FCS 2019: Big Sky Preview
By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - At different times recent years, the Big Sky Conference was criticized for a lack of deep runs in the FCS playoffs.
The 2018 season changed the picture, and the outlook this season appears just as strong if not stronger.
Eastern Washington, Weber State and UC Davis shared the title in the largest FCS conference and all three teams reached the national quarterfinals, with EWU going on to play in the national championship game.
This season, Montana and Montana State have veteran, talented squads, leaving little elbow room atop the crowded title race.
Following is a predicted order of finish and a team-by-team breakdown of the 2019 Big Sky race:
1. Eastern Washington
2. UC Davis
3. Montana State
4. Weber State
6. Northern Arizona
7. Idaho State
8. Southern Utah
10. Sacramento State
11. Cal Poly
12. Portland State
13. Northern Colorado
1. EASTERN WASHINGTON
LOCATION: Cheney, Washington
STADIUM: Roos Field
HEAD COACH: Aaron Best (19-7, two seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 12-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st) - No. 2 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (5 offense/5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Eric Barriere, QB, Jr.; Antoine Custer Jr., Sr.; Andrew Boston, WR, So.; Jayce Gilder, TE, Sr.: Spencer Blackburn, C, Gr.; Chris Schlichting, OT, Sr.; Kaleb Levao, OL, Sr.; Jim Townsend, DE, Sr.; Mitchell Johnson, DE, So.; Chris Ojoh, LB, Jr.; Dehonta Hayes, S, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Nsimba Webster, WR; Ketner Kupp, LB; Rolden Alcobendas, PK/P
OUTLOOK: The Eagles opened the decade as the FCS champion and now seek to end the 2019 season in similar fashion following last year's national runner-up finish. Barriere accounted for 31 touchdowns in 10 starts and will put up big numbers again behind his offense's experienced line. The running game made the offense more balanced last season, but WR Boston wants the ball more after catching 43 passes as a freshman. The defense seeks to build off last year's improvement, although it lost key seniors. The schedule is favorable with no matchups against the other three 2018 playoff qualifiers - Weber State, UC Davis and Montana State - so the Eagles are the clear favorite in the conference.
2. UC DAVIS
LOCATION: Davis, California
STADIUM: UC Davis Health Stadium
HEAD COACH: Dan Hawkins (15-9, two seasons; 127-70-1 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 10-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st) - No. 7 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Jake Maier, QB, Sr.; Tehran Thomas, RB, Jr.; Ulonzo Gilliam, RB, So.; Jared Harrell, WR, Jr.; Wes Preece, TE, Sr.; Jake Parks, OL, So.; Nas Anesi, LB, Sr.; Eric Flowers, LB, Sr.; Connor Airey, LB, Jr.; Montell Bland, LB, So.; Erron Duncan, DB, So.; Max O'Rourke, PK/P, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Keelan Doss, WR; Mason Moe, LB; Vincent White, DB
OUTLOOK: Coming off the best season in the program's FCS history, including a first-ever share of the Big Sky title and a playoff bid and win, the Aggies could be primed for even more success. Hawkins, the 2018 STATS FCS Eddie Robinson Award recipient, seems to push all the right buttons. The Aggies are loaded offensively with Big Sky offensive player of the year Maier (3,931 yards, 34 touchdowns) at the controls. Gilliam's 17 TDs led FCS freshmen. On defense, there were big losses, particularly in the secondary. The Aggies won't face Eastern Washington and get Weber State and Montana State at home.
3. MONTANA STATE
LOCATION: Bozeman, Montana
STADIUM: Bobcat Stadium
HEAD COACH: Jeff Choate (17-18, three seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 8-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th) - No. 17 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Tucker Rovig, QB, So.; Casey Bauman, QB, R-Fr.; Isaiah Ifanse, RB, So.; Troy Andersen, LB/RB, Jr.; Travis Jonsen, WR/QB, Sr.; Kevin Kassis, WR, Sr.; Ryan Davis, TE, Jr.; Mitch Brott, OT, Sr.; Lewis Kidd, OL, Jr.; Zach Redd, C, So.; Jason Scrempos, OL, Gr. (Washington transfer); Amandre Williams, DL, Jr. (Washington transfer); Bryce Sterk, OLB, Sr.; Jahque Alleyne, S, Sr.; Brayden Konkol, S, Sr.; Munchie Filer, CB, Sr.; Tristan Bailey, PK, Sr.; Jered Padmos, P, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Zach Wright, DT; Tucker Yates, NT; Grant Collins, LB
OUTLOOK: High expectations abound with the Bobcats, who are returning 17 starters from last year's playoff team. Anderson, an All-Big Sky first-team co-choice last season, will switch to a "slash" role offensively, getting a number of touches, while also moving back to linebacker. The offense will still spotlight Ifanse, who is coming off a 1,000-yard season as a freshman. No returning Big Sky player had more sacks (8½) or tackles for loss (17) than Sterk last season. Plus, leading tackler Konkol is back.
4. WEBER STATE
LOCATION: Ogden, Utah
STADIUM: Stewart Stadium
HEAD COACH: Jay Hill (36-26, five seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 10-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st) - No. 6 in final STATS FCS Top 25
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (8 offense/4 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Jake Constantine, QB, Jr.; Josh Davis, RB, So.; Kevin Smith, RB, Jr.; Rashid Shaheed, WR/KR, Jr.; Ben Bos, C, Jr.; Ty Whitworth, OL, Jr.; Adam Rodriguez, DE, Sr.; Jonah Williams, DE, Sr.; Auston Tesch, LB, Sr.; Desmond Williams, S, Jr. (Boise State transfer); Trey Tuttle, PK, Jr.; Doug Lloyd, P, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Iosua Opeta, OL; LeGrand Toia, LB; Jordan Preator, CB
OUTLOOK: Key graduation losses make it seem this year's defense won't be as strong as the last two seasons, but DEs Rodriguez and Williams form a top tag-team. Plus, Hill has built the program (21 wins the last two seasons) to withstand such losses. QB Constantine has to cut down on interceptions, but is probably better than advertised. He has plenty of big-play options, including 2018 STATS Jerry Rice Award recipient Davis (1,362 yards, nine TDs on ground), RB Smith (injured last season) and WR/KR Shaheed. The Wildcats had a conference-leading seven players on the Big Sky preseason team.
LOCATION: Missoula, Montana
STADIUM: Washington-Grizzly Stadium
HEAD COACH: Bobby Hauck (86-22, eight seasons; 101-72 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 4-4 Big Sky (Tie/6th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 20 (11 offense/9 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Dalton Sneed, QB, R-Sr.; Marcus Knight, RB, So.; Adam Eastwood, RB, R-So.; Sammy Akem, WR, R-Jr.; Jerry Louie-McGee, WR/PR, R-Sr.; Samori Toure, WR, R-Jr.; Malik Flowers, WR/KR, R-So.; Cy Sirmon, C, R-Sr.; Jesse Sims, DT, R-Sr.; Dante Olson, LB, R-Sr.; Jace Lewis, LB, R-Jr.; Robby Hauck, S, R-So.; Josh Sandry, S, R-Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Keenan Curran, WR; David Shaw, DT; Josh Buss, LB
OUTLOOK: A third straight season-ending loss to bitter rival Montana State kept the Grizzlies out of the playoffs last season, but this season they return a ton of talent to try to make amends. They have to improve in the trenches, and probably should. Dual-threat QB Sneed, the Big Sky's 2018 newcomer of the year (308.9 yards of total offense per game), will be even better as a senior because of the team's many pass-catching options. On defense, seven of the top 11 tacklers are back, led by LB Olson, who had a school-record 151 tackles on an FCS-high 13.7 tackles per game. The huge fan base wants a more traditional Griz season in Hauck's second campaign of his second stint in Missoula.
6. NORTHERN ARIZONA
LOCATION: Flagstaff, Arizona
STADIUM: Walkup Skydome
HEAD COACH: Chris Ball (first season)
2018 RECORDS: 4-6 overall, 3-4 Big Sky (Tie/8th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Case Cookus, QB, Sr.; Joe Logan, RB, Sr.; Jacob Mpungi, RB, R-Fr.; Chancellor Brewington, WR, Jr.; Brandon Porter, WR, R-So.; Chase Laurita, C, Jr.; Jalen Goss, DL, Sr.; Aaron Andrews, DL, Sr.; Taylor Powell, LB, Sr.; Tristen Vance, LB, Sr.; Carson Taylor, OLB, Jr.; Anthony Sweeney, DB, R-So.; Marcel Myers, DB, Sr.; Khalil Dorsey, DB, Sr.; D.J. Arnson, P, Jr.
KEY LOSSES: Cory Young, RB; Emmanuel Butler, WR; Wes Sutton, DB
OUTLOOK: Ball, the defensive coordinator at Memphis the last three seasons, has replaced Jerome Souers, who retired after 21 seasons. The Lumberjacks are dedicating their 2019 season to offensive lineman Malik Noshi, who died in July. Cookus, who's had an injury-plagued career, is one of the top quarterbacks in the FCS. He's part of an excellent senior class that includes All-Big Sky CB Dorsey. The road portion of the schedule almost seems impossible: Arizona, Illinois State, Montana State, Weber State, Eastern Washington and Southern Utah.
7. IDAHO STATE
LOCATION: Pocatello, Idaho
STADIUM: Holt Arena
HEAD COACH: Rob Phenicie (10-12, two seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Gunnar Amos, QB, Sr.; Ty Flanagan, RB, Sr.; Soujah Gasu, RB, R-Fr.; Mitch Gueller, WR, Sr.; Michael Dean, WR, Sr.; Demonte Horton, WR, So.; Austin Campbell, TE, Sr.; Dallen Collins, OL, Sr.; T.J. Togiai, DL, Jr.; Kainoa Fuiava, DL, Jr.; Kody Graves, ILB, Sr.; Adkin Aguirre, S, Sr.; Anthony Ricks, DB, Sr.; Christian McFarland, DB, Sr.;
THREE KEY LOSSES: Tanner Gueller, QB; James Madison, RB; Brian Fineanganofo, OL
OUTLOOK: With a senior-laden team, the Bengals seek to finish what they didn't do last season following a 4-1 start - earn their first FCS playoff bid since 1983. Their high-scoring offense returns a number of weapons, led by WRs Gueller (62 receptions for 1,259 yards and nine TDs) and Dean and RB Flanagan, but they have to replace 3,000-yard passer Tanner Gueller, presumably with Amos, a 2017 Idaho transfer. The defense should be improved behind standouts Graves and Aguirre. Still, the schedule appears to be too difficult both in and out of conference.
8. SOUTHERN UTAH
LOCATION: Cedar City, Utah
STADIUM: Eccles Coliseum
HEAD COACH: Demario Warren (16-18, three seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 1-10 overall, 1-7 Big Sky (12th)
PROJECTED STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (5 offensive/6 defensive)
KEY PLAYERS: Chris Helbig, QB, R-So.; Austin Ewing, Wildcat QB, So.; Jay Green Jr., RB, Jr.; James Felila, RB, R-Jr.; Landen Measom, WR, Jr.; Judd Cockett, WR/KR, Jr.; Zach Larsen, C, Sr.; P.J. Nu'usa, OL, Sr.; Bishop Jones, DL, Jr.; Lehi Afatasi, DL, Sr.; Jalen Russell, DB, Jr.; A.J. Stanley, S, R-So.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Ty Rutledge, WR; Marquez Tucker, OL; Chinedu Ahanonu, LB
OUTLOOK: The Thunderbirds probably won't win the Big Sky title like in 2017, but they may be closer to that level than last year's stunning disappointment. Better health with QB Helbig and RB Felila will go a long way toward a rebound, and they will combine with WR Meason and RB Green in a strong set of offensive skills players. The defense is another story because the T-Birds surrendered 541.2 yards per game and 41.5 points per game - both Big Sky lows. S Stanley had a banner freshman season and is a building block.
LOCATION: Moscow, Idaho
STADIUM: Kibbie Dome
HEAD COACH: Paul Petrino (23-48, six seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/9th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (8 offense/5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Mason Petrino, QB, Sr.; Roshaun Johnson, RB, So.; Jeff Cotton, WR, Sr.; Cutrell Haywood, WR, So.; Noah Johnson, OL, Sr.; Jeff Cotton, WR, Sr.; Cutrell Haywood, WR, So.; Connor Whitney, TE, So.; Logan Floyd, OL, So.; Kayode Rufai, DL, Jr. (Boise State transfer); Christian Elliss, LB, Jr.; Tre Walker, LB, So.; Davontae Ginwright, DB, Sr. (Western Michigan transfer); Satchel Escalante, DB, Jr. (Scottsdale CC transfer); Lloyd Hightower, DB, Jr.; Jalen Hoover, DB, Jr.; Cade Coffey, PK/P, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Isaiah Saunders, RB; David Ungerer, WR; Kaden Elliss, LB
OUTLOOK: A return to the FCS level was met with a punch in the face last season, but the Vandals should be improved the second time around. They seek big improvement on defense after allowing 37.5 points per game. To solve the shortcomings, the Vandals went big on transfers, particularly fortifying the secondary. Incumbent QB Mason Petrino, the coach's son, will work behind All-America tackle Johnson and benefits from veteran receivers. A .500 season is possible, but the schedule is too tough for anything more.
10. SACRAMENTO STATE
LOCATION: Sacramento, California
STADIUM: Hornet Stadium
HEAD COACH: Troy Taylor (first season)
2018 RECORDS: 2-8 overall, 0-7 (13th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Kevin Thomson, QB, Jr.; Elijah Dotson, RB, Jr.; Bryant Perkinson, RB, Sr.; Tao McClinton, WR, So.; Pierre Williams, WR, So.; Jarrel Anderson, TE, So.; Wyatt Ming, OL, Sr.; Thomas Parker, OL, Jr.; George Obinna, DE, Sr.; Miguel Garcia, LB, So.; Caelan Barnes, CB, Sr.; Marcus Bruce, S, Sr.; Devon Medeiros, PK, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Andre Lindsey, WR; Jaelin Ratliff, WR; Immanuel Anderson, LB
OUTLOOK: Taylor will call the offensive plays in his first season as a head coach, while former Northern Arizona defensive coordinator Andy Thompson will run the defense. The offense will be strong, getting back injury-plagued QB Thomson, who has thrown for 25 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 15 games the last two seasons, and a potential All-American in RB Dotson (1,154 yards, nine TDs on ground). Like Thomson, three other key players received NCAA waivers this offseason (DE Obinna, OG Ming and PK Medeiros). Defensively, four of last year's five leading tacklers are gone. Also, the Hornets have arguably the Big Sky's hardest conference schedule with their eight opponents going a combined 40-23 in the league a year ago.
11. CAL POLY
LOCATION: San Luis Obispo, California
STADIUM: Alex G. Spanos Stadium
HEAD COACH: Tim Walsh (56-58, 10 seasons; 173-140 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-4 Big Sky (Tie/6th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (6 offense/11 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Jake Jeffrey, QB, Jr.; Kyle Reid, QB, So.; Trey Nahhas, FB, Sr.; Drew Hernandez, SB, Jr.; J.J. Koski, WR, Sr.; Tyler Whisenhunt, OT, Sr.; Paul Trujillo-Langdon, C, Sr.; Myles Cecil, DE, So.; Nik Navarro, LB, Sr.; Matt Shotwell, LB, Jr.; Kitu Humphrey, S, Sr.; Sharky Reza, CB, Sr.; Kevin Howell, CB, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Khaleel Jenkins, QB; Joe Protheroe, FB; Dominic Frasch, CB
OUTLOOK: After the Mustangs were competitive last season following an injury-plagued, 1-10 campaign in 2017, they face the difficult prospect of replacing Protheroe, who led the FCS in rushing yards (1,810). Jeffrey and Reid have experience in running the triple option offense, and Koski provides solid all-around production on receptions, carries and returns. The defense seeks improvement after ranking 11th in the Big Sky, but Navarro and Shotwell return to anchor a more-experienced unit. The first half of the schedule is quite difficult.
12. PORTLAND STATE
LOCATION: Portland, Oregon
STADIUM: Hillsboro Stadium
HEAD COACH: Bruce Barnum (16-29, four seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/9th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Davis Alexander, QB, Jr.; Jalen Chatman, QB, R-Fr. (Rutgers transfer); Carlos Martin, RB, Sr.; Mataio Talalemotu, WR, So.; Emmanuel Daigbe, WR, Jr.; Charlie Taumoepeau, TE, Sr.; Korbin Sorensen, OL, Jr.; Garrett Stauffer, C, Sr.; Jarryn Bush, DE, So. (Washington transfer); Kenton Bartlett, DT, Sr.; Semise Kofe, DT, Jr.; Romeo Gunt, ROV, Sr.; Anthony Adams, SS, So.; Deon Crayon, CB, Sr.; Cody Williams, PK, So.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Josh Brown, OL; Kasun Jackett, LB, Sam Bodine, WLB
OUTLOOK: This is a team with experienced, though still young talent, so Barnum has the Vikings headed in the right direction after they posted a four-win improvement last season, including a stunning triumph at Montana. QB Alexander (10 starts) is still trying to hold on to the top job, and the starter will look to All-America TE Taumoepeau often. The Vikings surrendered 36.2 points per game, but improvement on the front end will go a long way this season. The Vikes will win some games and be competitive in plenty of others.
13. NORTHERN COLORADO
LOCATION: Greeley, Colorado
STADIUM: Nottingham Field
HEAD COACH: Earnest Collins Jr. (26-62, seven seasons; 34-74 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 2-6 Big Sky (11th)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Jacob Knipp, QB, Sr.; Milo Hall, RB, Sr.; Dontay Warren, WR, So.; Noah Sol, WR, Jr.; Willie Fairman, WR, Sr.; Kyle Ergenbright, OL, Jr.; Brent Gilliland, DL, Sr.; Luke Nelson, LB, Sr.; Justice Littrell, LB, Jr.; Jace Bobo, LB, So.; Aaron Harris, DB, So.; Michael Walker, CB, Sr.; Tyree McNeil, CB, So.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Alex Wesley, WR; Theron Verna, TE; Sherand Boyd Jr., S
OUTLOOK: While Injuries to key players impacted UNC's disappointing season in 2018, the Bears continue to struggle in the largest FCS conference. A tough road schedule could impede a big move record-wise. Offensive coordinator Nick Fulton, one of five new assistant coaches, is implementing a new system which will be run by talented QB Knipp, who has suffered a season-ending injury in three straight seasons. Hall (757 rushing yards, nine touchdowns) will take pressure of Knipp. The defensive returnees include LB Nelson, the team's leading tackler.
HEAD COACH: Kyle "Bubba" Schweigert (30-27, five seasons; 52-48 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 independent
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Nate Ketteringham, QB, Sr.; Cam McKinney, RB, So.; James Johannesson, RB, Sr.; Noah Wanzek, WR, Sr.; Garett Maag, WR, So.; Mason Bennett, DE, Sr.; Jaxson Turner, LB, Jr.; Noah Larson, LB, So.; Donnell Rodgers, LB, Sr.; Evan Holm, DB, Sr.; Jordan Canady, DB, Jr.; Hayden Blubaugh, DB, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: John Santiago, RB; Brady Oliveira, RB; Deion Harris, DB
OUTLOOK: UND is celebrating 125 years of football. Due to pre-existing contracts, the games still count for Big Sky opponents in the standings while the Fighting Hawks remain an FCS independent. An at-large playoff bid fell apart after a 5-2 start last season, and this year's 11-game schedule (one below the FCS maximum this season) is one of the toughest in the nation. It includes trips to both 2018 national finalists, North Dakota State and Eastern Washington. Tough-to-tackle RB Johannesson takes over the No. 1 role (he had 462 yards in a three-game stretch last season) and QB Ketteringham has all of his top targets back. The defense returns its top seven tacklers, led by LBs Rodgers, Larson and Turner.
Updated August 7, 2019