With conference media days opening all over the country, including the Big Sky Conference, the start of the 2013 college football season is officially one step closer.
Yet again, the Big Sky Conference will be one of the top conferences this season in the Football Championship Subdivision. Montana State looks to be the favorite while Eastern Washington, Montana, and Northern Arizona will all also be in strong contention for the Big Sky Title.
With only a month and a half to go in the off-season and just a couple weeks until fall camps open up across the conference, let’s take an early look at what the Big Sky will look like this season.
Projected records and order of finish:
- Montana State Bobcats (8-0, 11-1)
- Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (7-1, 9-2)
- Montana Grizzlies (6-2, 9-3)
- Eastern Washington Eagles (6-2, 8-4)
- Sacramento State Hornets (6-2, 8-4)
- Cal Poly Mustangs (4-4, 6-6)
- North Dakota (4-4, 5-6)
- Northern Colorado Bears (3-5, 5-7)
- Southern Utah Thunderbirds (3-5, 4-8)
- Portland State Vikings (2-6, 5-7)
- Weber State Wildcats (2-6, 2-10)
- UC Davis Aggies (1-7, 2-10)
- Idaho State Bengals (0-8, 2-10)
Team that will win the conference: Montana State Bobcats (2012 record: 7-1, 11-2)
The Bobcats have dominated the Big Sky Conference in recent memory having won a share of the Big Sky Conference Championship each of the past three seasons. That domination is likely to continue especially given the firepower returning for the Bobcats on offense. The reigning Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, QB Denarius McGhee, will lead the Bobcats on offense as he looks to build on his three-season total of 9,116 passing yards and 71 touchdowns. The Bobcats will also have star power at other positions on the offensive side of the ball with RB Cody Kirk and WR Tanner Bleskin. Montana State loses a ton on the defense heading into 2013, including 2012 Buck Buchanan Award winner DE Caleb Schreibeis, DT Zach Minter, and LB Jody Owens. However, the Bobcats return DE Brad Daly as he’ll look to improve this on his 52 tackles, 10.5 for loss from 2012.
Other contenders for the conference title: Eastern Washington Eagles (2012 record: 7-1, 11-3), Montana Grizzlies (2012 record: 3-5, 5-6), Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (2012 record: 6-2, 8-3)
Although the Bobcats are the favorites to win the Big Sky Conference in 2013, they are far from shoe-ins for the title. Eastern Washington will take a huge hit on offense losing QB Kyle Padron and their outstanding duo of wide receivers in Brandon Kaufman and Greg Herd. Now, Vernon Adams will step in at the quarterback position with a ton of potential, but he’ll have to deal with the inexperience wide receiver for the Eagles. 2012 All-Americans CB T.J. Lee and LB Ronnie Hamlin return on defense.
Fans at Montana are not used to losing. In fact, last season was the first losing season at Montana since 1985 and only the second season without a postseason birth since 1992. Fortunately, the Grizzlies are on their way back up to the top of the Big Sky heading into 2013. Back on the field for Montana is QB Jordan Johnson, who redshirted in 2012 while facing a rape charge. Johnson, who was acquitted by a jury in March, will have high expectations right away again especially with the help of Preseason FCS All-American OT Danny Kistler on the offensive line.
The Grizzlies will also be improved on the defensive side of the ball with Buck Buchanan Award Candidate and Preseason Big Sky Defensive MVP LB Jordan Tripp and Preseason All-Big Sky Team selection DE Zach Wagenman.
Northern Arizona had a breakthrough season in 2012 and was only a season finale win against Cal Poly away from reaching the FCS Playoffs for the first time since 2003. The Lumberjacks will have another strong chance to make the playoffs as they return nine starters on both sides of the football. A Preseason All-Big Sky Team selection, RB Zach Bauman will lead the offense again having rushed for 1,182 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2012. Additionally on defense, Preseason All-Big Sky Team selections CB Anders Battle and S Lucky Dozier will lead the secondary, while DT Tim Wilkenson will lead the defense up front.
Team that will surprise: Sacramento State Hornets (2012 record: 4-4, 6-5)
Sacramento State has been a very funny team the past couple seasons. In 2011, expectations were high in Sacramento with a talented team. With their season opening victory over FBS Oregon State and their first win against Montana in school history, it looked like the Hornets would fulfill those expectations. Instead, Sacramento State fell flat and finished the season 4-7.
The 2012 season was the exact opposite as most projected the Hornets to finish towards the bottom of the conference. Yet Sacramento State emerged from the season with a winning record, including a victory over FBS Colorado. We will see how Sacramento State handles their high expectations in 2013, but for now the Hornets are a legitimate threat in the Big Sky Conference led by a sound passer in QB Garrett Saffron and an outstanding receiving corps led by WR Morrise Norrise. The Hornets also have one of the best linebackers in the conference in LB Todd Davis.
Also in the “surprise” category, Northern Colorado will look to yet again improve behind a strong passer in QB Seth Lobato and one of the best linebackers in FCS in Clarence Bumpas. The Bears went 5-6 in 2012, their best record since moving up to Division I in 2006, and do not be surprised to see Northern Colorado match of even succeed last year’s win total.
Team that will disappoint: Cal Poly Mustangs (2012 record: 7-1, 9-3)
The Mustangs had an outstanding 2012 season winning a share of the Big Sky Conference Title and making the FCS Playoffs. While Cal Poly has high expectations again in 2013, they will lose a ton of offensive production losing QB Andre Broadous and RB Deonte Williams who led the Big Sky Conference in rushing last season with an outstanding 1,506 yards and 12 touchdowns.
While the Mustangs still have plenty of talent on their roster, especially with strong offensive and defensive lines led by OT Giovanni Sani and DT Sullivan Grosz respectively, what greatly helped the Mustangs in 2012 was a very favorable schedule. In 2013, the Mustangs catch very few breaks as they take on two FBS opponents in Fresno State and Colorado State early on in the season. Additionally, the Mustangs face a more difficult conference schedule battling Montana on the road and Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington at home.
Team that will just be awful: Idaho State Bengals (2012 record: 0-8, 1-10)
Nothing went right for the Bengals in 2012. Idaho State’s defense gave up at least 40 points to every Division I opponent they played last season and gave up at least 70 points to FBS Nebraska, Portland State, Montana, and Cal Poly. Makings matters even worse was the controversy surround head coach Mike Kramer pushing down WR Derek Graves during practice, injuring him. Heading into 2013, QB Kevin Yost, the Big Sky’s leading passer last season, along with standout WR Roderick Rumble are both gone.
Simply put, things are not looking any better this season for the Bengals. While Idaho State is projected to finish at the very bottom of the Big Sky again in 2013, the Bengals will be much improved on defense including Preseason All-Conference Team LB Trevor Spence and 2012 Freshman All-American S Taison Manu.
Conference game of the year: Montana State @ Eastern Washington, November 9th
Brawl of the Wild fans may be upset here, but keep in mind over the past three seasons the Bobcats and Eagles have dominated the Big Sky with a combined 5 shared conference titles, not to mention Eastern Washington’s FCS National Championship in 2010. Both the conference title and a top seed in the playoffs will likely be on the line on the red turf in Cheney, WA.
Non-Conference game of the year: Appalachian State @ Montana, August 31st
Arguably over the past decade or two, no two programs have had a bigger impact on FCS football than Appalachian State and Montana. After two close victories by Montana against Appalachian State in 2000 and 2009 in the FCS Semifinals at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the Mountaineers won a close one at Kidd Brewer Stadium in the second week of the season last year.
The two teams will battle yet again to open the 2013 season in not only the biggest non-conference game in the Big Sky and Southern Conferences, but the biggest game in the subdivision. Even the news of Appalachian State joining the FBS ranks and the Sun Belt Conference in 2014 – meaning the Mountaineers will be ineligible for the FCS Playoffs this season – takes little away from this showdown of Goliaths.
A very honorable mention goes to Eastern Washington at Sam Houston State on September 28th – another non-conference game with huge playoff implications.
Preseason offensive MVP: QB Denarius McGhee – Montana State
Other stars to watch on offense: RB Zach Bauman – Northern Arizona, WR Greg Hardin – North Dakota, OT Danny Kistler – Montana
Preseason defensive MVP: LB Jordan Tripp – Montana
Other stars to watch on defense: LB Clarence Bumpas – Northern Colorado, CB T.J. Lee III – Eastern Washington, DT Sullivan Grosz – Cal Poly
Big Sky teams that will make the FCS Playoffs: Eastern Washington, Montana, Montana State, Northern Arizona, Sacramento State
Not only will the Big Sky yet again be one of the deepest conferences in the FCS, but for the 2013 season the FCS Playoffs expand from 20 teams to 24, and first round byes will decrease from 12 to 8.
Of the 4 new spots in the playoffs, one will go to the champion of the Pioneer Football League and three will be at-large births. However, keep in mind three likely playoff teams – Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Old Dominion – will be ineligible for the FCS Playoffs this season due to their transition to the FBS, so there will likely be six more at-large spots in the playoffs than there have been the past few seasons.
Montana State will be in the hunt for a seed and first-round bye in the FCS Playoffs, and if 2013 FCS Title front-runners North Dakota State, Sam Houston State, and Villanova drop a game or two against a FCS opponent, the Bobcats may even be in contention for the #1 seed. Eastern Washington will also be in contention for a top seed in the FCS Playoffs – even if they finish with a few losses due to their tough schedule that features two FBS opponents.
Montana and Northern Arizona are also currently projected to make the FCS Playoffs and both have a chance to receive a seed and a first-round bye. Additionally, Sacramento State certainly has the talent in 2013 to make their first FCS Playoff appearance in school history and should be considered a “bubble team” early in the season.