Big Sky Football Preview – Part 1

Last season was the best of times and the worst of times for the Big Sky Conference.

The Conference produced an undefeated, top ten champion in Weber State, and hopes were high that the Wildcats would go far in the national playoff.  Unfortunately, WSU didn’t make it past the first game.  Weber State finished as the highest nationally ranked team in the Big Sky’s highest, but when we see that ranking was only ninth, we realize that the Big Sky has quite a bit of ground to cover before it competes with the elites.

This season may see some of that margin decrease as four Big Sky teams are in our Savvygameline top 15.

The Big Sky is the biggest conference in the FCS with 13 teams.  With that many teams,  I’ll need to do this preview in two parts. Today, we’ll take a look at schools that begin with the letters “A” to “M” and present the rest early next week.  

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CAL POLY               

Overall record last season:                 0-3

Preseason Big Sky ranking:                12th

Preseason national ranking                 86th    

Predicted number of wins:                3

Scheduled FBS opponents:               1

Spring is usually a great time of the year in San Luis Obispo. But last Spring was quite different for the Cal Poly Mustang football team. Practices were interrupted by government mandates, many players were injured or covidisqualified, and others opted out. So many were the problems that SLO administrators canceled the football season before it reached mid-season.

Those problems, along with having a new head coach, led to not only a winless season but one in which Poly wasn’t competitive whatsoever.

Despite all of that, be assured that this program is on the rise.

Why?

Check this out:

Coach Beau Baldwin has had two recruiting classes since coming to SLO.  One finished sixth in the FCS, and the other finished fifth!  In fact, his 2021 class ranked higher on 247sports than North Dakota State, James Madison, and two programs from the FBS, Western Kentucky and Texas State.

That new talent may not produce a winning season this season, but 2022 will see the program rise to a winning season.  

For now, the schedule suggests that the Mustangs will start this season 0-7, but from Halloween forward, four opponents appear vulnerable.

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EASTERN WASHINGTON            

Overall record last season:                 5-2

Preseason Big Sky ranking:                4th

Preseason national ranking                 17th    

Predicted number of wins:                9

Scheduled FBS opponents:               1

We knew something was wrong when EWU started last season with a 28-21 upset loss at Idaho and two weeks later nearly lost at Idaho State.  But then, that’s sort of how things have been since Aaron Best took over this former national championship outfit in 2017.  It sputters, soars, flounders, and can’t get enough sustained traction to get back to the top.

All-Everything quarterback Eric Barriere is back to lead an offense that is both powerful and, at times, mysteriously frustrating.  Barriere was selected this week as the Big Sky’s Preseason Offensive MVP.  

He’ll have all-Big Sky receiver Talolo Limu-Jones and senior offensive tackle, Tristen Taylor to keep the Eagles flying high.

The defense will be led by high-pressure end Mitchell Johnson, who can produce one sack for every 12 tackles.  

The Eagles have a great opportunity in their opening game as they travel to Las Vegas to play UNLV.  Although the Rebel coaching staff has done a nice job of improving its roster, UNLV will have to prepare well to avoid being upset.

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IDAHO                     

Overall record last season:                 2-4

Preseason Big Sky ranking:             10th

Preseason national ranking              63rd    

Predicted number of wins:                 4

Scheduled FBS opponents:                2

If you’re looking for cliffhangers, check out the Vandals. Not a single game last season was decided by more than 10 points.

Idaho’s defense wasn’t spectacular, but it was solid and will be better with the return of two-time all-Big Sky linebacker Tre Walker who is expected to be named the Big Sky’s most valuable defensive player.

An outstanding coaching staff is the foundation of Idaho’s success. Paul Petrino is a good guy who enters his ninth year as the head coach.  Replacing 30-year offensive line coach Kris Cinkovich will come with a few early hiccups, but the rest of the staff is in place.  

The Vandals open the season against an opponent that is not in the FBS, not in the FCS, and not even in this country. Simon Fraser University is in Canada and plays a schedule that includes such bulwarks as Texas Permian Basin and Angelo State. In fact, the Clansmen (yes, that is their real nickname, although it is under review) didn’t even play football last year.  Practices this year are covid-limited to just 58% of the players at a time, and all must be socially distant during drills.

Idaho will open the season with two road games against Indiana and Oregon State of the FBS.  Half of the next 10 opponents will be within Idaho’s reach.   

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IDAHO STATE                    

Overall record last season:                 2-4

Preseason Big Sky ranking:                  9th

Preseason national ranking                 61st    

Predicted number of wins:                 5

Scheduled FBS opponents:                1

The Bengals played six games last season, and five of those were against ranked opponents. Even with that tough schedule, three of ISU’s four losses were by five points or less.  If you think last season was a tough schedule, then check out 2021 with two top 40 FBS opponents (Nevada and BYU) and three against teams already ranked in the FCS top 25.

ISU will be triggered by former Wyoming starting quarterback Tyler VanderWaal named the Big Sky’s Newcomer of the Year last spring.  Although he was praised for passing for more than 315 yards per game, I’m more concerned about his 4.7% interception rate (more than twice the average), a problem he brought with him from Wyoming.  

It appears to me that the Bengal offensive line needs to find some bodies to go with Terron Carey and Jacob Angel. Without better talent up front, VanderWaal will continue to struggle with interceptions, and running backs will continue to have trouble finding space.  

The defense is inexperienced and had too many players opt-out, but the secondary will be awesome behind Jayden Dawson.

ISU faces six games that are certain to produce losses, but this group has enough potential to poach as many as five of the other six.  

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MONTANA               

Overall record last season:                 2-0

Preseason Big Sky ranking:                  3rd

Preseason national ranking                 15th    

Predicted number of wins:                 10

Scheduled FBS opponents:                1

Okay, so Montana only played two games last season, but the average score in those two wins was 54-5. Clearly, the Grizzlies are a tough bunch. In fact, it almost seems trendy for analysts, including Athlon Sports, to place Montana in the FCS top 10.

But I think it’s time to hedge a little bit here. Montana is a newcomer to Big Sky contention this decade, and one of those two wins last spring came against a lower-division team while the other was against a team ranked in the bottom half of the FCS.  

In their favor, the Grizz have five All-Big Sky candidates. Running back Marcus Knight will be a Knight-mare for defenses especially since Montana is also stocked with receivers.  Two quarterbacks will duel for the starting job while the defense brings back a linebacker and safety who each had more than 100 tackles.

Although the roster is long on talent, the resume’ of recent team accomplishments is a bit shot.  

The Grizzlies have a prime opportunity to bolster that resume’ when they travel to Seattle on September 2nd to play defending PAC-12 North Division champion Washington. This game is on moderate upset alert in the Savvy Index because the Huskies are breaking in a new defensive coordinator. Montana has plenty of talent, and the Grizzlies have already played two games in 2021.

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MONTANA STATE             

Overall record last season:                 did not play   (2019 was 11-4; national semifinal)

Preseason Big Sky ranking:                  2nd

Preseason national ranking                   8th   

Predicted number of wins:                10

Scheduled FBS opponents:                1

The Bobcats didn’t play football last season, and they now have a new head coach in Brent Vigen. Although Vigen has never been a college head coach, he has plenty of experience as an offensive coordinator at North Dakota State and Wyoming.  He is also known as a big-time recruiter, so this program is in good hands for a long time to come.

“Making the quarters, making the semis (of the FCS Playoffs) is great; that’s a part of the ride. But, winning the national championship is what we have to be all about,” Vigen said.

He’ll be in for excitement right from the start as the Bobcats open the season against Vigen’s former mentor Craig Bohl of Wyoming, the team Vigen left to come to MSU.

The Bobcat non-conference schedule is favorable as the ‘Cats play 41st ranked San Diego and 78th ranked Drake in successive weeks.  

MSU must replace its leading running back and top two receivers, but eight starters return to the offense, including quarterback Tucker Rovig and North Carolina State transfer Matthew McKay.  

Expect the defense to be solid again after it allowed just 18 points per game in the 2019 regular season.  Leading tackler McCade O’Reilly returns, as does high-pressure defensive lineman Amandre Williams.  

It’s a mistake to think that a new head coach and playing no games since December of 2019 are reasons to push these Bobcats out of high rankings.  Fans are justified in thinking this is a double-digit winning program in 2021.

About Bobby Albrant 91 Articles
Bobby Albrant is a former journalism major at the University of Oregon, creator of Savvygameline.com for college football predictions and rankings, former analyst for Southern Mississippi football games, and twenty years coaching girls basketball for all ages through CIF high school. He has three grown children with his youngest daughter playing on the Ventura (Ca) High School basketball team that defeated Dom Lugo High School and was the last high school game ever played by Diana Taurasi. He can be reached at bobbywildcat@gmail.com.

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