Who will win the Big Sky Conference? part II


Last week we previewed the 2021 football season for Big Sky teams with names beginning between “A” and “M”. Today, we’ll preview the rest of them.

To see our complete rankings for all 128 FCS teams, visit us here.


NORTHERN ARIZONA

Over all record last season:   3-2

Preseason Big Sky ranking:    7th

Preseason national ranking:  33rd

Predicted number of wins:      6

Scheduled FBS opponents:    1

With 105 years of football tradition, the Lumberjacks can be counted on to be competitive. And, head coach Christopher Ball has NAU headed in the right direction in his third season.

He also has a ton of young talent that includes his top two running backs who were both freshman last season as well as four of the team’s top 10 tacklers who were underclassmen. Despite being a young team, NAU had undefeated champion Weber State down to its last play before the Wildcats hurled a desperation Hail Mary that cut down the Lumberjacks tree of hope.

Morgan Vest was one of the leading tacklers in the nation last season as a freshman and he returns as a preseason all Big Sky safety. The defense was young and started slow but improved with each game until it allowed just a 19 point average in its final three games.  The last two of those were back-to-back wins, a feat NAU hadn’t accomplished since 2017.

The ‘Jacks schedule is — well — jacked. NAU opens the season against defending FCS national champion Sam Houston State and follows that a week later against South Dakota State, the team Sam Houston beat for the national championship.

We know NAU can compete with the big boys. We’re about to find out if they can beat them.  If not this year, then it will happen soon because NAU had the top recruiting class in FCS in 2021, a class so good that it finished ahead of Utah State, UTEP, Western Kentucky, and Texas State, all of the FBS.

Savvygameline estimates this as a five game winner. My personal estimate is 6.5.


NORTHERN COLORADO

Over all record last season: did not play

Preseason Big Sky ranking:      11th

Preseason national ranking:    90th

Predicted number of wins:        3

Scheduled FBS opponents:       1

The biggest news in Greeley, Colorado is the incoming transfer of Michigan quarterback Dylan McCaffrey  who joins his father Ed to ignite an offense that averaged just 20 points per game in 2019.

Ed McCaffrey, a former Denver Broncos receiver, was hired as head coach in December of 2019 and because UNC elected to not play in the spring season, he is still waiting to coach his first game. However, he’s been busy recruiting and he now has 17 former FBS players on his roster which includes former Michigan running back Tru Wilson and three receivers, Kassidy Woods (Washington State), Dylan Thomas (TCU), and Jonah Morris (Akron).

UNC brought in plenty of skill players but the offensive line still looks weak so expect Dylan to throw short and run often.

This is a hard team to predict since it didn’t play last season and McCaffrey’s impact is yet to be known. However, our prediction Index sees wins over Houston Baptist and probably Lamar and Southern Utah.

If the offensive line responds well, Northern Colorado will be the surprise team of the Big Sky.


PORTLAND STATE

Over all record last season:     0-1

Preseason Big Sky ranking:     8th

Preseason national ranking:  54th

Predicted number of wins:    4.5

Scheduled FBS opponents:         2

The Vikings have a really weird schedule.

They face two certain losses on the road against FBS opponents Arkansas and Boise State but then get two guaranteed wins by playing two patsies, neither of which is in the FCS or the FBS. The first of those opponents is Eastern Oregon which comes from such a small conference its 2021 opponents include Montana Tech, Carroll College, and Montana Western. The second is the Simon Fraser Clansmen of Canada which we discussed last week.

The Vikings only played one game last season but coach Bruce Barnum has done a fabulous job in keeping talent from leaving. He returns 53 players with game experience and eleven of those are starters.

Offense will continue to flourish under starting quarterback Davis Alexander but he needs to improve his accuracy if he is to fend off the challenges of four other quarterbacks who have game experience. He will benefit from one of FCS’ best protection offensive lines.

Defense must improve if PSU expects to get to .500. The secondary will be noticeably improved from 2019 but the defensive front must be stronger and that will be a tough job after the graduation of both defensive tackles.

This group will begin the season 2-2, then win three of its last eight games.


SACRAMENTO STATE

Over all record last season:     did not play

Preseason Big Sky ranking:      6th

Preseason national ranking:    28th

Predicted number of wins:       8

Scheduled FBS opponents:          1

Sacramento State lured coach Troy Taylor away from Utah in 2019 and he immediately took the team from two wins to nine. Along the way, his Hornets beat four of the top five programs in the Big Sky and made the national playoff for the first time in program history. The Hornets were honored as the most improved team in FCS and Taylor received the Eddie Robinson Award as the top coach in the nation.

Although Sac State didn’t play last year, fans can expect another high-octane offense and a shot at the Big Sky title.

Two-time all Big Sky sprinter-speed running back Elijah Dotson returns from 2019 with over 700 yards rushing and another 700 receiving. Pierre Williams had over 900 receiving yards and he’s joined by 500-yard tight end Marshall Martin. Long-ball target Isaiah Gable is only 5’4” but he had seven receptions of more than 25 yards.

Linebackers Marcus Hawkins and Jeremy Harris will keep the defense tough as they return with more than 140 tackles between them.

The biggest needs for the Hornets is to come up with a quarterback and a couple of defensive backs.

The difference between eight and nine wins this year is likely to come from the home showdown with perennial power Northern Iowa in early September. The popular notion among analysts seems to be that this is an eight win team. Savvy says 8.5 but I’m personally convinced that it will be nine since the Hornets don’t have to play any of the top three conference powers.


SOUTHERN UTAH

Over all record last season:     1-5

Preseason Big Sky ranking:     13th

Preseason national ranking:    101st

Predicted number of wins:         2

Scheduled FBS opponents:        2

Four of SUU’s five losses were by a total margin of just seven points, so the Thunderbirds were close last season.

Coach Demario Warren has done a good job of keeping his talent together despite losses and health restrictions and he commented, “I’m hoping they’re starting to realize, even if we have set backs, they’ve put the work in to be winners.”

He’s also been recruiting well as Southern Utah signed its highest-rated player ever in cornerback Dylan Flowers who had offers from BYU and Tennessee among others. He’ll join two returning starters on the back end which will augment the move of La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis from safety to outside linebacker.

Justin Miller returns at quarterback but if he falters, SUU has three others who can step in.  Milller is a former walk-on who was recently named captain of the team. 

The T-Birds lost Rimmington Award winning center Zach Larsen but Canaan Yarro is ready to step in and three OL starters are back.

Southern Utah starts the season on the road against San Jose State and Arizona State. Although those are likely to be brutal losses, SUU desperately needs the revenue from those games to compensate for financial issues created by the shortened 2020 season. In addition to those strong FBS opponents, the SUU schedule is loaded with ranked teams such as at Tarleton State, Eastern Washington, at Sacramento State, at Montana, and conference champion Weber State.

The Thunderbirds rate for two wins but if the defense can stop the run, this could be a four-win outfit. 


U. C. DAVIS

Over all record last season:      3-2

Preseason Big Sky ranking:      5th

Preseason national ranking:   19th

Predicted number of wins:      8.5

Scheduled FBS opponents:            1

U.C. Davis is one of many FCS teams that are playing fewer than 12 games in the regular season as a countermeasure to having already played five in the Spring.

The schedule is quite favorable. The Aggies travel to Tulsa for a Thursday night bout with the Golden Hurricanes. There are many questions surrounding the Tulsa program beginning with, when was the last time you saw a hurricane touch down in Oklahoma? Also, can Tulsa replace NFL-bound quarterback Zach Smith and post two winning seasons in a row since 2012?

U.C. Davis has some outstanding talent returning as 300 pound all Big Sky center Connor Pettek leads the return of an astonishing 15 offensive linemen that ranked in the top-third of FCS for quarterback protection. There are plenty of returning receivers and Hunter Rodrigues returns at quarterback after starting all of the Aggies’ spring games and completing 66% of his passes. Lan Larison will keep the ground game going as he averaged nearly six yards per carry.

UCD’s defense ranked 43rd nationally for points allowed (23.6) and should improve on that as undersized whirling dirvish Luka Nixon will continue to pressure from defensive end and all Big Sky defensive tackle Bryce Rodgers plugs the middle.

Nearly all of the preseason all American teams list UCD’s Daniel Whelan as the best punter in the nation.

The Aggies struggled with pass defense and until that is solved this group won’t get to nine wins which is what it will need to challenge for the Big Sky title.


WEBER STATE

Over all record last season:      5-1

Preseason Big Sky ranking:       1st

Preseason national ranking:     5th

Predicted number of wins:        9

Scheduled FBS opponents:           1

Weber State posted an undefeated regular season and won its fourth straight Big Sky title last Spring. So why were WSU fans grousing?

Well, fans are accustomed to dominating the Big Sky yet the spring season found the Wildcats only winning one game by more than one possession.  The ‘Cats had to come from behind in the fourth quarter two weeks in a row just to take down Idaho State and bottom-dweller Southern Utah. The season ended with a shocking first-round upset loss at home to Southern Illinois, a team that had not been to the FCS playoff in more than a decade.

But football life in Ogden will back to its normal, dominating self this season as WSU had seven players named last week to the preseason all Big Sky team.

Bronson Barron started every game at quarterback in the Spring and finished in the top-third in the nation for total yards. However, he had lapses in which the offense stagnated and that led to increased playing time for Middle Tennessee State transfer Randall Johnson who is a dual-threat with some a history for making big plays such as a game ending, game winning pass against Northern Arizona which can be seen here.

Both of the ‘Cats leading rushing backs return after each finished in the national top-15 and a strong line is intact led by 6’4”, 300 pound guard Ty Whitworth.

All American and three-time all Big Sky returner Rashid Shaheed averaged 28.8 yards per kick-off return.  As a receiver, he scored one touchdown for every seven receptions.

WSU’s defensive line averaged nearly nine tackles for loss per game and now has the return of defensive end George Tarias, 300-pound defensive tackle Jared Schiess, and linebackers Connor Mortenson and Desmond Williams.  Mortenson was seventh in the nation for solo tackles per game.

The problem with this group is that while it focused on pressure, it was soft against the run.

The back-end will miss Preston Quinn but ball-hawking cornerback Eddie Heckard played half of a regular season but still came up with three interceptions and two deflections.

The schedule is front loaded with strong teams. WSU opens at Utah of the PAC-12, then plays James Madison, U.C. Davis, Montana State, and Eastern Washington all before Halloween. Despite the schedule, Weber State will win the Big Sky Conference championship for the fifth straight season.

Weber State is also a valid candidate to win the FCS national title this year.


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