Monday, June 6, 2016

Big Sky 2016 Preview

The Big Sky seems to be down a bit these days, with the conference not getting into the FCS quarterfinals for the first time in 10 years. A few schools hope to change that tune in 2016. Here is our Big Sky Breakdown for 2016:

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Eastern Washington
2. Montana
3. Northern Arizona
4, North Dakota
5. Portland State
6. Weber State
7. Southern Utah
8. Montana State
9. Northern Colorado
10. Cal Poly
11. Sacramento State
12. Idaho State
13. UC Davis

Eastern Washington
The Eagles wasted Cooper Cupp last season, having missed the playoffs completely after a 6-5 finish. That's likely not to happen again, as Cupp returns along with QB Jordan West, giving the Eagles possibly the best QB/WR combo in the nation. West tossed 30 TD passes last season. EWU returns possibly one of the strongest defensive lines in the nation as well. In all, EWU returns 54 lettermen from a team that knew they under performed a year ago.
The schedule is brutal early, as the Eagles must travel to Washington  and North Dakota State, before coming home to take on another playoff hopeful in Northern Iowa. The Eagles finish up the opening month with another road trip to rising Northern Arizona. If the Eagles can get through that gauntlet, they should have enough left to win the league.

Depending on who you talk to, some have Montana ahead of Eastern Washington, and who's to say that's wrong? The Grizzlies only deficiency in this argument is that they lost a solid senior class, and they aren't as experienced top to bottom heading into 2016 as EWU is.
Bob Stitt proved to be a solid hire in year one, taking the Grizzlies back to the playoffs, and largely taking UM out of their scandal plagued last couple of seasons.
He returns QB Brady Gustafson, but he has to remain healthy after missing 6 games last season. If he can do that, the plan is for Makena Simis to move to WR after he played QB in relief last fall.
On defense, Tyrone Holmes is gone at DE, but Caleb Kidder could be the star in 2016.
The schedule is certainly easier than what EWU is facing, and if you look at the slate from start to finish, an 8-3 run is probably what you should expect.

Northern Arizona
NAU missed the playoffs at 7-4 last fall, and were one of the first teams out. They aim to not let that happen again in 2016. NAU may have a pass/catch combo that rivals EWU in sophomore QB Case Cookus and WR Emmanuel Butler. Cookus is pushing West for all-conference QB honors this season. He was the national freshman QB of the year.
The Lumberjacks averaged over 50 points per game in a run to close the season, and that scoring ability should be on full display once again.
8-3 is a safe assumption for NAU in 2016, and that would be enough to get into the playoffs.

North Dakota
The Fighting Sioux finished with 7 wins last season, and like NAU, it wasn't enough to push into a playoff bid. They hope to be a bubble team come selection time this November.
LB Brian Labat and S Cole Reyes lead a defense that returns 9 starters, and Keaton Studsrud returns at QB. Look for the big star to be RB John Santiago, who rushed for 1459 yards as a freshman.
It's not outside of the realm of possibility that UND also finishes with as many as 8 wins with a fairly easy conference schedule.

Portland State
The Vikings used wins over Washington State and North Texas to propel into the playoffs last season, but can they do it again?
CB Xavier Coleman returns after an all conference season, but the defense was decimated by graduation after last season. The Vikings also lost LB AJ Schlatter, along with OT Kyle Smith to horrible tragedy after last season. That may be a driving force in getting the current crop to win for their fallen teammates.
Bruce Barnum was named FCS coach of the year, and was given the job full time after serving as interim coach last season.
Look for PSU to max out at 7 wins in 2016, which will put them on the playoff bubble.

Weber State
Jay Hill pushed Weber State to a point nobody saw them getting to in 2015, and the formerly hapless Wildcats finished 6-5.
Weber State is solid at the skill spots on offense, with QB Jadrian Clark, WR Cameron Livingston, and RBs Eric Wilkes and Treshawn Garrett all returning.
The Cats had the conference's best defense last season, and is bolstered by the return of LB Emmett Tela, who missed last fall with an injury.
Weber State could improve to 7 wins this season, but will max out there.

Southern Utah
The Thunder Birds came out of nowhere to win the conference last season, but don't expect any miracles this time around. Coach Ed Lamb moved on, and Demario Warren was promoted from DC to take over the program, but the losses from last season are deep, too deep to expect much in 2016.
I am projecting a 4-7 season.

Montana State
Gone is head coach Rob Ashe, and in is former Washington assistant Jeff Choate. Also gone is QB Dakota Prukop, who moved on to Oregon as a graduate transfer.
The run game could be leaned on this season, as both Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke return. The new QB will also have two credible WRs to throw to in Mitchell Herbert and Justin Paige.
The defense needs some work, as the unit gave up big points last fall.
After a 5-6 season a year ago, MSU could step back before they step up again. I project 4 wins.

Northern Colorado
The Bears picked up their first winning record as a member of FCS football last season with a 6-5 run. I don't see a return to that mark in 2016.
Jacob Knipp was OK at times last season, but will have to improve. He gets WRs Hakeem Deggs and Ellis Onic II back, and that should help matters. The defense was largely a mess last season, and if that does not shore up some in 2016, the Bears will have no shot at returning to the 6 win mark.
I project a 5 win mark overall.

Cal Poly
Poly still relies on the triple option, and they excel at running the football. The problem is that when you are behind as often as they are, you have to throw the football, and they cannot.
QB Chris Brown is gone, and he was the catalyst to running the option. Kori Garcia will try to step up and take up some slack. Joe Protheroe also returns at RB. Dano Graves will get first crack at taking over at QB.
I expect a 3-8 record this fall.

Sacramento State
The Hornets need a QB, and will have to rely on the run game until they can find one. Jordan Robinson should expect to hit the 1000 yard mark after running for 809 yards in 2015. Kolney Cassel, Daniel Kniffin, and Nate Katteringham are reported to be in a battle heading into fall camp.
The staff was shaken up during the off season, but this program is heading in the wrong direction.
I project a 3-8 season.

Idaho State
Two years ago, the Bengals were a rising power. Before they got off the ground, however, they sank back into the depths of the abyss. Tanner Gueller was one of the few promising leads last season at QB, and will start once again, but graduation losses were tremendous. They can't seem to move the football effectively, and the defense was swiss cheese.
I project what could be a 1-10 season for the Bengals.

UC Davis
The Aggies have been spending a lot of time in the cellar of the Big Sky ranks. Expect that trend to continue in 2016.
UCD returns 8 starters on defense, but that unit had their issues last fall, and may not be a lot better this season. Numbers do not always mean improvement. Ben Scott is back at QB, and Manusamoa Luuga returns as well, but he was a one man show on offense last season. Help for him must be found.
As with Idaho State, I project only one win in 2016.

Next: Big South

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