The Big, Big Sky Preview

Photo: The Spokesman Review

Photo: The Spokesman Review

All 13 teams from that crazy conference out west broken down and ranked in a completely unbiased order…


By Landon Johnston, FCS Fans Nations Contributor


1. EASTERN WASHINGTON RED TURFS (7-1 Big Sky, 9-2 overall)

Call me a homer all you want but both the Big Sky Football Coaches and Media Polls pegged my Eagles as the favorite to win the conference so who am I to argue? I’ve never been one to go against the grain so I figure why start now.

EWU heads into the 2018 season with a top 10 national ranking and some very high expectations. Preseason All-American Gage Gubrud (senior, QB) and Big Sky defensive POY candidate Mitch Fettig (senior, DB) lead a veteran team with thoughts of 2017 fresh in their minds. EWU finished 7-4 last season and missed the FCS playoffs for only the second time in the past six years.

Second-year head coach Aaron Best returns a team sporting seven All-Big Sky players, 18 starters and 28 seniors. In a very unpopular decision made by conference officials, EWU will not be playing rival Montana this year but still has tough road games at Weber State and Montana State. The Eags also square off against Northern Arizona in a non-conference road game Sept. 8.

DON’T MISS: The Inferno (sometimes referred to as a used menstrual product by certain vulgar fans to the east) will be rocking when Idaho comes to town for Homecoming Oct. 27. The old rivalry will be renewed once again and the winner not only earns bragging rights but also takes a big step toward earning the conference crown.


2. NORTHERN ARIZONA FIRST ROUNDERS (6-2 Big Sky, 8-3 overall)

After a late-season stumble against San Diego in last year’s FCS playoffs, the Lumberjacks are poised to return to the postseason in 2018. Walter Payton Award candidate Case Cookus (junior, QB) and legitimate NFL prospect Emmanuel Butler (senior, WR) head up one of the conference’s top offenses.

Optimism is high in Flagstaff this season as the Lumberjacks (I always picture Will Ferrell in Stepbrothers) sport one of the easiest schedules in the Big Sky. They somehow don’t have to play Idaho, Montana or Montana State, and their only game against EWU comes during non-conference play at home in the Skydome.

NAU also hosts Southern Utah and Weber State, the conference’s other two playoff teams a year ago. Jerome Souers, the Big Sky’s all-time winningest coach, returns five All-Big Sky performers and will look to capitalize. Don’t be surprised to see the Lumberjacks lose in the first round of the FCS playoffs again.

DON’T MISS: I already mentioned the EWU game but the one that might be most intriguing on the Lum’s schedule is their conference opener against Southern Utah Sept. 22. A blowout loss to the Thunderbirds in last season’s conference finale didn’t do anything to help their confidence heading into the postseason.


3. IDAHO SCANDALS (6-2 Big Sky, 7-4 overall)

All jokes aside, people should not overlook the Black & Gold this season. They might not be as good as some of their players were predicting at July’s Big Sky Football Kickoff, but with a little luck they could finish No. 2-3 in the conference.

The Vandals, playing as a member of the Big Sky for the first time in 23 years, also enter the season with a chip on their shoulder. Controversies are a plenty in Moscow these days and the jump, some would say step down, to FCS is right near the top. Not all alums are happy with the decision and several major boosters have even pulled funding from the university because of it.

Still, the positives of returning to the Big Sky and FCS play cannot be overlooked. A travel schedule that is much, much more friendly will definitely be a game changer. Last season Idaho traveled to Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Louisiana twice, and finished with a 4-8 record. That’s an absurd amount of travel. In 2018, they stay closer to home and around one of the most raucous fan bases in the Northwest.

DON’T MISS: Montana visits Moscow this season for the first time since 2003, and the first time as Big Sky rivals since 1995. Winning the Little Brown Stein, first awarded in 1903, could ultimately propel the Vandals into the FCS playoffs. The trophy currently resides in Missoula, as the Griz have won the last four meetings, but Idaho leads the all-time series 55-27-2.


4. WEBER STATE CATS 1 (5-3 Big Sky, 7-4 overall)

There’s more than one Cat mascot in the Big Sky so it can get definitely confusing, but this year the Wildcats of Weber State are the better version so they get the nod. Weber returns a conference-best 10 All-Big Sky players in 2018 and are looking to prove their shared conference title wasn’t a fluke.

The Wildcats, who advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2017 FCS playoffs, graduated a tremendous amount of talent after last year’s historic season bur they also boast five players named 2018 Preseason All-America, including special team standouts Trey Tuttle (sophomore, PK) and Rashid Shaheed (sophomore, KR).

Strength of schedule will be a little tough for the Purple Storm as they’re on the road against Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. They also host EWU for Homecoming festivities Oct. 13 and an upset win over the Eagles could provide a big boost.

DON’T MISS: I mentioned the game at Southern Utah and for good reason as the Thunderbirds were the only blemish on Weber’s impressive 7-1 conference record a year ago. Expect the Cats to have serious thoughts of revenge when they come to town Nov. 10.


5. SOUTHERN UTAH FAST BIRDS (5-3 Big Sky, 6-5 overall)

The Thunderbirds shared the conference crown with Weber in 2017, earning the Big Sky’s automatic bid before falling 30-13 to the Wildcats in the second round the playoffs. Unfortunately when the dust from this season ends, SUU will be sitting on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

The 2018 T-Birds are spearheaded by an offensive line that features a couple guys who have a shot to suit up on Sundays someday. Preseason All-American Zach Larsen (junior, OL) is as good as they get in the middle and tackle Marquez Tucker (senior, OL) is a returning 2nd Team All-Big Sky performer.

DON’T MISS: The Weber State rematch is obviously huge but keep your eye on SUU’s matchup with Montana the week before. Luckily they get the Griz at home but back-to-back games against quality teams could result in a couple of quick conference losses and be the final nail in the Thunderbird’s playoff coffin.


6. MONTANA BEARS (5-3 Big Sky, 6-5 overall)

Speaking of the team everyone loves to hate (unless of course, you’re from Montana, but in that case you probably don’t have electricity so you won’t be reading this anyway), let’s talk about the Griz.

I kid a lot about Montana but some of my best friends pull for the Maroon and Silver and all they’ve been saying over and over this summer is “Bobby’s back! Bobby’s back!” like some weird Grizzly chant. And while the Griz faithful might be excited about the return of the 3-time Big Sky Coach of the Year, they’ll soon find out that coaching changes usually aren’t seamless and involve growing pains. EWU experienced it last year and now it’s Montana’s turn.

The Griz will miss the postseason in 2017 but I have no doubt that Bobby’s ability to recruit his home state will catapult them back near the top one or two seasons down the road. But not this year, as they have challenging road games against SUU, North Dakota and Idaho. The good news is the Brawl of the Wild, arguably the most bitter rivalry in the FCS, will be held at Missoula’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The Griz will look to best the Bobcats for the first time since 2015.

DON’T MISS: Rivalry games aside, picking the most interesting game on Montana’s schedule is easy. Their season-opener against No. 12 Northern Iowa this Saturday (Sept. 1) proves to be an instant. All of us remember what happened the last time a perennial FCS power opened up at Montana in primetime. It was one hell of a game and I expect no less this time around.


7. MONTANA STATE CATS 2 (5-3 Big Sky, 5-6 overall)

The Big Sky’s second Cat mascot comes to us from Bozeman and in strikingly-similar fashion, the 2018 Bobcats will finish in much the same spot they did last year. In the middle of the pack, playing their butts off against their rival Griz like it was their own personal national championship game.

Sporting just one Preseason All-Big Sky player, Tucker Yates (senior, DT), the 2018 Bobcats will once again be just a step or two away. Third-year head coach Jeff Choate and his pedestrian 9-13 overall record have many people believing he may be on the hot seat this year if things don’t improve quick.

Of course beating your rival in back-to-back years and and ruining their playoff hopes helps keep coaching jobs safe. This year Montana State travels to Missoula though so nothing will come easy. They get Idaho and EWU at home but throw in a road contest against Weber State Oct. 20 and you have a very tough 3-game stretch.

DON’T MISS: The Bobcats square off with No. 3 South Dakota State on Sept. 8 as part of the Big Sky-MVFC Challenge Series. Last year in Bozeman, they took the Jackrabbits to the brink before losing a heartbreaker 31-27. SDSU would eventually advance all the way to the FCS semifinals so this rematch is definitely intriguing.


8. SACRAMENTO STATE STINGERS (4-4 Big Sky, 5-6 overall)

The Hornets are coming off a 2017 season in which they finished 6-2 in conference play and turned a lot of heads in the process. Fifth-year head coach Jody Sears was named Big Sky Co-Coach of the Year after leading Sac State to an impressive 4th-place finish.

The Stingers graduated a lot of starters but return several big contributors in 2018 on defense, including Mister Harriel (senior, DB) and George Obinna (senior, DL). Last season Sac State led the FCS in sacks per game thanks in part to Obinna, who ranked 27th in the nation, and they will look to continue that trend.

DON’T MISS: The Causeway Classic against rival UC Davis turned into a shootout last year with the Hornets eventually prevailing 52-47. The two teams combined for 54 first downs and over 1,200 yards of total offense so if you like seeing rivals air it out in the last game of the season than this Nov. 17 showdown is for you.


9. UC DAVIS AGGIES (3-5 Big Sky, 4-7 overall)

I recently read where an Aggies fan suggested the motto for their 2018 season be “Throw it to Doss every time”. Hard to argue with that when the players they’re referring to is Preseason All-American, and projected NFL first round draft pick Keelan Doss (senior, WR).

Last season Doss made Big Sky defenses look silly as he posted video game game numbers en route to finishing third place in voting for the Walton Payton Award. He led all of college football in total receiving yards (1,499) and set a single-season Big Sky record with 10.5 catches per game.

DON’T MISS: The EWU game is interesting because the Aggies almost took down the Eags last year in Davis but I’m really excited to see their game against Idaho Sept. 22. It’ll be the conference opener for both teams and for Idaho it will be their first game in the Big Sky in more than two decades.

10. CAL POLY HORSE HEADS (2-6 Big Sky, 3-8)

The Mustangs first month of the season is perhaps the toughest in the FCS. After opening on the road Sept. 1 against defending National Champion North Dakota State, Cal Poly then hosts defending Big Sky Co-Champ Weber State a week later before traveling to the Inferno to play EWU on Sept. 22.

Unfortunately for the Mustangs, the 2018 season will be over it really even begins. Expectations in San Luis Obispo are never usually very high but longtime head coach Tim Walsh will definitely look to improve on last year’s dismal 1-11 record.

DON’T MISS: The season finale against SUU Nov. 17 should be a back-and-forth contest. Last season the Mustangs lost by less than a touchdown and will look to play spoiler in this late-season matchup against the Thunderbirds.


11. POTATO STATE (1-7 Big Sky, 3-8 overall)

The Bengals will once again find themselves near the Big Sky cellar as they play a tough schedule and return few starters from a team that last year finished 2-6 in conference play.

Idaho State will be paced by All-Big Sky player James Madison (senior, RB) in the backfield and I see their only conference win coming on the road in early November against Portland State.

DON’T MISS: The Battle for the Potato (as I call it) renews Oct. 10 in Pocatello and bragging rights will definitely be on the line.


12. NORTHERN COLORADO CUBS (1-7 Big Sky, 2-9 overall)

The Bears will look to All-Big Sky standout Alex Wesley (senior, WR) to lead them through a tough schedule in 2018. UNC faces EWU, NAU, Weber State and SUU this season with two of those games coming on the road.

Much like Idaho State, the Bears will beat Portland State but will have to work hard to find another win on their conference schedule.

DON’T MISS: In the regular-season finale, UNC heads to Montana State on Nov. 10. Last season they lost a brutal game to the Bobcats in dramatic fashion, as Montana State kicker Gabe Peppenger nailed a game-winning, 27-yarder as time expired.


13. HIPPIE STATE (0-8 Big Sky, 1-10 overall)

Portland is weird guys, really weird. The Vikings are also horrible and usually an embarrassment to college football. They play their games in a soccer stadium and have been waiting for “Barny Ball” to take them back to the FCS playoffs for three years.

After leading the Vikings to a 9-3 record in 2015, head coach Bruce Barnum was named FCS Coach of the Year. But over the past two seasons, his teams have gone a combined 3-19. Not good.

DON’T MISS: None. There are no Portland State games you need to see. In fact, I’d try to miss them all if I were you.

Cheers and here’s to another great season in the Big Sky!