Big Sky FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

Big Sky FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

Big Sky FCS Football 2015 Conference Preview

Big Sky FCS Football 2015 Preseason All-Conference Teams


For the first time since 2007, the Big Sky failed to get a team into the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs. Montana State lost in the first round to South Dakota State, while Montana beat San Diego before falling to Big Sky foe Eastern Washington in the second round. EWU lost in the next game to eventual national runner-up Illinois State, leaving a surprising absence of the Big Sky throughout most of the playoffs. While it remains to be seen if the conference boasts a single team good enough to reach the Semifinals in 2015, you can be sure the conference as a whole is as strong as it has ever been.


1. Eastern Washington

Of course the big news at Eastern Washington is the transfer of quarterback Vernon Adams to Oregon. The Eagles will look to Jordan West to fill in those massive shoes. With wide receiver Cooper Kupp and his 104 catches for 1,431 yards and 16 touchdowns, the EWU offense will still be one of the more potent in the nation. The Eagles start off the season, ironically, against Adams’ Oregon Ducks. The schedule does not get much easier with a trip to Northern Iowa up next. With games against Montana State, Cal Poly, Idaho State, Northern Arizona and Montana, the Big Sky slate contains all of the toughest conference foes.


2. Montana State

Montana State is led by quarterback Dakota Prukop, who threw for 2,559 yards and ran for 966 more. In total he accounted for 31 touchdowns. The Bobcats offense will again be potent, but it is on the other side of the ball where Montana State needs to improve. This is a team that can win shootouts, but MSU is not going to win a Big Sky title without improvement. Without Alex Singleton and his 136 tackles and Odin Coe and his 6.0 sacks, the Bobcats need to find playmakers if the defense is going to get better.


3. Montana

Coach Bob Stitt comes to Montana after 15 successful seasons at the Colorado School of Mines to take over for the retired Mick Delaney. The Grizzlies need to find a new quarterback to replace Jordan Johnson and a new running back to replace Jordan Canada. The defense has holes to fill too, but there is a lot of talent on that side of the ball, led by Kendrick Van Ackeren, Jeremiah Kose and Tyrone Holmes.


4. Idaho State

Idaho State had a breakout season, going 8-4 overall and 6-2 in Big Sky play. Two of those losses came against FBS opponents Utah and Utah State, while the other two were a three point loss at Eastern Washington and a five point loss at Montana State. Quarterback Justin Arias graduated, but running back Xavier Finney and wide receiver Madison Mangum return to lead a potent offense.


5. Northern Arizona

With season ending losses to North Dakota and Southern Utah, Northern Arizona missed out on the playoffs in painful fashion. NAU will again rely on their strong defense to win games. Marcus Alford and Eddie Horn lead what could be the most talented secondary in the Big Sky. With enough weapons returning on offense, including quarterback Kyren Poe and running back Casey Jahn, the Lumberjacks have the talent to make the playoffs if they can manage a tough early schedule.


6. Cal Poly

Cal Poly is another Big Sky team that just missed out on the playoffs. They finished the 2014 season with a 7-5 overall record and a couple late season losses ended their playoff hopes. But Cal Poly has been one of the more consistent and reliable teams in the Big Sky and expect Coach Tim Walsh to have his team competing for a playoff spot. Quarterback Chris Brown is a great option quarterback. He threw just three interceptions last season and accounted for 1,465 yards through the air and 1,265 yards on the ground. Running back Kori Garcia added 1,039 rushing yards to the most potent ground attack in the FCS the last two years.


7. Southern Utah

A tough early schedule got Southern Utah off to a slow start in 2014 and they never really recovered. The team won just three games a year after making the playoffs the previous season. The Thunderbirds do return quarterback Ammon Olsen. He threw for 3,049 yards and 21 touchdowns. With defensive end James Cowser leading a pretty good defense, Southern Utah can have a surprisingly good season if the offense can find a ground game to go with Olsen’s passing attack.


8. Sacramento State

Coach Jody Sears finished strong as the interim coach at Sacramento State, leading his team to three straight wins to end the 2014 campaign. He is now the full time coach. The Hornets usually potent offense could take a step back without quarterback Garrett Safron. They will have to rely on receiver Nnamdi Agude and running back Jordan Robinson to carry the offense. Linebacker Darnell Sankey leads a rebuilding defense.


9. North Dakota

North Dakota’s defense led them to a 5-7 overall record and conference wins over Portland State, Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado. The late win over Northern Arizona, while devastating to the Lumberjacks, was a big momentum booster for North Dakota. The defense, led by lineman Brandon Dranka and linebacker Will Ratelle, will be solid, but the team needs to find a playmaker or two on offense if they are going to take another step forward.


10. Weber State

Weber State dropped off the radar pretty quickly, but Coach Jay Hill is rebuilding. Year one for Coach Hill ended with a 2-10 record, but after a 0-9 start, picking up wins over North Dakota and Northern Colorado was a good sign. Linebacker Emmett Tela will lead the defense after tallying 79 tackles in 2014. The offense will work through running back Zach Smith, who rushed for 742 yards and three touchdowns, but he will need more help from quarterbacks Billy Green and Jadrian Clark after up and down sophomore seasons.


11. Portland State

Portland State picked up two wins in Big Sky play. With a tougher schedule, grabbing more than two wins this year will be difficult. However, the Vikings have a strong secondary led by Aaron Sibley and Xavier Coleman. If the defense around them can improve, Portland State will take a step towards respectability, even if the win total does not show it.


12. UC Davis

After a lot of struggles, UC Davis finally picked up a win against an FCS opponent in their second to last game of the season. And that win was at a pretty good Cal Poly team. The hope is that momentum will lead to better things in 2015. However, running back Gabe Manzanares is gone and UC Davis will have to rely on quarterback Ben Scott and receiver Ramon Vargas to keep the offense moving.


13. Northern Colorado

Northern Colorado boasts a pretty good offense, but the defense has a long way to go. Quarterback Sean Rubalcaba is an efficient quarterback, completing 67.8 percent of his passes last year and wide receiver Stephen Miller caught 45 passes for 586 yards. Darius Graham is a big back, but rushed for just 212 yards last season. He will get more carries in 2015, but must average more than 3.2 yards per carry.


Conference Game To Watch:

Montana at Montana State, November 21 – With Eastern Washington potentially spending a little time rebuilding this year, the season finale for Montana and Montana State could have Big Sky title implications. A year ago Montana State could have gotten a share of the conference title with a win at Montana, but the Grizzlies took care of MSU 34-7.


Another Conference Game To Watch:

Idaho State at Cal Poly, October 3 – For two teams hoping to be in the playoff picture, this is a huge game. There may not be room for the loser in the playoffs. For the Mustangs, this could be an even bigger game. Their season starts with games against Montana, Arizona State, Northern Iowa and Montana State before they host Idaho State. There is very, very little room for error.


Non-Conference Game To Watch:

North Dakota State at Montana, August 29 – There is not a better way to kick off the football season than with North Dakota State heading to Missoula to take on Montana. For the Big Sky as a whole, and Montana as a program, this is a great opportunity to make a statement. Montana lost at North Dakota State 22-10 a year ago, but things could be different this time around.


FBS Upset Watch:

Eastern Washington at Oregon, September 5 – This game is simply oozing storylines. Last year Eastern Washington went to Washington and nearly came away with an upset. The Eagles lost quarterback Vernon Adams as a graduate transfer to Oregon. Surely Oregon is better than Washington and EWU is not exactly the same team with Adams on the opposing sidelines. Yet, for fans of FCS football, this is one they want to win. How sweet would it be for Eastern Washington to beat Oregon with EWU’s former best player playing for the other team?


Top NFL Prospect:

James Cowser, DE, Southern Utah – At 6-4 and 258 pounds, Cowser has the size and speed to make an impact in the NFL. In his three seasons with the Thunderbirds, Cowser has tallied 29.5 sacks and 61.0 tackles-for-loss. As a junior in 2014, he broke the conference’s record with 28.5 tackles-for-loss. With another productive season like that, Cowser will be on the NFL’s radar.


Coach on the Hot Seat:

Earnest Collins, Northern Colorado – It looked like Coach Collins was turning around the Northern Colorado program in 2012. After a debut season with zero wins, the Bears went 4-4 in Big Sky play in 2012. It looked like things were heading up. But in 2013, UNC failed to win a Big Sky game and in 2014 they went 2-6. Another tough year like that and Northern Colorado will start thinking about heading in a different direction.


Freshman To Watch: (Complete FCS Recruit Rankings)

There are plenty of freshmen who will make an impact in the Big Sky this year, but none may be more talented than Northern Colorado’s Denzel Hatcher. The 5-11, 225 pound linebacker from Miramar, Florida may not be the flashiest player, but he is a big hitter and can help the Bears defense right away.


FCS All-Conference Teams

FCS Conference Previews