Philadelphia, PA – Montana State quarterback DeNarius McGhee says pressure is just a word.
"It doesn't exist when you're prepared," he adds.
McGhee has done a superb job of deflecting pressure over his first three seasons of running the Bobcats' offense. He has been a Walter Payton Award finalist each time and helped lead his team to a share of the Big Sky Conference championship. He also returns for his final season with more total yards (10,017 - 9,116 passing and 901 rushing) than any other returning quarterback in the FCS.
His Bobcats are on track for another banner campaign, but it's in the postseason when they will feel quite a bit of pressure.
The favorite in both the Big Sky preseason coaches and media polls again this season, the Bobcats want to get past the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs, which is something another conference team has done in each of the past three seasons, including Eastern Washington's national championship run in 2010.
Montana State is 30-8 over the big three-season run, but only 2-3 in the playoffs.
Coach Rob Ash returns 14 starters and 37 letterwinners to this year's club, with all of them anxious to show they are prepared for the games, and the pressure, ahead.
The Big Sky sent its three tri-champions - Montana State, Eastern Washington and Cal Poly - to the playoffs last season. With the playoffs expanding to 24 teams this year, the Big Sky could get more than three qualifiers this season, with Montana, Northern Arizona and Sacramento State the other leading candidates.
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2013 Big Sky Conference race.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
1. Montana State
2. Eastern Washington
4. Northern Arizona
5. Cal Poly
6. Sacramento State
7. Northern Colorado
8. North Dakota
9. Weber State
10. Southern Utah
11. Portland State
12. UC Davis
13. Idaho State
1. MONTANA STATE BOBCATS
LOCATION: Bozeman, Mont.
COACH: Rob Ash (50-22 in six seasons at Montana State; 226-121-5 overall)
LAST SEASON: 11-2 overall, 7-1 Big Sky; No. 5 TSN Ranking
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB DeNarius McGhee, Sr. (284-of-430, 3,154 yards, 24 TD, 11 INT; 137 carries, 364 yards, 5 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Brad Daly, Sr. (52 TT, 10.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Cody Kirk, Sr. (171 carries, 841 yards, 13 TD; 18 receptions, 175 yards, 1 TD)
WR Tanner Bleskin, Sr. (66 receptions, 928 yards, 4 TD)
WR Jon Ellis, Sr. (53 receptions, 55 yards, 6 TD);
WR Tanner Roderick, So. (Nevada transfer)
TE Tiai Salanoa, Jr.
LT John Weidenaar, So.
C Matthew Devereux, So.
RG Quinn Catalano, Jr.
NT Craig Ashworth, Sr.
LB Cole Moore, Jr.
FS Steven Bethley, Sr. (44 TT, 3 INT, 7 PBU, 2 FR)
CB Deonte Flowers, Jr. (56 TT, 4 PBU, 1 FR)
P Rory Perez, Sr.
BIG LOSSES: LB Jody Owens (97 TT, 15.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 5 FF) and DE Caleb Schreibeis (59 TT, 15 TFL, 12.5 sacks, 4 PBU, 7 QBH, 8 FF)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 169.15 (41 in FCS, 5 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 246.23 (29 in FCS, 6 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 415.38 (29 in FCS, 6 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 33.46 (20 in FCS, 5 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 106.38 (8 in FCS, 2 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 210 (54 in FCS, 3 in Big Sky; Total Defense, 316.38 (16 in FCS, 1 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 21.08 (25 in FCS, 1 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: Having won a share of each of the past three Big Sky titles, the Bobcats suffered enough key losses on last year's top-ranked Big Sky defense to make them vulnerable to the rest of the conference this season. The losses include all-conference linebacker Na'a Moeakiola to a season-ending injury and fellow linebacker Aleksei Grosulak to career-ending injuries as well as the graduation of last year's Big Sky defensive player of the year (Owens) and the Buck Buchanan Award recipient (Schreibeis). The offense will flourish behind McGhee, their three-time Walter Payton Award finalist, the hard-nosed Kirk running the ball, a deep receiving corps and an offensive line that is in better shape that it was entering the 2012 season. First thing's first, the Bobcats want to win another Big Sky title, and they face some tricky road games. But they also have a long-range goal of getting past the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs, where they have been drubbed by Sam Houston State in each of the past two seasons.
Aug. 29 - vs. Monmouth
Sept. 7 - at SMU
Sept. 14 - vs. Colorado Mesa
Sept. 21 - at Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 28 - at North Dakota
Oct. 5 - vs. Northern Arizona
Oct. 19 - at Weber State
Oct. 26 - vs. UC Davis
Nov.. 2 - at Northern Colorado
Nov. 9 - at Eastern Washington
Nov. 16 - vs. Southern Utah
Nov. 23 - vs. Montana
2. EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES
LOCATION: Cheney, Wash.
COACH: Beau Baldwin (44-19 in five seasons at Eastern Washington; 54-22 overall)
LAST SEASON: 11-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky; No. 4 TSN Ranking
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Vernon Adams, So. (131-of-215, 1,961 yards, 20 TD, 8 INT; 65 carries, 342 yards, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Ronnie Hamlin, Jr. (136 TT, 13 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Demitrius Bronson, Sr. (132 carries, 472 yards, 11 TD)
RB Quincy Forte, Jr. (126 carries, 597 yards, 2 TD)
RB Mario Brown, Jr.
WR/PR Ashton Clark, Sr. (49 receptions, 650 yards, 5 TD)
WR/PR Cooper Kupp, So.
TE Zack Kehring, Sr.
LG Steven Forgette, Sr.
C Ashton Miller, Sr.
LT Clay DeBord, So.
DT Andru Pulu, Sr. (36 TT, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 QBH)
DE Anthony Larry, Sr.
LB Cody McCarthy, Jr.
CB T.J. Lee III, Sr. (90 TT, 9 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 11 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR)
CB Ronald Baines, Sr.
S Allen Brown, Sr. (91 TT, 7 PBU)
S Tevin McDonald, Jr. (UCLA transfer)
P Jake Miller, Jr. (40 punts, 43.3 ypp)
BIG LOSS: WR Brandon Kaufman (93 receptions, 1,850 yards, 16 TD)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 123.14 (90 in FCS, 10 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 318.66 (7 in FCS, 2 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 442 (14 in FCS, 3 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 33.71 (17 in FCS, 3 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 176.79 (77 in FCS, 11 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 225.07 (78 in FCS, 4 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 401.86 (81 in FCS, 6 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 25.43 (54 in FCS, 4 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: The Eagles have a talented team which will be tested by one of the toughest schedules in the FCS. However, it shouldn't stop the Eagles (last year's Big Sky tri-champions with Cal Poly and Montana State) from returning to the FCS playoffs. They won the 2010 national championship and reached the national semifinals last season, where they lost at home to Sam Houston State (their opponent again on Sept. 28). This is Adams' team to lead after he shared time last season with departed quarterback Kyle Padron. Adams has a deep stable of running backs, and the Eagles have improved there, but their receiving game lost three starters who totaled 8,713 receiving yards and 83 touchdown catches in their careers. Hamlin is the headliner defensively, but the secondardy is the best unit, with McDonald joining a veteran group.
Aug. 31 - at Oregon State
Sept. 7 - vs. Western Washington
Sept. 14 - at Toledo
Sept. 28 - at Sam Houston State
Oct. 5 - vs. Weber State
Oct. 12 - at North Dakota
Oct. 19 - vs. Southern Utah
Oct. 26 - at Montana
Nov. 2 - at Idaho State
Nov. 9 - vs. Montana State
Nov.. 16 - at Cal Poly
Nov. 23 - vs. Portland State
3. MONTANA GRIZZLIES
LOCATION: Missoula, Mont.
COACH: Mick Delaney (5-6 in one season at Montana; 12-15-1 overall)
LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-5 Big Sky
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (7 offense/10 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RT Danny Kistler, Sr.
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Jordan Tripp, Sr. (95 TT, 13.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 4 FF, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Jordan Johnson, Jr. (sat out last season)
QB Trent McKinney, So. (134-of-205, 1,350 yards, 8 TD, 8 INT; 86 carries, 399 yards, 7 TD)
RB Jordan Canada, Jr. (118 carries, 586 yards, 4 TD)
WR Ellis Henderson, So.
C Kjelby Oiland, Sr.
LT John Schmaing, So.
LT Trevor Poole, Jr.
DE Zach Wagenmann, Jr. (50 TT, 13 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 4 PBU, 2 FF)
DE Tyrone Holmes, So.
DT Alex Bienemann, Sr.
DT Tonga Takai, Jr.
LB Brock Coyle, Sr. (107 TT, 6.5 TFL, 4 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR)
LB John Kanongata'a, Sr. (72 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 FR)
CB Sean Murray, Sr.
CB Joshua Dennard, Jr.
SS Bo Tully, Sr. (64 TT, 2 INT, 5 PBU)
FS Matt Hermanson, Jr. (67 TT, 2 INT)
PK Chris Lider, So. (15-of-21 FG, 46 long; 82 points)
P Stephen Shaw, So.
BIG LOSS: RB Peter Nguyen (158 carries, 926 yards, 5 TD)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 235.73 (11 in FCS, 2 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 216.55 (55 in FCS, 11 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 452.27 (11 in FCS, 1 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 31.64 (T-27 in FCS, 6 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 92.55 (2 in FCS, 1 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 288.36 (120 in FCS, 13 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 380.91 (66 in FCS, 4 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 26.73 (60 in FCS, 5 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: Despite receiving NCAA sanctions this summer for illegal booster activity, Montana is allowed to play in the FCS playoffs during a three-year probationary period. The resolution of the year-and-a-half-long investigation into the program could help the Grizzlies get back on track after suffering their first losing record last season since 1985. It also was the first season in 20 years in which they didn't finish first or second in the conference. They should rebound nicely with the return of 10 starters on defense, including a trio of linebackers (top tacklers Coyle, Tripp and Kanongata'a) that is among the best in the FCS. Offensively, Johnson should return to being the starting quarterback. He led the Grizzlies to a co-Big Sky title and the national semifinals in 2011. Kistler (6-8, 315) is a mountain of an offensive lineman who will look to pave holes for Johnson, Canada and the running game.
Aug. 31 - vs. Appalachian State
Sept. 14 - at North Dakota
Sept. 21 - vs. Panhandle State
Sept. 28 - at Northern Arizona
Oct. 5 - vs. Portland State
Oct. 12 - at UC Davis
Oct. 19 - vs. Cal Poly
Oct. 26 - vs. Eastern Washington
Nov.. 2 - at Sacramento State
Nov. 9 - at South Dakota
Nov. 16 - vs. Weber State
Nov. 23 - at Montana State
4. NORTHERN ARIZONA LUMBERJACKS
LOCATION: Flagstaff, Ariz.
COACH: Jerome Souers (84-85 in 15 seasons at Northern Arizona)
LAST SEASON: 8-3 overall, 6-2 Big Sky; No. 20 TSN Ranking
STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (9 offense/9 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Zach Bauman, Sr. (225 carries, 1,182 yards, 8 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: SS Lucky Dozier, Sr. (57 TT, 4 INT, 5 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Chase Cartwright, Jr. (37-of-79, 461 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT)
QB Kyren Poe, So.
RB Casey Jahn, So. (41 carries, 306 yards, 4 TD)
WR Dejzon Walker, Jr. (36 receptions, 505 yards, 3 TD)
WR Ify Umodu, Sr. (35 receptions, 481 yards, 6 TD)
TE R.J. Rickert, Jr. (26 receptions, 272 yards, 3 TD)
LT Joe Gurski, Jr.
LG Kyle Walker, Sr.
C Shane Moniz, Jr.
RG Roy Garcia, Jr.
DT Tim Wilkinson, Sr.
NT Marc Thompson, Sr. (29 TT, 5.5 sacks)
DE Steven Garcia, Sr. (47 TT, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FR)
LB Austin Hasquet, Jr. (61 TT, 5.5 TFL)
LB Ryan Reardon, Sr.
CB Anders Battle, Sr. (64 TT, 1 INT, 6 PBU)
CB Marcus Alfred, So.
P/PK Andy Wilder, Sr. (61 punts, 46.3 ypp; 68 points)
BIG LOSS: QB Cary Grossart (180-of-270, 1,997 yards, 17 TD, 9 INT)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 174.18 (38 in FCS, 4 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 233.36 (39 in FCS, 9 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 407.55 (36 in FCS, 7 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 31.64 (T-27 in FCS, 6 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 137.55 (38 in FCS, 5 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 204.64 (44 in FCS, 1 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 342.18 (37 in FCS, 2 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 23.64 (43 in FCS, 2 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: Two straight losses to end last season destroyed the Lumberjacks' chances of winning the Big Sky title and reaching the FCS playoffs. They have the type of experienced squad to make amends for the disappointing finish, but with one big question: can they replace the production of Grossart at quarterback? Cartwright, who had knee surgery this offseason, has the first crack at the challenge. The new QB will be surrounded by excellent talent, including the only running back in the FCS this season (Bauman) who can rush for 1,000 yards for the fourth time (with 3,676 career yards, he is 119 yards shy of the school record). The defense was quite balanced last season, with Wilkinson, Battle and Dozier a strong trio of returnees. On special teams, Wilder led the FCS in punting average as a junior. The Lumberjacks will have to survive a difficult opening stretch to the Big Sky schedule to be in title contention again come November.
Aug. 30 - at Arizona
Sept. 14 - at UC Davis
Sept. 21 - vs. South Dakota
Sept. 28 - vs. Montana
Oct. 5 - at Montana State
Oct. 12 - at Sacramento State
Oct. 19 - vs. Idaho State
Oct. 26 - at Cal Poly
Nov. 2 - vs. North Dakota
Nov. 16 - vs. Northern Colorado
Nov. 23 - at Southern Utah
5. CAL POLY MUSTANGS
LOCATION: San Luis Obispo, Calif.
COACH: Tim Walsh (26-19 in four seasons at Cal Poly; 143-101 overall)
LAST SEASON: 9-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky; No. 12 TSN Ranking
STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (8 offense/10 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Slot Back Kristaan Ivory, Jr. (109 carries, 728 yards, 8 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DT Sullivan Grosz, Sr. (57 TT, 12.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 5 QBH)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Vince Moraga, Jr.
QB Tanner Trosin, Fr.
SB Cole Stanford, Sr. (38 carries, 241 yards; 17 receptions, 486 yards, 4 TD)
FB Akaninyene Umoh, Sr. (100 carries, 439 yards, 2 TD)
WR Willie Tucker, Jr. (28 receptions, 517 yards, 7 TD)
LT Giovanni Sani, Sr.
RG Lefi Letuligasenoa, Sr.
DT Chris Lawrence, Jr.
DE Jake Irwin, DE
LB Johnny Millard, Sr. (72 TT, 6 TFL, 2 sacks)
LB Nick Dzubar, Jr. (107 TT, 5.5 TFL, 5 PBU, 2 FR)
LB Cameron Ontko, Jr.
DB Alex Hubbard, Sr. (63 TT, 2 INT, 7 PBU)
CB Vante Smith-Johnson, Sr.
PK/P Bobby Zalud, Sr. (12-of-16 FG, 55-of-55 PAT)
BIG LOSSES: QB Andre Broadous (84-of-145, 1,375 yards, 18 TD, 4 INT; 157 carries, 500 yards, 9 TD) and SB Deonte Williams (231 carries, 1,506 yards, 12 TD)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 324.17 (3 in FCS, 1 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 125.17 (115 in FCS, 13 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 449.33 (13 in FCS, 2 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 36.67 (7 in FCS, 1 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 131.58 (33 in FCS, 4 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 243.08 (89 in FCS, 6 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 374.67 (57 in FCS, 3 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 23.67 (44 in FCS, 3 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: Most of the key players return on defense, so the Mustangs will be improved even after finishing third in the Big Sky in total defense and scoring defense. But their program is defined by the triple option offense, and they need a new quarterback at the trigger, with competition going deep into camp. The new starter will be hard-pressed to provide the production and leadership of Broadous. And speaking of production, Williams led the Big Sky in rushing last season, although Ivory is capable of having a 1,000-yard season at slot back after averaging 6.7 yards per carry as a sophomore. Among the defensive standouts, Grosz leads a veteran defensive line and the linebackers unit is strong despite the loss of four-year standout Kennith Jackson. With a couple upsets, Cal Poly, which tied for the Big Sky title in its first year in the Big Sky, is capable of another banner season.
Aug. 31 - vs. San Diego
Sept. 7 - at Fresno State
Sept. 14 - at Colorado State
Sept. 26 - at Portland State
Oct. 5 - vs. Yale
Oct. 12 - vs. Weber State
Oct. 19 - at Montana
Oct. 26 - vs. Northern Arizona
Nov. 2 - at UC Davis
Nov. 9 - vs. Sacramento State
Nov. 16 - vs. Eastern Washington
Nov. 23 - at Northern Colorado
6. SACRAMENTO STATE HORNETS
LOCATION: Sacramento, Calif.
COACH: Marshall Speck (30-37 in five seasons at Sacramento State; 139-90 overall)
LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 4-4 Big Sky
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Garrett Safron, Jr. (246-of-383, 2,540 yards, 22 TD, 12 INT; 98 carries, 377 yards, 2 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: CB Osagie Odiase, Sr. (65 TT, 3 TFL, 3 INT, 8 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB/WR Ezekiel Graham, Sr. (166 carries, 861 yards, 5 TD; 40 receptions, 406 yards, 2 TD)
RB De'Jon Coleman, So.
WR Morris Norrise, Sr. (60 receptions, 777 yards, 7 TD)
WR DeAndre Carter, Jr.
TE D.J. Maciel, Sr.
OL Tyler Worthley, Sr.
OT Aleksandar Milanovic, So.
RT Derek Stickney, Jr.
DE/DT Trent Eskew, Sr.
DE/DT Ben Cowger, Jr.
NT Nathan Castro, Jr.
LB Todd Davis, Sr. (103 TT, 13.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 PBU)
MLB Henry Fernandez, Sr.
CB Markell Williams, Sr. (70 TT, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT, 2 PBU)
S Dijon Washington, Sr. (51 TT, 4 PBU)
P Justin Weldon, Sr.
BIG LOSS: S Ryan McMahon (97 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT, 6 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 163.27 (49 in FCS, 6 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 241.91 (31 in FCS, 7 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 405.18 (38 in FCS, 8 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 27 (55 in FCS, 10 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 145.09 (47 in FCS, 6 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 248.55 (100 in FCS, 9 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 393.64 (77 in FCS, 5 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 28.18 (68 in FCS, 6 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: In recent years, the Hornets have found beating Pac-10 opponents (Oregon State in 2011 and Colorado last year) to be easier than beating Big Sky opponents. But there's plenty of talent on the roster, so they have an outside chance of being a conference title contender. Their passing game will be outstanding with emerging QB Safron, WR Norrise and RB Graham coming out of the backfield. The Hornets will put up points and their defense does a decent job of limiting them in an offensive-minded conference. The strength is in the veteran secondary, but the unit will need help from the front seven. The schedule-maker did the Hornets a big favor because they don't have to face Montana State and Eastern Washington.
Aug. 29 - at San Jose State
Sept. 5 - at Arizona State
Sept. 14 - vs. Southern Oregon
Sept. 21 - vs. Southern Utah
Sept. 28 - at Weber State
Oct. 5 - vs. Northern Colorado
Oct. 12 - vs. Northern Arizona
Oct. 19 - at North Dakota
Nov. 2 - vs. Montana
Nov. 9 - at Cal Poly
Nov. 16 - at Portland State
Nov. 23 - vs. UC Davis
7. NORTHERN COLORADO BEARS
LOCATION: Greeley, Colo.
COACH: Earnest Collins Jr. (5-17 in two seasons at Northern Colorado; 13-29 overall)
LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 4-4 Big Sky
STARTERS RETURNING: 18 (9 offense/9 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Seth Lobato, Sr. (231-of-396, 2,797 yards, 19 TD, 10 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Clarence Bumpas, Sr. (49 TT, 3 TFL in five games)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Tromaine Dennis, Sr. (203 carries, 953 yards, 10 TD; 23 receptions, 187 yards, 1 TD)
RB Quentin Hildreth, Sr.
FB Sawyere Monson, Jr.
WR Jace Davis, Sr. (50 receptions, 642 yards, 3 TD)
WR Dimitri Stimphill, Jr.
LT Sean Palinckx, So.
LG Jake Solomon, Sr.
C Zak Thrall, Sr.
DE Gavin Miller, Sr. (48 TT, 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 FR)
DE Kyle Todd, Jr. (Monterey Peninsula College transfer)
NG Lexington Smith, Jr.
LB Leilon Willingham, Jr.
CB Courtney Hall, Jr.
S Kyle Griffin, Jr.
S Tyler Dogins, Jr.
PK Dave Eden, Sr.
BIG LOSS: LB Herve Tonye-Tonye (80 TT, 3.5 TFL, 3 FF)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 101 (107 in FCS, 11 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 259.09 (24 in FCS, 5 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 360.09 (69 in FCS, 12 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 25.64 (63 in FCS, 11 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 168.36 (70 in FCS, 10 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 240.91 (87 in FCS, 5 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 409.27 (87 in FCS, 9 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 29.45 (79 in FCS, 8 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: Year 2 for Collins was a lot different than his winless coaching debut in Greeley in 2011. This season can be even better with the Bears playing a school-record seven home games, including four in their first five games. They won four of their final games last season to post their best conference record (4-4) since joining the Big Sky in 2006. Lobato has thrown for 5,365 career yards and has some playmakers in RB Dennis and WR Davis (117 career receptions). After an injury-shortened junior season, Bumpas returns as a Buck Buchanan Award nominee. He has an excellent running mate at linebacker in Willingham, who is in his second season since transferring in from UCF. A record similar to last season appears likely.
Aug. 31 - vs. Langston
Sept. 7 - vs. CSU-Pueblo
Sept. 14 - at Wyoming
Sept. 21 - vs. Northern Iowa
Sept. 28 - vs. Southern Utah
Oct. 5 - at Sacramento State
Oct. 12 - at Idaho State
Oct. 19 - vs. UC Davis
Nov. 2 - vs. Montana State
Nov. 9 - at North Dakota
Nov. 16 - at Northern Arizona
Nov. 23 - vs. Cal Poly
8. NORTH DAKOTA
LOCATION: Grand Forks, N.D.
COACH: Chris Mussman (28-26 in five seasons at North Dakota)
LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-5 Big Sky
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR/KR Greg Hardin, Sr. (65 receptions, 1,145 yards, 14 TD; 31.6 KO return average)
DEFENSIVE STAR: ILB Garrison Goodman, Sr. (47 TT, 3 TFL, 1 FR, 1 BK in seven games)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Joe Mollberg, R-Fr.
QB Ryan Bartels, R-Fr.
TB Jake Miller, Sr. (94 carries, 543 yards, 2 TD)
FB Dewayne Pecosky, Jr.
WR Jameer Jackson, So. (56 receptions, 709 yards, 6 TD)
WR R.J. McGill, Sr.
WR Blair Townsend, Sr.
LT Joe Kleason, Sr.
RT Darren Deneui, Sr.
NG Ben Hensen, Jr.
DE Spencer Cummings, Jr.
DE Seth Stanchik, Sr.
OLB Cordero Finley, Sr. (40 TT, 1 INT, 2 FR)
ILB Ben Peters, Jr.
CB Daryl Brown, Jr.
CB Chris Hall, Sr.
FS Chavon Mackey, Sr. (53 TT, 2 INT, 5 PBU)
SS Will Lewis, Sr.
Rover Baylee Carr, Jr. (57 TT, 2 PBU, 1 FF)
PK Zeb Miller, Sr. (12-of-14 FG, 50 long; 78 points)
BIG LOSSES: QBs Braden Hanson (161-of-236, 1,964 yards, 15 TD, 7 INT) and Marcus Hendrickson (89-of-159, 1,304, 15 TD, 3 INT)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 133.36 (82 in FCS, 9 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 297.09 (11 in FCS, 3 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 430.45 (23 in FCS, 5 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 33.55 (18 in FCS, 4 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 235.27 (116 in FCS, 12 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 244.73 (95 in FCS, 8 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 480 (115 in FCS, 12 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 34.55 (102 in FCS, 11 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: North Dakota is coming off a credible first season in the Big Sky, which includes wins over Sacramento State and Montana. With seven home games, including four to start this season, UND is hopeful of a higher level of play. Mussman says it's time for many players to turn potential into production. New offensive coordinator Luke Schleusner doesn't have a quarterback who has thrown a collegiate pass, but the new starter will have a dynamite receivers unit, led by Hardin and Jackson. Hardin averaged 151.6 all-purpose yards per game and scored 15 touchdowns last season. Miller suffered through an injury- plagued sophomore season, so the running game should be improved this year. There's a new defensive coordinator as well, Josh Kotelnicki, and some of last year's high scores underscore the fact that UND needs improvement. Unfortunately, it lost three veterans on the defensive line who combined on over 80 career starts. Goodman sets the tone defensively, but he, too, was injured last season. In fact, Peters is the only returning defender who made all 11 starts last season.
Aug. 29 - vs. Valparaiso
Sept. 7 - vs. South Dakota State
Sept. 14 - vs. Montana
Sept. 28 - vs. Montana State
Oct. 5 - at Idaho State
Oct. 12 - vs. Eastern Washington
Oct. 19 - vs. Sacramento State
Oct. 26 - at Portland State
Nov. 2 - at Northern Arizona
Nov. 9 - vs. Northern Colorado
Nov. 16 - at UC Davis
9. WEBER STATE WILDCATS
LOCATION: Ogden, Utah
COACH: Jody Sears (2-9 in one season at Weber State)
LAST SEASON: 2-9 overall, 2-6 Big Sky
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: FB Bo Bolen, Jr. (returns from LDS mission; 153 carries, 704 yards, 3 TD, 1,807 all-purpose yards in 2010)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Anthony Morales, Sr. (108 TT, 9.5 TFL, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Jordan Adamczyk, Sr.
RB Josh Booker, Sr.
WR Shaydon Kehano, Jr. (11 receptions, 149 yards, 2 TD in three games)
WR Gamal Fowler, So.
LT Shelton Robinson, Jr.
RT Alex Land, Jr.
LG Joe Hawkins, So.
DE Obi Owoh, So.
LB Luke King, So.
CB Devonte Johnson, So.
S Chris Wheeler, Sr. (61 TT, 4.5 TFL)
PK Shaun McClain, Sr.
P Tony Epperson, Sr.
BIG LOSS: QB Mike Hoke (197-of-341, 2,065 yards, 13 TD, 9 INT; 143 carries, 273 yards, 3 TD)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 153.09 (57 in FCS, 7 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 202.82 (65 in FCS, 12 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 355.91 (75 in FCS, 13 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 21.73 (86 in FCS, 12 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 166.82 (68 in FCS, 9 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 259.91 (108 in FCS, 10 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 355.91 (75 in FCS, 13 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 32 (96 in FCS, 10 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: While Sears spent last season as the interim head coach, the Wildcats lost their first seven games and finished with their worst record since 2004. He was signed to a three-year contract shortly after the season and now the Wildcats hope to improve quickly in his second season. Their non-conference schedule is particularly tough and that is followed by a rugged opening half of the Big Sky season. It's not a senior-dominated group, although Morales is one of the conference's better linebackers. Another senior, Adamczyk, hopes to step up his play as the new starting quarterback. The Wildcats have to replace the production of C.J. Tuckett at running back, but they get back a superb talent in Bolen after a two-year LDS mission. They need him to pick up where he left off in 2010.
Aug. 31 - vs. Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 7 - at Utah
Sept. 14 - at Utah State
Sept. 21 - at McNeese State
Sept. 28 - vs. Sacramento State
Oct. 5 - at Eastern Washington
Oct. 12 - at Cal Poly
Oct. 19 - vs. Montana State
Nov. 2 - at Portland State
Nov. 9 - vs. Southern Utah
Nov. 16 - at Montana
Nov. 23 - vs. Idaho State
10. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS
LOCATION: Cedar City, Utah
COACH: Ed Lamb (26-29 in five seasons at Southern Utah)
LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 4-4 Big Sky
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: C Gavin Farr, Sr.
DEFENSIVE STARS: MLB Zak Browning, So. (115 TT, 5.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 4 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Aaron Cantu, Jr. (East Los Angeles College transfer)
QB Jacob Allie, Sr.
RB Malik Brown, So.
WR Fatu Moala, Sr. (65 receptions, 810 yards, 9 TD)
WR Mitch Jessop, Jr. (33 receptions, 519 yards, 3 TD)
WR Easton Pedersen, Jr.
LT Cody Burgess, Sr.
OL Daron Griffin, Sr.
OL Kyle Donaldson, Sr.
DE James Cowser, So. (61 TT, 13.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 5 QBH)
DE Austin Anderson, Jr.
DT Trever McFalls, Jr.
OLB Chad Hansen, Sr.
CB Tyree Mills, Jr.
SS Miles Kilebrew, So. (69 TT, 5 PBU)
SS Matt Holley, Jr.
FS Tommy Collet Jr., Sr.
PK Colton Cook, Sr. (19-of-22 FG, 49 long, 87 points)
P Brock Miller, Sr.
BIG LOSS: QB Brad Sorensen (273-of-439, 3,139 yards, 23 TD, 10 INT)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 85.82 (114 in FCS, 12 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 285.36 (16 in FCS, 4 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 371.18 (56 in FCS, 10 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 28.45 (47 in FCS, 8 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 162.55 (63 in FCS, 7 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 261.45 (109 in FCS, 11 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 424 (96 in FCS, 10 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 30.27 (84 in FCS, 9 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: The Thunderbirds program has really grown under Lamb, but where does it go after losing Sorensen to the NFL Draft? That's the big question in Cedar City, with another transfer, Cantu, gaining the inside track to the starting quarterback job in the spring. The Thunderbirds protected the ball quite well last season while sporting a Big Sky-best plus-15 turnover margin. Cantu, who has shown the most consistency out of the QB candidates, will have some weapons at wide receiver, namely Moala, but the running backs are basically new. Up front they have an All-American in Farr and a solid group. The defense has outstanding sophomores in each unit, DE Cowser, MLB Browning and SS Kilebrew, but the defensive front suffered a big graduation loss in Cody Larsen. Expect a similar season to last year, which was the Thunderbirds' first in the Big Sky.
Aug. 29 - at South Alabama
Sept. 7 - vs. Fort Lewis
Sept. 14 - at Washington State
Sept. 21 - at Sacramento State
Sept. 28 - at Northern Colorado
Oct. 5 - vs. UC Davis
Oct. 12 - vs. Portland State
Oct. 19 - at Eastern Washington
Oct. 26 - vs. Idaho State
Nov. 9 - at Weber State
Nov. 16 - at Montana State
Nov. 23 - vs. Northern Arizona
11. PORTLAND STATE VIKINGS
LOCATION: Portland, Ore.
COACH: Nigel Burton (12-21 in three seasons at Portland State)
LAST SEASON: 3-8 overall, 2-6 Big Sky
STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB D.J. Adams, Sr. (164 carries, 967 yards, 12 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: MLB Jaycob Shoemaker, Sr. (79 TT, 12 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 3 QBH)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Kieran McDonagh, So. (171-of-314, 2,187 yards, 14 TD, 13 INT; 89 carries, 406 yards, 9 TD)
RB Shaq Richard, Jr. (112 carries, 524 yards, 2 TD)
RB Justin Lilley, Sr.
WR Thomas Carter, So. (32 receptions, 313 yards, 2 TD)
WR Roston Tatum, Jr.
C Mitch Gaulke, Sr.
RT Mitchell Van Dyk, Sr.
LG Cornelius Edison, Jr.
DT Zack Ka'ahanui, Sr.
DT Julious Moore, Sr.
DE Nick Alexander, Sr.
OLB Zach Whalen, So.
OLB Brandon Brody-Heim, So.
CB Dennis Fite, Sr. (42 TT, 3 PBU)
S David Edgerson, Sr. (40 TT, 2 PBU, 1 FR)
S Nick Rothstein, So.
PK Nick Fernandez, Jr.
BIG LOSS: LB Ian Sluss (104 TT, 10 TFL, 4 INT, 3 PBU, 4 FR, 1 FF)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 217.91 (16 in FCS, 3 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 222.64 (46 in FCS, 10 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 440.55 (16 in FCS, 4 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 34.82 (11 in FCS, 2 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 127.55 (25 in FCS, 3 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 275.73 (116 in FCS, 12 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 403.27 (83 in FCS, 7 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 36 (106 in FCS, 12 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: Outside a triple option, it's hard to find many FCS running games that are deeper at the start of the season than Portland State's. McDonagh stepped into the lineup as a freshman quarterback and ran the offense in a way similar to his predecessor, Connor Kavanaugh. The success (217.5 rushing yards and 34.8 points per game) should continue this season because McDonagh can run the ball or hand it off to Adams and Richard. The question for Burton is, will the defense improve under new coordinator Jaime Hill. His unit lost some key starters and returns only one full-time starter from last year's struggling secondary in Carter. Some transfers may factor into the equation, but the Shoemaker-led defense must step up its play after surrendering 32 or more points in seven of the team's eight losses. The Vikings might not get to seven wins like they did in Burton's debut in 2011, but they should improve on last season.
Aug. 29 - vs. Eastern Oregon
Sept. 7 - at California
Sept. 14 - vs. Humboldt State
Sept. 21 - at UC Davis
Sept. 26 - vs. Cal Poly
Oct. 5 - at Montana
Oct. 12 - at Southern Utah
Oct.. 26 - vs. North Dakota
Nov. 2 - vs. Weber State
Nov. 9 - at Idaho State
Nov. 16 - vs. Sacramento State
Nov. 23 - at Eastern Washington
12. UC DAVIS AGGIES
LOCATION: Davis, Calif.
COACH: Ron Gould (first season)
LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 3-5 Big Sky
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Randy Wright, Sr. (207-of-362, 2,410 yards, 13 TD, 14 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: CB/KR Jonathan Perkins, Sr. (36 TT, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF; 24.9-yard KO return average, 1 TD)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Colton Silveria, Sr. (128 carries, 590 yards, 3 TD)
FB Dalton Turay, Jr. (55 carries, 234 yards, 7 TD)
WR Corey Galindo, Jr. (33 receptions, 603 yards, 3 TD)
WR Tim Benton, So.
TE Taylor Sloat, Sr.
LT Ian Joseph, Jr.
RG Jimmy Kunkel, Sr.
C Parker Smith, So.
DE Nick King, Sr.
DE Tom Hemmingsen, Sr.
DT Anthony Kaspar, Jr.
DE Marques Barron, Jr.
LB Steven Pitts, Jr. (49 TT, 2.5 TFL, 3 FR, 2 FF)
CB Dre Allen, So.
FS Aarynn Jones, So. (52 TT, 1 INT, 4 PBU)
PK Brady Stuart, So. (15-of-21, 45 long; 76 points)
BIG LOSS: P/PK Colton Schmidt (56 punts, 44.5 ypp)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 136.45 (74 in FCS, 8 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 233.45 (38 in FCS, 8 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 369.91 (58 in FCS, 11 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 27.45 (51 in FCS, 9 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 165.27 (66 in FCS, 8 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 243.18 (90 in FCS, 7 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 408.45 (86 in FCS, 8 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 29.27 (75 in FCS, 7 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: Gould takes over the program following the 20-year run of Bob Biggs, who retired after the Aggies' first season in the Big Sky. Gould developed standout running backs at Cal and has a pretty good one in Silveria to begin his UC Davis career. He also inherits a fourth-year starting quarterback in Wright, who has thrown for 7,087 yards and 44 touchdowns in his career. Unlike his first two seasons, however, Wright threw too many interceptions (14) last season. His favorite target, the 6-4 Galindo, has excellent speed, averaging 18.3 yards per reception last season. On defense, the biggest losses were linebackers Jordan Glass and Byron Gruendl, the team's leading tacklers. But the defensive front is solid and there are experienced cornerbacks in Perkins and Allen. With 15 returning starters, the Aggies should be fairly competitive despite being picked low in the Big Sky preseason polls.
Aug. 31 - at South Dakota
Sept. 7 - at Nevada
Sept. 14 - vs. Northern Arizona
Sept. 21 - vs. Portland State
Sept. 28 - vs. Idaho State
Oct. 5 - at Southern Utah
Oct. 12 - vs. Montana
Oct. 19 - at Northern Colorado
Oct. 26 - at Montana State
Nov. 2 - vs. Cal Poly
Nov. 16 - vs. North Dakota
Nov. 23 - at Sacramento State
13. IDAHO STATE BENGALS
LOCATION: Pocatello, Idaho
COACH: Mike Kramer (3-19 in two seasons at Idaho State; 80-94 overall)
LAST SEASON: 1-10 overall, 0-8 Big Sky
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Cam Richmond, R-Sr. (67 receptions, 739 yards, 4 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Trevor Spence, R-Sr. (90 TT, 6 TFL, 3 sacks, 4 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Justin Arias, R-Jr.
RB Aaron Prier, Jr. (58 carries, 235 yards, 2 TD)
WR Luke Austin, Sr. (46 receptions, 611 yards, 8 TD)
OL Travis Namohala, So.
DT Tyler Kuder, R-So.
LB Mitch Beckstead, R-Jr. (77 TT, 1 FR)
CB Cameron Gupton, R-Sr. (68 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT)
S Taison Manu, So. (77 TT, 4.5 TFL)
S Tanner Davis, Sr.
PK Brendon Garcia, Sr.
BIG LOSSES: QB Kevin Yost (349-of-553, 3,690 yards, 24 TD, 15 INT) and WR Rodrick Rumble (74 receptions, 1,006 yards, 6 TD)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 46.18 (121 in FCS, 13 in Big Sky); Passing Offense, 351.55 (4 in FCS, 1 in Big Sky); Total Offense, 397.73 (45 in FCS, 9 in Big Sky); Scoring Offense, 20.73 (92 in FCS, 13 in Big Sky); Rushing Defense, 362.73 (121 in FCS, 13 in Big Sky); Passing Defense, 208.09 (49 in FCS, 2 in Big Sky); Total Defense, 570.82 (121 in FCS, 13 in Big Sky); Scoring Defense, 53.82 (121 in FCS, 13 in Big Sky)
OUTLOOK: Having a smoother season off the field is foremost on the Bengals' to-do list as Kramer's first two rocky years in Pocatello has caused embarrassment for the program. Next up is improving the defense. The unit allowed a whopping 592 points last year (53.8 per game; at least 40 to every Division I opponent), but it will be better with a more seasoned group, including last year's top four tacklers. The addition of Kuder (6-3, 327) up front will help settle opposing run games. The offense is fast-paced, but needs to be more productive as new QB Arias takes over for Yost. Arias was Yost's backup in 2011, but redshirted last season. The loss of Rumble and TE Josh Hill is significant, although Richmond had a breakout season last year. Whether the Bengals can patch together an effective offensive line is a big question. There are only eight seniors on the roster, so the Bengals, who haven't won a road game since 2006, clearly remain in rebuilding mode.
Sept. 7 - vs. Dixie State
Sept. 14 - vs. Western State
Sept. 21 - at Washington
Sept. 28 - at UC Davis
Oct. 5 - vs. North Dakota
Oct. 12 - vs. Northern Colorado
Oct. 19 - at Northern Arizona
Oct. 26 - at Southern Utah
Nov. 2 - vs. Eastern Washington
Nov. 9 - vs. Portland State
Nov. 16 - at BYU
Nov. 23 - at Weber State