Big Sky is the conference ripe for upsets

(STATS) – Rattle off the potential title contenders in the Big Sky Conference and after six or seven teams you remember Southern Utah.

The Thunderbirds happen to be a defending co-champion. But easy to overlook? They were picked to finish seventh in the conference’s two preseason polls last summer.

It might sound familiar. They were picked to finish eighth in 2015 and won their first outright Big Sky championship.

But Southern Utah is not alone. Portland State also raised its game in 2015 and North Dakota did the same in 2016. Last year, Weber State went from being picked fifth in the preseason polls to earning a share of the title with SUU.

The Big Sky isn’t just the largest conference in the FCS with 13 teams, it’s the one that’s most ripe for upsets. There are too many good teams – eight or nine with legitimate aspirations of making the FCS playoffs – basically for it to follow expected form. In fact, the far-western conference in the FCS has sent seven different teams to the playoffs over the last two seasons.

“With Montana still trying to find its foundation, Montana State still rebuilding, Eastern Washington hoping to find answers in life after (coach) Beau Baldwin combined with the best young coach in the FCS in my opinion in Jay Hill leading Weber to new heights, the race is hard to put a bead on from top to bottom,” said Colter Nuanez, who covers the Big Sky for Skyline Sports.

It appears Eastern Washington will grab the favorite’s role in the preseason. The Eagles missed the playoffs in coach Aaron Best’s first season last year, but they have claimed at least a share of four of the last six titles and won the 2010 FCS championship. They’re returning an experienced roster.

The defending co-champs aren’t going away anytime soon. Weber State’s trip to the national quarterfinals last year was the furthest in the playoffs for a Big Sky team other than Eastern Washington since 2012. Southern Utah surely has to gain more respect in the preseason polls, although the motivation of being picked low has served the Thunderbirds well.

Traditional power Montana is reloading under coach Bobby Hauck, who’s back for a second stint after leading the Griz to seven straight Big Sky titles from 2003-09. But they first have to be the best team in the state because Montana State, which has won the last two meetings between the archrivals, is seeking a breakthrough season.

All Northern Arizona does under coach Jerome Souers is win consistently. Rivals Sacramento State and UC Davis also are eyeing the playoffs.

Plus, there are wild cards in the Big Sky:

Idaho, a founding member of the conference, returns after spending 22 years on the FBS level. The Vandals still boast talent that was recruited for the higher level of Division I, and they beat Montana State in 2016 and Sac State last year.

– North Dakota is an FCS independent for the next two years as it moves toward membership in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but the 2017 co-champ is still playing a full Big Sky schedule to accommodate pre-existing contracts. Although the Fighting Hawks aren’t part of the standings, the games count for their Big Sky opponents (including Idaho, Montana, Weber State, Northern Arizona and Sac State).

– The Big Sky has unbalanced scheduling with 13 teams and only eight conference games, so that can shape the title race significantly. Among the seven teams that were 5-3 or better in conference games last year, Southern Utah and Weber State both play five of them, plus SUU has a road game against Idaho. In contrast, Northern Arizona faces only three of the teams with winning conference marks last season.

Complicated, fascinating, unpredictable – the Big Sky is ripe for another wild ride in 2018.