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CSN West: Happy New Year!
By Kent Schmidt, CSN West Columnist
It is hard to believe the summer is coming to an end and that football season is upon us. It didn’t seem that long ago that we saw Appalachian State win its third consecutive national title.
It is indeed football season and that means another season for the FCS West.
As was the case last year, my definition of “West” will be the Big Sky, Great West, Southland and what used to be the Gateway - now the Missouri Valley Football Conferences. I also will dabble with the nation’s lone nonscholarship Division I conference in the Pioneer League, too.
It should be an interesting season with two new transitioning teams joining my coverage area in the Universities of North Dakota and South Dakota.
While those two Dakota teams join the “West,” the other two Dakota teams move to the MVFC in North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
I will analyze how the conference races should stack up and mention key players to watch among the “West” schools.
Who are the teams to beat in their respective “West” conferences?
In the Big Sky, I believe Montana’s streak of 10 straight conference titles might be over this year with a strong Eastern Washington taking control of the league.
The Eagles, however, will need to overcome the departure of head coach Paul Wulff to FBS Washington State. The loss will not be a complete overhaul with former EWU offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, who comes to Cheney from DII Central Washington. Baldwin led CWU to a 10-3 mark last year and the Division II playoffs.
Baldwin has 27 returning players with starting experience so the first-year Eagle coach should have a good nucleus.
Expect Montana still to be a playoff contender for a 16th straight year. It could win its 11th straight Big Sky title, too, but it has to replace several key components, especially on defense, to keep its streak alive.
In the new-look Great West, I believe Cal Poly has the talent to achieve its second playoff appearance, but it will need to overcome two FBS games (at San Diego State and at Wisconsin) to start and finish its season. The Mustangs also will need to overcome difficult road FCS tests at McNeese State and South Dakota State to achieve that postseason berth.
The Mustangs’ biggest opposition to the GWFC title might come from someone they are not even playing this season in DI newcomer North Dakota. The Fighting Sioux come to the DI ranks after DII playoff runs the last three seasons. UND, however, must adjust to a coaching change from Dale Lennon, who moved to Southern Illinois, to previous offensive coordinator Chris Mussman.
The Sioux have tough road games at UC Davis and against Lennon’s Southern Illinois. UND also will visit Idaho State and Southeastern Louisiana.
The newly named Missouri Valley Football Conference could make a claim as the best FCS conference in the nation if preseason polls are any indication. Six teams - or two-thirds of the league - was ranked in the Top 25 in The Sports Network poll. NDSU is ranked No. 2, Northern Iowa is No. 3, Southern Illinois is No. 11, followed by Youngstown State at No. 12. SDSU is No. 19, and Western Illinois is No. 25.
I believe Youngstown State, even though it starts its season at top-five FBS Ohio State, will be the class of the Missouri Valley. The Penguins are aided in that they will face NDSU, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois at home in Stambaugh Stadium.
NDSU was the preseason pick among the MVFC media and coaches. The Bison will need to overcome trips to Youngstown State and Northern Iowa, as well as FBS Wyoming to make their first playoff eligible season in the DI ranks their first playoff appearance since 2000 (DII semifinals). The Bison also need to overcome the loss of Great West Conference player of the year, Steve Walker, at quarterback.
UNI enters the campaign after an undefeated 2007 regular season. But it will need to overcome the loss of offensive linemen (Chad Rinehart and Brandon Keith) to the NFL Draft, as well as MVFC conference player of the year quarterback Eric Sanders. UNI also needs to survive a season opener at FBS Top 25 Brigham Young as well as conference matchups at Youngstown State and Southern Illinois.
Southern Illinois is the fourth team that I believe has a chance at the conference title even though, as mentioned earlier, it has a new coach in Lennon. Former coach Jerry Kill moved to FBS Northern Illinois. SIU, however, has stiff road tests at North Dakota State and Youngstown State, plus a visit to the Big Ten’s Northwestern.
South Dakota State and Western Illinois also could battle for playoff spots, but I believe the top four listed above likely have the best chances to win the league and playoff spots.
In the Southland, McNeese State again looks like the team to beat. The Cowboys, like UNI, were undefeated last year going into the playoffs but were upended in the opening round by Eastern Washington. The Cowboys face FBS North Carolina on the road, along with trips to South Dakota State, Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas.
Central Arkansas, although yet playoff eligible, along with Sam Houston State, should provide McNeese State with stern tests. The Bears and Bearkats will have two of FCS’s top quarterbacks (Nathan Brown & Rhett Bomar), respectively, and both face FBS tests - UCA at Tulsa and SHSU at Kansas. UCA hosts SHSU and McNeese so it might have an outside chance at the SLC title even though it’s not eligible for the playoffs until 2010.
In the Pioneer League, the lone true west team, San Diego, looks to regain the top spot that Dayton took away in 2007. The Toreros lost only to the Flyers in PFL play (and also to UC Davis) a year ago to finish second in the Sports Network Cup voting. USD looks to regain the top spot and defeat UC Davis for the first time after losing twice at Davis. This year, however, the contest will be at Torero Stadium.
The three “D” teams of Dayton, Davidson and Drake, along with Morehead State, likely will be the teams that have the best chance to derail San Diego’s title hopes.
Who are the players in the “West” to watch?
The “West” has outstanding talent on the offensive and defensive sides. Here are my picks to watch for the Walter Payton Award (offensive) and Buck Buchanan Award (defensive). To recall, Montana’s senior Kroy Biermann won the Buchanan Award and Georgia Southern’s Jayson Foster won the Payton Award in ‘07. Both were seniors a year ago so we’ll have new winners in each cate
Payton (2007 stats):
Corey Lewis, Northern Iowa, RB, Sr. (1,513 yards, 16 TDs)
Ramses Barden, Cal Poly, WR, Sr. (1,467 receiving yards, 18 TDs)
J.T. Rogan, San Diego, RB/KR, (1,021 rushing yards, 10 TDs, 331 receiving yards, 7 TDs, 33.2 ypk return)
Matt Nichols, Eastern Washington, QB, Jr. (3,744 passing yards, 34 TDs, 9 INT)
Tyler Roehl, North Dakota State, RB, Sr. (1,431 rushing yards, 21 TDs)
Eddie Thompson, Idaho State, WR, Sr. (907 receiving yards, 7 TDs)
Nathan Brown, Central Arkansas, QB, Sr. (3,084 passing yards, 26 TDs, 10 INT)
Herb Donaldson, Western Illinois, RB, Sr. (1,491 yards, 10 TDs)
Aaron Boyce, Eastern Washington, WR, Jr. (1,308 receiving yards, 10 TDs)
Johnny Gray, Northern Iowa, WR, Sr.(910 receiving yards, 5 TDs)
Rhett Bomar, Sam Houston State, QB, Sr. (2,209 passing yards, 10 TDs, 6 INT)
Bryant Eteuati, Weber State, WR/PR, Sr. (720 receiving yards, 4 TDs, 27.9 ypk return)
Trevyn Smith, Weber State, RB, Sr. (1,314 rushing yards, 7 TDs)
Buchanan (2007 stats)
Mychal Savage, Youngstown State, DT, Jr. (43 tackles, 4.5 sacks)
Bobby Daly, Montana State LB, Sr. (137 tackles, 12 TFL, 4 sacks)
Cyrus Mulitalo, Sacramento State, LB, Sr. (98 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 1 INT for TD)
Jason Williams, Western Illinois, LB, Sr. (107 tackles, 13 TFL, 5 sacks)
K.J. Gerard, Northern Arizona, CB, Sr. (57 tackles, 7 TFL, 6 INT, 6 pass breakups)
Colt Anderson, Montana, SS, Sr. (76 tackles, 5 TFL, 4 INT)
Lardarius Webb, Nicholls State, FS, Sr. (51 tackles, 8 pass breakups, 5 interceptions 3 returns for TDs)
Greg Peach, Eastern Washington, DE, Sr. (63 tackles, 11 sacks)
Andy Schantz, Portland State, LB, Sr. (85 tackles, 1 fumble return for TD, 6 TFL, 4 sacks)
James Cloud, Southern Illinois, DE, Sr. (45 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks)
Mike Brannon, Sacramento State, LB, Sr. (81 tackles, 18 TFL, 9.5 sacks)
Chauncey Mixon, Southern Illinois, LB, Sr. (118 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 7 pass breakups)
David Hyland, Morehead State, CB, Sr. (33 tackles, 8 INT, 11 pass breakups)
Cyrus Igono, Northern Arizona, SS, Sr. (79 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 3 pass breakups)
What teams might be better than anticipated entering the season?
In the Big Sky, I think Sacramento State might be the team that could creep near the top half of the standings. In Coach Marshall Sperbeck’s second season, he might have the Hornets playing better even though they finished 3-8 a year ago. A 6-5 type season is not out of the question.
In the Great West, UC Davis is due for a turnaround after its first losing season in 37 years even though some prognosticators have it finishing third in the five-team GWFC. The Aggies won three of their last four games so look for them to start another winning season streak this season.
The MVFC team that should surprise a few folks is Missouri State. In legendary Coach Terry Allen’s third year in Springfield, he has his Bears poised to do damage. MSU finished 6-5 last year - a four-victory improvement over his first year. A victory or two more might be tough to come by in the tough MVFC, but the Bears likely will be a better team than a year ago even if they might not finish with a better record.
The Southland’s surprise team could be Northwestern State. The Demons have been down since 2004 — their last winning season and last playoff season. NSU had a powerful offense last year, but the defense was porous. Former defensive coordinator Brad Laird returns in Natchitoches, and he should get improved play for Coach Scott Stoker to finish better than 4-7 2007 season.
In the Pioneer League, Drake might be the team to rebound after last year’s 6-5 season. The coaching situation for the Bulldogs is in a better state with Chris Creighton replacing interim coach Steve Loney. Drake had the talent last year to defeat the MVFC’s Illinois State, but it lost four times within the PFL.
Who will be the “West” playoff teams?
I think the following will the “West” teams among the final 16 teams playing this fall. One reminder, the Big South and Northeast Conference could potentionaly receive bids this year and next before they receive a true automatic bid. Should that be the case, it might essentially rob playoff spots from the “West” and other current automatic bid conferences.
I believe Eastern Washington and Montana will be the lone two teams to make the postseason from that conference.
In the Southland, McNeese State likely will be the lone playoff entry as it has been the last two years.
In the Great West, Cal Poly will be a playoff team, provided it can earn a victory on the road against one of the two FBS teams or against McNeese State or South Dakota State.
In the Missouri Valley Football Conference, three teams likely will make it in: Youngstown State, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa.
Look for San Diego to win the Pioneer League but again be shut out of the playoffs. It should receive a postseason game again against the Northeast champion in the Grid Iron Classic.
That leaves seven of the 16 playoff teams coming from the “West.”
I can’t wait to see how this 2008 season unfolds. It should be a fun season to cover, to say the least.
CSN West Game of the Week
Thursday, Aug. 28, Austin Peay @ North Dakota State
Week one has many FBS vs. FCS contests, and I will attend two of these contests with South Dakota State visiting Iowa State and a non-west team in Maine visiting Iowa in my tour through Iowa.
This Austin Peay-NDSU game is the lone FCS vs. FCS game within the “West” this week so it is somewhat by default that this is my game of the week.
The Bison are coming off a 10-1 season but lost their last game a year ago to South Dakota State to lose the Great West title and potentially a top ranking in their last playoff ineligible season.
The Bison will have preseason All-American senior Tyler Roehl to run the ball again but will have a new quarterback in junior in Nick Mertens.
Austin Peay comes off a good first season in the Ohio Valley Conference — its first back as a scholarship team after several years in the Pioneer Football League. The Governors finished last season with a 7-4 record and were 5-1 on the road.
APSU, however, will be traveling on a plane for the first time in three years for the game. The Governors’ offense will be led by quarterback Gary Orr, who completed 53 of 106 passes for 735 yards as a sophomore in 2007, climbing up the depth chart from the No. 4 position. Austin Peay also will have 10 defensive starters returning.
Even given this, it’s doubtful that APSU can hang with NDSU. I’ll take NDSU by 24, NDSU 38 APSU 14.
CSN West News & Notes
- Montana’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium is finishing an expansion that will give the Missoula stadium a capacity of more than 25,000. The SprinTurf surface also is being replaced at the stadium. The stadium is expected to be ready for Montana’s home opener Sept. 13 against Southern Utah.
- Montana’s other school, Montana State, also is installing an artificial surface — replacing the former natural grass surface. Bobcat Stadium has been installed with FieldTurf and will be ready for MSU’s first game against DII Adams State Saturday.
- Idaho State travels to Boise State Saturday and later will play Idaho a week from now. It will mark the first time since those two former Big Sky teams will play the Bengals the same season.
- The Great West’s North Dakota and South Dakota will play their first games as a DI transitional team this weekend. The Sioux will host DII Texas A&M-Kingsville Thursday and the Coyotes will play NAIA St. Ambrose (Iowa) Saturday.