The Big Sky Conference often produces teams that do well in the FCS national playoff. The problem is that in the last decade, only Eastern Washington made it to the final. Will that change in 2020?
Let’s preview each Big Sky team to get a better idea.
1. Montana State (national rank: 4)
In 2017, the Bobcats won just five games. That increased to eight in 2018 and 11 last season. Now, MSU believes it is in the hunt for a shot at North Dakota State and a national championship. The ‘Cats have plenty of offensive firepower with Isaiah Ifanse returning with over 1000 yards on the ground despite not being the featured running back. Tucker Rovig is considered by many to be the heir-apparent at starting qb, but our Savvy-metrics point to North Carolina State transfer Matt McKay. Both top receivers graduated. Montana State plays at Utah then has four FCS opponents that should make it to the rankings, so the schedule won’t be easy. But, this team should win the Big Sky and make a deep run in the playoff. Savvy is projecting a 12-win season.
2. Montana (national rank: 8)
Former Heisman quarterback candidate Timm Rosenbach didn’t need long as offensive coordinator to take Eastern Washington to the top of the FCS offensive rankings. But then, Rosenbach is acknowledged by many as somewhat of an offensive genius. Five years ago, Rosenbach head coached Adams State to a 52-51 win after trailing 42-6. He’ll have plenty of returning talent in 2020 despite the graduation of dual-threat quarterback Dalton Sneed. His backup, Cam Humphrey, played in 10 games, completed more than 60% of his passes and had a much-better-than-average interception ratio (under 1.9%). Marcus Knight returns at running back after rushing for more than 1000 yards and 25 touchdowns as a freshman. Seven receivers caught over 150 yards of passes and five of those are back. The defensive front is still a concern, but two 100-tackle back-enders return. The Grizzlies will miss graduated linebacker Dante Olson, who led the nation in tackles. It’s not a fluke that Montana went from six wins to 10 and it won’t be a fluke if the Griz get to 12 in 2020. For now, Savvy is saying 11.
3. Weber State (national rank: 9)
WSU won 21 games in the past two seasons and 2020 was looking to be just as good. Then, two-year starting quarterback Jake Constantine transferred — again. Constantine was previously at Boise State and before that at Ventura College. At Weber State, he threw for more than 4000 yards at a 63% completion rate but had too many interceptions. Kaden Jenks should excel as Constantine’s replacement. Josh Davis returns as the feature back for WSU after he rushed for more than 1100 yards at a 6.2 ypc clip. Fourteen Wildcats caught passes in 2019 and all of them return including Devon Cooley and David Ames, who combined for 114 receptions and nearly 1400 yards in a short-passing system. The defensive secondary will be led by corners Ja’Kobe Harris and Eddie Heckard, who each had three interceptions in leading the ‘Cats to a seventh ranking for picks. Linebackers Connor Mortonson and Noah Vaea each had more than 100 tackles and defensive end George Tarlas had nine sacks. This team was 4th in the nation for turnover margin. Many experts see Weber State as a title contender. Savvy Index says that while the defense will be in the top 15, the offense won’t and this team won’t get past 10 wins.
4. Sacramento State (national rank: 12)
After winning just two games in 2018, the Hornets burst onto the national scene last season with nine wins. And, there’s plenty of talent returning to think they can do it again. Big Sky offensive player of the year and FCS All American Kevin Thomson passed for more than 4000 yards but just recently transferred to Washington. Although there is probably not another All American on the roster, the list of quarterbacks is deep and talented. Sophomore Jake Dunniway is the early favorite. Running back Elijah Dotson returns with 742 yards. All 15 Hornets who caught passes are back. Savvy Index is projecting Sac State as a top-eight offense. There are plenty of experienced defensive linemen returning to one of the strongest fronts in FCS. The Hornet defense was fourth in the nation for getting to quarterbacks. Although 56% of the sack producers graduated, linebacker Marcus Hawkins returns and is expected to get 10 or more sacks. Daron Bland returns to the secondary, but graduations have raised concerns for depth. The Hornets open the season at San Diego State, then travel to Seattle to play the Huskies. After that, there is every reason to believe this team will reel off 9 straight regular-season wins and add two more in the postseason.
5. Eastern Washington (national rank: 26)
Remember the days when EMU was the talk of the FCS West? The Eagles went from giving up 30 or more points just twice in 2018 to doing it 10 times in 2019. Not even the nation’s fifth-best passing offense was enough to overcome a defense that yielded 445 yards per game. There’s plenty of firepower on the offensive side, as nearly all of the passing-game starters are back including outstanding quarterback Eric Barriere, who threw 438 passes with just four interceptions. There’s not enough talent here for EWU to compete with the Florida Gators on opening day, but if the defense can find a way to fix its lack of pressure, this will be a nine-win team.
6. U.C. Davis (national rank: 48)
UCD has graduated its starting quarterback but still has workhorse running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. (1249 yards). One can only imagine how poor the Wildcats’ 92nd-ranked rushing attack would have been without him. Seven of the top-eight receivers return to a passing offense that averaged 309 yards per game. Don’t expect the ‘Cats to do it again this season because quarterback Jake Maier has graduated and an equal replacement has not yet been found. UCD plays fast, which subjected its defense to nearly 1000 plays. Despite a ranking of 103 for total yards allowed, this team will be in the top one-third of FCS for fewest yards per play and for bringing pressure. Linebacker Nick Eater leads the charge after posting 12 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Leading tackler Eric Flowers graduated, but the next two leaders, Devon King and Connor Airey, will both return. Defensive backs appear weak. Savvy projections point to an 0-4 start with two of those losses to FBS teams and just five wins overall.
7. Portland State (national rank: 57)
The Vikings opened the 2019 season with a one-possession loss to Arkansas and built a 5-3 record before the bottom dropped out. Playing a brand of football known as “Barny Ball” (after head coach Bruce Barnum), PSU delivered the 16th-best total offense at 453 yards per game. Three-year starting quarterback Davis Alexander is back for his senior season with career totals of 5947 passing yards and 1061 on the ground. PSU runs 57% of the time so it’s nice to see running back Malik Walker ready to take over. Coaches are excited by newly scholarshipped running back Jobadiah Malary, who has all of the traits of a breakaway game-changer. Four of the top-five receivers return. PSU did well defending the rush but must get better at long-ball pass defense. The defensive front rallied to get 30 sacks, but the back-end yielded 14.26 yards per pass attempt, which is among the worst in FCS. Safety Anthony Adams did his part by getting five interceptions, and there is hope that defensive linemen Semise Kofe and Jake Porter will bring even more pressure than last season. With a tough schedule that begins with Arizona, Oregon State, and Montana State, Savvy is projecting the Vikings as a four-win team.
8. Idaho State (national rank: 74)
After back-to-back seasons with six wins, Idaho State lost its last six of the 2019 season and could only come away with three wins. Pass defense was the problem and it doesn’t look to improve in 2020. Although rush defense improved under two All Big Sky linebackers, the Bengals were 97th for intercepting passes and 116th for passing yards allowed. Expect an average offense that is triggered by quarterback Matt Struck. The 6’3” senior from Central Point, Oregon is talented but erratic. In his first five games of 2019, he threw for over 1400 yards, 15 touchdowns and one interception. In his next five, he threw for under 1000 yards with five touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Malakai Rango should get over 800 yards on the ground, but his support group is largely untested. ISU starts the season against FBS opponents New Mexico and Fresno State. Both are vulnerable because both under-performed in 2019 and both have replaced their coaching staffs and installed new systems. Savvy sees this as a four-win team.
9. Northern Arizona (national rank: 77)
Chris Ball was new last season as head coach at NAU and he delivered the nation’s top passing attack, one that earned over 4300 yards and averaged over 14 yard per completion. It also had an interception rate that was 36% above normal, so there are still some kinks to work out. And, All American quarterback Case Cookus has graduated after passing for more than 12,000 yards. So far, I don’t see a replacement with his skill. Although the offense passed the majority of the time, the rushing attack still managed to get 123 yards yards per game. There are six running backs looking to replace graduated starter Joe Logan but none of them have much experience. Brandon Porter and Hendrix Johnson are good receivers, but the next three receivers all graduated. NAU gave up 41 points per game and finished 122nd for stopping the pass. Coach Ball is an advocate of high-pressure defense, but until he has recruits who can “get there,” this pass defense will suffer. The schedule isn’t daunting, but then, neither is Northern Arizona. Savvy is suggesting three wins. I’m suggesting that is terribly optimistic.
10. Idaho (national rank: 81)
This offensive line gave up 35 sacks (106th) and 287 tackles for loss yards. Still, the offense generated 391 yards per game in a balanced approach. If the Vandals can come up with a replacement for graduated quarterback Mason Petrino, who had 53% of the team’s yardage, they might do well because four of the top five running backs and six of the top receivers return. Leading tackler Tre Walker graduated with 138 tackles, but Christian Ellis (104) returns to improve a defense that gave up 32 rushing touchdowns and 20 more through the air in 2019. Idaho played two FBS opponents in 2019. The Vandals lost by 72 at Penn State but then nearly knocked off Wyoming a week later. Idaho has two more FBS teams (Temple and Washington State) on this year’s calendar. Savvy expects the Vandals to regress to a three-win season.
11. Cal Poly (national rank: 82)
Being ranked 82nd in the nation might not sound like much, but without some offseason moves, this team would have been ranked in the 100s. The biggest news in San Luis Obispo is the hiring of head coach Beau Baldwin, the former offensive coordinator at Cal and former national championship head coach at Eastern Washington. Baldwin was the coach who produced Cooper Kupp at Eastern Washington, so it is expected he will have little trouble in attracting quality receivers. That will be a welcomed relief for fans who grew weary of 18 years with a triple-option offense that only saw a passing touchdown once every two-and-a-half games. All three of Poly’s quarterbacks return with Jalen Harnier the presumed starter after he produced over 1100 yards through the air and 522 on the ground as a backup. Unfortunately, his interception rate was high and his yards-per-carry low, so there is room for competition. There are a number of adequate receivers, but none have shown the talent of graduated star J. J. Koski, who accounted for more than 70% of the receptions. The Poly defense came up with just eight sacks all season (122nd ranked). Expect the defense to get better but only because it would be hard for it to get worse. Poly has averaged three wins over the past three seasons. With two FBS teams on the schedule and a host of FCS opponents who are likely to be ranked, Savvy sees the wins staying about the same.
12. Southern Utah (national rank: 101)
Quarterback Chris Helbig was a bit of a vagabond when he arrived at Southern Utah. Wanderlust got to him again in the offseason, and he will now battle for the starting position at Eastern Michigan. Although there are two capable and experienced quarterbacks on the roster, I believe that freshman three-star recruit and Arizona Player of the Year Rand Jensen is a better fit for new offensive coordinator Matt Wade. Running back Thomas Duckett returns with a 4.9 rush average and talented receivers Lance Lawson and Landen Measom are both back. The ‘Runners were 113th for fumbles lost, 101st in red zone efficiency, and 99th in penalties after committing 828 yards worth of infractions. Obviously, there is need for more discipline on the offensive side of things. Poor recruiting in recent cycles has weakened the SUU defense and reduced it to 115th in points allowed (37.6 ppg), 111th in tackles for loss, and 116th in getting to quarterbacks. With two new coordinators, a shortened offseason, and a schedule filled with strong opponents, Savvy is projecting a ceiling of three wins.
13. Northern Colorado (national rank: 108)
Northern Colorado has struggled in its transition to FCS football but took a major stride with the offseason hiring of Ed McAffrey as its new head coach. The former All Pro NFL receiver and All American at Stanford suffered a major loss when newly-hired assistant coach Zach Hoffpauir, 26, died in his sleep. The loss hit especially hard because Haffpauir was the best friend McAffrey’s son, Christian. This program was 28-72 in the prior nine years and has lost a lot of offensive production through graduations. The Bears’ defense gave up over 500 yards per game but there are some bright spots. Senior safety Jerone Jackson returns after posting 105 tackles and is joined by Brooks Talkington who was second on the team in tackles for loss. The schedule includes two FBS (San Jose State and Washington State) and four FCS expected to be ranked. It will take time, but McAffrey will recruit better talent and improve this team’s legacy. For now, Savvy is projecting one win.
Please also check out our previews for all 128 FCS teams.