By Brian Marceau
Our power rankings are made up of voters from all of the independent Big Sky Podcast Network contributors. The rankings are democratic, the write-ups are authoritarian and our page space is devoted to the teams that interest us and our listeners the most.
- Eastern Washington (75 percent of first place votes)
On paper, our consensus top team has a lot to prove after the second-most successful season in program history. The Eagles lost thirteen starters from last year’s national runner-up finish, though the number is deceiving for those who followed EWU throughout the playoffs. Yes, Jay-Tee Tiuli (Defensive Player of the Year), all first-teamers Nsimba Webster, Keenan Williams, Roldan Alcobendas, and 10 other All-Big Sky selections graduated, but many of their replacements saw extended play during the FCS playoffs and did not disappoint. A particularly impressive 2018 injury replacement was quarterback Eric Barriere, who accounted for 32 touchdowns in his 10 starts, six of which came against playoff teams. With a full season under his belt and a significantly easier slate for his next ten games, expect the junior to look even better in 2019.
Teaming up with Barriere to give EWU an elite threat on the ground will be Antoine Custer Jr., a former preseason All-Big Sky running back who missed much of last season to injury.
With the array of offensive firepower at EWU’s disposal, it’s easy to forget this team allowed only a point-and-a-half more per game in 2018 than noted defensive juggernaut Weber State. Until someone proves otherwise, the Eagles and their soft-on-paper 2019 conference schedule puts them easily a top our rankings.
- UC Davis (25 percent of first place votes)
After doubling their 2017 win total from five to 10 in 2018, the next step for the Aggies is another deep run in the FCS playoffs. Head coach Dan Hawkins returns one of the top quarterbacks in the FCS in senior Jake Maier, along with All-Big Sky pass catchers Jared Harrell (WR), Wes Preece (TE) and dual-threat running back Ulonzo Gilliam. With so many elite players across the offense, expect UC Davis to score around 40 points per game just like they did in 2018. A limiting factor for the Aggies, in terms of playoff seeding, could be their schedule which offers as many 2018 FCS playoff teams, four, as games versus teams with sub-.500 2018 marks.
(Likely) Playoff Bound
- Weber State
It’s incredible that Weber State could graduate nine All-Big Sky performers and still be a consensus top-10 team in just about every preseason poll, but that’s where the Wildcats find themselves. Even with the listed attrition, head coach Jay Hill’s squad still returns eight All-Big Sky selections, including FCS STATS Freshman of the Year Josh Davis and the conference’s most electric special teams talent, junior Rashid Shaheed (34.3 yards per kick return). Whether Hill has managed to (again) reload should be answered within the first four weeks when Weber State plays two FBS teams, Northern Iowa, and Cal-Poly (non-conference).
The main knock against Weber State, compared to UC Davis and EWU, is the Wildcats’ offense. Weber State has proven it doesn’t need to score a ton of points to regularly win games, but it’s hard to ignore the scoring gap between the Wildcats, who only scored 44 touchdowns last season compared to Eastern Washington’s 86 touchdowns, and UC Davis hitting paydirt 67 times. Expect Weber State to make a fourth consecutive trip to the FCS playoffs, but we’ll need to see the Wildcats prove they’ve reloaded or show a little more on the offensive end before we consider them on par with EWU or UC Davis.
- Montana State
There’s significantly more optimism about the Bobcats 2019 outlook than for their rivals in Missoula. Based off the success of 2018, a lot of that enthusiasm is warranted. Head coach Jeff Choate won nearly as many games last season (eight) as he did in his first two seasons in Bozeman combined (nine). This includes a first-round playoff win over Incarnate Word. The Bobcats return 17 starters from last year, including five preseason All-Big Sky selections, and with only one conference match-up against a 2018 Big Sky playoff team their 2019 schedule is favorable on paper.
A closer look at 2018 does indicate that last year’s Bobcats absolutely hit their ceiling. Montana State finished 4-1 in games decided by one score or less, which will hard to repeat a second consecutive year. It’s not shocking that a team whose identity is found on the defensive and special teams side of the ball will find itself in more close games than teams like Eastern, but for a team ranked around the top 15 in most national polls whether the Bobcats can score enough to live up to their quite high expectations is a serious question. Last season, Montana State finished sixth in the Big Sky in scoring (28.6 points per game), though that was only roughly only five more points per game than last-ranked Northern Colorado. Fourth-ranked Montana scored nearly 34 points per game.
It’s possible that starting a true pocket passer at quarterback will give Montana State enough of an offensive bump to not need to pull out so many close wins. Starting redshirt freshman Casey Bauman under center will also allow junior Troy Andersen to move back to linebacker, his natural position, where he’ll join seniors Bryce Sterk (LB) and Brayden Konkol (S) and maybe improve on Montana State’s already stout defense which allowed the fourth fewest points per game in the Big Sky in 2018. Without question the Bobcats have talent, and are a team most fans are reasonably penciling the Bobcats into the FCS playoffs in 2019. Though, its’ not clear at this point whether their current top-15 rankings are a reflection of real growth or a near universal rounding up of 2018’s extensive series of fortunate events.
2018 was an archetypal ‘what if’ season for the Grizzlies. The term Jekyll-and-Hyde is used to describe teams that look great one moment then awful the next, but using last year’s Grizzlies as an example, Jekyll-and-Hyde teams are truly Mr. Hyde teams, which is why Montana missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season in spite of finishing with the fourth-best scoring offense and the fifth-best scoring defense in the Big Sky.
There’s reason to believe 2019 should be different. In truth, the Grizzlies were two plays away from finishing 8-3, which would have guaranteed at least one FCS playoff game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Head coach Bob Hauck returns 19 starters, including Buck Buchanan Award nominee Dante Olson (LB), Big Sky Newcomer of the Year Dalton Sneed (QB) and arguably the Big Sky’s best receiver in Samuel Akem. Those three will be joined by maybe the best wide receiver group in the conference: Jerry Louie-McGee, Samori Toure and Gabe Sulsar. But what Grizzly fans will likely find most reassuring is the potential improvement on the offensive line. Last season, the Grizzlies’ front five weighed an average of 281 pounds. The addition of new recruits and growth from returning underclassmen has grown that average to about 316 pounds. Size alone will not buy Sneed more time in the pocket, it’s the progress from underclassmen and an influx of talent in the trenches which should improve Montana’s margin for error compared to 2018.
The biggest on-paper difficulty the Grizzlies face this year will be their schedule. Montana will face all four of the Big Sky’s FCS playoff participants from 2018, while also taking on South Dakota, Oregon, North Alabama, and Monmouth in non-conference play, meaning Hauck’s squad will have to hit the ground running in 2019. If the squandered promise of last year’s 6-5 run can materialize more positively for the Grizzlies this time around, expect to see more of the Montana that led UC Davis 21-6 through the first 44 minutes of play, but until we see it, this is still the same Montana team that was outscored by 62 points in the fourth quarter throughout 2018.
Their Horses Might Be Dark
- Northern Arizona
First-year head coach Chris Ball returns 17 starters from last year’s disappointing 4-6 finish, which started out with high expectations after a 2017 FCS playoff appearance and an opening-week win against FBS opponent UTEP.
From this far away, the brightest spot for the Lumberjacks is the return of senior quarterback Case Cookus, who missed most of 2017 due to injury. The former FCS STATS Freshman of the Year threw 50 touchdown passes in his first 15 starts, only to see multiple seasons cut short due to injury. If Cookus returns to his freshman form and avoids landing his second targeting ejection (no other quarterback in football history has one), NAU could be the surprise team that moves into the upper crust of the conference.
It will be tough for Idaho to have any more of a disappointing season than it had in 2018, when the Vandals picked up a total of three Big Sky wins. Whether there’s a turnaround lurking in Moscow is unclear. On the offensive side of the football head coach Paul Petrino will again start the year with a quarterback platoon, though until further notice expect coach Petrino’s son Mason to eventually win the starting nod. If that’s the case, Idaho will continue to struggle on the offensive end, in spite of having strong receiving talent, particularly senior Jeff Cotton and sophomore Cutrell Haywood, just like it did in 2018. The Vandals averaged about 25 points per game, good for third-worst in the conference.
Where Idaho could be intriguing is on the defensive side of the ball. In 2018, the Vandals gave up the second-most points per game in conference and were vulnerable essentially everywhere. That defense may not exist anymore. Paul Petrino brought in a lot of FBS transfers with defensive lineman Noah Eliss, a former Mississippi State signee being the prized recruit. If the Vandals defense takes a significant step forward this year, Idaho might finish around .500. The limiting factor will circle back to offense. Junior Colton Richardson has the arm to stretch the field, but struggled with injuries, turnovers and a very short leash in 2018. Senior Mason Petrino is an intelligent player who makes few mistakes but does not have the arm to threaten defenses with even intermediate throws. Early indications from Paul Petrino give his son a leg up to remain being the starter in 2019. If that’s the case, the Vandals will need a defense in the mold of Montana State and Weber State to compete for the playoffs. We doubt they have that, but expect more from the Vandals in 2019 than we saw in 2018.
- Idaho State
The Bengals return two All-Big Sky wide receivers in seniors Mitch Gueller and Michael Dean, but it’s unclear who will get the ball to them. Coach Rob Phenicie has not yet named whether senior Gunnar Amos, a former Vandal and Coeur d’Alene native, or junior Matt Stuck will start at quarterback. With the Bengals opening 2019 with a week one bye it’s unlikely we’ll learn the answer anytime soon. No matter who starts under center, the Bengals have made steady progress in two years under Phenicie and will look to finish with their second consecutive winning season for the first time since 2002-03.
Penciled in Wins
- Portland State
There’s talent in Portland, no question. Tight end Charlie Taumoepeau might be the best NFL prospect in the Big Sky and the Vikings recruiting class this year was ranked No. 13 in the FCS by HERO Sports. Portland State showed it can compete by beating Montana 22-20 at the Grizzlies’ homecoming game in 2018, but otherwise only looked okay when playing the worst teams in the conference.
- Cal Poly
After a 1-4 start, Cal Poly discovered its form and finished the season on a 4-2 run, including a win against Idaho State which kept the Bengals out of the playoffs. Head coach Tim Walsh will have to find a way to replace the dearly departed Joe Protheroe (1,810 rushing yards) if the Mustangs are to again lead the FCS in time of possession. On the other side of the ball, the linebacker combo of sophomore Matt Shotwell and senior Nik Navarro (173 combined tackles) will need some help to keep Cal Poly from surrendering points more efficiently (36.4 points per game allowed in 2018) than the rest of the conference.
- Southern Utah
Good luck projecting these guys. Southern Utah went 9-3 in 2017, then 1-10 last season with their lone win coming in the Battle for the Bottom against Sacramento State. The Thunderbirds started four quarterbacks last season due to injury and the projected starter Chris Helbig, the only returning starter who tossed more touchdowns than interceptions, should play more than five games this year. Though, he won’t do much to shore up the Big Sky’s worst defense from 2018.
Every Week is a Bye Week
- Northern Colorado
The Bears are another team that can chalk up part of last season’s struggles to quarterback injuries. If senior Jacob Knipp can stay healthy then that alone should improve Northern Colorado’s league-worst scoring offense (23.8 points per game) which scored 14 points or less in six games. Though, it won’t be enough to keep the Bears from hanging out around the Big Sky cellar.
- Sacramento State
Sacramento State and first-year head coach Troy Taylor have nowhere to go but up after winning exactly zero conference games in 2018. Injuries, particularly to starting quarterback Kevin Thomson, undoubtedly played a part in the Hornets anemic offense. Luckily, offense happens to be Taylor’s specialty. Getting a full year out of Thomson, the former Bobby Hauck recruit at UNLV, and the return of first team All-Big Sky running back Elijah Dotson (115 rushing yards per game) should help the Hornets look a little closer to their 2017 selves when Sacramento State finished 6-2 in conference. But with maybe the roughest schedule in the conference, don’t expect the Hornets to come close to reaching their sixth winning season this century.