2016 Big Sky Conference Preview

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - Clearly, there's uncertainty about Eastern Washington bouncing back this season.

It makes so much sense the Eagles would come back strong considering they are a perennial FCS power - winning the national title in 2010 and capturing three straight Big Sky Conference titles from 2012-14.

But even the people who know Eastern Washington best appear to have reservations. In the Big Sky's two preseason polls, the Eagles were picked fourth by the coaches and third by the media.

They're playing one of the tougher non-conference schedules in the FCS and then open conference play at Northern Arizona, the preseason favorite in both polls.

They also have to solve defensive shortcomings and will be starting an entirely new offensive line.

So last year's 6-5 finish, including 5-3 in the Big Sky, may not be an anomaly. Getting back to the top will be tough in the nation's largest FCS conference.

"It was different in terms of what we've experienced the years before," ninth-year coach Beau Baldwin said. "There have been other years in which we've been in similar spots, but it's a fine line.

"I go back to 2010 when we were fortunate enough to win the whole thing. We could have been 4-7 that year, we could of. I mean, I know we found a way and then we kind of rolled and won those playoff games, but it's just such a fine line with what could go happen - a play here, a play there, an injury or stay healthy, whatever it might be."

Bolstering Eastern Washington's chance this season is the return of wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who contemplated entering the 2016 NFL Draft before he announced he would play his senior season. He was the 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2016 Big Sky Conference race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. Montana

2. Eastern Washington

3. Northern Arizona

4. North Dakota

5. Weber State

6. Portland State

7. Southern Utah

8. Montana State

9. Cal Poly

10. Sacramento State

11. Northern Colorado

12. UC Davis

13. Idaho State

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TEAM CAPSULES

1. MONTANA GRIZZLIES

LOCATION: Missoula, Montana

STADIUM: Washington-Grizzly Stadium

COACH: Bob Stitt (8-5 in one season at Montana; 116-67-1 overall)

LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (7 offense/3 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Jamaal Jones, WR; Tyrone Holmes, DE; Kendrick Van Ackeren, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Brady Gustafson, QB, R-Sr. (167-for-290, 1,984 yards, 12 TDs, 9 INTs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Caleb Kidder, DE, R-Sr. (89 TT, 10 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 6 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: John Nguyen, RB, Sr.; James Homan, WR, Jr.; Lane Hovey, WR, R-Sr. (Nebraska transfer); Lamarriel Taylor, WR, So. (Massachusetts transfer); Jerry Louie-McGee, WR, R-Fr.; Jackson Thiebes, OL, R-Sr.; Ben Weyer, C, R-Sr.; Devon Dietrich, OG, R-Sr.; James Banks, LB, Jr. (UAB transfer); Connor Strahm, LB, R-Jr.; T.J. Reynard, CB, R-Sr. (Wisconsin transfer); Yamen Sanders, S, R-Sr.; Justin Strong, S, Jr. (Oregon State transfer)

OUTLOOK: After guiding a strong first season in Missoula, which opened with an FCS Kickoff win over North Dakota State, Stitt has turned to transfers to fill holes at wide receiver, along the lines of scrimmage and in the secondary. Kidder has moved from defensive tackle to the edge to try to continue the pass rush they enjoyed with Holmes, the 2015 STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year. Jason Semore, who had been with Stitt at Colorado School of Mines before UM, is the new defensive coordinator and is looking to reload, not rebuild, with newcomers. On offense, the 6-foot-7 Gustafson should put up excellent numbers for the Griz's fast-break style. The Griz also are strong at running back, led by Nguyen (855 yards, three touchdowns). Schedule-wise, the contrast between road games (difficult) and home games (easy) is striking.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Saint Francis

Sept. 10, at Northern Iowa

Sept. 24, at Cal Poly*

Oct. 1, Southern Utah*

Oct. 8, Mississippi Valley State

Oct. 15, Sacramento State*

Oct. 22, at Northern Arizona*

Oct. 29, at Eastern Washington*

Nov. 5, Idaho State*

Nov. 12, at Northern Colorado*

Nov. 19, Montana State*

* - Big Sky game

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2. EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES

LOCATION: Cheney, Washington

STADIUM: Roos Field

COACH: Beau Baldwin (73-30 in eight seasons at Eastern Washington; 83-33 overall)

LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (5 offense/9 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Aaron Neary, OG; Clay DeBord, OT; Todd Raynes, Rover

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Cooper Kupp, WR/PR, Sr. (114 receptions, 1,642 yards, 19 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Samson Ebukam, DE, Sr. (44 TT, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Gage Gubrud, QB, So.; Jordan West, QB, Sr.; Reilly Hennessey, QB, So.; Jabari Wilson, RB, Sr.; Kendrick Bourne, WR, Sr.; Shaq Hill, WR, Sr.; Simba Webster, WR/KR, So.; Tristen Taylor, OT, Fr.; Chris Schlichting, OG, Fr.; Matthew Sommer, NT, Sr.; Miquiyah Zamora, LB, Sr.; Alek Kacmarcik, LB, So.; Nzuzi Webster, CB, So.; Zach Bruce, S, Sr.

OUTLOOK: A three-game losing streak to end last season stopped the Eagles' three-year run atop the Big Sky standings. To have a bounce-back season this year, they are going to have to weather one of the more brutal September schedules in the FCS. While West passed for 3,002 yards and 30 touchdowns last season, he might not be the starting quarterback because Gubrud dazzled during spring practices. This year's starter can rely on the nation's best set of wide receivers, led by Kupp, the 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year who should hold most FCS career receiving records after his final season. The scary proposition for the QB is the Eagles are replacing their top six offensive linemen. The defense has struggled in recent seasons, but the return of nine starters suggests there will be improvement. Zamora returns off a 101-tackle season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, at Washington State

Sept. 10, at North Dakota State

Sept. 17, Northern Iowa

Sept. 24, at Northern Arizona*

Oct. 1, UC Davis*

Oct. 8, Northern Colorado*

Oct. 22, at Montana State*

Oct. 29, Montana*

Nov. 5, at Cal Poly*

Nov. 12, Idaho State*

Nov. 18, Portland State*

* - Big Sky game

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3. NORTHERN ARIZONA LUMBERJACKS

LOCATION: Flagstaff, Arizona

STADIUM: Walkup Skydome

COACH: Jerome Souers (107-97 in 18 seasons at Northern Arizona)

LAST SEASON: 7-4 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Marcus Alford, CB; Eddie Horn, S; Ryan Hawkins, P/PK

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: QB Case Cookus, So. (222-for-322, 3,111 yards, 37 TDs, 5 INTs; 90 carries, 209 yards, 3 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Jake Thomas, LB, Sr. (68 TT, 7.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kendyl Taylor, RB, Sr.; Corbin Jountti, RB, Jr.; Emmanuel Butler, WR, Jr.; Elijah Marks, WR, Jr.; Delshawn McClellon, WR, Sr.; Jacob Julian, OL, Sr.; Blake Porter, OL, Jr.; Lorenzo Melvin, DL, Sr.; Suipeli Anau, DL, Sr.; John Herrero, DL, Jr.; Jake Casteel, LB; So.; LeAndre Vaughn, S, Sr.; Brandon Worthy, NB, So.

OUTLOOK: NAU, picked as the preseason favorite in both the Big Sky coaches and media polls, is seeking its first conference title in 13 years. The Lumberjacks missed the FCS playoffs last season by losing on the final day of the regular season. They should have an exceptional offense with Cookus trying to build off a season in which he was named the STATS FCS Freshman of the Year. He passed for an FCS freshman-record 37 touchdown passes, including 15 to Butler. In Julian and Porter, they have two of the five offensive linemen named to the Big Sky preseason team. The defense underachieved last season - ranking 11th in the Big Sky in total defense and 10th in scoring defense - and lost many of its top players, so it needs quick improvement. The line should be healthy again with the return of Anau and Melvin, but the secondary could be picked on because Vaughn is the only returning starter.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, at Arizona State

Sept. 10, at Western Illinois

Sept. 17, New Mexico Highlands

Sept. 24, Eastern Washington*

Oct. 1, at Northern Colorado*

Oct. 8, at Montana State*

Oct. 15, Idaho State*

Oct. 22, Montana*

Nov. 5, at Weber State*

Nov. 12, at North Dakota*

Nov. 19, Southern Utah*

* - Big Sky game

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4. NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING HAWKS

LOCATION: Grand Forks, North Dakota

STADIUM: Alerus Center

COACH: Kyle Schweigert (12-11 in two seasons at North Dakota)

LAST SEASON: 7-4 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (7 offense/9 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Zach Adler, FB/TE; Sean Meehan, OG; Will Ratelle, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: John Santiago, RB/KR, So. (223 carries, 1,459 yards, 16 TDs; 27.7-yard KO return average)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Cole Reyes, S, Jr. (71 TT, 7.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Keaton Studsrud, QB, Jr.; Luke Stanley, WR, So.; Clive Georges, WR, Sr.; A.J. Stockwell, OT, Jr.; Brandon Dranka, DE, Jr.; Noah Johnson, DE, Sr.; Tank Harris, DT, So.; Brian Labat, OLB, Sr.; Jake Disterhaupt, OLB, Jr.; Taj Rich, ILB, Sr.; Deion Harris, CB, Jr.; Reid Taubenheim, PK, Jr.

OUTLOOK: The Fighting Hawks appear primed for their first FCS playoff berth after being one of the last two teams left outside last year's field. This year's conference schedule helps them because it doesn't include Montana, Eastern Washington or Portland State. While Big Sky rushing champ Santiago is one of the most dangerous all-purpose players in the FCS, the Fighting Hawks return only one starter on the offensive line (Stockwell), so Studsrud will have continue his improvement under center. The defense will be stout against the run. Reyes anchors the back end and the return of LB Rich from injury will help temper the big loss of Ratelle. Granted, the Fighting Hawks aren't on the same level as the FCS champ downstate (North Dakota State), but they're building a similar style of play inside their Alerus Center.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, at Stony Brook

Sept. 10, at Bowling Green

Sept. 17, South Dakota

Sept. 24, at Montana State*

Oct. 1, Cal Poly*

Oct. 8, at Sacramento State*

Oct. 15, Southern Utah*

Oct. 22, at Idaho State*

Oct. 29, Weber State*

Nov. 5, at Northern Colorado*

Nov. 12, Northern Arizona*

* - Big Sky game

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5. WEBER STATE WILDCATS

LOCATION: Ogden, Utah

STADIUM: Stewart Stadium

COACH: Jay Hill (8-15 in two seasons at Weber State)

LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Joe Hawkins, C; Devonte Johnson, CB; Josh Kealamakia, PK/P

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Cameron Young, OL, Sr. (Big Sky preseason team)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Emmett Tela, LB, Jr. (72 TT, 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jadrian Clark, QB, Sr.; Treshawn Garrett, RB, So.; Eric Wilkes, RB/KR, Jr.; Cameron Livingston, WR, Sr.; Darryl Denby, WR, Jr.; Drew Batchelor, WR., Jr.; Tui Satuala, TE, Jr.; Calvin Steyn, OL, Sr.; Jared Afalava, LB, Sr.; Tre'von Johnson, LB, Sr.; Josh Burton, S, Sr.; Mitch Tulane, S. Jr.; Taron Johnson, CB, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Last season was a surprise as the Wildcats' six wins matched their combined total from the previous three seasons. Their breakthrough season came with only 10 seniors on the roster, so this year's team - picked sixth in the preseason polls - must be considered a dark horse for Big Sky title contention and an FCS playoff berth. The defense ranked first in the conference in yards allowed per game and will be led by LB Tela and CB Johnson. Still, it has to do a better job in rushing quarterbacks. Their mobile QB, Clark (160-for-311, 1,875 yards, 10 TDs, 11 INTs), will try to be more consistent, but the Wildcats first want to run the ball to Garrett and Wilkes, who combined for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground last season. The offensive line features two Big Sky preseason selections in Young and Steyn. Not to be overlooked is the Wildcats' new look on special teams because they are replacing their kicker, punter and holder.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, at Utah State

Sept. 10, at South Dakota

Sept. 17, Sacramento State

Sept. 24, at UC Davis*

Oct. 8, Portland State*

Oct. 15, Montana State*

Oct. 22, Southern Utah*

Oct. 29, at North Dakota*

Nov. 5, Northern Arizona*

Nov. 12, Cal Poly*

Nov. 19, at Idaho State*

* - Big Sky game

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6. PORTLAND STATE VIKINGS

LOCATION: Portland, Oregon

STADIUM: Providence Park

COACH: Bruce Barnum (9-3 in one season at Portland State)

LAST SEASON: 9-3 overall, 6-2 (Tie/2nd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: David Jones, RB; Jeremy Lutali, LB; Patrick Onwuasor, S

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Alex Kuresa, QB, Sr. (123-for-226, 1,968 yards, 17 TDs, 7 INTs; 158 carries, 755 yards, 7 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Xavier Coleman, CB, Sr. (52 TT, 2 TFL, 5 INTs, 13 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Paris Penn, QB, Sr.; Nate Tago, RB, Sr.; Darnell Adams, WR, Sr.; Cam Keizur, C, Sr.; Tyshon Mosley, OL, Jr. (Utah State transfer); Josh Kraght, WR, Jr.; Michael Doman, DT, Sr.; Savali Talalemotu, DT, Sr.; Davond Dade, DE, Jr.; Taylor Biaggi, LB, Jr. (Santa Rosa JC transfer); Beau Duronslet, CB, Jr.; Walter Santiago, S, Sr.; Jonathan Gonzales, PK, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Barnum, the 2015 STATS FCS Coach of the Year, hopes to keep the Vikings at a high level following last year's historic season, when they reversed a 3-9 record in 2014, beat two FBS programs (Washington State and North Texas) and went to the FCS playoffs for only the second time in program history. It's been a difficult offseason in which two players died, linebacker A.J. Schlatter (complications following throat surgery) and left tackle Kyle Smith (drug overdose). The Vikings lost a strong senior class and Barnum brought in transfers to fill some holes. Dual-threat QB Kuresa and RB Tago will take on bigger roles with the big loss of Jones. The Vikings are rebuilding the middle of the defense, but there are playmakers on the edge with CB Coleman and DE Dade. The Vikings have a favorable home schedule and are helped by the Big Sky's unbalanced scheduling - they miss Montana, Montana State, North Dakota and Northern Arizona.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Central Washington

Sept. 10, at San Jose State

Sept. 17, at Washington

Sept. 24, at Southern Utah*

Oct. 1, Idaho State*

Oct. 8, at Weber State*

Oct. 15, Cal Poly*

Oct. 29, Northern Colorado*

Nov. 5, at UC Davis*

Nov. 12, at Sacramento State*

Nov. 18, Eastern Washington*

* - Big Sky game

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7. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS

LOCATION: Cedar City, Utah

STADIUM: Eccles Coliseum

COACH: Demario Warren (first season at Southern Utah)

LAST SEASON: 8-4 overall, 7-1 Big Sky (1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: James Cowser, DE; Miles Killebrew, S; LeShaun Sims, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: McCoy Hill, QB, So. (BYU transfer)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Mike Needham, LB, Jr. (95 TT, 8.5 TFL, 1 sack, 3 INTs, 7 PBU, 1 QBH, 2 FR, 3 FF, 1 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Malik Brown, RB, Sr.; Pete Williams, RB, Jr.; Brady Measom, WR, Sr.; Mike Sharp, WR, Sr.; Ty Rutledge, WR, So.; Steven Wroblewski, TE, Sr.; Chance Bearnson, DL, Jr.; Sefesi Vaa'ivaka, DL, Jr.; Zak Browning, LB, Jr.; Taylor Nelson, LB, Jr.; Josh Thornton, CB, Sr.; Kyle Hannemann, S, Jr.; Tate Lewis, P, Sr.

OUTLOOK: The defending Big Sky champions feel better about their chances than people outside Cedar City - they were picked seventh in the conference's two preseason polls. Warren, an assistant the last eight years and defensive coordinator over the last two, is retooling the team after former coach Ed Lamb left to join BYU's staff. They will reunite with Lamb with a Nov. 12 game at BYU. Hill, a transfer from BYU, should excel as he replaces QB Ammon Olsen, who had a big senior season. The Thunderbirds return an experienced offensive line and a wealth of running backs and wide receivers, so the offense will be strong. Most of the concerns are on defense, which lost Cowser, Killebrew and Sims to the NFL. Needham will no longer live in their shadow and should have an All-American season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, at Utah

Sept. 10, Southeastern Louisiana

Sept. 24, Portland State*

Oct. 1, at Montana*

Oct. 8, UC Davis*

Oct. 15, at North Dakota*

Oct. 22, at Weber State*

Oct. 29, at Idaho State*

Nov. 5, Montana State*

Nov. 12, at BYU

Nov. 19, at Northern Arizona*

* - Big Sky game

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8. MONTANA STATE BOBCATS

LOCATION: Bozeman, Montana

STADIUM: Bobcat Stadium

COACH: Jeff Choate (first season at Montana State)

LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (4 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Dakota Prukop, QB; Taylor Sheridan, DT; Luke Daly, PK

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: J.P. Flynn, OG, Sr. (All-Big Sky preseason team)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Mac Bignell, OLB, Jr. (101 TT, 20.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 5 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 4 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tyler Bruggman, QB, Jr. (Scottsdale CC transfer); Chad Newell, RB, Sr.; Gunnar Brekke, RB, Sr.; Mitchell Herbert, WR, Jr.; Grant Collins, DE, So.; Jessie Clark, DE, Sr.; Mac Bignell, LB, Jr.; Blake Braun, LB, Jr.; Lukas McCarthy, LB, Jr. (Fullerton College transfer); Jacob McCarthy, LB, Jr. (Fullerton College transfer); Blake Braun, LB, Jr.; Khari Garcia, S, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Choate, who spent the last two seasons coaching the defensive line and special teams at Washington, has replaced the popular Rob Ash and energized a Bobcats program that suffered its first losing season since 2001. The Bobcats have adopted a "Rise to the Brand" motto - a nod to the old west which tells the players to work toward something larger than themselves. Their biggest loss was Prukop, who left for Oregon as a graduate transfer. The new quarterback, Bruggman, has done well to step in and take command of an offense that ranked first in the Big Sky in scoring last season (41.9 ppg). It will feature RBs Newell and Brekke. The defense has to improve immensely and it should with former Montana defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak joining the staff. The Bobcats have bulked up with transfers to try to stop the run. Bignell is set for a banner junior season and Collins has moved from linebacker to buck end to provide a better pass rush.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, at Idaho

Sept. 10, Bryant

Sept. 17, Western Oregon

Sept. 24, North Dakota*

Oct. 1, at Sacramento State*

Oct. 8, Northern Arizona*

Oct. 15, at Weber State*

Oct. 22, Eastern Washington*

Nov. 5, at Southern Utah*

Nov. 12, UC Davis*

Nov. 19, at Montana*

* - Big Sky game

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9. CAL POLY MUSTANGS

LOCATION: San Luis Obispo, California

STADIUM: Alex G. Spanos Stadium

COACH: Tim Walsh (41-39 in seven seasons at Cal Poly; 158-121 overall)

LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Chris Brown QB, Stephen Sippel C, Burton De Koning LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Joe Protheroe, FB, Jr. (169 receptions, 779 yards, 6 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Kelly Shepard, DE, Sr. (41 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Dano Graves, QB, Sr.; Kori Garcia, SB, Sr.; Kyle Lewis, SB, Jr.; Carson McMurtrey, WR, Sr.; Joey Kuperman, OL, Jr.; Matt Fisher, OL, Sr.; Nick Enriquez, OL, Sr.; Augustino Elisaia, NT, Sr.; Marcus Paige-Allen, DT, Sr.; Joseph Gigantino III, LB, Sr.; Josh Letuligasenoa, LB, Sr.; R.J. Mazolewski, LB, Jr.; B.J. Nard, DB, Jr.; Kevin Griffin, DB, Jr.; Casey Sublette, PK, So. (El Camino CC transfer)

OUTLOOK: The spread triple option offense will be fine even with the loss of electric QB Brown because the Mustangs have led the FCS in rushing for three straight seasons. Graves is a former starter who redshirted last season and Khaleel Jenkins is talented as well. They are helped by the return of experienced backs, including Garcia (780 yards, 5 TDs) and Protheroe. The major concern is with the defense which was knocked around for 35.5 points and 458 yards per game. The hope for improvement starts up front with Shepard and Paige-Allen anchoring the defensive line. Nard will anchor the back end. Last year's schedule was too tough early on and it's similar again, although Walsh doesn't try to shy away from playing difficult games.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Nevada

Sept. 10, San Diego

Sept. 17, at South Dakota State

Sept. 24, Montana*

Oct. 1, at North Dakota*

Oct. 15, at Portland State*

Oct. 22, UC Davis*

Oct. 29 at Sacramento State*

Nov. 5, Eastern Washington*

Nov. 12, at Weber State*

Nov. 19, Northern Colorado*

* - Big Sky game

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10. SACRAMENTO STATE HORNETS

LOCATION: Sacramento, California

STADIUM: Hornet Stadium

COACH: Jody Sears (9-14 in two seasons at Sacramento State; 13-33 overall)

LAST SEASON: 2-9 overall, 1-7 Big Sky (Tie/12th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (8 offense/10 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Nnamdi Agude, WR; Lars Hanson, OL; Darnell Sankey, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jordan Robinson, RB, Sr. (172 carries, 808 yards, 4 TDs; 27 receptions, 170 yards, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Manoah Pearson, LB, So. (77 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 5 PBU, 1 QBH)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Nate Ketteringham, QB, So.; Isiah Hennie, WR/KR, Jr.; Johnnie Rucker, WR, R-Fr.; Jaelin Ratliff, WR, So.; Stone Sander, TE, Jr.; Jonathan Bade, OL, Jr.; Ruben Meza, OL, So.; Ben Sorensen, DL, Jr.; Ernest Jenkins, CB, Jr.; Manny Scott-Anderson, S, So.; Austin Clark, S, Jr.; Malcolm Thomas, S, So.; Devon Medeiros, PK, So.

OUTLOOK: The Hornets have the feel of a dark horse candidate which is being overlooked in a deep conference. They return a lot of players with starter's experience, including Kettingham, whose 1,257 passing yards and 11 touchdowns to two interceptions over the final four games were impressive. With former Eastern Washington and Washington State coach Paul Wulff aboard as the offensive line coach, the big men up front should raise their play for RB Robinson, who as a senior will build on his 1,830 career rushing yards. Sears has handed over defensive coordinator duties to safeties coach Sammy Lawanson, who will benefit from the return of eight of the team's top 10 tacklers last season. Pearson, coming off a strong rookie campaign, was named to the Big Sky preseason squad.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Western Oregon

Sept. 10, at Fresno State

Sept. 17, Weber State

Sept. 24, at Idaho State*

Oct. 1, Montana State*

Oct. 8, North Dakota*

Oct. 15, at Montana*

Oct. 22, at Northern Colorado*

Oct. 29, Cal Poly*

Nov. 12, Portland State*

Nov. 19, at UC Davis*

* - Big Sky game

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11. NORTHERN COLORADO BEARS

LOCATION: Greeley, Colorado

STADIUM: Nottingham Field

COACH: Earnest Collins Jr. (15-41 in four seasons at Northern Colorado; 23-53 overall)

LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (10 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Taylor Risner, S; Trevor Douglass, S; A.J. Battle, DB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Trae Riek, RB, R-So. (137 carries, 796 yards, 7 TDs; 22 receptions, 344 yards, 2 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Chuntony Johnson, DT, Sr. (50 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jacob Knipp, QB, R-So.; Quinn Zamora, FB/TE, Sr.; Ellis Onic II, WR/PR, R-Jr.; Hakeem Deggs, WR/KR, R-Jr.; Stephen Miller, WR, Sr.; Alex Wesley, WR, R-So.; Austin Hendrickson, C, Sr.; Marcus Piechowski, OL, Sr.; Mikhail Dubose, DE, Sr.; Kyle Newsom, LB, Sr.; Stone Kane, S, Jr (Iowa Western CC transfer); Thomas Singleton, DB, Sr.; Marshaun Cameron, DB, R-Fr.

OUTLOOK: Collins' contract extension through 2020 is well deserved considering the Bears are coming off a winning record for the first time since 2003 and for the first time in their FCS era. They set up themselves up for the future by starting four freshmen and four sophomores on offense for much of last season, including QB Knipp and RB Riek as redshirt freshmen. Knipp took leadership of the unit and threw for 1,969 yards and 13 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Riek is dangerous as a ball carrier and pass catcher. The defense isn't in the same good shape. Graduation hit the Bears hard in the secondary, and they already had to improve against the run after allowing 227.4 yards per game (which ranked ninth in the conference and 110th nationally). Onic and Deggs provide the makings of excellent special teams. Optimism is high in Greeley.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Rocky Mountain

Sept. 10, at Abilene Christian

Sept. 17, at Colorado State

Oct. 1, Northern Arizona*

Oct. 8, at Eastern Washington*

Oct. 15, at UC Davis*

Oct. 22, Sacramento State*

Oct. 29, at Portland State*

Nov. 5, North Dakota*

Nov. 12, Montana*

Nov. 19, at Cal Poly*

* - Big Sky game

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12. UC DAVIS AGGIES

LOCATION: Davis, California

STADIUM: Aggie Stadium

COACH: Ron Gould (9-25 in three seasons at UC Davis)

LAST SEASON: 2-9 overall, 2-6 Big Sky (11th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (10 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Parker Smith, LT; Kyle DeVaughn, DT; Travon Brooks, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Ben Scott, QB, Sr. (159-for-248, 1,604 yards, 11 TDs, 7 INTs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Darryl Graham, S, Jr. (76 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: C.J. Spencer, QB, Sr.; Manusamoa Luuga, RB, Sr.; Joshua Kelley, RB, So.; Derek Baljeu, FB, Jr.; Chris Martin, WR, Sr.; Ramon Vargas, WR, Sr.; Christian Schneider, OT, Sr.; Zak Petit, DE, Sr.; Inoke Raikadroka, DT, Sr.; Russell Reeder, LB, Sr.; Brady Stibi, LB, Sr.; Zach Jones, FS, Sr.; Patrick Wells, CB, Sr.; Colby Wadman, P, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Gould is still trying to find the success of his first season with the Aggies - a 5-3 Big Sky record in 2013. Last year's team was ravaged by injuries, so there is hope for big improvement. They have to overcome a difficult road portion of the schedule. QB Scott is talented, but he must hold off Spencer, who finished strong when Scott was sidelined last season. The Aggies should be able to run the ball effectively with Luuga (613 yards, six TDs) and Kelley (530 yards, three TDs). But it's imperative for the Aggies to improve against the run as opponents averaged 237.7 yards per game on nearly six yards a carry. Their healthier defense will feature Graham, their leading tackler last season, Wells in the secondary.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, at Oregon

Sept. 10, Southern Oregon

Sept. 17, at Wyoming

Sept. 24, Weber State*

Oct. 1, at Eastern Washington*

Oct. 8, at Southern Utah*

Oct. 15, Northern Colorado*

Oct. 22, at Cal Poly*

Nov. 5, Portland State*

Nov. 12, at Montana State*

Nov. 19, Sacramento State*

* - Big Sky game

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13. IDAHO STATE BENGALS

LOCATION: Pocatello, Idaho

STADIUM: Holt Arena

COACH: Mike Kramer (16-41 in five seasons at Idaho State; 93-116 overall)

LAST SEASON: 2-9 overall, 1-7 Big Sky (Tie/12th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (6 offense 4 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Xavier Finney, RB; Madison Mangum WR; Tyler Kuder DL

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: KW Williams, WR, Sr. (52 receptions, 684 yards, 7 TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Hayden Stout, LB, Sr. (113 TT, 8 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tanner Gueller, QB, So.; Jakori Ford, RB, Sr.; Hagen Graves, WR, Jr.; Josh Cook, TE, Sr.; Skyler Phillips, OL, Sr.; Thomas Vazorka, OL, Sr.; Chase Collins, OL, Jr.; Nikko Taylor, DL, Sr.; Rasheed Williams, DL, So.; Mario Jenkins, LB, Jr.; Jake Pettit, LB, Sr.; Taison Manu, DB, Sr.; Jayson Miller, DB, So.

OUTLOOK: The Bengals' 8-4 breakthrough in 2014 was followed up with a dud last season. While they can point to injuries hurting their squad, they have to prove 2014 wasn't just an exception considering all their struggles in recent seasons. Among the key defenders back from injuries are LB Jenkins and DB Manu. With experience at linebacker in leading tackler Stout and Pettit, the Bengals don't expect to rank last in the Big Sky in scoring defense (40.9 ppg) again. Their offense will try to throw the ball, of course, with QB Gueller needing to cut down on turnovers. Williams and RB Ford are the playmakers and Kramer has done well to improve play on the offensive line. The Bengals will play two FBS opponents (Colorado and Oregon State) for the ninth straight season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3, Simon Fraser

Sept. 10, at Colorado

Sept. 17, at Oregon State

Sept. 24, Sacramento State*

Oct. 1, at Portland State*

Oct. 15, at Northern Arizona*

Oct. 22, North Dakota*

Oct. 29, Southern Utah*

Nov. 5, at Montana*

Nov. 12, at Eastern Washington*

Nov. 19, Weber State*

* - Big Sky game

Updated August 10, 2016

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