In the FCS Huddle: Big Sky newcomers seek to take next step

The fact the football coaches from the old Great West Conference are demanding much more from their teams suggests a lot about their place in the Big Sky Conference.

Their teams belong there.

Cal Poly was outstanding in its first season in the Big Sky last year - earning a share of the conference championship - but the other three newcomers weren't nearly as content with their results, even though Southern Utah, North Dakota and UC Davis held their own while all four programs stepped up in class to what has become the biggest FCS conference in the nation.

The four will need to put the pedal to the mettle this season. The Big Sky preseason polls that were released Monday reflect the depth of the conference. Cal Poly is expected to be a national Top 15 team again, but it was picked only fourth behind preseason favorite Montana State, Eastern Washington and Montana in both the conference coaches and media polls.

North Dakota was picked seventh and Southern Utah ninth in both polls, which were exactly the same except for UC Davis was tabbed 11th in the media poll ahead of Weber State and the two were flip-flopped in the coaches poll.

Quarterback and three-time Walter Payton Award finalist DeNarius McGhee of Montana State was named the preseason offensive player of the year and Montana linebacker Jordan Tripp, the 2012 Buck Buchanan Award finalist, was selected as the preseason defensive player of the year.

All 13 schools were represented on the preseason all-conference team. Northern Arizona had the most selections with six.

In the first season of the Big Sky's recent expansion, Cal Poly shared the title with Eastern Washington and Montana State, going 9-3 overall and 7-1 in the conference and reaching the FCS playoffs.

Southern Utah finished 5-6 overall, but was 4-4 in the conference and tied for fifth place. North Dakota, a co-champion with Cal Poly in the final season of the Great West Conference in 2011, went 5-6 and 3-5, while UC Davis finished 4-7 and 3-5, with both teams part of a tie for eighth place. SUU and UND hung their hats on wins over national power Montana.

"Cal Poly was super," Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said, "but the rest of the old GWC teams need to step up our consistency of play in order to earn the respect of this great conference."

"Our players learned, No. 1, of the competitiveness of the Big Sky," Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said, "and that each and every week becomes a championship week and playoff game. You will find yourself in the middle of the pack if you don't look at it that way. You will be on the outside looking in."

Among the four teams, only UC Davis returns its starting quarterback, fifth- year senior Randy Wright. But the Aggies have a new head coach in Ron Gould, who replaced Bob Biggs after his 20-year run.

During spring practices, Cal Poly's triple option didn't get an answer at quarterback from a five-player competition. The QB derby includes junior Vince Moraga, the backup to Andre Broadous last season.

Southern Utah has to replace San Diego Chargers seventh-round selection Brad Sorensen. Junior college transfer Aaron Cantu appeared to grab the reins in the spring, but recent Oregon State transfer Richie Harrington figures to factor into the picture.

Redshirt freshmen Joe Mollberg and Ryan Bartels both hope to win the starting job at North Dakota.

"I thought all four of us were nice additions to the league. Obviously, Cal Poly came in and made the playoffs, but I think each one of us fit in well," UND coach Chris Mussman said.

"The biggest thing we learned, especially from the games where we were kind of overwhelmed, is you cannot make mistakes. You make one and things just start to steamroll and the game gets away from you. You have to play smart, sound football for 60 minutes. And, offensively, you have to be explosive and score quickly at times. There are not a lot of slow-it down, methodical-type teams in the Big Sky and we found that out quickly."


Voted on by Head Coaches

1. Montana State (8 first-place votes), 140 points

2. Eastern Washington (3), 130

3. Montana (2), 111

4. Cal Poly, 109

5. Northern Arizona, 104

6. Sacramento State, 88

7. North Dakota, 66

8. Northern Colorado, 63

9. Southern Utah, 57

10. Portland State, 49

11. Weber State, 48

12. UC Davis, 37

13. Idaho State, 12

Voted on by Media

1. Montana State (31), 596

2. Eastern Washington (12), 566

3. Montana (3), 492

4. Cal Poly (1), 466

5. Northern Arizona, 457

6. Sacramento State (1), 374

7. North Dakota, 309

8. Northern Colorado, 239

9. Southern Utah, 228

10. Portland State, 212

11. UC Davis, 191

12. Weber State, 164

13. Idaho State, 74


Offensive MVP - DeNarius McGhee, Sr., QB, Montana State

Defensive MVP - Jordan Tripp, Sr., LB, Montana State


QB - DeNarius McGhee, Sr., Montana State

RB - Zach Bauman, Sr., Northern Arizona

RB - Cody Kirk, Sr., Montana State

FB - Dalton Turay, Jr., UC Davis

OG - Tyler Worthley, Sr., Sacramento State

OG - Gavin Farr, Sr., Sacramento State

C - Mitch Gaulke, Sr., Southern Utah

OT - Danny Kistler, Sr., Montana

OT - Giovanni Sani, Sr., Cal Poly

WR - Greg Hardin, Sr., North Dakota

WR - Tanner Bleskin, Sr., Montana State

WR - Fatu Moala, Sr., Southern Utah

WR - Morris Norrise, Sr., Sacramento State

TE - R.J. Rickert, Jr., Northern Arizona

K - Colton Cook, Sr.,Southern Utah

Return - Greg Hardin, Sr., North Dakota


DE - Zack Wagenman, Jr., Montana

DE - Brad Daly, Sr. Helena, Mont. Montana State

DT - Sullivan Grosz, Sr., Cal Poly

DT - Tim Wilkinson, Sr., Northern Arizona

OLB - Jordan Tripp, Sr., Montana

OLB - Trevor Spence, Sr., Idaho State

ILB - Ronnie Hamlin, Sr., Eastern Washington

ILB - Clarence Bumpas, Sr., Northern Colorado

ILB - Anthony Morales, Sr., Weber State

CB - Anders Battle, Sr., Northern Arizona

CB - T.J. Lee III, Sr., Eastern Washington

S - Lucky Dozier, Sr., Northern Arizona

S - Allen Brown, Sr., Eastern Washington

P - Andy Wilder, Sr., Northern Arizona

Special Teams

Chris Judge, Sr., Cal Poly