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In the FCS Huddle: 2011 Great West Conference Preview

Get the mops ready, because the holding tank that is the Great West Conference is about to burst.

A conference loaded with parity, the Great West has been more of an experiment than a league since its inception in 2004, having never been able to field a full slate of teams like other conferences at the FCS level.

"To be honest, it's been an extremely competitive and I have tremendous respect for this conference," UC Davis coach Bob Biggs said. "I don't think it's ever gotten the respect it's deserved. But, with that being said, the Big Sky is a whole new ball game."

The biggest issue that's faced Great West coaches has been scheduling, with only four conference games filling the schedule with seven out-of-conference competitions is a difficult process.

"We go from playing lower-division teams one week and then the next week we play a team like Eastern Washington," Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said. "That's the challenge I'm talking about, it's such a tremendous difference in speed. With so many different constraints it becomes a challenge just to field a competitive schedule.

"During the offseason, when the emphasis we have should be on recruiting, I literally have daily discussions with our athletic director about scheduling."

That won't be an issue next season for Lamb, as Southern Utah, UC Davis, Cal Poly and North Dakota will join the Big Sky. South Dakota will make the move to the Missouri Valley Conference.

While the scheduling advantages of leaving the Great West are in the future, present day is focused on winning the final Great West title - a race that is always close due to the lack of conference games.

"With just four games, the importance rises incredibly and margin of error certainly increases," Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said. "If you lose one, you don't know if someone is going to run the table and it's not a long table to run."

Last season, Southern Utah ran the short table, winning all of its conference games by at least 10 points.

With 16 starters back from the championship squad, the Thunderbirds are once again the favorite, but no team has ever won back-to-back undisputed championships in the seven-year history of the Great West.

In what's likely to be another close race - in 2009 it was feasible all five teams could have tied for the title at 2-2 - the five teams are looking to out swim the competition before the tank bursts.

"The positive part is how far it's come," Walsh said. "We obviously didn't have the quantity, but we always had quality. With that, I think it makes a little bit more special to win the Great West this season."

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2011 Great West Conference race.

The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:

1. Southern Utah

2. Cal Poly

3. UC Davis

4. South Dakota

5. North Dakota

Offensive Player of the Year: Brad Sorensen, QB, Southern Utah

Defensive Player of the Year: Asa Jackson, DB, Cal Poly

1. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS (6-5 overall; 4-0 Great West)

COACH: Ed Lamb (15-18 in three seasons at Southern Utah; 15-18 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Brad Sorensen, Jr. (261 of 390 for 3,163 yards, 21 TDs, 6 INT)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DL Tyler Osborne, Sr. (52 TT, 11.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:

RB Austin Minefee, Sr. (133 carries for 764 yards, 5 TDs; 27 receptions for 257 yards)

RB Deckar Alexander, Sr. (77 carries for 420 yards, 1 TD; 11 receptions for 90 yards)

WR Jared Ursua, Sr. (8 receptions for 116 yards)

WR Myles Crawford-Harris, Sr.

WR Fatu Moala, So. (transfer from Utah)

WR Easton Pederson, Fr.

OL Gavin Farr, So.

OL Zach Brackus, Jr.

OL Trevor Schauerhamer, Sr.

OL Brandon Beddes, Sr.

OL Brock Christensen, Sr.

DL Jeff Tukuafu, Jr. (19 TT, 2.5 sacks)

DL Cody Heinreich, Sr. (14 TT, 6 TFL, 4 sacks)

DL Cody Larsen, Jr. (29 TT, 2.5 TFL, 4 sacks)

DL Nick Witzman, Jr. (15 TT, 1 TFL, 1 sack)

LB Blake Fenn, Sr. (97 TT, 2 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 INT)

LB Randall Nygren, So. (converted QB)

LB Drew Willard, Sr. (20 TT, 1 TFL)

LB Chad Hansen, So.

LB Austin Anderson, Fr.

LB Herman Sword, Sr. (10 TT)

DB Erron Vonner, Sr. (60 TT, 4.5 TFL, 7 PBU)

DB Dion Turner, Sr. (54 TT, 2.5 TFL, 4 PBU, 1 INT)

DB Marlon Hogains, Jr. (27 TT, 1 sack, 4 PBU)

DB Tyson Turley, Sr. (17 TT)

P Tate Lewis, Fr.

K Brock Miller, So. (27-28 XP, 12-17 FG)

OUTLOOK: In three years, Ed Lamb has done wonders for the Southern Utah football program. Coming off an 0-11 season, the Thunderbirds matched its past three-year win total by going 4-7 in Lamb's first season. The improvement has continued the past two seasons, as Southern Utah won five games in 2009 and six last season on its way to a Great West championship. This season, the Thunderbirds are looking to become the first - and only - team to own sole back-to-back championships. Leading that effort is Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) Watch List selection Brad Sorensen. Coming off a 3,163-yard, 21-touchdown performance as a sophomore, Sorensen will be well protected with much of the offensive line returning, despite losing his top three receivers from last season. On defense, the Thunderbirds are an experienced group, led by defensive end Tyler Osborne and linebacker Blake Fenn, who provide valuable senior leadership. One year removed from joining the Big Sky, Southern Utah's schedule includes several future Big Sky foes. How the Thunderbirds manage that schedule will be telling for how well it fares after changing conferences next season.

2. CAL POLY MUSTANGS (7-4 overall; 2-2 Great West)

COACH: Tim Walsh (11-11 in two seasons at Cal Poly; 128-93 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Mark Rodgers, Sr. (127 carries for 882 yards, 8 TDs; 20 receptions for 208 yards, 3 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: DB Asa Jackson, Sr. (55 TT, 1 sack, 9 PBU, 2 INT)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:

QB Andre Broadous, Jr. (41 of 64 for 510 yards, 4 TDs; 87 carries for 305 yards, 3 TDs)

RB David Mahr, Sr. (42 carries for 310 yards, 1 TD; 12 receptions for 168 yards, 1 TD)

FB Jake Romanelli, Sr. (102 carries for 459 yards, 8 TDs)

WR Jarred Houston, Sr.

WR Lance Castaneda, Fr.

OL Scott Winnewisser, Sr.

OL Maurice McClure, Sr.

OL Art Munoz, Sr.

OL Giovanni Sani, Jr.

OL Karl Winkelman, Jr.

DL Gavin Cooper, Sr. (39 TT, 4 TFL, 6 sacks, 1 PBU)

DL Kyle Murphy, Sr. (23 TT, 1 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU)

DL Brandon Roberts, Sr. (14 TT, 2 TFL)

DL Erich Klemme, Sr. (28 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks)

DL Kevin Hess, Sr. (18 TT, 1 TFL, 3 sacks)

LB Kenny Jackson, Jr.(67 TT, 9.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 INT)

LB Johnny Millard, So. (38 TT, 2 sacks, 1 INT)

LB Max Schulz, Sr. (12 TT, 2 sacks)

LB Xavier Ramos, So. (11 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU)

DB Bijon Samoodi, Jr. (62 TT, 2.5 TFL, 5 PBU)

DB Nico Molino, Jr. (50 TT, 2.5 TFL, 7 PBU, 2 INT)

DB Greg Francis, Sr. (31 TT, 3 TFL, 3 PBU, 1 INT)

OUTLOOK: Last season, the Mustangs finished 24th in the final Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25, a ranking that probably would have been higher had they not lost to UC Davis in the season finale (and they might have made the playoffs). Despite being the highest-ranked team in the Great West, two of Cal Poly's four losses came in conference and it finished third in the five- team league. Already getting votes in the preseason polls, Cal Poly is looking for a fourth and final Great West championship before joining the Big Sky next season. Preparing to gallop through the Great West is running back Mark Rodgers (882 yards, 8 TDs) and quarterback Andre Broadous, who only played in five games - all on the road - last season, but showed some promise (nine total TDs) in those contests. On defense, Cal Poly returns eight starters from a unit that only allowed 25.5 points a game, and should improve more this season with Buck Buchanan Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) Watch List selection Asa Jackson. With six games on the road, it will be tough for Cal Poly to make the playoffs, but it isn't out of the realm of possibility.

3. UC DAVIS AGGIES (6-5 overall; 3-1 Great West)

COACH: Bob Biggs (136-71-1 in 18 seasons at UC Davis; 136-71-1 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Randy Wright, So. (205 of 348 for 2,432 yards; 17 TDs, 8 INT)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Byron Gruendl, Jr. (57 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 INT)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:

RB Josh Reese, Sr. (82 carries for 317 yards, 2 TDs; 28 receptions for 165 yards, 1 TD)

RB Marqui Nicolis, Jr. (11 carries for 53 yards)

FB Nick Aprile, Jr. (99 carries for 389 yards, 6 TDs)

WR Anthony Soto, Jr. (29 receptions for 344 yards, 2 TDs)

WR Tom Hemmingsen, So. (13 receptions for 140 yards, 2 TDs)

WR Stephen Dunstan, Jr. (8 receptions for 127 yards, 2 TDs)

TE Mike Cody, Sr. (5 receptions for 44 yards)

OL Ray Wilburn, Jr.

OL Sean Davies, Jr.

OL Robert Ayotte, Sr.

OL Al Doiron, So.

OL Tim Ketaily, Jr.

DL Andrew Benjamin, Jr. (32 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack)

DL Brock Galvin, Jr. (39 TT, 1 TFL, 1 PBU)

DL Tommy Grillo, Sr. (20 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU)

DL Bobby Erskine, Jr. (35 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack)

LB Jordan Glass, Sr. (66 TT, 4.5 TFL)

LB Neil Pierce, Sr. (5 TT)

DB Jonathan Perkins, So. (39 TT, 7 PBU, 2 INT)

DB Jonathan Calhoun, Sr. (13 TT, 1 PBU, 1 INT)

DB Dre Allen, So. (39 TT, 1 TFL, 2 PBU)

DB Kevyn Lewis, Jr. (39 TT, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU, 1 INT)

P Colton Schmidt, Jr. (38.8 avg.)

K Sean Kelley, Sr. (13-17 FG)

OUTLOOK: Rarely does a team average five points less a game than its opponents and post a winning record, but that was the case for the Aggies last season. Only scoring 21.2 points a game last season, UC Davis still managed to cobble together a six-win season for a second straight year, which included a second- place (3-1) finish in the Great West. This season, the Aggies return a capable quarterback in Randy Wright, but will have to replace their top receivers from last season. Protecting Wright is a an experienced offensive line, including center Ray Wilburn, who should garner all-conference honors. On defense, the Aggies must rebound from a season in which they at times were thrashed, including 55-, 52- and 41-point showings. Despite struggling at times, the defense helped the Aggies win a pair of back-to-back one-point games, a trend which could help UC Davis improve this season.

4. SOUTH DAKOTA COYOTES (4-7 overall; 1-3 overall)

COACH: Ed Meierkort (48-30 in seven seasons at South Dakota; 103-85 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (8 offense/10 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Dante Warren, Sr. (161 of 292 for 2,137 yards, 18 TDs, 6 INT; 96 carries for 393 yards, 6 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Shea Williams, Sr. (89 TT, 3.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:

RB Chris Ganious, Sr. (188 carries for 817 yards, 4 TDs; 17 receptions for 156 yards, 2 TDs)

RB Marcus Sims, Jr. (52 carries for 286 yards, 1 TD)

WR Will Powell, Jr. (47 receptions for 933 yards, 10 TDs)

WR Dustin Nowotny, Sr. (34 receptions for 489 yards, 1 TD)

WR Anthony Williams, So. (Troy transfer)

TE Tyler Wilhelm, So. (5 of 19 for 56 yards, 2 INT; 6 carries for 15 yards, 1 TD; converted from QB)

OL Tom Compton, Sr.

OL Brent Johnson, Sr.

OL Tim Ross, Jr.

OL R.J. Polley, Sr.

DL Evan Capper, Sr. (17 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU)

DL Jesse Weisbrod, Sr. (20 TT, 1.5 TFL, 3 sacks)

DL Michael Neilson, Sr. (19 TT)

DL Sidney Bazemore, Sr. (11 TT)

LB Adam Broders, Sr. (75 TT, 6 TFL, 1 INT)

LB Andrew Meier, Sr. (44 TT, 2.5 TFL)

DB Marquis Butler, Sr. (48 TT, 1.5 TFL, 4 PBU, 1 INT)

DB Shane Potter, Sr. (76 TT, 1 TFL, 2 PBU)

DB Dametrius Turner, So. (18 TT, 2 PBU, 2 INT)

DB Chris Frierson, So. (34 TT, 1 sack, 2 PBU, 2 INT)

DB Alphonso Valdez, Jr. (15 TT, 2 PBU)

DB Aaron Swift, So. (61 TT, 1 TFL, 4 PBU, 1 INT)

DB Jim Thompson, Sr. (started opener in 2010, missed rest of season with injury; 59 TT in 2009)

P Cole Zwiefelhofer, Jr. (42.4 avg.)

K Kevin Robb, So. (12-16 FG)

OUTLOOK: While the other four teams from Great West will join the Big Sky, South Dakota is heading to the Missouri Valley Conference, and would love nothing more than to hold permanent bragging rights. That's easier said than done, as the Coyotes' only Great West victory last season came against North Dakota. However, with 18 starters returning, South Dakota has skill on both sides of the ball to possibly put together a winning season. Chris Ganious (973 total yards), Dante Warren (24 total TDs) and Will Powell (10 receiving TDs) combine for what may be the best running back-quarterback-wide receiver combination in the conference. Also, Tom Compton is one of the FCS' top offensive linemen. The defense's only loss from last season is at linebacker, and the Coyotes have a bevy of players with starting experience, including seven defensive backs who started at least one game last season. Despite a brutal September schedule - Air Force, Wisconsin and Eastern Washington - the Coyotes have the experience to flirt with a winning record this season.

5. NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING SIOUX (3-8 overall; 0-4 conference)

COACH: Chris Mussman (15-17 in three seasons at North Dakota; 15-17 overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Greg Hardin, So. (41 receptions for 736 yards, 9 TDs; 9 carries for 85 yards, 1 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Dan Hendrickson, Sr. (78 TT, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:

QB Brent Goska, Sr. (42 of 77 for 413 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT; 51 carries for 266 yards, 2 TDs)

QB Marcus Hendrickson, Jr. (13 of 47 for 131 yards, 2 INT; 29 carries for 39 yards, 1 TD; 1 reception for 7 yards)

RB Mitch Sutton, Jr. (68 carries for 288 yards, 2 TDs; 15 receptions for 148 yards)

RB Jake Miller, So. (35 carries for 197 yards, 3 TDs)

RB Caitlin Solum, Sr. (15 receptions for 99 yards)

WR Chris Anderson, Sr. (13 receptions for 190 yards, 2 TDs)

WR R.J. McGill, So. (19 receptions for 119 yards)

TE Seth Wisthoff, Jr. (6 receptions for 67 yards)

OL Brandon Quesenberry, Sr.

OL Joe Kleason, So.

OL Ian McGurran, Jr.

OL Emmet Lynch, Jr.

OL Caleb Gillson, Jr.

DL Broc Bellmore, Sr. (35 TT, 2 TFL, 1 PBU)

DL Devin Benjamin, Jr. (15 TT, 1 TFL)

DL Ross Brenneman, Jr. (35 TT, 4 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 PBU)

LB Dominique Bennett, So. (14 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU)

LB Damon Andrews, So.

LB Mitch Goertz, Sr. (54 TT, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU)

DB Chris Hall, So.

DB Justin Belotti, Sr. (18 TT, 3 PBU, 1 INT)

DB Dominique Hawkins, Sr. (52 TT, 1.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 1 INT)

DB Chavon Mackey, So. (45 TT, 6 PBU)

P Brett Cameron, Jr. (39.1 avg.)

K Zeb MIller, So. (9-15 FG)

OUTLOOK: In its fourth season at the Division I level, North Dakota has more of throwback feel to this season, as the Fighting Sioux will play three lower division teams. While that may improve upon last season's win total, it may not be the best preparation for joining the Big Sky next season. With only five starters coming back on offense, questions are swirling around who will start at running back, quarterback and two spots on the offensive line. One position that isn't in question is wide receiver, as Greg Hardin is a reliable senior target for whoever is taking snaps at quarterback - likely Brent Goska. The defense is a slightly more experienced unit and could improve upon its 25 ppg allowed last season. While those games against the three lower division teams will boost North Dakota's record, the Fighting Sioux are certainly an underdog in all four Great West games.