FCS college football preview: Big Sky Conference
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - The Montana Grizzlies winning the Big Sky championship once seemed like a given - it occurred in 12 consecutive seasons from 1998 to 2009 and 15 out of 17 years when stretched out to '93.
Their drought in the last 12 seasons (since 2010, although the Griz sat out the 2020 pandemic-delayed conference schedule) is just as surprising.In 2022, the Griz are favored to return to the top of the standings - an arduous task given the depth of the Big Sky, whose six teams ranked in the Stats Perform FCS Preseason Top 25 are the national conference high.
The conference is exceptionally deep in running backs this season, and key returning standouts on defense seem to be everywhere.
Here's a quick look at the upcoming Big Sky season:
Predicted Order of Finish
*-FCS Playoff Qualifier
1. *Montana (10-3, 6-2; preseason No. 3 ranking) - After UM surrendered 16.3 points per game last season - the program's best average since 2007 - its stacked defense features tackle Alex Gubner, linebacker Patrick O'Connell and defensive backs Justin Ford and Robby Hauck. Running back Marcus Knight's return from injury will aid a new starting quarterback, either San Diego State transfer Lucas Johnson or Kris Brown.
2. *Montana State (12-3, 7-1; preseason No. 4 ranking) - MSU followed up a semifinal-round playoff appearance in 2019 (they sat out 2020) with a runner-up finish to North Dakota State last season. Only the FCS kingpin's home record was better than the Bobcats' 8-0 mark. While their defense lost a number of key players, the Big Sky-best rushing attack brings back running back Isaiah Ifanse (1,623 yards) and quarterback Tommy Mellott (422 rushing yards in playoffs). Both players will be returning from injuries.
3. *Sacramento State (9-3, 8-0; preseason No. 7 ranking) - Of course, it's risky to overlook the two-time defending champions. The Hornets ranked 12th in the FCS in passing yards per game (291.7) while rotating QBs Jake Dunniway and Asher O'Hara, who can again target wide receiver Pierre Williams and tight end Marshel Martin (28 combined career TD catches).
4. *Weber State (6-5, 5-3; preseason No. 20 ranking) - A healthier season out of quarterback Bronson Barron and running back Josh Davis will go a long way as the Wildcats seek a level more like their Big Sky champions from 2017-20. They've gone from winning 20 of 21 home games to losing five of the last six at Stewart Stadium.
5. Eastern Washington (10-3, 6-2; preseason No. 13 ranking) - The Eagles' 15 consecutive winning seasons represent the longest active streak in the FCS. Sixth-year senior Gunner Talkington or another QB is tasked with succeeding Eric Barriere, the 2021 Walter Payton Award recipient and the Big Sky's all-time leader in yards of total offense (15,394), passing yards (13,809) and TD passes (121).
6. UC Davis (8-4, 5-3; preseason No. 25 ranking) - Running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. leads active FCS players in career all-purpose yards (4,480) and touchdowns (38), and the Aggies boast two of the five offensive linemen selected for the Big Sky preseason team, guard Jake Parks and center Connor Pettek.
7. Portland State (5-6, 4-4) - While the Vikings return 17 starters, three-year quarterback Davis Alexander is one of the losses. Defensive end VJ Malo and safety Anthony Adams match up well with any defensive duo in the conference.
8. Northern Arizona (5-6, 4-4) - With improved consistency, the Lumberjacks could be the Big Sky dark horse. Quarterback RJ Martinez was the conference's rookie of the year and Kevin Daniels rushed for 1,146 yards on 6.2 yards per carry as a freshman.
9. Idaho (4-7, 3-5) - New coach Jason Eck has arrived from South Dakota State's successful program, and former Jackrabbits QB J'Bore Gibbs has followed him into town. Roshaun Johnson rushed for a school-record six touchdowns in a win over Southern Utah.
10. Northern Colorado (3-8, 2-6) - Linebacker David Hoage (Big Sky-high 23 tackles for loss, school-record 10.5 sacks) lives in opposing backfields. On offense, the Bears must improve on a Big Sky-low 14.9 points per game.
11. Cal Poly (2-9, 1-7) - Coach Beau Baldwin is three wins shy of 100 in his career, but the Mustangs' climb/rebuild is challenged by a rough schedule (opponents were 84-50 last season). QB Spencer Brasch impressed last season.
12. Idaho State (1-10, 1-7) - Charlie Ragle has a building block in sophomore QB Hunter Hayes, but the first-year coach faces a major rebuild with a program that has only two winning seasons in the last 18 years.
Five Players to Watch
Anthony Adams, S, Portland State (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) - No returning FCS player has more career passes defended (nine interceptions, 31 breakups) than Adams.
Ulonzo Gilliam, RB, UC Davis (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) - The Big Sky's preseason offensive player of the year Jr. leads active FCS players in career all-purpose yards (4,480) and touchdowns (38),
Isaiah Ifanse, RB, Montana State (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) - Montana State is 14-2 when Ifanse rushes for at least 100 yards, and his 3,461 career yards rank No. 1 among active FCS players.
Patrick O'Connell, LB, Montana, and Justin Ford, CB, Montana (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominees) - The Griz are the only FCS team to have two returning first-team All-Americans. O'Connell dropped opponents for more lost yards (150) than any FCS player, and he's the Big Sky's preseason defensive player of the year. Ford was in another galaxy with an interception in eight straight games and a takeaway in 10 games in a row.
Three Must-See Matchups
Montana State at Eastern Washington (Sept. 24) - The Bobcats also played on the red turf last year, and Ifanse had a career-high 32 carries for 217 yards.
Sacramento State at Weber State (Nov. 5) - Sac State enters the season with a 15-1 Big Sky record under 2019 Eddie Robinson Award-winning coach Troy Taylor.
Montana at Montana State (Nov. 19) - UM holds a 74-41-5 series lead after ending a four-game losing streak to the Bobcats in the FCS' most bitter rivalry.
Big Sky teams combined for four wins over FBS opponents last season - the most by an FCS conference since 2016.
This season's 15 matchups:
Cal Poly: Fresno State (Sept. 1); Eastern Washington: Oregon (Sept. 10) and Florida (Oct. 1); Idaho: Washington State (Sept. 3) and Indiana (Sept. 10); Idaho State: UNLV (Aug. 27) and San Diego State (Sept. 10); Montana State: Oregon State (Sept. 17 in Portland, Oregon); Northern Arizona: Arizona State (Sept. 1); Northern Colorado: Wyoming (Sept. 10); Portland State: San Jose State (Sept. 3) and Washington (Sept. 10); Sacramento State: Colorado State (Sept. 24); UC Davis: California (Sept. 3); Weber State: Utah State (Sept. 10)
In the last two full-season FCS playoffs (24 teams), the Big Sky became the first conference to gain four national seeds (2019) and set its league mark with five qualifiers (2021).
Updated August 14, 2022