|« Nicholls Coach plans to keep building foundation||Defense can't rest if Lehigh expects to repeat »|
Is the Big Sky Conference the best it’s ever been?
This much is certain: Big Sky Conference football coaches agree the league is likely the strongest its ever been.
“In my opinion, and I don’t mean to sound cliché or anything like that, but everybody talks about how the SEC is so tough — the toughest conference in the FBS — and I really believe the Big Sky Conference is the toughest conference in FCS football,” first-year Northern Colorado coach Earnest Collins Jr. said.
Four teams — Eastern Washington, Montana State, Montana and Sacramento State — begin the season ranked in The Sports Network/Fathead.com preseason Top 25, and a Big Sky team has played in the FCS championship game in each of the past three seasons. Eastern Washington, which is ranked No. 1 in the preseason, won last year after Montana was runner-up in 2008 and 2009.
Eastern’s championship was the league’s sixth with Boise State winning it all in 1980, Idaho State in 1981, Montana State in 1984 and Montana in 1995 and 2001. The Grizzlies, who are ranked 12th in the preseason, have appeared in the FCS championship game a league-record seven times. But while the Grizzlies have more long-term success, Montana State — ranked sixth in the preseason — was the league’s only other representative in the playoffs last year. The Bobcats, who were co-Big Sky champions with Eastern last year, lost in the second round of the playoffs against North Dakota State. Sacramento State is ranked 24th in the preseason.
Montana State and Montana are previewed in depth on pages 8 and 9, so here’s a look at the Big Sky’s other seven teams.
Last year, it was unclear how Eastern would respond to the loss of conference MVP Matt Nichols at quarterback, but this year, the Eagles are locked-and-loaded at that position with Bo Levi Mitchell and instead are filling another big vacancy.
All-American running back Taiwan Jones is plying his trade with the Oakland Raiders after entering the NFL Draft with a year of college eligibility remaining. He played two seasons for the Eagles and rushed for 2,955 yards and 29 touchdowns in his career. He ranked second in the FCS last year in yards per game (145.2).
“I could probably coach at Eastern or a higher level the rest of my life and never see anyone quite like him,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said.
Mario Brown, a sophomore, who started three games last year including the 20-19 win against Delaware in the FCS championship game, is expected to lead a stable of young running backs.
At wide receiver, the Eagles will be led by Brandon Kaufman, who along with Mitchell was selected to the preseason watch list for the Walter Payton Award.
Safety Matt Johnson and defensive tackle Renard Williams, who are on the Buck Buchanan Award watch list, will lead the defense. They are two of four returning all-conference players on defense — the others being linebacker Zach Johnson and safety Jeff Minnerly.
“Ultimately, I like it if we’re considered the team with the target on our back, just because it means we’ve had some success in prior years,” said Baldwin, whose team scored 31.5 points per game and allowed 24.9 last year.
The Hornets are on the rise after posting their first winning record (6-5) since 2000, but they’ll need something special to break into the conference’s elite of Eastern Washington, Montana State and Montana.
That something special might be the team’s offense, which returns five all-conference players from a year ago in quarterback Jeff Fleming, running back Bryan Hilliard, wide receivers Chase Deadder and Morris Norrise, and tackle Nate Doverspike.
With those five in the fold last year, Sacramento State ranked No. 2 in the conference in scoring offense (32.1 ppg) and No. 5 in total offense (379.1 ypg).
Expect that success to continue with Fleming and Hilliard leading the charge. Fleming averaged 185.8 passing yards per game last season and threw for 23 touchdowns (second in the league), with Deadder as his most reliable target (71.6 ypg, six TDs). Hilliard was sixth in the conference in total rushing yards (883) and second in yards per game (98.1). He ran for 12 TDs.
“(Hilliard is) the healthiest he’s been in awhile,” Hornets coach Marshall Sperbeck said. “He’s put on a little weight and he’s gotten quicker in the offseason.”
On defense, the Hornets are led by end Zach Nash. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound senior was named second-team All-America by The Sports Network and The Associated Press last season. Nash set the single-season school record with 13 sacks last year and finished the season with 37 total tackles — 16.5 for loss. He also forced a school-record six fumbles.
“We need Zach to step up his game another notch,” Sperbeck said.
NAU didn’t crack the preseason Top 25, but they received 18 votes.
“We’re looking forward to the season with great optimism,” said coach Jerome Souers, who is entering his 14th season at NAU, which finished last season 6-5 overall and 4-4 in league play.
The Lumberjacks are loaded at running back and might need a lot of production from the trio of sophomore Zach Bauman, junior Giovannie Dixon and redshirt freshman Jamaal Perkins. Bauman finished last season fourth in the league in rushing yards with 237 carries for 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Dixon ranked ninth with 83 carries for 512 yards and three TDs.
At quarterback, question marks remain, but NAU seems to have settled on junior Cary Grossart.
“We always seek to throw it and run it, but with those guys in the backfield, if they’re not paying attention to the run, we’re going to run the football,” Souers said.
Defensively, the Lumberjacks return two all-conference selections in senior end Issac Bond and senior linebacker Scott McKeever. Both players finished last season with 5.5 sacks, which ranked fourth in the conference.
NAU scored 28.5 points per game last season and allowed a league low of 19.8.
One area where Weber State doesn’t have a whole lot of question marks going into the season is on the offensive line.
That’s a good thing for a team that will feature a new quarterback. In the Wildcats’ final scrimmage, junior Mike Hoke led the first-string offense and is expected to be the starter when the season begins. But Weber’s running game and pass protection will likely help Hoke transition into the starting role.
The Wildcats return four all-conference players on the offensive line, and sophomore running back Josh Booker appears ready for a big season. Booker, however, will likely have plenty of help in the backfield with the likes of freshman Barrinton Collins, and juniors Kris Parham and C.J. Tuckett also getting carries. The four combined for 200 rushing yards in the team’s final scrimmage.
At wide receiver, freshman Xavian Johnson has one spot locked down, while other newcomers are trying to establish themselves. One who looks good is freshman Eric Shufford, who had five catches for 122 yards in Weber’s final scrimmage.
On defense, the Wildcats will be led by senior linebacker Nick Webb, who was a member of last year’s all-conference squad. Webb ranked seventh last year in total tackles with 99.
Weber, which picked up 13 votes in the preseason poll, scored 25.4 points per game last season and allowed 31.1.
The Bears ranked seventh in points scored (25.0 ppg) and allowed (31.4) last season, and that helped end Scott Downing’s six-year run at the helm.
In comes Earnest Collins Jr., who takes the reins after leading Alcorn State the past two seasons. Collins Jr., who played for Northern Colorado from 1991 to 1994, is the single-season school record-holder for punt return yards and is a former assistant coach for the Bears.
“We’re just trying to put the puzzle together right now,” said Collins Jr., whose team earned 10 votes in the preseason poll.
Senior wide receiver Dominic Gunn appears ready to have a breakout season catching passes after shining on special teams last year. A second-team all-conference pick as a return specialist, Gunn turned heads during fall camp as a receiver and figures to have a lot to do for the Bears. He’ll also still be expected to produce on special teams.
In the team’s final scrimmage of fall camp, Gunn had a 59-yard punt return for a TD and tacked on a 50-yard kickoff return.
Patrick Walker also will be catching passes for the Bears, and it appears Dylan Orms will be back under center.
Returning all-conference ends V.J. Holmes and Nick Hernon will lead the defense.
Nigel Burton is entering his second season in charge and has one of the league’s best offensive players at his disposal.
Senior running back Cory McCaffrey is the Big Sky’s top returning ball carrier after running 231 times for 1,287 yards and 10 TDs last season. He averaged 117 yards per game for a team that otherwise sputtered on offense with 23.4 points per game — No. 8 in the conference.
“He’ll obviously be huge,” Burton said of McCaffrey. “The guy in the open field is unbelievable.”
What also could help McCaffrey is some help from the passing attack. The Vikings averaged only 193.3 yards through the air last season — No. 8 in the conference — and scored a league-low nine passing touchdowns. The return of senior quarterback Connor Kavanaugh should help in that regard.
On defense, sophomore tackle Julious Moore, senior end Carl Sommer and senior cornerback DeShawn Shead are back after earning all-conference recognition last season.
Mike Kramer is back in the Big Sky and the challenge that lies ahead may be his biggest yet.
Kramer, who coached Eastern Washington in 1994-99 and Montana State in 2000-06, replaces John Zamberlin. He is fourth in league history with 77 career victories, but takes over an Idaho State team that has only 16 wins in the seven seasons since going 8-4 in 2003. In each of the past three seasons, the Bengals have finished with one win.
While Kramer said he is excited to be back in the conference, he needs to find a way to excite Idaho State fans. The Bengals finished last season last in scoring offense and total offense, and were near the bottom in both major defensive categories.
One thing for fans to be excited about is the return of special teams extraordinaire Tavoy Moore, who will spend a lot of time at running back this season.
“He has a great chance to be an excellent and dominant player for us,” Kramer said.
Also returning for the Bengals are tackle-happy linebackers A.J. Storms and Basim Hudeen — two seniors who were all-conference picks in 2010. Storms led the league last year with 146 tackles and Hudeen was fifth with 100.