Philadelphia, PA – The images of Sam Houston State players racing up, down and all over the field must sit in the thoughts of Montana State football players.
As good as the Bobcats' season was last year - their first 10-win season since 1984, a second straight co-Big Sky Conference title and their first FCS playoff win since 2006 - it ended in misery with a blowout loss to the eventual FCS runner-up in the national quarterfinals.
And those images have motivated the Bobcats throughout the offseason.
The Rob Ash era has built in each of his first five seasons, and this is expected to be the biggest as Montana State is favored to win the largest of the FCS conferences - the new 13-team Big Sky.
UC Davis, Cal Poly, North Dakota and Southern Utah have come aboard from the disbanded Great West Football Conference, but none is expected to get in Montana State's way. While Montana, last year's co-champ, and Eastern Washington have considerable talent, even they don't return what the Bobcats have - 47 letter-winners and 14 players who earned a form of Big Sky honors last season.
"We have some depth, as good as we've had since we've been here," Ash said. "We have good players in each class at almost every position. That isn't to say we don't have some positions that are thin, but overall I like our depth. I like our talent. I like this team."
A retooled offensive line is the only obvious concern for the Bobcats, who have a dominant quarterback (DeNarius McGhee), running game and defense.
Maybe they will be the ones running circles around opponents come the playoffs.
The Bobcats have thought long and hard about it for some time.
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2012 Big Sky Conference race.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
1. Montana State
2. Eastern Washington
4. Weber State
5. Southern Utah
6. Portland State
7. North Dakota
8. Northern Arizona
9. Cal Poly
10. UC Davis
11. Idaho State
12. Sacramento State
13. Northern Colorado
1. MONTANA STATE BOBCATS (10-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky)
COACH: Rob Ash (39-20 in five years at Montana State; 215-119-5 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB DeNarius McGhee, Jr. (202-of-331, 2,799 yards, 24 TD, 14 INT; 90 carries, 344 yards, 5 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DT Zach Minter, Sr. (52 TT, 10 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 8 QBH, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Cody Kirk, Jr. (241 carries, 1,351 yards, 14 TD; 23 receptions, 271 yards)
RB Tray Robinson, Sr. (122 carries, 641 yards, 5 TD)
RB Orenzo Davis, Sr. (206 carries, 1,126 yards, 10 TDs in 2010)
WR Everett Gilbert, Sr. (17 receptions, 152 yards, 2 TD; 22.3-yard KO return average)
WR Tanner Bleskin, Jr. (30 receptions, 417 yards, 3 TD)
WR John Ellis, Jr. (27 receptions, 342 yards, 1 TD)
C Shaun Sampson, Sr.
RT Steven Foster, Sr.
LT John Weidenaar, R-Fr.
LG Matthew Devereux, R-Fr.
RG Joel Horn, R-Fr.
RG Quinn Catalano, So.
DE Brad Daly, Jr. (31 TT, 13 TFL, 12.5 sacks, 7 QBH, 2 FF)
DE Caleb Schreibeis, Sr. (65 TT, 11 TFL, 7 sacks, 6 QBH, 2 PBU)
LB Jody Owens, Sr. (105 TT, 17 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 QBH, 1 FR)
LB Aleksei Grosulak, Jr. (8 TT, 2 PBU; injured last season)
LB Na'a Moeakiola, Jr. (37 TT, 2.5 TFL, 3 INT, 1 FF)
S Steven Bethley, Jr. (43 TT, 2 INT, 2 PBU)
S Joel Fuller, Sr. (61 TT, 8 PBU, 1 FF)
CB Deonte Flowers, So. (39 TT, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 8 PBU)
CB Sean Gords, Jr. (23 TT, 2.5 TFL, 3 PBU)
CB James Andrews, Jr. (injured last season)
PK Trevor Bolton, R-Fr.
PK Keith Leenders, Jr. (JUCO transfer)
P Rory Perez, Jr. (44 punts 40.6 ypp)
BIGGEST LOSSES: WR Elvis Akpla (63 receptions, 1,145 yards, 11 TD) and PK Jason Cunningham (22-of-31 FG, 47-of-50 PAT)
OUTLOOK: The two-time defending co-Big Sky champion Bobcats will be a contender for the FCS national title if their offensive line, which has only one returning starter (Sampson), solidifies. Although they operate out of a one- back spread, a running backs unit doesn't get any deeper than Kirk, Robinson and Davis, who has been reinstated from academic ineligibility last season. The offense can still be balanced, though, with McGhee, already a two-time Walter Payton Award finalist, back for his third season as the starting quarterback. The natural leader will have to spread the passes after the Bobcats lost Akpla, last year's deep threat. The 4-3 defense is expected to be the best during the Ash era. The trio of Minter (a Buck Buchanan Award nominee), Daly and Schreibeis will pile up sacks, and the two back units are even deeper than the fearsome front. Owens was the conference's preseason defensive player of the year. Cunningham was an All-America first-team selection last year, so the Bobcats may struggle to fill the void. Still, this is the team to beat in the Big Sky.
Aug. 30 - vs. Chadron State
Sep. 8 - at Drake
Sep. 15 - vs. Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 22 - vs. Northern Colorado
Sept. 29 - at Southern Utah
Oct. 6 - at UC Davis
Oct. 13 - vs. Eastern Washington
Oct. 27 - vs. North Dakota
Nov. 3 - at Sacramento State
Nov. 10 - vs. Portland State
Nov. 17 - at Montana
2. EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES (6-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky)
COACH: Beau Baldwin (33-16 in four years at Eastern Washington; 43-19 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Nicholas Edwards, Sr. (95 receptions, 1,250 yards, 19 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: S Jeff Minnerly, Sr. (77 TT, 7 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Kyle Padron, Jr. (SMU transfer)
QB Anthony Vitto, Jr.
RB Mario Brown, Jr.
RB Jordan Talley, So. (120 carries, 413 yards, 5 TDs)
RB Quincy Forte, So.
WR/KR Greg Herd, Sr. (67 receptions, 1,022 yards, 7 TDs)
WR Brandon Kaufman, Jr. (76 receptions, 1,214 yards, 15 TDs in 2010; injured last season)
LT Cassidy Curtis, R-Fr.
LG Steven Forgette, Jr.
C Drew Reynolds, Jr.
RG Brandon Murphy, Jr.
RT Will Post, Sr.
DE David Gaylor, Jr.
DT Andru Pulu, Jr.
NT Evan Cook, Sr.
DE Paul Ena, Sr. (48 TT, 12 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 FR)
ILB Ronnie Hamlin, Jr. (85 TT, 5 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR)
ILB Grant Williams, Sr. (61 TT)
MLB Tyler Washburn, Sr. (35 TT, 1 FR)
OLB Zach Johnson, Sr. (30 TT in four games; injured)
CB Ronald Baines, Jr.
CB/KR T.J. Lee III, Jr. (48 TT, 2 INT, 1 PBU)
S Allen Brown, Jr.
PK Jimmy Pavel, Sr.
PK Kevin Miller, Jr.
P Jake Miller, So. (39 punts, 44.3 ypp)
BIGGEST LOSS: QB Bo Levi Mitchell (318-of-503, 4,009 yards, 33 TD, 13 INT)
OUTLOOK: After the 2010 FCS national champions disappointed last season - their 0-4 start basically knocked them out of the playoff picture - Baldwin is handing the keys to the offense to Padron. And he's telling the SMU transfer not to go easy on the engine. Padron, who threw for 5,902 yards and 41 touchdowns in 24 career games after he replaced Mitchell, who transferred to Eastern Washington and won the national title and then the 2011 Walter Payton Award, has three 1,000-yard receivers in Edwards, Herd and Kaufman. No defense will slow that trio. It is pivotal, and likely, the Eagles will get the running game going - 79 ypg last season - because the injury-ravaged offensive line is healthy again. The balanced defense is deeper after it slumped last season. It will benefit from Johnson, who played in only four games last season, getting back to his 2010 form. Ena and Ceja provide the pass rush, making life easier for a secondary that features Minnerly and Lee. Miller could be one of the best punters in the FCS. The Eagles have to guard against the first half of the schedule burying them again.
Aug. 30 - at Idaho
Sept. 8 - at Washington State
Sept. 22 - at Weber State
Sept. 29 - vs. Montana
Oct. 6 - vs. North Dakota
Oct. 13 - at Montana State
Oct. 20 - vs. Sacramento State
Oct. 27 - at Southern Utah
Nov. 3 - vs. Cal Poly
Nov. 10 - vs. UC Davis
Nov. 17 - at Portland State
3. MONTANA GRIZZLIES (11-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky)
COACH: Mick Delaney (first season at Montana; 7-9-1 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 8 (6 offense/2 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RT Danny Kistler, Jr.
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Jordan Tripp, Jr. (99 TT, 3.5 sacks in 2010; injured last season)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Jordan Johnson, Jr. (205-of-343, 2,400 yards, 21 TD, 9 INT; 89 carries, 506 yards and 4 TD)
QB Trent McKinney, R-Fr.
QB Adam Brzeczek, R-Fr. (Stanford transfer)
RB/RS Peter Nguyen, Sr. (151 carries, 835 yards, 3 TD; 23.8-yard KO return average))
RB Jordan Canada, So. (113 carries, 580 yards, 9 TD)
HB/FB Dan Moore, Sr. (120 carries, 430 yards, 7 TD)
WR Sam Gratton, Sr. (36 receptions, 465 yards, 3 TD)
WR Bryce Carver, Sr. (11 receptions, 140 yards, 1 TD)
WR Sean Haynes, So.
WR Mitch Saylor, So. (10 receptions, 110 yards)
TE Greg Hardy, Sr. (22 receptions, 199 yards)
LT Trevor Poole, So.
RG William Poehls, Jr.
LG Jake Hendrickson, Sr.
C Kjelby Oiland, Jr.
OL Max Kelly, Fr.
DE Josh Harris, Sr. (43 TT, 9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks)
DE Zach Wagenmann, So. (13 TT)
DE Derek Crittenden, R-Fr.
DT Alex Bienemann, Jr. (11 TT)
DT Tonga Takai, So. (6 TT)
LB John Kanongata'a, Jr. (93 TT, 12 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR)
LB Brock Coyle, Jr. (31 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT)
LB Josh Stuberg, Sr. (37 TT, 2 TFL, 1 FR)
LB Jeremaih Kose, So. (Palomar College transfer)
CB Sean Murray, Jr. (23 TT, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 2 FR)
CB Nate Harris, R-Fr.
CB Josh Dennard, So. (8 TT)
SS Matt Hermanson, So. (65 TT, 3.5 TFL, 3 INT, 1 FR, 2 FF)
FS Bo Tully, Jr. (52 TT, 1 INT, 2 FF)
PK/P Chris Lider, R-Fr.
PK/P Stephen Shaw, R-Fr.
BIGGEST LOSS: CB Trumaine Johnson (54 TT, 6 TFL, 2 INT, 12 PBU)
OUTLOOK: This isn't the same team that won a share of the Big Sky title last year and had the top-ranked scoring offense and defense. The March firing of head coach Robin Pflugrad followed player arrests and sexual assault allegations involving Griz players and former players. More problems appear to be coming (including NCAA sanctions), but getting back on the field has helped stabilize the messy offseason in Missoula. Delaney was given a two-year contract to clean up problems and keep the Griz's vaunted program at the top of the Big Sky (they went on to reach the FCS semifinals). It will be hard to stop the Griz running game as the offensive line will have its usual tree trunks. They return last year's top four returning ball carriers, including QB Johnson, who combined for 2,351 yards and 23 touchdowns. Johnson, though, faces a felony charge of sexual assault, leaving his season in doubt. Defensively, LB Kanongata'a and FS Tully are the only two true returning starters, but LB Tripp, the team's top defensive player who was hurt last season, is added into the mix. The linebackers unit will be among the best in the FCS. The kicking game is starting over without PK/P Brody McKnight. While the Griz have averaged 10 wins in their 26 straight winning seasons, people outside Missoula think they are vulnerable. The Griz disagree.
Sept. 1 - vs. South Dakota
Sept. 8 - at Appalachian State
Sept. 15 - vs. Liberty
Sept. 22 - vs. Northern Arizona
Sept. 29 - at Eastern Washington
Oct. 6 - at Northern Colorado
Oct. 13 - vs. Southern Utah
Oct. 20 - at North Dakota
Oct. 27 - vs. Idaho State
Nov. 3 - at Weber State
Nov. 17 - vs. Montana State
4. WEBER STATE WILDCATS (5-6 overall, 5-3 Big Sky)
COACH: Jody Sears (first season at Weber State and overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Mike Hoke, Sr. (164-of-262, 2,080 yards, 19 TD, 4 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Anthony Morales, Jr. (115 TT, 10 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Josh Booker, Jr. (118 carries, 701 yards, 5 TD)
RB C.J. Tuckett, Sr. (84 carries, 662 yards, 10 TD)
RB/KR Kris Parham, Sr. (21.3-yard KO return)
FB Tevia Tolutau, So.
WR Shaydon Kehano, Jr. (43 receptions, 883 yards, 8 TD)
WR Xavian Johnson, So. (28 receptions, 320 yards, 2 TD)
TE Brian Jankowski, Jr.
TE Curtis Cosgrove, Jr.
OT Shelton Robinson, So.
OT Tytan Timoteo, Jr.
DE Trevor Pletcher, Sr. (36 TT, 10 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 3 QBH, 2 FF, 2 BK)
DT Adam Sagapolutele-White, Sr.
CB David James, Sr. (34 TT, 1 INT, 7 PBU)
CB Devin Pugh, So.
CB Kela Marciel, Jr. (37 TT, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FR)
S Tony Epperson, Jr. (68 TT, 2.5 TFL)
S Willie Okwuonu, So. (60 TT, 3 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR)
PK/P Shaun McClain, Jr. (9-of-17 FG, 33-of-34 PAT)
BIGGEST LOSS: OLB Nick Webb (101 TT, 6.5 TFL, 5 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OUTLOOK: Following the retirement of head coach Ron McBride, Weber State has an interim head coach, the 44-year-old Sears. He arrived on campus in January as the defensive coordinator and was elevated in April after John L. Smith departed for the University of Arkansas. With 10 returning players who earned All-Big Sky honors (six were honorable mention), the Wildcats might have been overlooked in the Big Sky preseason polls (sixth head coaches, seventh media). Hoke was one of the more efficient QBs in the FCS last season, finishing 12th (150.2 rating) to help the Wildcats go from minus-9 in turnover margin in 2010 to plus-five. They should control the ball again with a huge fullback, Tolutau (6-foot-2, 255 pounds), paving the way for Booker and Tuckett. Defensively, they need considerable improvement, especially in the secondary, although all four starters return there. Their defensive leaders are DE Pletcher and LB Morales. The Wildcats won't play Montana State this season as Big Sky teams will play only eight of their conference foes.
Sept. 1 - at Fresno State
Sept. 8 - at Brigham Young
Sept. 15 - vs. McNeese State
Sept. 22 - vs. Eastern Washington
Sept. 29 - at UC Davis
Oct. 5 - vs. Cal Poly
Oct. 13 - at Sacramento St
Oct. 20 - at Southern Utah
Nov. 3 - vs. Montana
Nov. 10 - vs. Northern Colorado
Nov. 17 - at Idaho State
5. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS (6-5 overall, 1-3 Great West)
COACH: Ed Lamb (21-23 in four seasons at Southern Utah; 21-23 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (5 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Brad Sorensen, Sr. (288-of-425, 3,143 yards, 17 TD, 11 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DT Cody Larsen, Sr. (26 TT, 7.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 3 QBH, 1 INT, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Henna Brown, Sr. (27 carries, 118 yards, 3 TD)
RB/RS - Myles Crawford-Harris. Sr.
FB Lavell Ika, Jr.
WR Fatu Moala, Jr. (26 receptions, 370 yards)
WR Easton Pedersen, So. (23 receptions, 304 yards)
WR Griff McNabb, Jr.
TE Jacob Ellie, Jr.
LT Cody Burgess, So.
LG Zach Brackus, Jr.
C Dylan Fox, Sr.
RG Gavin Farr, So.
RT Russell Peterson, Jr.
DE Austin Anderson, So.
NT Brad Meyer, Jr.
DE Jeff Tukuafu, Sr. (27 TT, 4.5 TFL, 3 sacks)
OLB Namari Flentroy, Sr.
MLB Chad Hensen, Jr. (104 TT, 7 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR, 2 FF)
OLB Rickey Clark, Sr.
CB LeShaun Sims, R-Fr.
CB Tyree Mills, Jr.
SS - Miles Killebrew, R-Fr.
FS - Tommy Collett, Jr. (40 TT, 2 FR)
FS - Brennan Fjord, Sr. (32 TT, 2 PBU, 1 FR)
PK - Colton Cook, Jr. (14-of-19 FG, 27-of-27 PAT)
P - Brock Miller, Jr. (18 punts, 40.4 ypp)
BIGGEST LOSS: RB/RS Austin Minefee (154 carries, 625 yards, 9 TD; 46 receptions, 395 yards, 2 TD; 731 KO return yards)
OUTLOOK: Introductions aren't necessary. The Thunderbirds, who have joined the Big Sky from the Great West Conference, have played at least two of their new conference brethren in all but two seasons since 1993, including a 3-0 mark last season against Sacramento State, Weber State and Northern Arizona). Although the Thunderbirds return only 10 starters, six earned a form of All- Great West honors last season. The list includes the FCS' top NFL senior quarterback prospect in Sorensen (6-foot-5, 225 pounds), a pure pocket passer with pro-ready size, accuracy and decision-making skills. The problem is, the Thunderbirds lack other top skills position players. They are without last year's top two running backs and top six pass catchers, including WR Brady Measom, who is on a Mormon mission. The two lines have standouts in Farr and Brackus offensively and Larsen and Tukuafu defensively. Lamb is confident some newcomers are ready for lead roles, but Sorensen will have to carry the Thunderbirds for them to be better than a mid-level Big Sky team.
Aug. 30 - at Utah State
Sept. 8 - at California
Sept. 15 - vs. New Mex Highland
Sept. 22 - at Portland State
Sept. 29 - vs. Montana State
Oct. 6 - vs. Sacramento State
Oct. 13 - at Montana
Oct. 20 - vs. Weber State
Oct.. 27 - vs. Eastern Washington
Nov. 3 - at North Dakota
Nov. 10 - at Northern Arizona
6. PORTLAND STATE VIKINGS (7-4 overall, 5-3 Big Sky)
COACH: Nigel Burton (9-13 in two seasons at Portland State; 9-13 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (7 offense/4 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: PK Zach Brown, Sr. (24-of-27 FG, 27-of-29 PAT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Marquis Jackson, GS (Texas Southern transfer)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Josh Milhollin, So.
QB Collin Ramirez, Jr. (Butte JC transfer)
RB Shaquille Richard, So. (101 carries, 384 yards, 4 TD)
RB D.J. Adams, Jr. (Maryland transfer)
WR Keitrell Anderson, Sr.
WR Justin Monahan, Sr. (52 receptions, 707 yards, 6 TD)
WR/KR Nevin Lewis, Sr. (22 receptions, 337 yards, 2 TD; 23.7-yard KO return average)
TE Kalua Noa, Sr. (17 receptions, 217 yards, 2 TD)
LT Kyle Rhitt, Sr.
LG Cornelius Edison, So.
C Mitch Gaulke, Jr.
RG Joey Esposito, Sr.
RT Mitchell Van Dyk, Jr.
DE Brandon Tobias, So.
DE Bryant Long, Jr.
DE Nick Alexander, Jr. (Boise State transfer)
DT Dereck Jester, Sr.
DT Tomasi Molesi, Jr. (Arizona Western JC signee)
DT Julious Moore, Jr.
OLB Ian Sluss, Sr. (55 TT, 13.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 FF)
OLB Dionte Brooks, Sr. (27 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 BK)
MLB Khalil Bass, Sr. (45 TT, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks)
MLB Daniel Halverson, Fr.
CB Aaron Kincy, Sr.
CB Mike Williams, Sr. (40 TT, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU)
SS Joel Sisler, Sr. (35 TT, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 INT, 4 PBU, 2 FR)
FS Henry Organ, So.
P Thomas Duyndam, Sr. (43 punts, 39 ypp)
BIGGEST LOSS: QB Connor Kavanaugh (127-of-219, 1,628 yards, 9 TD, 6 INT; 162 carries, 1,060 yards, 7 TD)
OUTLOOK: A five-win improvement last season gave the Vikings their best record since they finished 7-4 in 2006. To improve on that mark - which will be difficult - Burton added some important transfers in his recruiting class. The Vikings also have a favorable home schedule of opponents. The big questions are, can the offense can replace Kavanaugh, who ran the pistol so well, and will they cut down an unsightly 10 1/2 penalties per game. The Vikings have led the Big Sky in rushing in each of the past two seasons, including a school- record 247.8 yards per game last year. QB Ramirez transfers in with a lofty reputation - his 30 touchdown passes at Butte Junior College surpassed Aaron Rodgers' school record. Either Ramirez or Milhollin should take the reins under center. The new QB will work behind four returning starters on the offensive line and can get the ball to RB Richard and WR Monahan. The linebackers unit, featuring Sluss and Sisler on the outside, is among the Big Sky's best. Plus the late addition of DE Jackson from Texas Southern was among the most influential in the FCS. There's not a better place-kicker in the FCS than Brown, who has 10 school records and six career field goals of at least 50 yards.
Sept. 1 - vs. Carroll (Mont.)
Sept. 8 - at North Dakota
Sept. 15 - at Washington
Sept. 22 - vs. Southern Utah
Sept. 29 - at Northern Arizona
Oct. 6 - vs. Idaho State
Oct. 20 - at Cal Poly
Oct. 27 - at UC Davis
Nov. 3 - vs. Northern Colorado
Nov. 10 - at Montana State
Nov. 17 - vs. Eastern Washington
7. NORTH DAKOTA (8-3 overall, 3-1 Great West)
COACH: Chris Mussman (23-20 in four seasons at North Dakota; 23-20 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Greg Hardin, So. (43 receptions, 549 yards, 3 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Ross Brenneman, Jr. (32 TT, 10 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 5 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Braden Hanson, Sr. (North Carolina transfer)
QB Joey Bradley, Jr.
TB Jake Miller, Jr. (195 receptions, 942 yards, 13 TD)
TB Mitch Sutton, Sr. (76 carries, 290 yards)
FB Ethan Magstadt, Sr.
FB Zach Adler, R-Fr.
WR/KR R.J. McGill, Jr. (34 receptions, 433 yards, 1 TD)
WR Tyrhe Ivory, So.
WR Blair Townsend, Jr.
TE Seth Wisthoff, Sr.
LT Darren Deneui, Jr.
LG Joe Gleason, Jr.
C Ian McGurran, Sr.
RG Emmett Lynch, Sr.
RT Caleb Gillson, Jr.
DE Jay Nelson, Sr. (23 TT, 10.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 3 PBU, 6 QBH, 3 FF)
OG/C Shea Walker, So.
NT Devin Benjamin, Sr. (23 TT, 3 BK)
OLB Dominique Bennett, Jr.
OLB Cordero Finley, Jr.
OLB Damon Andrews, Jr. (24 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 PBU, 1 FR)
ILB Ben Peters, So.
ILB Garrison Goodman, Jr. (26 TT, 2 PBU)
CB Chavon Mackey, Jr. (23 TT, 4 PBU)
CB Darryl Brown, So. (30 TT, 2 INT, 4 PBU)
SS/PR Erik Mersereau, Sr. (29 TT, 1 INT, 2 PBU)
FS Baylee Carr, So.
PK Zeb Miller, Jr.
P Brett Cameron, Sr.
BIGGEST LOSS: LB Dan Hendrickson (75 TT, 7 TFL, 4 QBH, 1 FF)
OUTLOOK: An upgrade in the schedule and the extra travel from the far eastern end of the Big Sky will be taxing on North Dakota. But Mussman's squad has the most returning All-Great West honorees (11) and plays a sneaky good style in which its team is physical, runs the ball, plays a field-position game and wins games in the fourth quarter (UND won its last four games by 12 points last season). The Green and White rotate a lot of defensive players, almost like a hockey team working shifts. They have a 3-4 alignment and the strength is up front with DEs Brenneman and Nelson and NT Benjamin. QB Hanson, a big left- hander, has transferred in from North Carolina to run the offense for one season and has two exceptional offensive talents in RB Miller and WR Hardin, who was injured over the final three games last season. If you like a good block party, North Dakota tied for an FCS-high 10 kicks (six field goals, four extra points) last season. UND needs to have a strong September because the October portion of the schedule is quite difficult.
Aug. 30 - vs. South Dakota School of Mines
Sept. 8 - vs. Portland State
Sept. 15 - at San Diego State
Sept. 22 - at Sacramento State
Sept. 29 - vs. Cal Poly
Oct. 6 - at Eastern Washington
Oct. 13 - vs. Northern Arizona
Oct. 20 - vs. Montana
Oct. 27 - at Montana State
Nov. 3 - vs. Southern Utah
Nov. 17 - at Northern Colorado
8. NORTHERN ARIZONA LUMBERJACKS (4-7 overall, 3-5 Big Sky)
COACH: Jerome Souers (76-82 in 14 seasons at Northern Arizona; 76-82 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Zach Bauman, Jr. (271 carries, 1,435 yards, 15 TD; 29 receptions, 352 yards, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Jarret Bilbrey, Jr. (32 TT, 5 sacks, 4 QBH, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Cary Grossart, Sr. (197-of-299, 2,745 yards, 16 TD, 7 INT; 79 carries, 234 yards)
RB Covaughn Deboskie, Sr. (Cal transfer)
FB Jake Hess, Sr.
WR Ify Umodu, Jr. (50 receptions, 667 yards, 4 TD)
WR Dejzon Walker, So. (22 receptions, 328 yards, 3 TD)
WR Nick Cole, Jr.
WR Jeremy Dang, Jr.
TE R.J. Rickett, So.
LT Joe Gurski, So.
LG Kyle Walker, Jr.
C Shane Moniz, So.
RG Roy Garcia, So.
RG Matt Wilson, Sr.
RT Trey Gilleo, Sr.
DE Steven Garcia, Jr. (Fullerton College transfer)
DT Tim Wilkinson, Jr. (31 TT, 7 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 QBH)
NT Justin Jungblut, Jr. (Boise State transfer)
OLB Brandon Phillips, Sr. (34 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU)
MLB Craig Frum, So. (45 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 QBH)
MLB Austin Hasquet, So.
OLB Tevin Ray, So.
CB Devin Willis, Sr.
CB Randy Hale, Jr.
CB Anders Battle, Jr. (35 TT, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 2 FF)
SS/RS Taylor Malenfant, Sr. (40 TT, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FR, 2 BK)
FS Taylor Patton, Sr.
PK/P Andy Wilder, Jr.
BIGGEST LOSS: DE Isaac Bond (36 TT, 7.5 sacks, 6 QBH, 2 FF)
OUTLOOK: Is this the Big Sky dark horse? Having lost five winnable games last year, the Lumberjacks believe they will bounce back from their worst season since 2005. They play all four Great West newcomers and don't take on Montana State or Eastern Washington. Advantage, Northern Arizona. Of course, so much rests on Bauman building on his outstanding sophomore season. The Walter Payton Award candidate ranked fourth in the FCS with 130.5 rushing yards per game. Grossart was also the most efficient quarterback in the conference, and fifth nationally, with a 155.98 rating. The receiving corps lost big-pay threat Khalil Paden, but there's size and depth to keep opponents honest against Bauman. The 4-3 defense is usually balanced, as evidenced by 12 defenders collecting between 30 and 46 tackles a year ago. The D-line is being rebuilt, though, which is where some transfer players factor in. If the Lumberjacks want to win the close games, Wilder will have to come on strong as the new kicker.
Aug. 30 - at Arizona State
Sept. 8 - at UNLV
Sept. 15 - vs. Fort Lewis
Sept. 22 - at Montana
Sept. 29 - vs. Portland State
Oct. 13 - at North Dakota
Oct. 20 - vs. UC Davis
Oct. 27 - at Northern Colorado
Nov. 3 - at Idaho State
Nov. 10 - vs. Southern Utah
Nov. 17 - vs. Cal Poly
9. CAL POLY MUSTANGS (6-5 overall, 3-1 Big Sky)
COACH: Tim Walsh (17-16 in three seasons at Cal Poly; 134-98 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 7 (4 offense/3 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Andre Broadus, Sr. (101-of-170, 1,235 yards, 9 TD, 1 INT; 204 carries, 646 yards, 18 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Kennith Jackson, Sr. (80 TT, 6 TFL, 2 INT, 8 PBU, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
RB Deonte Williams, Sr. (82 carries, 385 yards, 5 TD)
RB/RS Cole Stanford, Jr.
FB Gabriel Umoh, Jr.
FB Brent Michaels, R-Fr.
FB Garrett Steele, R-Fr.
WR Lance Castenada, So. (26 receptions, 283 yards, 1 TD)
WR Willie Tucker, So. (14 receptions, 265 yards, 2 TD)
LT Giovanni Sani, Jr.
LG Kyle Zottneck, R-Fr.
C Geoff Hyde, Sr.
RG Lefi Letuligasenoa, Jr.
RT Karl Winkelman, Sr.
DE Nick Leyden, Jr.
NT Chris Lawrence, So.
DT Sullivan Grosz, Jr. (45 TT, 11 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 7 QBH, 1 FR)
DE Andrew Alcaraz, Jr.
DE Jake Irwin, So. (Wisconsin transfer)
DE Wesley Flowers, So. (UCLA transfer)
OLB Johnny Millard, Jr. (82 TT, 9 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU)
OLB Nick Dzubnar, So. (28 TT, 1 INT)
LB Cameron Ontko, So. (Wisconsin transfer)
CB Vante Smith-Johnson, Jr. (30 TT, 5 PBU)
CB Nico Molino, Sr.
S Alex Hubbard, Jr.
S Dave Douglas, So.
PK Stephen Pyle, R-Fr.
PK Bobby Zalud, Jr. (Arkansas State transfer)
P Paul Hundley, So. (45 punts, 39.8 ypp)
BIGGEST LOSSES: FB Jake Romanelli (226 carries, 1,015 yards, 7 TD) and CB Asa Jackson (54 TT, 2 INT)
OUTLOOK: The unique spread triple option already is a built-in advantage for the Mustangs as they move into the Big Sky, where one-back offenses are the norm. But not to be overlooked is their conference schedule, which allows them to avoid the two defending Big Sky champions, Montana and Montana State, and Eastern Washington (their Nov. 3 meeting won't count toward the conference standings). Walsh, who was a head coach in the Big Sky for 11 seasons at Portland State, believes going from four conference games (Great West) to eight (Big Sky) will make his players sharper. He needs to be right because his team lost plenty of key starters. It includes Romanelli and slotback Mark Rodgers, who combined for 2,944 rushing yards over the last two seasons. Their loss will allow opponents to focus more on stopping Broadus, their run-first QB (he has one interception in 234 career attempts). The defense is retooling in the secondary, where there are four new starters. The 4-3 front is athletic. DT Grosz gets into opposing backfields and Jackson could rival some of Cal Poly's all-time linebacker greats this season. PK James Langford would have been an All-America, but he transferred to Cal.
Sept. 1 - vs. San Diego
Sept. 15 - at Wyoming
Sept. 22 - vs. UC Davis
Sept. 29 - at North Dakota
Oct. 5 - at Weber State
Oct. 13 - vs. Northern Colorado
Oct. 20 - vs. Portland State
Oct. 27 - at Sacramento St
Nov. 3 - at Eastern Washington
Nov. 10 - vs. Idaho State
Nov. 17 - at Northern Arizona
10. UC DAVIS AGGIES (4-7 overall, 1-3 Great West)
COACH: Bob Biggs (140-78-1 in 19 seasons at UC Davis; 140-78-1 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Randy Wright, Jr. (188-of-336, 2,250 yards, 14 TD, 6 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Bobby Erskine, Sr. (32 TT, 9.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Colton Silveria, So. (131 carries, 570 yards, 6 TD)
FB Chad Davis, Sr.
WR/PR Tom Hemmingsen, Jr. (50 receptions, 622 yards, 7 TD; 11-yard punt return average)
WR Anthony Soto, Sr. (44 receptions, 551 yards, 4 TD)
WR Corey Galindo, So. (25 receptions, 334 yards, 2 TD)
TE Taylor Sloat, Jr.
LT Ian Joseph, So.
LG Sean Davies, Sr.
C Ray Wilburn, Sr.
RG Jimmy Kunkel, Jr.
RT Parker Smith, R-Fr.
DE Nick King, Jr.
DT Anthony Kaspar, So.
DT Andrew Benjamin, Sr. (40 TT, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FR)
OLB Steven Pitts, So.
OLB Byron Gruendl, Sr. (68 TT, 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF)
OLB Reece Ludwig, Sr. (42 TT, 4.5 TFL)
MLB Jordan Glass, Sr. (68 TT, 6.5 TFL, 2 INT, 1 FR, 1 FF)
CB/KR Jonathan Perkins, Jr. (23.3-yard KO return average)
CB Andre Allen, Jr. (31 TT, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU)
SS Earnest Sayles III, Jr. (30 TT, 2 PBU, 1 FF)
FS Kevyn Lewis, Sr. (49 TT, 4 TFL, 1 PBU)
PK Sean Kelley, Sr. (9-of-15 FG, 26-of-26 PAT)
P Colton Schmidt, Jr. (61 punts, 42.3 ypp)
BIGGEST LOSS: DE Tommy Grillo (29 TT, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OUTLOOK: Biggs is guiding his 20th and final Aggies squad (it's his 35th season on staff at UC Davis). A veteran squad with 22 seniors hopes to send him out a winner after they produced Biggs' worst record last season. The four-win season evened the Aggies at 44-44 since they joined the FCS from Division II in 2004. Davies and Wilburn anchor th0e offensive line, which is a good start for QB Wright, a two-year starter, and RB Silveria, who must rev up a struggling offense. Wright benefits from the return of top WRs Hemmingsen, Soto and Galindo. The defense is deep as well with eight of last year's top 10 tacklers back in the fold, including co-leaders Glass and Gruendl at linebacker. Add in experienced special teams and the Aggies have a shot at a winning season despite low expectations in the Big Sky polls (11th place media, 12th head coaches).
Aug. 30 - vs. Azusa Pacific
Sept. 8 - at San Jose State
Sept. 15 - at South Dakota State
Sept. 22 - at Cal Poly
Sep 29 - vs. Weber State
Oct. 6 - vs. Montana State
Oct. 13 - at Idaho State
Oct. 20 - at Northern Arizona
Oct. 27 - vs. Portland State
Nov. 10 - at Eastern Washington
Nov. 17 - vs. Sacramento State
11. IDAHO STATE BENGALS (2-9 overall, 1-7 Big Sky)
COACH: Mike Kramer (2-9 in one season at Idaho State; 79-84 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (9 offense/4 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Rodrick Rumble, Sr. (112 receptions, 1,348 yards, 12 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Jake Rouser, Sr. (51 TT, 9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 6 QBH, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Kevin Yost, Sr. (300-of-493, 2,973 yards, 15 TD, 12 INT)
RB Aaron Prier, So. (34 carries, 123 yards, 2 TD)
RB/RS Dan McSurdy, So. (19.8-yard KO return average)
WR Derek Graves, Sr. (43 receptions, 403 yards, 2 TD)
WR Luke Austin, Jr. (35 receptions, 439 yards, 2 TD)
WR Cam Richmond, Jr.
TE Josh Hill, Sr. (48 receptions, 407 yards, 1 TD)
LT Nick Beckman, So.
LG John van Vliet, Sr.
C Travis Namohala, Fr.
RG Mark Clampitt, Sr.
RT Jim Bagley, So.
RT Erik Jacobson, Sr.
DL Leki Fuapau, Sr.
DL James Bergren, Jr.
NT Austin Graves, So. (36 TT, 8 TFL, 2.5 saves, 4 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)
LB Mitch Beckstead, So.
LB Jake Pele, So.
LB Demetrius Allen, So.
LB Trevor Spence, Jr.
CB Donovan Henley, Sr. (43 TT, 4 INT, 6 PBU)
CB Anthony Boyles, Sr. (wide receiver last season)
SS Tanner Davis, Jr.
FS Cameron Gupton, Jr.
PK Brendon Garcia, Jr. (9-of-11 FG, 16-of-20 PAT)
P C.J. Reyes, So.
BIGGEST LOSS: LB A.J. Storms (122 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 4 FR)
OUTLOOK: Kramer freely admits his team's chemistry was subpar last season, but he believes much of the problem has been solved this offseason. He's booted players from the program and demanded more accountability. The team's 3.16 grade-point average in the spring suggests the message has gotten through to the players. The Bengals passed the ball all over the field last season, but it didn't always translate into points. They scored 14 or fewer points in eight losses. But with nine starters back offensively, including the Yost-to-Rumble connection, the Bengals should be much better offensively. Rumble, a Walter Payton Award finalist, became the first Big Sky player with over 100 receptions, finishing with 112. Defensively, the Bengals should struggle again after giving up the most points in the Big Sky (36.7 per game). Although the Bengals don't have to play Montana State or Eastern Washington, they haven't won a road game since 2006. That run could end Oct. 20 at Northern Colorado.
Sept. 1 - at Air Force
Sept. 8 - vs. Black Hills State
Sept. 22 - at Nebraska
Sept. 29 - vs. Sacramento State
Oct. 6 - at Portland State
Oct. 13 - vs. UC Davis
Oct. 20 - at Northern Colorado
Oct. 27 - at Montana
Nov. 3 - vs. Northern Arizona
Nov. 10 - at Cal Poly
Nov. 17 - vs. Weber State
12. SACRAMENTO STATE HORNETS (4-7 overall, 1-3 Big Sky)
COACH: Marshall Sperbeck (24-32 in four years at Sacramento State; 133-85 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (5 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Morris Norrise, Jr. (38 receptions, 471 yards)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Todd Davis, Jr. (96 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Garrett Safron, So. (24-of-57, 394 yards, 3 TD)
QB Mason Magleby, Jr. (Nevada transfer)
RB Sam McCowan, Sr. (53 carries, 307 yards, 1 TD)
RB A.J. Ellis, Sr. (Fresno State transfer)
RB Ezekial Graham, Jr. (Los Angeles Southwest JC transfer)
WR/KR DeAndre Carter, So. (12 receptions, 161 yards)
TE DJ Maciel, Jr.
LG Clay DePauw, Sr.
RG Tyler Worthley, Jr.
RT Derek Stickney, So.
OL Aaron Gasper, Sr.
OL Vince Weaver, Sr.
DT Matt Lawrence, Sr. (32 TT, 5 TFL, 2 QBH, 1 FR)
DE John Bloomfield, Sr. (29 TT, 2.5 TFL)
LB Jeff Badger, Sr. (85 TT, 7 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 PBU, 3 QBH)
LB Henry Fernandez, Jr. (33 TT, 3 TFL, 1 FF)
CB Osagie Odiase, Jr. (41 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 INT, 6 PBU, 1 FF)
S Ryan McMahon, Sr. (86 TT, 3.5 TFL, 5 PBU)
DB Christopher Lopes, Jr. (Connecticut transfer)
DB Dijon Washington, Jr. (Nebraska transfer)
P Smith Heath, So. (16 punts, 33.3 ypp)
BIGGEST LOSSES: QB Jeff Fleming (105-of-193, 1,138 yards, 7 TD, 5 INT; 82 carries, 382 yards, 5 TD) and RB Bryan Hilliard (168 carries, 665 yards, 7 TD)
OUTLOOK: Sacramento State continues to struggle to get over the hump in the Big Sky, having posted only two winning conference records in 16 years. An encouraging 2010 preceded a disappointing 2011 despite the presence of key seniors. The Hornets have brought in some transfers to fill holes, but they are in rebuilding mode. The team's strength is at linebacker with Davis and Badger, and on the offensive line, which has five players with considerable experience. Sperbeck has relinquished the offensive coordinator's role to former Southern Utah quarterbacks coach Paul Peterson. The role will be challenging because the Hornets return only 28 percent of their total offensive yards from last season. Either QB Safron or Magleby must get settled in the new passing attack while the offense replaces some key wide receivers as well as Hilliard. Norrise will be a key piece for the offense.
Aug. 30 - at New Mexico State
Sept. 8 - at Colorado
Sept. 15 - vs. Northern Colorado
Sept. 22 - vs. North Dakota
Sept. 29 - at Idaho State
Oct. 6 - at Southern Utah
Oct. 13 - vs. Weber State
Oct. 20 - at Eastern Washington
Oct. 27 - vs. Cal Poly
Nov.. 3 - vs. Montana State
Nov. 17 - at UC Davis
13. NORTHERN COLORADO (0-11 overall, 0-8 Big Sky)
COACH: Earnest Collins Jr. (0-11 in one season at Northern Colorado; 8-23 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (8 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Seth Lobato, Jr. (199-of-365, 2,448 yards, 17 TD, 10 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: MLB Clarence Bumpas, Jr. (145 TT, 10.5 TFK, 3 PBU, 2 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: TB Quentin Hildreth, Jr. (116 carries, 388 yards, 3 TD)
FB Ryan Gackle, So.
WR Jace Davis, Jr. (53 receptions, 992 yards, 7 TD in 2010; academically ineligible last season)
WR Chris Morris, Sr. (51 receptions, 502 yards, 3 TD)
WR/RS Dominic Gunn, Sr. (25 receptions, 330 yards, 3 TD; 25.9-yard KO return average)
TE Doug Steele, Sr.
LT Nick Candler, Sr.
LG Tyler Olker, Jr. (College of DuPage transfer)
C Jake Solomon, Sr.
RG Chris Anderson, Sr.
RT Sean Palinckx, R-Fr.
DE Marcus Lucas, Sr.
NG Lexington Smith, So. (31 TT, 3 TFL, 1 FF)
DT Devontae Chapple, So. (44 TT, 8.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks)
DE Gavin Miller, Jr.
OLB Dominick Sierra, Jr. (Cerritos College transfer)
OLB Cameron Friend, Sr. (93 TT, 4 TFL, 3 INT, 1 FF)
OLB Herve Tonye-Tonye, Sr. (sat out last season)
OLB Leilon Willingham (Central Florida transfer)
CB Courtney Hall, So. (43 TT, 1 PBU)
CB Mykel Morse, So. (Scottsdale CC transfer)
SS Tyler Dogins, Jr. (Bakersfield College transfer)
FS Marcel Gibbons, Sr. (90 TT, 12 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF)
PK/P Dave Eden, Jr.
P/PK Mason Puckett, Sr.
BIGGEST LOSS: WR Patrick Walker (84 receptions, 1,171 yards, 10 TD)
OUTLOOK: The Bears were winless last season, but were much more competitive in the second half of the season and would have defeated Portland State in their final game if not were a blown call. Collins believes there has been more commitment from his players during the offseason. On the field, they have to cut down on the mental mistakes which plagued them last season. The Bears run a 4-3 defense, but they might want to consider a 3-4 considering their strong linebackers corps. Bumpas (conference-high 145 tackles) is the headliner as a Buck Buchanan Award candidate and Friend (93 tackles) and transfer Willingham are part of a deep mix. FS Gibbons also had 90 tackles last season, proving the defense was on the field too much. The Bears have a big offensive line, but emerging QB Lobato (6-5, 221) is big himself. Despite the loss of Walker, a 1,000-yard receiver, Davis is back in the mix and is among the conference's best wide receivers. There's definitely some winnable games on the schedule, and the Bears plan to get some.
Aug. 30 - at Utah
Sept. 8 - vs. Colorado Mesa
Sept. 15 - at Sacramento State
Sept. 22 - at Montana State
Oct. 6 - vs. Montana
Oct. 13 - at Cal Poly
Oct. 20 - vs. Idaho State
Oct. 27 - vs. Northern Arizona
Nov. 3 - at Portland State
Nov. 10 - at Weber State
Nov. 17 - vs. North Dakota