Who will win the Big Sky Conference: 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 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 three 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.


CAL POLY

Over all 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 a 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:. One of Coach Baldwin’s two recruiting seasons finished sixth in the entire 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 right now, but 2022 is going to see the program take off in a big way.

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


EASTERN WASHINGTON

Over all 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 sorta how things have been since Aaron Best took over this former national championship outfit in 2017. It sputters, soars, flounders, and just 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.

Defense will be led by high pressure end Mitchell Johnson who is able to 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, a win by Eastern Washington won’t shock anyone .


IDAHO

Over all 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 cliff-hangers, 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 All American middle linebacker Tre Walker who posted 138 tackles in 2019 and may be the best player in all of the FCS.

An outstanding coaching staff is the foundation of Idaho’s success. Paul Petrino (Bobby’s brother) is in his ninth year as the football dictator of Moscow.  He had to  replace retired 30-year offensive line coach Kris Cinkovich so there will be a few early hiccups in the trenches, 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. Government mandates have limited Simon Fraser’s 2021 practices to just 58% of the Clansmen at a time and social distancing is required, probably a good thing given their nickname.

Idaho follows that game with two on the road against Power Five teams Indiana and Oregon State.  Half of the remaining opponents will be within Idaho’s reach.

The Vandals just completed installaton of an AstroTurf practice field that is not only helping prepare for this season but is also another lure Petrino and his staff are using to recruit.


IDAHO STATE

Over all 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 led by former Wyoming starting quarterback Tyler VanderWaal who was named the Big Sky’s Newcomer of the Year last spring.  Fans were excited by his 315 yards passing yards per game but not so much with his 4.7% interception rate, a problem that followed 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.


MONTANA

Over all 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 keep in mind that 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 to place Montana in the FCS top 10.

Indeed, 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 a safety who each had more than 100 tackles.

But, I think it’s time to hedge a little bit here. Montana only returned to double-digit wins in 2019 and the two wins last season were against a team from a lower division and another that ranked in the lower half of the FCS.

So, while the roster abounds with talent, the resume’ is bereft of tract.

Montana has a prime opportunity to bolster that resume’ when it travels 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.


MONTANA STATE

Over all 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, both under Craig Bowl who, coincidentally, will be his first rival when MSU opens at Wyoming.

Vigen is known as a big time recruiter and Savvy ranks his history as “elite”, 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.

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 once 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 an outfit bound for the national playoff.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s