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In the FCS Huddle: 2014 Big Sky Conference Preview

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Updated: 8/14 6:30 am

While the Bobcats might have been overrated heading into the 2013 campaign, they might be underrated this year. There is more of a veteran squad than people are realizing.

"It's interesting," head coach Rob Ash said. "We've graduated some of the most experienced players ever to play the game, guys that were as good at their position as anybody who's ever played at Montana State. But yet we're not rebuilding, we're not going to be a young team. We have a veteran group coming back. The household names are gone, but the veterans are still there."

The confidence from having 18 returning seniors as well as a determined attitude will drive Montana State, which was picked third in both the Big Sky preseason head coaches and media polls.

Two-time defending champion Eastern Washington remains the team to beat in the Big Sky, but that's the same position the Bobcats found themselves in just one year ago, and a lot can happen on the way to destiny.

Clearly, the Bobcats want to make sure the script gets rewritten again this year.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2014 Big Sky Conference race.

The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:

1. Eastern Washington

2. Montana

3. Montana State

4. Cal Poly

5. Southern Utah

6. Northern Arizona

7. Sacramento State

8. UC Davis

9. Portland State

10. Weber State

11. North Dakota

12. Idaho State

13. Northern Colorado

Team-by-team capsules:

1. EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES

LOCATION: Cheney, Washington

STADIUM: Roos Field

COACH: Beau Baldwin (56-22 in six seasons at Eastern Washington; 66-25 overall)

LAST SEASON: 12-3 overall, 8-0 Big Sky (1st); No. 3 TSN final ranking

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)

BIG LOSSES: WR/PR Ashton Clark (83 receptions, 1,233 yards, 10 TD); CB T.J. Lee II (114 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 11 PBU, 4 FR, 4 FF)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Vernon Adams, Jr. (319-for-486, 4,994 yards, 55 TD, 15 INT; 132 carries, 605 yards, 4 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Ronnie Hamlin, Sr. (140 TT, 6 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INT, 1 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Quincy Forte, Sr. (179 carries, 1,208 yards, 11 TD; 23 receptions, 279 yards, 5 TD)

RB Mario Brown, Sr. (77 carries, 482 yards, 4 TD)

WR Cooper Kupp, So. (93 receptions, 1,691 yards, 21 TD)

WR/KR Shaq Hill, Jr. (38 receptions, 790 yards, 9 TD)

WR Cory Mitchell, Sr. (47 receptions, 699 yards, 3 TD)

TE Jake Withnell, Jr.

LT Clay DeBord, Jr.

RT Cassidy Curtis, Jr.

DE Zackary Johnson, Sr.

DT Dylan Zylstra, Sr.

MLB Cody McCarthy, Sr. (115 TT, 11 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 PBU)

OLB Miquiyah Zamora, So. (54 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FF)

OLB Jordan Talley, Sr.

FS Todd Raynes, Jr. (52 TT, 3 TFL, 4 PBU, 1 FF)

FS Tevin McDonald, Sr.

SS Jordan Tonani, Jr.

P Jake Miller, Sr. (52 punts, 42.8 ypp)

OUTLOOK: After North Dakota State, the Eagles have been the most dominant FCS program this decade, winning the 2010 national title and making trips to the national semifinals in each of the past two seasons. This year, the Big Sky champions in three of the last four seasons enter the campaign with a clear bull's-eye, ranked No. 1 in The Sports Network FCS Preseason Top 25. The added attention is drawn from one of the nation's most explosive offenses (39.5 points per game last season), which features last year's Walter Payton Award runner-up in Adams and his favorite target, Kupp, who won the Jerry Rice Award as national freshman of the year. Forte really came on strong in the second half of last season, so the running game will keep opposing defenses honest. But the loss of three starters on the offensive line is something to keep an eye on. The Eagles tend to get into shootouts, so defensive coordinator John Graham is pressing for improvement from a unit that ranked only 10th in the Big Sky in total defense (457.7 yards per game) last season. The linebacker duo of Hamlin and McCarthy is strong, so that's a great start for Graham. Miller is among the best punters in the FCS and should not be overlooked. The top preseason ranking is nice, but the Eagles clearly want to be No. 1 in the end.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 23 - Sam Houston State

Aug. 30 - Montana-Western

Sept. 6 - at Washington

Sept. 20 - at Montana State

Sept. 27 - at UC Davis

Oct. 4 - Idaho State

Oct. 11 - at Southern Utah

Oct. 18 - Northern Colorado

Oct. 25 - at Northern Arizona

Nov. 1 - North Dakota

Nov. 8 - Montana

Nov. 21 - at Portland State

2. MONTANA GRIZZLIES

LOCATION: Missoula, Montana

STADIUM: Washington-Grizzly Stadium

COACH: Mick Delaney (15-9 in two seasons at Montana; 22-18-1 overall)

LAST SEASON: 10-3 overall, 6-2 Big Sky (3rd); No. 8 TSN final ranking

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)

BIG LOSSES: MLB Brock Coyle (125 TT, 13.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 INT, 4 QBH, 5 FF); OLB Jordan Tripp (100 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 INT, 2 PBU, 3 FR)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Jordan Johnson, Sr. (220-for-388, 3,387 yards, 32 TD, 5 INT; 57 carries, 148 yards)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Zack Wagenmann, Sr. (64 TT, 16.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 6 QBH, 1 FR, 3 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Jordan Canada, Sr. (211 carries, 1,062 yards, 16 TD)

RB Travon Van, Sr. (106 carries, 523 yards, 6 TD)

WR/RS Ellis Henderson, Jr. (43 receptions, 1,008 yards, 14 TD; 12.2-yard punt return average; 24-yard KO return average, 1 TD)

WR Jamaal Jones, Jr. (42 receptions, 760 yards, 3 TD)

OT Trevor Poole, Sr.

OT John Schmang, Sr.

C Logan Hines, Sr.

DE Tyrone Holmes, Jr.

DT Tonga Takai, Sr.

DT Kaleb Kidder, Jr.

LB Herbert Gamboa, Jr.

LB Kendrick Van Ackeren, Jr.

LB Jeremiah Kose, Jr.

CB Nate Harris, Jr.

CB Joshua Dennard, Sr.

FS Matt Hermanson, Sr. (107 TT, 2 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 FR, 3 FF)

P Stephen Shaw, Jr. (49 punts, 43.9 ypp)

PK Ben Worst, Jr.

OUTLOOK: The perennial FCS power Grizzlies got back on track last season after suffering through their first losing season in 27 years in 2012. The Grizzlies' senior losses on the offensive line and at linebacker are glaring, but they return 13 players who earned a form of All-Big Sky honors. QB Johnson believes the offense has the most firepower since he's been in Missoula, with RBs Canada and Van and WRs Henderson and Jones ready to fill the stat sheet. The defensive line is quite stacked with a first-team All-American in Wagenmann lining up alongside the likes of fellow DE Holmes and DT Takai. But there's really no replacing last year's trio of starting linebackers, although the instinctive Kose could be a surprise with more playing time. The Sept. 20 visit to North Dakota State is the biggest non-conference game on the national slate. But considering the road portion of the Grizzlies' schedule is particularly tough, this season isn't a slam dunk despite it beginning in the Top 10.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 30 - at Wyoming

Sept. 6 - Central Washington

Sept. 13 - South Dakota

Sept. 20 - at North Dakota State

Sept. 27 - Northern Colorado

Oct. 4 - at North Dakota

Oct. 18 - UC Davis

Oct. 25 - at Cal Poly

Nov. 1 - Sacramento State

Nov. 8 - at Eastern Washington

Nov. 15 - at Southern Utah

Nov. 22 - Montana State

3. MONTANA STATE BOBCATS

LOCATION: Bozeman, Montana

STADIUM: Bobcat Stadium

COACH: Rob Ash (57-27 in seven seasons at Montana State; 233-126-5 overall)

LAST SEASON: 7-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th); No. 20 TSN final ranking

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

BIG LOSSES: QB DeNarius McGhee (175-for-265, 2,087 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT; 83 carries, 248 yards, 4 TD); RB Cody Kirk (217 carries, 1,088 yards, 18 TD); DE Brad Daly (68 TT, 20.5 TFL, 14 sacks, 7 QBH, 2 FF, 2 BK)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB/RS Shawn Johnson, Sr. (104 carries, 609 yards, 6 TD; 13.9- yard punt return average, 1 TD; 31-yard KO return average, 2 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Na'a Moeakiola, Sr. (injured last season)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Jake Bleskin, Jr. (60-for-94, 733 yards, 6 TD, 4 INT)

QB Dakota Prukop, So.

QB Tanner Roderick, Jr.

RB Gunnar Brekke, So.

RB Chad Newell, So.

RB Anthony Knight, Jr. (Riverside City College transfer)

WR Brian Flotkoetter, Sr. (36 receptions, 530 yards, 3 TD)

LT John Weidenaar, Jr.

RG J.P. Flynn, So.

RT/C Quinn Catalano, Sr.

DE Odin Coe, Jr.

DT Taylor Sheridan, Jr.

LB Alex Singleton, Sr. (110 TT, 16.5 TFL, 3 INT, 4 PBU, 2 FF, 2 BK)

LB Cole Moore, Sr. (67 TT, 2 INT, 6 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)

CB Deonte Flowers, Sr. (53 TT, 1 INT, 12 PBU)

CB Bryson Keeton, Jr. (Nevada transfer)

FS Rob Marshall, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Having missed last season with an injury, Moeakiola is the perfect player to say the Bobcats' mentality is humble and hungry. They had entered last season as a national title contender, only to see it blow up with key injuries (the biggest to QB McGhee) and a stunning three straight losses to close the campaign. All is not lost despite the departure of a terrific senior class. There are still 18 returning seniors as well as four September home dates to get the season on track (the Eastern Washington game won't count toward the Big Sky standings). The offense will be more of a spread, and who will be at the controls is undecided. Bleskin threw for over 300 yards in each of his first two career starts last season. The Bobcats want to get the ball to Johnson, whether on runs, receptions or returns. On defense, there's a legacy of terrific defensive ends (Caleb Schreibeis won the 2012 Buck Buchanan Award and Brad Daly followed as the national defensive player of the year last season). Coe should be this year's standout. But the strength of the defense is with Moeakiola (injured last season) and fellow LB Singleton, as well as a third-year starter in CB Flowers. Expectations are down with the team, but that's only outside the team - the Bobcats expect a lot.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 30 - at Arkansas State

Sept. 6 - Black Hills State

Sept. 13 - Central Arkansas

Sept. 20 - Eastern Washington

Sept. 27 - North Dakota

Oct. 4 - at Sacramento State

Oct. 11 - at UC Davis

Oct. 18 - Weber State

Nov. 1 - at Cal Poly

Nov. 8 - Portland State

Nov. 15 - Idaho State

Nov. 22 - at Montana

4. CAL POLY MUSTANGS

LOCATION: San Luis Obispo, California

STADIUM: Alex G. Spanos Stadium

COACH: Tim Walsh (32-25 in five seasons at Cal Poly; 149-107 overall)

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

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)

BIG LOSSES: FB Akaninyene Umoh (77 carries, 455 yards, 7 TD; 12 receptions, 199 yards, 3 TD); OL Lefi Letuligasenoa, DT Sullivan Grosz (71 TT, 14 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT, 11 QBH, 1 FF); LB Johnny Millard (108 TT, 7 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 3 QBH); DB/PR Alex Hubbard (74 TT, 2 INT, 6 PBU, 2 FR)

OFFENSIVE STAR: SB Kristaan Ivory, Sr. (172 carries, 1,113 yards, 6 TD; 33 receptions, 200 yards, 1 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Nick Dzubnar, Sr. (112 TT, 7 TFL, 1 INT, 6 PBU, 3 QBH, 3 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Dano Graves, Jr. (45-for-75, 416 yards, 3 TD; 68 carries, 367 yards)

QB Chris Brown, Jr. (66-for-117, 836 yards, 11 TD, 4 INT; 126 carries, 685 yards, 8 TD)

SB/KR Chris Nicholls, Sr.

FB Brandon Howe, Sr.

WR Willie Tucker, Sr. (18 receptions, 312 yards, 2 TD)

WR Chris Nichols, Sr.

WR Carson McMurtrey, So.

LT Matt Fisher, So.

C Stephen Sippel, Jr.

RT Weston Walker, Jr.

DT Chris Lawrence, Sr. (33 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 QBH)

DE Jake Irwin, Sr.

LB Cameron Ontko, Sr. (108 TT, 7 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QBH)

LB Chris Judge, Sr. (redshirt last season)

CB Karlton Dennis, Jr.

S Jordan Williams, Sr. (38 TT, 2 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF)

S Dave Douglas, Sr.

PK/P Steven Pyle, Jr.

OUTLOOK: The Mustangs have the most consistent program of the four which entered the Big Sky from the Great West two years ago. Their triple option still keeps the opposition off-balance even though they now split formations between under center and in shotgun. They led the FCS in rushing yards per game (309.2) and Ivory - their 1,113-yard rusher on 6.5 yards per carry - played in only about nine full games because of injuries. The quarterback competition has dwindled to Brown (four starts) and Graves (five starts), and both will gain from an always solid offensive line. The defensive line, despite being strong against the run last season, is more the question mark of this year's team, with the loss of Grosz particularly tough. The linebackers and defensive backs are more experienced, with the blue-collar Dzubnar epitomizing the unheralded feel to the defense. The Mustangs' early Big Sky games with Northern Arizona and Southern Utah will decide which direction they will go this season. They are definitely a playoff contender.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 28 - at New Mexico State

Sept. 6 - at South Dakota State

Sept. 20 - Portland State

Sept. 27 - at Northern Arizona

Oct. 4 - Southern Utah

Oct. 11 - at Weber State

Oct. 18 - at Sacramento State

Oct. 25 - Montana

Nov. 1 - Montana State

Nov. 8 - at Idaho State

Nov. 15 - UC Davis

Nov. 22 - at San Diego

5. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS

LOCATION: Cedar City, Utah

STADIUM: Eccles Coliseum

COACH: Ed Lamb (34-34 in six seasons at Southern Utah)

LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th); No. 21 TSN final ranking

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

BIG LOSSES: LB Zak Browning (106 TT, 5 TFL); PK Colton Cook (20-of-25 FGs, 84 points)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Raysean Martin, So. (112 carries, 444 yards, 6 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DE James Cowser, Jr. (77 TT, 19 TFL, 10.5 sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 8 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF, 2 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Aaron Cantu, Sr. (213-for-329, 2,052 yards, 10 TD, 12 INT)

QB Ammon Olsen, Jr. (Brigham Young transfer)

RB Levi Te'o, So. (107 carries, 326 yards, 2 TD)

WR Chris Robinson, Sr.

WR Mitch Jessop, Jr. (injured last season)

WR Naia Ursua, So.

WR Easton Pedersen, Jr. (31 receptions, 423 yards, 2 TD)

WR C.J. Morgan, Sr.

TE Anthony Norris, Jr. (23 receptions, 237 yards, 4 TD)

OG Nick Nissen, Sr.

DT Robert Torgerson, So. (35 TT, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 4 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)

DE Andrew Eide, So.

LB Chinedu Ahanonu, So.

LB Matt Holley, Sr. (110 TT, 13.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INT, 6 QBH, 2 FR)

CB LeShaun Sims, Jr.

SS Miles Killebrew, Jr. (54 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 2 FR)

P Tate Lewis, So.

OUTLOOK: Having a veteran team back from the Thunderbirds' first FCS playoff appearance should bode well for them. But their emerging program will play what's likely the toughest non-conference schedule among FCS teams, and it's possible they won't recover from it. Cowser, a Buck Buchanan Award nominee, is their leader, not afraid to face challenges head-on and rally his teammates. But the defense lost star MLB Browning to an LDS Church mission and must recover from it. Otherwise they feature a defense that has grown well together, and it finished second in the conference in total defense a year ago. The Thunderbirds tend to play to the level of their competition and need Cantu, if not the transfer Olsen, to set the tone with consistency under center. Martin will provide much more rushing production as a sophomore, but the offensive line must be better. Considering the schedule, the Thunderbirds might have to take a step backward to move forward a year from now.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 30 - at Nevada

Sept. 6 - at Southeastern Louisiana

Sept. 13 - South Dakota State

Sept. 20 - at Fresno State

Sept. 27 - Weber State

Oct. 4 - at Cal Poly

Oct. 11 - Eastern Washington

Oct. 18 - at Idaho State

Oct. 25 - North Dakota

Nov. 8 - at Sacramento State

Nov. 15 - Montana

Nov. 22 - at Northern Arizona

6. NORTHERN ARIZONA LUMBERJACKS

LOCATION: Flagstaff, Arizona

STADIUM: Walkup Skydome

COACH: Jerome Souers (93-88 in 16 seasons at Northern Arizona)

LAST SEASON: 9-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky (2nd); No. 15 TSN final ranking

STARTERS RETURNING: 9 (7 offense/2 defense)

BIG LOSSES: RB Zach Bauman (270 carries, 1,456 yards, 9 TD; 44 receptions, 305 yards, 1 TD); DT Tim Wilkinson, S Lucky Dozier (76 TT, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 9 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF); CB Anders Battle (51 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 INT, 10 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF); PK/P Andy Wilder (10-of-16 FG, 51 points; 72 punts, 44.5 ypp)

OFFENSIVE STAR: C Roy Garcia, Sr.

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Austin Hasquet, Sr. (91 TT, 5.5 TFL, 3 INT, 9 PBU, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Kyren Poe, Jr. (163-for-270, 1,602 yards, 6 TD, 10 INT; 65 carries, 173 yards, 2 TD)

QB Chase Cartwright, Sr. (70-for-111, 753, 8 TD, 2 INT)

RB Casey Jahn, RB (56 carries, 212 yards, 1 TD)

RB Corbin Jountti, R-Fr.

FB Nick Butier, Jr.

WR Alex Holmes, Jr. (40 receptions, 329 yards, 3 TD)

WR Ify Umodu, Sr. (injured last season)

WR Dejzon Walker, Sr. (24 receptions, 361 yards, 2 TD)

TE R.J. Rickert, Sr. (22 receptions, 246 yards, 1 TD)

OL Jacob Julian, So.

OL Eric Rodriguez, So.

DL Zach McDonnell, Jr.

DL Siupeli Anau, Jr. (Scottsdale CC transfer)

LB Craig Frum, Sr. (injured last season)

LB Josh Bamrick, Jr. (Glendale CC transfer)

CB/KR Marcus Alford, Jr.

CB Randy Hale Jr., Sr.

S Eddie Horn, Jr. (Chabot CC transfer)

S Robert Watson, Sr.

S Darius Lewis, Jr. (Fullerton transfer)

OUTLOOK: Souers, who is closing in on 100 career wins, believes this is a pivotal year for showing how much recruiting has paid off in his program. The Lumberjacks were a combined 17-6 the last two seasons and are coming off their first FCS playoff appearance since 2003, but they have lost a lot with the departure of 22 seniors, including Bauman (a four-time 1,000-yard rusher) and numerous defensive standouts. Some new names will have to emerge as leaders. The more-experienced offense will lead the way, with QB Poe settling in after making eight starts last season and RB Jahn getting a chance to emerge from Bauman's shadow. Meanwhile, the only returning starters on defense are Hasquet and McDonnell. The addition of some transfers will bolster the unit, and Anau arrives to help provide a pass rush. In a rarity, neither Montana nor Montana State is on the Lumberjacks' schedule, and it might be a welcome change. The first half of the schedule appears to provide some room for growth.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 30 - at San Diego State

Sept. 6 - at Abilene Christian

Sept. 13 - New Mexico Highlands

Sept. 20 - at South Dakota

Sept. 27 - Cal Poly

Oct. 4 - at Northern Colorado

Oct. 18 - at Portland State

Oct. 25 - Eastern Washington

Nov. 1 - at Weber State

Nov. 8 - UC Davis

Nov. 15 - at North Dakota

Nov. 22 - Southern Utah

7. SACRAMENTO STATE HORNETS

LOCATION: Sacramento, California

STADIUM: Hornet Stadium

COACH: Jody Sears (first season at Sacramento State; 4-19 overall)

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

STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (11 offense/7 defense)

BIG LOSSES: RB/RS Ezekiel Graham (94 carries, 373 yards, 2 TD); WR Morris Norrise (81 receptions, 870 yards, 4 TD); OG Tyler Worthley, ILB Todd Davis (131 TT, 10 TFL, 5 sacks, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 3 QBH, 2 FF, 1 BLK); CB Osagie Odiase (52 TT, 3 INT, 7 PBU, 1 QBH); P Justin Weldon (65 punts, 44.9 ypp)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Garrett Safron, Sr. (294-for-460, 3,289 yards, 27 TD, 13 INT; 142 carries, 492 yards, 7 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Darnell Sankey, Jr. (65 TT, 9.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 1 PBU, 7 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Brandon Kellerman, Sr. (80 carries, 330 yards, 2 TD)

RB Jordan Robinson, So.

RB De'Jon Coleman, Jr.

WR DeAndre Carter, Sr. (64 receptions, 934 yards, 14 TD)

WR Shane Harrison, Jr. (49 receptions, 594 yards, 1 TD)

TE Cole Hikutini, So. (21 receptions, 204 yards, 5 TD)

OT Aleksandar Milanovic, Jr.

OT Lars Hanson, Jr.

OG Derek Nielsen, Sr.

DE Ben Cowger, Sr.

DT Nick Mazza, Jr. (35 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 QBH)

DT Nathan Castro, Sr.

LB Russell Smith, So.

CB Josh Armstrong, Jr.

S Dexter Alcala, Sr.

OUTLOOK: The schedule suggests the Sears era could get off to a solid start before the second half gets tougher. Sears, who spent the last two seasons at Weber State and then replaced the well-liked Marshall Sperbeck on an interim basis, has sought bonding from a team always high on potential but sometimes short on results. Having 18 returning starters bodes well for a much improved season. Safron is one of the top passing quarterbacks in the FCS and WR Carter was a touchdown-maker a year ago, tying the school record with 14 TD receptions. The running backs may go by committee unless Kellerman breaks out as a senior. Sears is a defensive coach, so he is focused on restoring a defense that ranked ninth in the conference in both total defense (446.9 ypg) and scoring defense (33.2 ppg). It starts with being more sound against the run. The return of DE Sankey is a good start for the Hornets.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 30 - at Incarnate Word

Sept. 6 - at California

Sept. 13 - Weber State

Sept. 20 - Menlo

Sept. 27 - at Idaho State

Oct. 4 - Montana State

Oct. 11 - at Northern Colorado

Oct. 18 - Cal Poly

Nov. 1 - at Montana

Nov. 8 - Southern Utah

Nov. 15 - Portland State

Nov. 22 - at UC Davis

8. UC DAVIS AGGIES

LOCATION: Davis, California

STADIUM: Aggie Stadium

COACH: Ron Gould (5-7 in one season at UC Davis)

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

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

BIG LOSSES: QB Randy Wright (155-for-243, 1,712 yards, 11 TD, 4 INT); WR Tom Hemmingsen (60 receptions, 640 yards, 4 TD); TE Taylor Sloat (22 receptions, 220 yards, 3 TD); RT Jimmy Kunkel; DE Nick King (62 TT, 8 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF); DT Anthony Kaspar (48 TT, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 4 QBH, 1 FR, 2 BLK); FS Aarynn Jones (61 TT, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 1 QBH); CB Jonathan Perkins (46 TT, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FR, 1 BLK)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Gabe Manzanares, Sr. (259 carries, 1,285 yards, 10 TD; 27 receptions, 385 yards, 1 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Steven Pitts, Sr. (74 TT, 11.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 3 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Turner Baty, Jr. (CC of San Francisco transfer)

FB Dalton Turay, Sr. (13 receptions, 159 yards, 1 TD)

WR Corey Galindo, Sr. (28 receptions, 241 yards, 1 TD)

WR T.J. King, Sr. (25 receptions, 356 yards, 2 TD)

LT Ian Joseph, Sr.

LG Parker Smith, Jr.

C Jay Luchetti, Sr.

RT Chris Schneider, So.

DL Marques Barron, Sr. (37 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 QBH)

DT Kyle DeVaughn, Jr.

LB Jonathan Bias, Jr. (46 TT, 1 QBH)

LB Ryan Dimino, Sr. (53 TT, 3 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH)

CB/KR Shamawn Wright, Jr. (32 TT, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 9 PBU; 25.8-yard KO return average)

SS/PR Charles Boyett, Sr. (86 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 2 FF; 9.7-yard punt return average)

PK Brady Stuart, Jr. (17-of-25 FG, 75 points)

P Colby Wadman, So.

OUTLOOK: It was easy to overlook the Aggies in Gould's first season after they started his rookie campaign with an 0-4 record. But they rebounded nicely in Big Sky play, tying for fourth place after going 5-3. Gould is committed to the run and he has a workhorse in Manzanares. The 2013 Big Sky newcomer of the year became their first 1,000-yard rusher since 2002 after rushing for at least 100 yards in seven of his eight conference games. His line returns four starters, including the 6-foot-6 Joseph. Still, there will be growing pains on offense (likely with the passing game) as the Aggies replace Randy Wright, a four-year starter at quarterback. With Boyett and Shamawn Wright returning, the secondary figures to anchor the defense. Opponents will run the ball against the Aggies until they can be stopped. The schedule is quite front-loaded with tough opponents. A winning record appears out of the question despite the enthusiasm under Gould.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 30 - at Stanford

Sept. 6 - Fort Lewis

Sept. 13 - at Colorado State

Sept. 27 - Eastern Washington

Oct. 4 - at Portland State

Oct. 11 - Montana State

Oct. 18 - at Montana

Nov. 1 - Northern Colorado

Nov. 8 - at Northern Arizona

Nov. 15 - at Cal Poly

Nov. 22 - Sacramento State

9. PORTLAND STATE VIKINGS

LOCATION: Portland, Oregon

STADIUM: Providence Park

COACH: Nigel Burton (18-27 in four seasons at Portland State)

LAST SEASON: 6-6 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (9th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (7 offense/4 defense)

BIG LOSSES: RB D.J. Adams (256 carries, 1,600 yards, 19 TD); OT Mitchell Van Dyke; LB Jaycob Shoemaker (102 TT, 7.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH); S Dean Faddis (88 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 INT, 11 PBU, 1 FF); S David Edgerson (70 TT, 2.5 TFL, 5 INT, 1 FR, 1 FF)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Kieran McDonagh, Jr. (117-for-215, 1,936 yards, 15 TD, 11 INT; 67 carries, 369 yards, 4 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DT Junior Alexis, Jr. (27 TT, 5.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: AB Paris Penn, So.

RB Shaquille Richard, Sr. (56 carries, 344 yards, 2 TD)

RB/KR Nate Tago, So. (35 carries, 216 yards, 3 TD; 24.2-yard KO return average)

WR Kasey Closs, Sr. (63 receptions, 1,167 yards, 8 TD)

WR Thomas Carter, Jr. (38 receptions, 389 yards, 1 TD)

OL Kyle Smith, So.

OL Cornelius Edison, Sr.

OL Cam Keizur, So.

DT Joe Lopez, Sr. (22 TT, 5.5 TFL)

DE Brandon Tobias, Sr.

DE Michael Doman, So. (BYU transfer)

LB Brandon Brody-Heim, Jr. (46 TT, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR)

LB Jeremy Lutali, Jr.

LB Corey Crowder, Sr. (59 TT, 6.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 3 QBH)

CB Aaron Sibley, Jr. (42 TT, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FR)

S Patrick Onwuasor, Jr.

P Kyle Loomis, Sr. (56 punts, 46.5 ypp)

OUTLOOK: After a season of close calls, the Vikings expect to reach a higher level of play. They ranked third nationally in total offense (540.5 yards per game), utilizing a pistol/pass hybrid offense. McDonagh, who has dual-threat ability, has started for two straight seasons and he found a big-time weapon last season in Closs. The veteran Richard, a change-of-pace back with 32 career starts, must raise his play after Adams graduated off a 1,600-yard season. Tonga adds big-play ability to what should be a terrific offense. The defense suffered too many second-half woes a year ago, but cut its points allowed from 36 per game to 27.5. Considering the unit returns only four starters (and none on the defensive line), some redshirts and transfers could factor in. Loomis is a first-team All-American at punter, but PK Nick Fernandez is coming off a subpar season. If there is a dark horse in the Big Sky race, it's probably Portland State, but the defense must really take another step forward.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 30 - at Oregon State

Sept. 6 - Western Oregon

Sept. 13 - at Washington State

Sept. 20 - at Cal Poly

Oct. 4 - UC Davis

Oct. 11 - at North Dakota

Oct. 18 - Northern Arizona

Oct. 25 - at Weber State

Nov. 1 - Idaho State

Nov. 8 - at Montana State

Nov. 15 - at Sacramento State

Nov. 21 - Eastern Washington

10. NORTH DAKOTA

LOCATION: Grand Forks, North Dakota

STADIUM: Alerus Center

COACH: Kyle Schweigert (first season)

LAST SEASON: 3-8 overall, 2-6 Big Sky (10th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (6 offense/4 defense)

BIG LOSSES: RB Jake Miller (98 carries, 424 yards, 5 TD); OT Joe Kleason; WR/KR Greg Hardin (67 receptions, 1,153 yards, 5 TD; 23.7-yard KO return average, 2 TD); WR/PR Kenny Golladay (69 receptions, 884 yards, 8 TD); LB Garrison Goodman (72 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 PBU)

OFFENSIVE STARS: QB Joe Mollberg, So. (141-for-241, 1,729 yards, 7 TD, 13 INT) and QB Ryan Bartels, So. (116-for-190, 1,396 yards, 8 TD, 6 INT)

DEFENSIVE STAR: SS Baylee Carr, Sr. (44 TT, 3 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Adam Shaugabay, Sr.

RB Cedric Simmons, So. (Mesa CC transfer)

WR Tyrhe Ivery, Sr.

WR R.J. McGill, Sr. (injured last season)

WR Aeron Carr, R-Fr.

TE Zach Adler, Jr.

LG Brandon Anderson, Jr.

RG Sean Meehan, Jr.

OL Brendan Slaight, Jr. (Siskiyous CC transfer)

OL Colton Boas, Jr. (Iowa Central CC transfer)

DT Marcus Cheatom, So.

NT Shea Walker, Sr.

DE Spencer Cummings, Sr.

DE Jordan Hinojosa, So. (Minnesota transfer)

ILB Ben Peters, Sr. (58 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR)

ILB Will Ratelle, Jr.

ILB Dylan Bakker, Jr. (West Hills College transfer)

OLB Javen Butler, Jr.

OLB Dayo Idowu, Jr.

S Chris Hanible, Jr. (Bakersfield CC transfer)

CB Alex Tillman, Sr. (Houston transfer)

DB Cole Reyes, R-Fr.

OUTLOOK: Schweigert was a UND assistant from 1989-2003 before leaving to become the head coach at Division II Minnesota Duluth from 2004-07. The Southern Illinois defensive coordinator the last six seasons, he inherited a UND team that must replace significant losses. He brought in some transfers who could play key roles and has 35 new faces on the roster. QBs Mollberg and Bartels collected plenty of experience last season, but they lost much around them in the skills positions. The defense returns only four starters, but Schweigert believes his players picked up the system quicker than the coaches anticipated. Peters, who was second on the team in tackles in both 2012 and '13, and Carr have the leadership roles amomg the inexperienced defense. The road portion of the schedule is particularly tough. This should be a season of transition for UND in the bottom half of the Big Sky standings.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 28 - at San Jose State

Sept. 6 - Robert Morris

Sept. 13 - at Missouri State

Sept. 20 - Stony Brook

Sept. 27 - at Montana State

Oct. 4 - Montana

Oct. 11 - Portland State

Oct. 25 - at Southern Utah

Nov. 1 - at Eastern Washington

Nov. 8 - Weber State

Nov. 15 - Northern Arizona

Nov. 22 - at Northern Colorado

11. WEBER STATE WILDCATS

LOCATION: Ogden, Utah

STADIUM: Stewart Stadium

COACH: Jay Hill (first season)

LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-7 Big Sky (Tie/11th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

BIG LOSSES: QB Austin Chipoletti (172-for-309, 1,650 yards, 8 TD, 9 INT); RB Josh Booker (115 carries, 438 yards, 4 TD); WR Eric Walker (62 receptions, 658 yards, 3 TD); LB Anthony Morales (100 TT, 11 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 BLK); S Chris Wheeler (64 TT, 3 TFL, 2 PBU); S D.J. Bush (56 TT, 3 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PBU); P Tony Epperson (101 punts, 43.1 ypp)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB/KR Bo Bolen, Sr. (123 carries, 549 yards, 5 TD; 27 receptions, 203 yards; 26.5-yard KO return average, 1 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: CB Deon'tae Florence, Sr. (26 TT, 4 INT, 8 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Jadrian Clark, So.

WR Cameron Livingston, So. (26 receptions, 344 yards, 4 TD)

WR Shaydon Kehano, Sr.

OG Alex Land, Sr.

DE Obi Owoh, Jr. (41 TT, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF, 1 BLK)

DE Dustin Martin, Sr. (37 TT, 9 TFL)

DT Connor Myers, Sr. (35 TT, 3 TFL, 1 QBH)

LB Roman Valenzuela, Jr. (88 TT, 4 TFL, 3 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF);

LB Luke King, Jr. (43 TT, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)

LB Felix Woods, So.

S Adam Padilla, Jr. (88 TT, 5 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 FR)

S Chris Jones, Sr. (50 TT, 2 PBU)

S Tre'von Johnson, So. (38 TT, 2 TFL)

OUTLOOK: What really stood out during the Wildcats' subpar season a year ago was that Epperson was called on to make 101 punts. They were outscored 490-197 - uncharacteristic for a program that has had some decent seasons, most recently FCS playoff appearances in 2008 and '09. Enter Hill, whose recruiting background in Utah (he was an assistant at the University of Utah the last 13 seasons) and in the West should eventually pay dividends with his new program. The defense will have to carry the Wildcats early in the season until Clark or another quarterback grabs control of the offense. The Wildcats will go with a 3-4 scheme, which will allow the defensive line and LBs King and Valenzuela to make plays. Florence and Padilla will fuel the back end of the defense. But the offense must control some game clock as well and RB Bolen should have a strong campaign behind an improved offensive line. If the Wildcats can survive the first half of the season, they will show improvement later in the year.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 28 - at Arizona State

Sept. 6 - North Dakota State

Sept. 13 - at Sacramento State

Sept. 20 - at Stephen F. Austin

Sept. 27 - at Southern Utah

Oct. 11 - Cal Poly

Oct. 18 - at Montana State

Oct. 25 - Portland State

Nov. 1 - Northern Arizona

Nov. 8 - at North Dakota

Nov. 15 - Northern Colorado

Nov. 22 - at Idaho State

12. IDAHO STATE BENGALS

LOCATION: Pocatello, Idaho

STADIUM: Holt Arena

COACH: Mike Kramer (6-28 in three seasons at Idaho State; 83-103 overall)

LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 1-7 Big Sky (Tie/11th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 19 (10 offense/9 defense)

BIG LOSSES: WR/PR Luke Austin (65 receptions, 951 yards, 11 TD); DB Tanner Davis (81 TT, 1 INT, 3 PBU); PK Brendan Garcia (18-of-24 FG, 79 points)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Justin Arias, Sr. (322-for-574, 3,547 yards, 24 TD, 14 INT)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DL Austin Graves, Sr. (64 TT, 14.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 5 QBH, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Xavier Finney, Jr. (199 carries, 868 yards, 5 TD)

WR Broc Malcom, So. (51 receptions, 645 yards, 6 TD)

WR K.W. Williams, So.

TE Josh Cook, So. (32 receptions, 317 yards)

OL Terrence Carey, Jr.

OL Skyler Phillips, So.

OL Jim Bagley, Sr.

DL Kurt Karstetter, Jr.

DL Tyler Kuder, Jr.

DL Robby Mackesey, Sr.

LB Hayden Stout, So.

LB P.J. Gremaud, Sr.

LB Mitch Beckstead, Sr. (111 TT, 5.5 TFL, 3 INT, 5 PBU)

DB Cody Sorensen, Jr. (78 TT, 2 TFL, 4 PBU, 1 FR)

OUTLOOK: The talent is finally in place under Kramer to gain more wins. The Bengals have lost 45 straight road games and are only 4-44 in Big Sky games the last six seasons. The Bengals clearly can move the ball behind Arias, and improved efficiency in the red zone will go a long way this season. Their offensive line will be much improved (Bagley is a fourth-year starter), so the skills position players will have big seasons again. What's most pressing for the Bengals is stopping opponents from marching up and down the field (they surrendered 460 yards per game last season). Although there was improvement, the defense needs to take the next step. Behind Beckstead, the Bengals return four of their top five tacklers. Kramer is the only coach in Big Sky history to earn the conference's coach of the year honors at two different schools (Eastern Washington and Montana State), but this is a pivotal season for him at ISU.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 28 - at Utah

Sept. 6 - at Utah State

Sept. 13 - Chadron State

Sept. 27 - Sacramento State

Oct. 4 - at Eastern Washington

Oct. 11 - Simon Fraser

Oct. 18 - Southern Utah

Oct. 25 - at Northern Colorado

Nov. 1 - at Portland State

Nov. 8 - Cal Poly

Nov. 15 - at Montana State

Nov. 22 - Weber State

13. NORTHERN COLORADO BEARS

LOCATION: Greeley, Colorado

STADIUM: Nottingham Field

COACH: Earnest Collins Jr. (6-28 in two seasons at Northern Colorado; 14-40 overall)

LAST SEASON: 1-11 overall, 0-8 Big Sky (13th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

BIG LOSSES: QB Seth Lobato (197-for-347, 2,725 yards, 16 TD, 13 INT); RB Tromaine Dennis (199 carries, 847 yards, 6 TD; 30 receptions, 291 yards); WR Jace Davis (44 receptions, 673 yards, 5 TD); LB Clarence Bumpas (107 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 BLK); Max Flores (84 TT, 9.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 BLK)

OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Dimitri Stimphill, Sr. (63 receptions, 1,007 yards, 6 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Leilon Willingham, Sr. (98 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Sean Rubalcaba, So.

QB Brock Berglund, Jr. (North Texas transfer)

RB Darius Graham, So. (48 carries, 200 yards, 3 TD)

RB Robert Holland, Sr.

FB Quinn Zamora, So.

TE Derek Vander Velde, Jr.

OL Austin Hendrickson, So.

OL Marcus Piechowski, So.

DT Lexington Smith, Sr. (55 TT, 6 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 BLK)

DE Devion Anderson, So.

DE Devontae Chapple, Sr.

DE Chris Urbaniak, Jr.

DE Kyle Todd, Sr.

LB Dominick Sierra, Sr.

CB Courtney Hall, Sr. (75 TT, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU 1 FR)

SS Kyle Griffin, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Collins believes this season will be a turning point for his program, which went 4-4 in Big Sky games in 2012 but has sandwiched that season around two 0-8 campaigns. There's much more leadership on this team, which is always the sign of improved play. But the Bears were still picked last in the conference's two preseason polls. The graduation of QB Lobato is significant, although the new QB will have a terrific weapon in Stimphill, a 1,000-yard receiver last year. And don't overlook emerging FB Zamora, who will make everything easier in the offensive backfield. Defensively, there's a standout at each unit (Smith, Willingham and Hall), so the Bears should find themselves much more competitive than a year ago. They have to take advantage of a comfortable home schedule because winning on the road will be difficult.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 6 - at UNLV

Sept. 13 - Houston Baptist

Sept. 20 - at Northern Iowa

Sept. 27 - at Montana

Oct. 4 - Northern Arizona

Oct. 11 - Sacramento State

Oct. 18 - at Eastern Washington

Oct. 25 - Idaho State

Nov. 1 - at UC Davis

Nov. 15 - at Weber State

Nov. 22 - North Dakota

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