, 250; Jack Ferguson, DE, So., 6-2, 245; Josh Letuligasenoa, DE, Jr., 6-2, 260; Marcus Paige-Allen, DT, Jr., 5-11, 260; Fino Elisaia, DT, So., 6-0, 315; Burton De Koning, WLB, Sr., 6-2, 230; Tu’uta Inoke, MLB, Sr., 6-1, 240; Karlton Dennis, CB, Sr., 5-10, 185; Zac Powell, LS, Sr., 6-2, 220

OUTLOOK: A sweep of Big Sky powers Montana and Montana State on back-to-back weekends last season indicated the ability of Cal Poly, which just two years ago lost a home game to Yale from the Ivy League. Brown is superb in running the triple option offense, which has led the FCS in rushing yards per game each of the past two seasons (351.8 last season). Brown (1,265) and slot back Garcia (1,039) gave the Mustangs a pair of 1,000-yard rushers for only the second time in program history and they led an offense that committed only seven turnovers (the fewest in the FCS). And with an experienced offensive line, the run game will be explosive again. Conversely, the defense suffered big losses, including a tackle machine in Dzubnar (167 tackles) and a fellow first-team all-conference choice in Ontko. Paige-Allen and Letuligasenoa provide returning anchors up front, while Dennis and Fletcher are returning starters at cornerback, which goes a long way in the Big Sky. But take a deep breath because the first half of the Mustangs’ schedule is as daunting as it gets in the FCS. They need to hold on early and stay healthy to become a part of the Big Sky title race.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – at Montana

Sept. 12 – at Arizona State

Sept. 19 – vs. Northern Iowa

Sept. 26 – at Montana State*

Oct. 3 – vs. Idaho State*

Oct. 10 – at Eastern Washington*

Oct. 24 – vs. Portland State*

Oct. 31 – at Southern Utah*

Nov. 7 – vs. Sacramento State*

Nov. 14 – at UC Davis*

Nov. 21 – vs. North Dakota*

* – Big Sky game

—=

5. IDAHO STATE BENGALS

LOCATION: Pocatello, Idaho

STADIUM: Holt Arena

COACH: Mike Kramer (14-32 in four seasons at Idaho State; 91-107 overall)

LAST SEASON: 8-4 overall, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)

KEY LOSSES: QB Justin Arias, OL, Jim Bagley, LB Mitch Beckstead, LB Austin Graves, DB Vai Peko

OFFENSIVE STAR: Xavier Finney, RB, Sr., 5-11, 199 (259 carries, 1,495 yards, 14 TDs; 22 receptions, 119 yards)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Mario Jenkins, LB, R-So., 6-1, 229 (120 TT, 10.5 TFL, 2 SK, 3 INT, 4 PBU, 5 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Tanner Gueller, QB, R-Fr., 6-2, 227; Michael Sanders, QB, Jr., 6-3, 210 (Scottsdale C.C. transfer); Robert Kvinsland, QB, Fr., 6-3, 192; Jakori Ford, RB, R-Jr., 5-8, 185; Madison Mangum, WR, R-Sr., 6-2, 212; Broc Malcom, WR, R-Jr., 5-11, 172; K.W. Williams, WR, R-Jr., 6-1, 212; Hagen Graves, WR, So., 6-0, 179; Josh Cook, TE, R-Jr., 6-3, 220; Terrence Carey, OL, R-Sr., 6-1, 300; Skyler Phillips, OL, Jr., 6-2, 322; Christian Diehm, OL, R-Sr., 6-5, 279; Thomas Vazorka, OL, Jr., 6-4, 318; Wesley Wingrove, OL, 6-4, 327; Tyler Kuder, DT, R-Sr., 6-3, 311; Hayden Stout, LB, R-Jr., 6-2, 230; Kurt Karstetter, LB, Sr., 6-2, 218; Erik Collins, DB, Jr., 5-9, 170; Taison Manu, DB, Sr., 5-10, 201; Cody Sorensen, DB, R-Sr., 5-11, 197; Zak Johnson, PK, R-So., 5-9, 180

OUTLOOK: Coming off a stunning turnaround last season, the Bengals seek a spot in the FCS playoffs. They posted their first winning record since 2003 (they had won only six games, and just two in the Big Sky, over Kramer’s first three seasons). The Bengals return 11 players who earned a form of All-Big Sky honors, led by Finney, who had nine 100-yard-plus rushing games, and Mangum (83 receptions, 1,234 yards, 10 TDs), but they must find a trigger man to run the offense after graduating Arias, the Big Sky’s 2014 co-offensive player of the year. Gueller and Sanders are the front-runners for the starting QB job and the winner will benefit from the experienced players around him. While their offense is always potent, the formerly porous defense has been improving. Kuder is the stuffer up front, allowing the likes of Jenkins to patrol the field from behind. The Bengals, picked third in the Big Sky’s preseason media poll, but sixth in its preseason coaches poll, finished 6-0 at home last season, and they face Eastern Washington, Montana and Montana State at Holt Arena within a pivotal four-game stretch.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – vs. Black Hills State

Sept. 12 – vs. Portland State*

Sept. 18 – at Boise State

Sept. 26 – at UNLV

Oct. 3 – at Cal Poly*

Oct. 10 – at North Dakota*

Oct. 17 – vs. Eastern Washington*

Oct. 24 – at Sacramento State*

Nov. 7 – vs. Montana*

Nov. 14 – vs. Montana State*

Nov. 21 – at Weber State*

* – Big Sky game

—=

6. NORTHERN ARIZONA LUMBERJACKS

LOCATION: Flagstaff, Arizona

STADIUM: Walkup Skydome

COACH: Jerome Souers (100-93 in 17 seasons at Northern Arizona)

LAST SEASON: 7-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

BIG LOSSES: QB Chase Cartwright, WR Ify Umodu, TE Beau Gardner, C Roy Garcia, LB Austin Hasquet, CB Blake Bailey

OFFENSIVE STAR: Casey Jahn, RB, Sr., 5-11, 190 (185 carries, 824 yards, 4 TDs; 34 receptions, 311 yards, 3 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Marcus Alford, CB, Sr., 5-10, 160 (27 TT, 1 TFL, 3 INT, 10 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kyren Poe, QB, Sr., 6-3, 190; Jordan Perry, QB, Sr., 6-3, 210; Corbin Jountti, RB, So., 5-11, 195; Nick Butier, FB, Sr., 6-1, 225; Alex Holmes, WR/PR, Sr., 6-0, 180; Dejzon Walker, WR, Sr., 6-3, 210 (injured last season); Emmanuel Butler, WR, So., 6-3, 215; R.J. Rickert, TE, Jr., Sr., 6-3, 240 (injured last season); Eric Rodriguez, LG, Jr., 6-3, 290; Leroy Guenther, RT, Sr., 6-7, 295; Blake Porter, OL, So., 6-0, 260; Jacob Julian, RT, Jr., 6-4, 300; Zach McDonnell, DE, Sr., 6-2, 230; Siupeli Anau, DL, Sr., 6-3, 250; Deon Young, DL, So., 6-1, 265; Josh Bamrick, LB, Sr., Sr., 6-1, 255; Jake Thomas, LB, Sr., Jr., 6-1, 235; Wes Sutton, CB, So., So., 6-0, 175; Mo White II, CB, Jr., So., 5-11, 180; Eddie Horn, S, Sr., 5-11, 195; Darius Lewis, S, Sr., 5-9 165; Ryan Hawkins, PK, Sr., 5-11, 185

OUTLOOK: NAU’s 2015 season could extend beyond this simply being the 100th anniversary of Lumberjacks football. Veteran coach Souers’ solid returning nucleus has a chance to post a fourth straight winning season and qualify for the FCS playoffs, which was within the Lumberjacks’ grasp a year ago before two season-ending losses. If Poe or Perry (who handed Eastern Washington its only conference loss last season) brings consistency to the quarterback position, watch out because NAU has a balanced attack with a strong running back (Jahn), fullback (Butier), tight end (Rickert) and wide receivers (Holmes and Walker). In fact, first-year offensive coordinator Tim Plough, who had coached the wide receivers, has 18 offensive players who have made at least one career start. The defense is full of senior leaders, led by Alford, Lewis and Horn in a strong secondary, which ranked second against the pass in the Big Sky. McDonnell, also a senior, had a game last season with six quarterback hurries and can be a difference maker at defensive end. Since the Big Sky expanded to 13 teams in 2012, this is the first time NAU will play Eastern Washington, Montana and Montana State in the same season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – at Stephen F. Austin

Sept. 12 – vs. New Mexico Highlands

Sept. 19 – at Arizona

Sept. 26 – at Montana*

Oct. 3 – vs. Montana State*

Oct. 10 – at UC Davis*

Oct. 24 – vs. Weber State*

Oct. 31 – vs. Northern Colorado*

Nov. 7 – at Eastern Washington*

Nov. 14 – vs. Sacramento State*

Nov. 21 – at Southern Utah*

* – Big Sky game

—=

7. NORTH DAKOTA

LOCATION: Grand Forks, North Dakota

STADIUM: Alerus Center

COACH: Kyle Schweigert (5-7 in one season at North Dakota)

LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

KEY LOSSES: WR R.J. McGill, OG Ben Henson, DT/DE Spencer Cummings, CB Alex Tillman, SS Baylee Carr

OFFENSIVE STAR: Zach Adler, TE, Sr., 6-3, 242 (24 receptions, 265 yards, 1 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Will Ratelle, ILB, Sr., 5-11, 250 (106 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 SK, 3 PBU, 6 QBH, 2 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Keaton Studsrud, QB, So., 6-1, 185; Joe Mollberg, QB, Jr., 6-2, 235; Ryan Bartels, QB, Jr. 6-3, 218; Ja’Won Arrington, RB, Sr., 5-11, 215 (UAB transfer); Kyle Norberg, RB, So., 6-1, 230; Dustin Iverson, FB, Jr., 6-3, 250; Clive Georges, Jr., WR, 6-1, 180 (Arizona transfer); Josh Seibel, WR, So., 5-11, 170; Sean Meehan, RT, Sr., 6-5, 300; Colton Boas, C, Sr., 6-1, 300; Brandon Anderson, LG, Sr., 6-6, 310; Jordan Hinojosa, Jr., NG, 6-3, 275; Alec Carrothers, DE, Jr., 6-2, 245; Drew Greely, DE, So., 6-3, 230; Brandon Dranka, DE, So., 6-2, 235; Dayo Idowu, OLB, Sr., 6-2, 225; Brian Labat, OLB, Jr., 6-3, 225; Taj Rich, ILB, Jr., 6-1, 225; Chris Brown, Sr., CB, 5-8, 165; Jahmere Irvin-Sills, CB, R-Jr., 5-10, 175 (Mississippi State transfer); Jawon Johnson, SS, Jr., 6-2, 200; Cole Reyes, FS, So., 6-2, 205; Reid Taubenheim, PK, So., 6-1, 185; Connor Bolduc, So., 6-3, 195

OUTLOOK: Two season-ending Big Sky wins provided a great end to Schweigert’s first campaign. With eight returning starters to an aggressive defense, the momentum figures to continue this year. The defense is led by its linebackers, including Ratelle – the first UND player to have a 100-tackle season on the Division I level. The defense even surpassed 100 tackles for loss – one of just 14 teams on the FCS level to do so last season – while it allowed a Big Sky-low 354.4 yards per game. The offense was another story, though, passing for only 1,655 yards and averaging just 15.9 points per game. Studsrud appeared to cement the quarterback job with the two season-ending wins, when UND doubled its scoring average. Juniors Bartels and Mollberg, who were both injured last season, have experience under center as well. Arrington is a UAB transfer and a power back who figures to combine well with Norberg. UND won’t impress anybody with speed, so TE Adler fits right into the offensive scheme. The kickers are young and talented. Taubenheim led all FCS freshmen with 16 field goals, but UND doesn’t want Bolduc making 82 punts again.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – at Wyoming

Sept. 12 – vs. Drake

Sept. 19 – at North Dakota State

Sept. 26 – vs. UC Davis*

Oct. 3 – at Portland State*

Oct. 10 – vs. Idaho State*

Oct. 17 – at Weber State*

Oct. 24 – at Montana*

Oct. 31 – vs. Montana State*

Nov. 14 – vs. Northern Colorado*

Nov. 21 – at Cal Poly*

* – Big Sky game

—=

8. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS

LOCATION: Cedar City, Utah

STADIUM: Eccles Coliseum

COACH: Ed Lamb (37-43 in seven seasons at Southern Utah)

LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

BIG LOSSES: WR Chris Robinson, TE Chandler Allpin, OL Trevor McFalls, OL Nick Nissen, LB Chinedu Ahanonu, S Michael Byrd, CB Josh Smith

OFFENSIVE STAR: Ammon Olsen, QB, Sr., 6-4, 225 (241-for-380, 3,049 yards, 21 TDs, 10 INTs; 120 carries, 272 yards, 4 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: James Cowser, DE, Sr., 6-4, 258 (85 TT, 28.5 TFL, 11.5 SK, 2 PBU, 4 QBH, 1 FR, 3 FF, 2 BLK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Malik Brown, RB, Sr., 6-1, 207; Jerom Healey, RB, Jr., 5-11, 221; Pete Williams, RB, So., 5-9, 185; Toa Afatasi, FB, Jr., 5-9, 208; Mike Sharp, WR, Jr., 6-2, 200; Justin Brown, WR, Sr., 6-2, 207; Steve Wroblewski, WR/TE, Sr., 6-7, 247; Steve Clark, OT, Jr., 6-6, 319; Evan Ross, OL, Jr., 6-6, 302; Grady Sami, OL, Fr., 6-7, 335; Robert Torgerson, DL, Jr., 6-2, 275; Fesi Vaivaka, NG, So., 6-3, 350; Matt Holley, LB, Gr., 6-1, 230 (injured last season); Mike Needham, LB, Jr., 6-3, 200 (on LDS Church mission last season); Taylor, Pili, LB, So., 6-4, 232; Miles Killebrew, LB/S, Sr., 6-3, 223; LeShaun Sims, CB, Sr., 6-0, 200; Kyle Hannemann, CB, So., 5-11, 200; Josh Kariya, DB, Jr., 6-3, 235; Trevor McGirr, PK, Jr., 5-11, 190; Tate Lewis, P, Jr., 6-6, 228

OUTLOOK: After securing five fewer wins a year ago than their FCS playoff squad did in 2013, the Thunderbirds are anxious to rebound this season. They annually are without key players because of LDS Church missions, and last year’s leading tackler, linebacker Ahanonu, will be absent from the lineup this season. Still, the T-birds have a strong linebackers corps, including 2013 leading tackler Holley returning from injury. But their best players are DE Cowser and LB/S Killebrew. Cowser set a Big Sky record with 28.5 tackles for loss last season and Killebrew has NFL-ready size for the back end. After transferring in from Brigham Young, the efficient Olsen developed a comfort level in running the offense, and he figures to be even better as a senior. Leading receiver Robinson is gone, but there are enough weapons to make the offense exciting. However, an improved running game is a must as the team comes of age. It should help the T-birds record-wise not to have Eastern Washington and Montana on the schedule.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – at Utah State

Sept. 12 – at South Dakota State

Sept. 19 – vs. Northern Colorado*

Sept. 26 – vs. Brevard

Oct. 2 – at Weber State*

Oct. 17 – vs. Sacramento State*

Oct. 24 – at UC Davis*

Oct. 31 – vs. Cal Poly*

Nov. 7 – at Montana State*

Nov. 14 – at Portland State*

Nov. 21 – vs. Northern Arizona*

* – Big Sky game

—=

9. SACRAMENTO STATE HORNETS

LOCATION: Sacramento, California

STADIUM: Hornet Stadium

COACH: Jody Sears (7-5 in one season at Sacramento State; 11-24 overall)

LAST SEASON: 7-5 overall, 4-4 Big Sky (7th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (5 offense/5 defense)

KEY LOSSES: QB Garrett Safron, WR DeAndre Carter, OL Aleksandar Milanovic, DE Jaycee Totty, LB Henry Fernandez

OFFENSIVE STAR: Nnamdi Agude, WR, Sr., 6-3, 195 (70 receptions, 1,156 yards, 10 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Darnell Sankey, LB, Sr., 6-2, 250 (99 TT, 8 TFL, 2 SK, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Daniel Kniffin, QB, R-So., 6-2, 180; Jordan Robinson, RB, Jr., 5-11, 195; Dominic Coulter, WR, Sr., 6-3, 235; Shane Harrison, WR, Sr., 6-2, 200 (sat out last season); Stone Sander, TE, So., 6-4, 230; Casey Dakin, OL, Jr., 6-4, 275; Lars Hanson, OL, Sr., 6-8, 300; Nick Mazza, DL, Sr., 6-2, 275; Ben Sorensen, DL, So., 6-4, 250; Pete Nonu, DL, Sr., 6-0, 360; Josh Armstrong, DB, Sr., 6-0, 180; Austin Clark, DB, So., 5-11, 185; Nick Crouch, DB, Jr., 6-0, 200; Anthony Payne, DB, Jr., 6-1, 190; Nicholas Payne, DB, Sr., 6-1, 185; Brad Cornish, PK, Sr., 6-3, 210; Smith Heath, P, R-Sr., 6-2, 195

OUTLOOK: Sears landed in a good spot at Sacramento State last year, leading the Hornets’ first seven-win campaign since 2000. But in his second season, the Hornets have only 10 returning starters, and the losses of QB Safron and WR Carter will be especially difficult to absorb. The Hornets believe Kniffin will develop under center and Agude posted a breakout junior season despite Carter’s huge campaign. Add in a solid running back in Robinson and the Hornets could still have an offense similar to the one that surpassed 40 points eight times last season. Of course, they have to pick up the results defensively, especially in the fourth quarter of game. But that’s made easier by the return of a healthier Sankey, their do-everything standout at linebacker. There’s also a more seasoned secondary to deal with the pass-happy Big Sky. The left-footed Cornish is 17-for-21 on field goal attempts in his career and is capable of deciding close games.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – vs. Eastern Oregon

Sept. 12 – at Washington

Sept. 19 – at Weber State

Sept. 26 – vs. Eastern Washington*

Oct. 3 – vs. Northern Colorado*

Oct. 10 – at Montana State*

Oct. 17 – at Southern Utah*

Oct. 24 – vs. Idaho State*

Nov. 7 – at Cal Poly*

Nov. 14 – at Northern Arizona*

Nov. 21 – vs. UC Davis*

* – Big Sky game

—=

10. PORTLAND STATE VIKINGS

LOCATION: Portland, Oregon

STADIUM: Providence Park

COACH: Bruce Barnum (first season at Portland State)

LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 2-6 (Tie/10th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

KEY LOSSES: RB Shaquille Richard, WR Kasey Closs, C Cornelius Edison, P Kyle Loomis

OFFENSIVE STAR: Kieran McDonagh, QB, Sr., 6-2, 230

DEFENSIVE STAR: Aaron Sibley, CB, Sr., 5-10, 180

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Josh Kraght, QB, So., 6-0, 195; Paris Penn, QB, Jr., 6-1, 215; Steven Long, RB, So., 5-7, 180; Nate Tago, RB/KR, Jr., 5-11, 215; Thomas Carter, WR, Sr., 5-10, 185; Alex Toureen, WR, Sr., 6-0, 180; Stevie Coury, WR, So., 5-10, 160; Cam Sommer, TE, Jr., 6-3, 240; Kyle Smith, OL, Jr., 6-5, 310; Cam Keizur, OL, Jr., 6-4, 320; Daniel Fusi, DT, Sr., 6-0, 340; Junior Alexis, DT, Sr., 6-2, 285; Savali Talalemotu, DT/DE, Jr., 6-3, 275; Sadat Sulleyman, DE, Sr., 6-2, 245; Jeremy Lutali, LB, Sr., 5-11, 230; Xavier Coleman, CB, Jr., 5-11, 190; Patrick Onwuasor, S, Sr., 6-2, 225; Jonathan Gonzales, PK, Jr., 6-2, 210; Kameron Canaday, LS, Sr., 6-4, 230

OUTLOOK: The Vikings believe they have underachieved in going a combined 12-23 the last three seasons. In that time, they have lost eight games in which they held a double-digit lead. But clearly there’s a sense of urgency as Barnum is in an interim role and working on a one-year contract. As the offensive coordinator the last five seasons, his West Coast/Pistol offenses have done well, and QB McDonagh returns with 29 career starts and 6,894 career total yards to his credit. But McDonagh lost the top job to Kraght for the final three games last season and needs to display more consistency as a senior. The Vikings always seem to have a solid offensive line and RB Long, at 5-7, will take advantage while finding running room in some of the smaller gaps. The Vikings have to cut down on last year’s 26 turnovers, which led to a minus-12 margin. Lutali and Sibley will lead the defense, which has eight returning starters as well as a new coordinator in Malik Roberson. It will help if Sulleyman and Talalemotu get into opposing backfields.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – at Washington State

Sept. 12 – at Idaho State*

Sept. 26 – vs. Western Oregon

Oct. 3 – vs. North Dakota*

Oct 10 – at North Texas

Oct. 17 – vs. Montana State*

Oct. 24 – at Cal Poly*

Oct. 31 – vs. Montana*

Nov. 7 – at Northern Colorado*

Nov. 14 – vs. Southern Utah*

Nov. 21 – at Eastern Washington*

* – Big Sky game

—=

11. WEBER STATE WILDCATS

LOCATION: Ogden, Utah

STADIUM: Stewart Stadium

COACH: Jay Hill (2-10 in one season at Weber State)

LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/10th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

KEY LOSSES: WR/PR Shaydon Kehano, RB/KR Bo Bolen, OG Alex Land, DE Dustin Martin, LB Felix Woods, CB Deon’tae Florence

OFFENSIVE STAR: Cam Livingston, WR, Jr., 6-2, 195 (57 receptions, 856 yards, 1 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Emmett Tela, LB, So., 6-1, 220 (79 TT, 10 TFL, 2.5 SK, 2 QBH)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jadrian Clark, QB, Jr., 6-3, 215; Billy Green, QB, Jr., 6-2, 215; Zach Smith, RB, Jr., 6-0, 210; Eric Wilkes, RB, So., 5-7, 210; Darryl Denby, WR, So., 5-9, 170; Drew Batchelor, WR, So., 5-11, 185; Cameron Young, OL, Jr., 6-3, 310; Joe Hawkins, C, Sr., 6-1, 315; Adam Lewis, DE, So., 6-6, 250; Alema Key, LB, So., 6-0, 225; Josh Burton, S, Jr., 6-1, 180; Cordero Dixon, CB, Sr., 5-10, 175; Devonte Johnson, CB, Sr., 6-1, 170; Taron Johnson, CB, So., 6-0, 175; Tre’von Johnson, S, Jr., 6-1, 215; Josh Kealamakia, PK, Sr., 6-1, 210

OUTLOOK: The Wildcats were more competitive in Hill’s first season than their 2-10 record suggests, including a decent effort against FCS kingpin North Dakota State. Nonetheless, they lost their first nine games and wound up with their third straight two-win campaign, so the Wildcats are seeking big strides this season. They are not a senior-driven team. Both quarterbacks – Clark and Green – return off a season in which they combined for nearly 3,000 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air, and the offense will gain from their continued maturity under center. Smith (742 rushing yards) and WR Livingston also are part of a strong junior class. Tela (sophomore) and Burton (junior) headline the young talent on defense, which further suggests this season could set up a breakout 2016 campaign. The road schedule is brutal aside from a trip to Northern Colorado, so progress may not show up in a big way.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 4 – at Oregon State

Sept. 12 – at North Dakota State

Sept. 19 – vs. Sacramento State

Sept. 26 – at Northern Colorado*

Oct. 2 – vs. Southern Utah*

Oct. 10 – at Montana*

Oct. 17 – vs. North Dakota*

Oct. 24 – at Northern Arizona*

Oct. 31 – at Eastern Washington*

Nov. 7 – vs. UC Davis*

Nov. 21 – vs. Idaho State*

* – Big Sky game

—=

12. UC DAVIS AGGIES

LOCATION: Davis, California

STADIUM: Aggie Stadium

COACH: Ron Gould (7-16 in two seasons at UC Davis)

LAST SEASON: 2-9 overall, 1-7 Big Sky (13th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (5 offense/9 defense)

KEY LOSSES: RB Gabe Manzanares, FB Dalton Turay, TE Mark Martindale, LT Ian Joseph, LB Steven Pitts, FS Charles Boyett

OFFENSIVE STAR: Ben Scott, QB, 6-3, 200, Jr. (140-for-218, 1,734 yards, 19 TDs, 7 INTs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Keleen Culberson, SS, 5-11, 205, Jr. (74 TT, 3 TFL, 1 SK, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Ramon Vargas, WR, 6-3, 185, Sr.; Jermale Jefferson, WR, So., 5-10, 172; Parker Smith, LT, 6-4, 290, Sr.; Andrew Hunter, LG, 6-2, 295, Sr.; Christian Schneider, RT, 6-6, 290, So.; Walter Earnest, DE, 6-2, 255, Sr.; Kyle DeVaughn, DT, 5-11, 285, Sr.; Inoke Raikadroka, DT, 6-0, 295, Jr.; Zak Pettit, DL, Jr., 6-4, 255; Artice Nelson, SLB, 6-3, 225, Sr.; Russell Reeder, WLB, 6-3, 225, Jr.; Shamawn Wright, CB, 5-9, 180, Sr.; Nate Walker, CB, 5-9, 170, So.; Zach Jones, FS, 5-11, 205, Jr.; Brady Stuart, PK, 5-11, 175, Sr.; Colby Wadman, P, 6-1, 205, Jr.

OUTLOOK: If there is a Big Sky candidate for a 2014 bounceback, it might be the Aggies. They were a team rattled by injuries last year, just one season after they finished 5-3 in conference games. Their lone Big Sky win was impressive – on the road against Cal Poly. Scott was likely one of the more overlooked success stories in the conference as he became the starting quarterback for the final six games and threw for 18 touchdowns and a pair of 300-yard games. He should form a tough combination with Vargas, who caught 41 passes for 665 yards and eight touchdowns over the season’s final seven games. Gould is known for his background in coaching running backs, and the Aggies need a top candidate to emerge following the graduation of Manzanares. Most of last year’s leading tacklers return, including Culberson, but it’s a defensive unit that must stop opponents more on third down conversions (49 percent success rate). With the injuries, many young players received playing time, so the Aggies are banking on that paying dividends this season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3 – at Nevada

Sept. 12 – vs. South Dakota

Sept. 19 – at Hawaii

Sept. 26 – at North Dakota*

Oct. 3 – vs. Montana*

Oct. 10 – vs. Northern Arizona*

Oct. 17 – at Northern Colorado*

Oct. 24 – vs. Southern Utah*

Nov. 7 – at Weber State*

Nov. 14 – vs. Cal Poly*

Nov. 21 – at Sacramento State*

* – Big Sky game

—=

13. NORTHERN COLORADO BEARS

LOCATION: Greeley, Colorado

STADIUM: Nottingham Field

COACH: Earnest Collins Jr. (9-36 in three seasons at Northern Colorado; 17-48 overall)

LAST SEASON: 3-8 overall, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/10th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 9 (5 offense/4 defense)

KEY LOSSES: QB Sean Rubalcaba, RB Robert Holland, WR Dimitri Stimphil, DT Lexington Smith, LB Dominick Sierra, SS Kyle Griffin, CB Courtney Hall

OFFENSIVE STAR: Stephen Miller, WR, Jr., 6-3, 195 (45 receptions, 586 yards, 3 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Leilon Willingham, LB, R-Sr., 6-2, 252 (medical redshirt last season)

KEY PLAYERS: Jon Newsom, QB, Sr., 6-2, 200; Darius Graham, RB, Jr., 6-1, 228; Anthony Davis, RB, R-So., 5-9, 182; Quinn Zamora, FB, Jr., 6-0, 235; Malcolm Whye, WR, Sr., 5-11, 160; Sean Leslie, WR, Sr., 6-3, 206; Ellis Onic II, WR, R-So., 5-6, 163; Samad Hinds, TE, R-So., 6-5, 228; Austin Hendrickson, C, R-Jr., 6-3, 283; Zach Wilkinson, OL, So., 6-5, 255; Marcus Piechowski, OL, Jr., 6-5, 292; Mikhail Dubose, DE, Sr., 6-2, 250; Myles Overton, DT, Jr., 6-4, 305; James Riddle, LB, R-So., 6-4, 195; Lavell Sanders, LB, Jr., 6-0, 203; JaQueal Walker, LB, Sr., 6-1, 210; Boobie Sanders, LB, Jr., 6-0, 203; Denzel Hatcher, LB, Fr., 5-11, 225; Taylor Risner, DB, Jr., 6-2, 204; Brandon Lenior, CB, Jr., 5-10, 185; A.J. Battle, DB, Sr., 6-1, 168

OUTLOOK: The usual preseason motivation arrived for the Bears when they were picked to finish 13th and last in both the Big Sky’s coaches and media polls. To exceed expectations, and perhaps end a run of 11 straight losing seasons, they have to stop falling behind in the first half of games and then win more of the close contests. The first half of their schedule suggests some potential success, and the Bears don’t face Cal Poly, Montana and Montana State in Big Sky action. Their defense, which returns only four starters, will gain considerably from the return of three linebackers who were injured last season – Willingham, Walker and Sanders. It’s a defensive unit that gained respect by finishing fifth in the Big Sky in both scoring and total defense and second in pass defense. On offense, the Bears are changing the style to a spread attack. Rubalcaba, last year’s starting quarterback, left the program in the offseason, but Newsom flashed his potential as the No. 2 signal caller last season. Miller was solid as a sophomore wide receiver, but the offense is a unit of unheralded players. There will be growing pains.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – vs. Western State

Sept. 12 – at Houston Baptist

Sept. 19 – at Southern Utah*

Sept. 26 – vs. Weber State*

Oct. 3 – at Sacramento State*

Oct. 17 – vs. UC Davis*

Oct. 24 – vs. Eastern Washington*

Oct. 31 – at Northern Arizona*

Nov. 7 – vs. Portland State*

Nov. 14 – at North Dakota*

Nov. 21 – vs. Abilene Christian

* – Big Sky game