We’re taking a more playoff-centric view in this week’s Big Sky Podcast Network Power Rankings. The conference is deep at the top, with a few unsure teams in the middle, and a few more teams who’ve already started the countdown to late November. As always, votes are cast by the many BSPN contributors, and the write ups are the province of Brian Marceau.
The Great Works of Literature
Last Week: Win vs. Lehigh (41-13)
This Week: at North Dakota State
It took three weeks for the UC Davis offense to wake up. Against Lehigh, Jake Maier was brilliant (38 of 49, 389 yards, 4 touchdown passes), and the Aggies 510 total yards is closer to what many expected out of UC Davis from week one. To be fair, beating up a bottom tier FCS school is far from impressive, meaning the best we can say about UC Davis is their tune up game was used appropriately. The Aggies first FCS test (we don’t count San Diego) comes this week at top-ranked North Dakota State. UC Davis will lose, but we’re more interested in how well the Aggies can compete in Fargo. All of UC Davis’ top conference peers are flawed (Weber State’s offense, EWU’s defense, Montana State’s quarterback play), and keeping up with the Bison could mean the Aggies truly are the Big Sky’s best.
Last Week: Loss at Nevada (19-13)
This Week: Bye
For the second time in three weeks, Weber State took a Mountain West team down to the wire, but the Wildcats 137 total yards (including going 1-of-12 on third down conversions) were not enough to come away with a win. Weber State’s defense allowed more yards (453) than Jay Hill would like but forced Nevada into three turnovers, which is how a team can be outgained by more than 300 yards and still almost win. Had he been healthy Jake Constantine might have been a difference maker, but with backup Kaden Jenks in over his head (6 of 21, 57 yards, one touchdown, one pick), the Wildcats will have to hope next week’s bye will be enough time for Constantine to return or for Jenks to make some strides. Weber State will open conference play with one Division I win, and if the magic win number for playoff security is eight, barring the conference championship, these Wildcats have just one loss left before entering playoff uncertainty. It’s an astounding place to be for a team just a couple plays from having two wins against FBS teams.
The Best Sellers Made into Films
Last Week: Win at Western Illinois (23-14)
This Week: vs. Norfolk State
The ecstasy of Montana State’s blowout win last week over Southeast Missouri State was not there for the Bobcats closer-than-it-should’ve-been win on the road at Western Illinois. Montana State’s defense was once again top notch in forcing three turnovers, allowing just 78 rushing yards to WIU, and surrendering only two total scores, but MSU’s offensive output is concerning. Western Illinois is not close to a top-tier FCS team, yet played the Bobcats to a draw for three-and-a-half quarters.
Part of Montana State’s struggles were injury related — running back Isaiah Ifanse missed the game and Troy Anderson was not at 100 percent. Senior running back Logan James had a career game (21 carries, 167 yards, 2 touchdowns) in place of Ifanse, but self-inflicted wounds (12 penalties for 96 yards), third down struggles (2-for-16 on third down conversions) and a rough outing from quarterback Casey Bauman (16 of 30, 149 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions) kept this game closer than it needed to be. Montana State’s defense is as good as advertised, but until Bauman is a threat for opposing defenses to respect, Montana State’s offense will be a limiting factor for how far they rise nationally.
Of course, the underwhelming parts of Montana State’s wins are relative. The Bobcats are a top-10 FCS team and sit in great position to pick up a third FCS non-conference win before heading into a light-on-paper Big Sky schedule. MSU will be favored at home against Norfolk State, and if they close out week four with a win, it’s unthinkable for the Bobcats to find themselves outside of the FCS playoff picture. What Montana State is playing for is seeding, and whether the Bobcats can pick up enough wins to both host a couple playoff games and put off a James Madison or North Dakota State until at least the quarterfinals. Montana State needs more from their offense, but still, this is team a better positioned for the postseason than all but about ten FCS teams.
Last Week: Loss at Jacksonville State (49-45)
This Week: at Idaho (Non-conference)
The Eagles led Jacksonville State 45-28 with 18 minutes left, then collapsed. Losing to Jacksonville State isn’t awful, it’s a top 15 FCS team — but Eastern will close non-conference play with no more than one Division I win if they can’t beat a suddenly tougher-looking Idaho squad this week. EWU should be the favorite, but a bigger issue for the Eagles is their lack of margin of error for playoff consideration. To hit the eight D-I wins expected for playoff consideration, EWU can drop a total of one more game for the rest of the year. The Eagles have a soft enough schedule to make this feasible, but losing at JSU makes it near requisite for EWU to win both at Montana and at home against NAU to buy any sort of security for both playoff seeding and qualification. This week at Idaho will be a great chance for the Eagles to rebound, and expect Eric Barriere, who was both spectacular (five touchdowns) and erratic (24 of 43, two picks) at Jacksonville State to make a statement in Moscow.
Last Week: Loss at Oregon (35-3)
This Week: vs. Monmouth
The Grizzlies competed, but trailed by 28 before breaking Oregon’s shutout. The loss was ugly, but leaving Eugene with a paycheck and without major injury is a win for Montana.
What matters for Montana is their final non-conference game against Monmouth. The intrigue is not the opponent — the Grizzlies should be heavy favorites — but where Montana could be compared to the rest of the Big Sky if they can close out week four with a win. Monmouth would be the Grizzlies’ third FCS (read: playoff eligible) win. Outside of Bozeman (if the Bobcats win this week) no team in the conference will be better positioned for an at-large playoff bid than Montana. Those three wins are margin for error the Grizzlies need with five of their eight conference games coming against the Big Sky’s elite (UC Davis, EWU, Weber State, Montana State) or emerging threats (Sacramento State). Without question, head coach Bobby Hauck will want to win the conference’s automatic bid, but broadly speaking, success in Missoula begins with ending the Grizzlies playoff draught, and in leaving nonconference play with three FCS wins, Montana would earn the right to go only 2-5 in the above referenced matchups, and still feel safe come selection time. Considering the comparatively favorable schedules the rest of Big Sky’s playoff hopefuls possess, the chance for three non-conference wins a luxury too valuable for Montana to squander.
On the field, it will be another chance for Montana to show it’s turned a corner and is again one of the FCS elites. The Grizzlies have not been tested the way EWU was last week at Jacksonville State, or how UC Davis will be at North Dakota State this week, but thus far, Montana has done what it could not do in 2018 — close out games. Monmouth is another matchup the Grizzlies should wrap up by no later than the third quarter (Sagarin rankings place Monmouth as something more than North Alabama, but something less than South Dakota). Even so, another convincing win will solidify Montana as a top-15 (or maybe top-10) FCS team, and give the Grizzlies momentum heading into conference play Missoula has not seen for too many years.
The Nice Airplane Reads
Last Week: Win vs. Western New Mexico (DII, 55-21)
This Week: at Illinois State
NAU dominated Division II Western New Mexico, which is what a team with FCS playoff aspirations should do. What we see out of the Lumberjacks at Illinois State will tell us a good deal about how real those playoff dreams are. Illinois State will be a tougher matchup for NAU than their season opening win against Missouri State, but senior quarterback Case Cookus (eight touchdowns, two picks in 2019) has looked a little stronger in each outing, and the receiving duo of Brandon Porter and Hendrix Johnson might be as good as any collection of Big Sky wideouts.
Last Week: Win vs. Northern Colorado (50-0)
This Week: at Fresno State
Sacramento State looks for real. Northern Colorado might not finish 2019 with a single win, but a 50 point shutout is the type of domination reserved for Power 5 buy games. Kevin Thomson’s healthy, Elijah Dotson is dual threat both on the ground and as a receiver, yet somehow, the most impressive part of Hornets’ turnaround is their defense. Sure, gaining 614 against the Bears was nice, but allowing just 171 total yards is incredible. If the Hornets had a schedule like Montana State or Eastern Washington, we’d be looking at a surprise playoff contender.
The Teacher Made Me Read Thems
Last Week: Loss at Oregon State (45-7)
This Week: Bye
The best news for Cal Poly is the continued play of quarterback Jalen Hamler and fullback Duy Tran-Sampson. Across three games, Hamler is 24/35 for 515 yards, 4 TDs, and 1 INT, while Sampson has rushed for 307 yards and 2 TDs. The downside is Cal Poly’s defense absolutely purges yards. Of course a Pac-12 team like Oregon State should do that to a Big Sky team, but the Mustangs have allowed no fewer than 457 yards (vs. Weber State) and 37 points (vs. San Diego) through the entirety of their nonconference schedule. Unless the defense makes strides, the Mustangs’ ceiling will be as playoff spoilers.
Last Week: Loss at Wyoming (21-16)
This Week: vs. EWU (Nonconference)
Week three’s one-score loss at FBS (and undefeated) Wyoming was without question Idaho’s best showing of 2019. The Vandals defense might be solid — it helped that Wyoming has no pass game whatsoever — allowing just 17 first downs and 287 total yards, holding Wyoming to 4-of-13 on third down conversions and win ing the time of possession battle (32:33 to 27:27). Again, as Wyoming cannot pass the ball, this tells us nothing about the Vandals secondary, but defensive efforts like this will keep Idaho competitive with much of their remaining schedule.
The downside for Idaho is their offense. The quarterback “competition” between starter Mason Petrino and junior Colton Richardson was never real — Petrino received 80 pass attempts across the Vandals three games, compared to Richardson’s 14 — and it’s clear what the Vandal passing game will be this season: weak. In one of his better games as a starter, Petrino completed 15-of-33 attempts for 184 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Idaho’s running backs were solid, but as the game wore on, the Vandals inability to stretch the field for even intermediate throws turned Wyoming personal fouls into Idaho’s most reliable distance play.
The Vandals showing at Wyoming, coupled with EWU’s meltdown in Jacksonville, does give their nonconference matchup this Saturday higher stakes. Idaho matches up significantly better against ball control (non-passing) teams, and EWU may have the best quarterback in the FCS. What the Vandals look like three weeks in is an inferior version of Weber State or Montana State — a team relying on defense and special teams that’s incapable of putting up enough points to win when their opponent can top 30 points. That’s a ton of pressure on the Idaho defense, which has looked solid, but has not yet forced turnovers (one total in 2019), or pressured quarterbacks (two total sacks).
Last Week: Loss at Boise State (45-10)
This Week: vs. Eastern Oregon (NAIA)
There’s nothing to learn from Portland State’s second buy game loss, and we’ll manage to learn even less from Portland State’s final nonconference game against NAIA Eastern Oregon. Davis Alexander wasn’t great (11/23, 133 yards, 1 TD), and the Vikings showed no semblance of a rushing attack, but against Boise State, that’s what we should see. At this point, the best speculation about the Vikings is their defense might be solid, but there’s no reason to believe their offense is.
The Burned Manuscripts
Last Week: Win vs. Stephen F. Austin (45-38 OT)
This Week: at South Dakota State
Stephen F. Austin is not the program it once was (0-3 including a DII loss), but for Southern Utah, any win is a good win. Chris Helbig had his best game of the year (35/48, 375 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), and the Thunderbird defense was almost respectable (396 yards allowed). The fact that SUU committed 17 penalties for 161 yards and still won should underscore how unimpressive this win is, but again, in Cedar City, a win is a win.
Last Week: Loss at Utah (31-0)
This Week: at Northern Iowa
Losing at Utah was preordained, but two games in, the Bengals cannot be happy with their offense. It took three and half quarters to pull away from DII Western Colorado, then at Utah, Idaho State mustered only nine first downs on 116 total yards. Junior quarterback Matt Struck did not return after a first half injury, and senior Gunnar Amos did not make a push for more snaps in his relief duties (7/17, 52 yards, zero TDs, 1 INT). Expect the Bengals’ nonconference finale at Northern Iowa to be similarly ugly.
Last Week: Loss at Sacramento State (50-0)
This Week: at South Dakota
There’s not a lot to say here—the Bears were blown out worse by Sacramento State than Pac-12 Washington State. Northern Colorado surrendered 614 yards, gained only 171 yards, and quarterback Jakob Knipp left the game due to injury. We don’t enjoy writing teams off, but that’s what we’re doing with the Bears. Just like in 2018, Northern Colorado has no offense, and without a Weber State-level defense, it’ll be a long year in Greeley.