The fall football season is nearly upon us, and even though it’s still summer and fall camp hasn’t yet begun that doesn’t mean we can’t talk some football!
The Big Sky Conference just held their media days in Utah and they released their preseason poll. Here’s what the media had to say about this year’s preseason rankings:
The preseason players of the year are Cooper Kupp from Eastern Washington and Caleb Kidder from Montana.
Judging by the rankings above the media seems to think that Case Cookus is primed for a pretty big season, plus playing their games with an advantage at 7000 feet seems to help too.
Montana, under second year head coach Bob Stitt, appears to be in the hunt for a Big Sky Championship again this year as well. Last year’s champion, Southern Utah, was picked to be in the middle of the pack, as well as last year’s runner-up, Portland State. It should be noted that Southern Utah had the most players named to the Big Sky preseason all-conference team.
One reason for Southern Utah’s drop could be due to the fact that their schedule this year sets up to be much tougher than last year with having both BYU and Utah on their schedule, plus having to play Montana, Montana State, and Northern Arizona. They also lose their quarterback, Ammon Olsen, who had a terrific 2015 season for the Thunderbirds. They do return their top running back Malik Brown, and top receiver Mike Sharp.
The case for Northern Arizona at the top isn’t too hard to see. Case Cookus is a pretty big deal in Flagstaff and should easily be in contention for player of the year come end of the season (along with Cooper Kupp) barring any kind of injury. The amazing thing about Cookus is that he’s only going to be a sophomore. Cookus’s favorite target will also be back, Emmanuel Butler. Butler was a third team FCS All-American last year for the Lumberjacks.
The Lumberjacks finished at 7-4 last season. Their best wins coming over Stephen F Austin and Eastern Washington. This year’s schedule shouldn’t prove to be too difficult. They open at Arizona State, then travel to Western Illinois, then a pair of home contests with Eastern Washington and New Mexico Highlands. They also have Montana at home. If they can clear a few hurdles they can win the conference. The showdown with Montana in late October might be the game of the year in the Big Sky.
An interesting pick here is Northern Colorado near the bottom of the conference standings. Last year the Bears finished at 6-5. The media seems to think the Bears may have peaked last year and will regress this year. Given UNC’s history I can’t say that’s too big of a surprise. Were the Bears a one year wonder, comparatively to the rest of their Big Sky history? The Bears return their leading rusher, passer, and receiver, as well as two of their top sack leaders from last year. Their schedule is basically a buzz saw of the Big Sky’s best, plus a trip to Fort Collins to play the Rams. The media might be right here.
There are realistically four teams that could claim stake to the conference title this season. Those being Montana, Portland State, Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona. North Dakota could be a dark horse in there as their schedule sets up for them nicely, much like Southern Utah last season.
For my personal hot takes on the Big Sky this season I don’t know if I can buy the hype on Northern Arizona yet. They return some terrific offensive weapons, but like many Big Sky teams, their defense is god awful. While that might be nice enough to win the league, it will also mean getting housed in the playoffs. Eastern Washington will continue to do what they do, score a lot of points and hope they can outscore the team on the other side of the field. An interesting strategy. It would be an interesting experiment if Eastern attempted to play some defense. If that was the case they could be a playoff noise maker.
I would like to think that Montana has a legitimate shot at winning the conference but they will be replacing the majority of their defense and look like they will be without starting corner JR Nelson for the first six games due to suspension. Bob Stitt will need to figure out how to keep the offense going into a power outage when facing tougher defenses, as we saw against Weber State and the second game against North Dakota State.
Portland State seems like a good candidate to win the Big Sky, in my opinion. The Vikings have a schedule that will set them up for success, they return many pieces from last season, and Bruce Barnum seems to have them trending very high upwards. They might be the most balanced team in the conference. They will need to win one of their two FBS games to get into the seeding of the playoffs.
Sorry, I don’t buy the hype on North Dakota, despite having a very good running back in John Santiago. They will need to do many other things well to win this thing. They still have to win the games on their schedule.
Since you’re all dying to know, here’s how I see the conference shaking out:
1. Portland State
3. Eastern Washington
4. Northern Arizona
5. Weber State
6. North Dakota
7. Southern Utah
8. Montana State
9. Northern Colorado
10. Cal Poly
11. Idaho State
12. Sacramento State
Over the next two or three weeks I’ll be previewing each Big Sky team individually. After you read the individual previews the above will probably make more sense, but until then I’m just going to leave you guys in suspense, just like a skinnier George R.R. Martin.