Philadelphia, PA – Cal Poly, 17 starters returning.
Sacramento State, 17 starters returning.
Northern Arizona, 18 starters back.
It's getting scary at the top of the Big Sky Conference title race. It just may no longer be the logjam of Eastern Washington, Montana State, and if it returns to form, Montana.
At 13 teams deep, the Big Sky surely will be wild and wacky each season as it was in Year 1 after expansion, when Cal Poly, Eastern Washington and Montana State shared the crown - this after Northern Arizona won its first six conference games but then fell in its final two games.
Eastern Washington has been hit hard by graduation and early departures, but the schedule is equally as daunting: road games at Oregon State, Toledo, Sam Houston State, Montana and Cal Poly as well as a home game against Montana State.
Having been reinstated to the team after being acquitted on a rape charge, Montana junior Jordan Johnson could very well be the starting quarterback again. He last played in 2011 and led the Grizzlies to a share of the Big Sky title and the FCS national semifinals. Without him last season, UM finished 5-6 for its first losing record since 1985.
Montana's rival, Montana State, has won a share of the last three Big Sky titles. Coach Rob Ash's squad wants to get back the quarterfinal round of the playoffs, and the player who holds the key to doing so is fourth-year starting quarterback DeNarius McGhee.
A new era has begun at UC Davis after Bob Biggs retired following his 20th season. First-year Aggies coach Ron Gould developed some terrific running backs as an assistant coach at the University of California.
Speaking of UC Davis, it will be interesting to see if all four former Great West Conference teams that came aboard last season - Cal Poly, North Dakota and Southern Utah are the others - can step up their play in the grueling conference schedule. Led by Big Sky tri-champion Cal Poly, the four were a combined 17-15 in conference games last season.
After falling just short of the FCS playoffs last year, Northern Arizona is anxious to make amends with its veteran team. The Lumberjacks will get a special season out of senior running back Zach Bauman.
Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer reworked his coaching staff, including the reassigning of duties among some of the returning assistants, in an effort to jump-start their struggling program. The Bengals last won a road game in 2006.
OH, YES, THEM AGAIN
In a conference with five of the last 10 Buck Buchanan Award winners, Montana senior linebacker Jordan Tripp hopes to make a run at FCS defensive player of the year.
North Dakota wide receiver/kick returner Greg Hardin is one of the best breakaway players in the FCS. He averaged 151.6 all-purpose yards per game and scored 15 touchdowns last season.
It's been a while since you heard the name Bo Bolen, but the Weber State fullback/return specialist is worth remembering. He was named to The Sports Network FCS Second Team as a freshman in 2009, but has spent the last two years on an LDS Church mission to the Phillipines. He will be a junior this season.
UC Davis' Randy Wright is entering his fourth season as the starting quarterback, but he threw for more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13) as a junior.
Northern Arizona provides double-trouble at cornerback with Anders Battle and Lucky Dozier.
Sacramento State's running back Ezekial Graham can eat up the yards as a runner or pass catcher.
Portland State is trying to formulate its wide receiver rotation because it lost two starters as quarterback Kieran McDonagh can really get the ball downfield. Returning slot receiver Thomas Carter, who converted from quarterback, had 32 receptions to lead the team.
Montana State has lost linebacker Jody Owens, the Big Sky's defensive player of the year, but Na'a Moeakiola has dominating ability as well.
Northern Colorado is counting on JUCO transfer Kyle Todd to have an immediate impact at defensive end.
With the loss of 1,500-yard rusher Deonte Williams, slotback Kristaan Ivory becomes the featured back in Cal Poly's triple option.
Eastern Washington will find it impossible to replace the wide receiver triumvirate of Nicholas Edwards, Greg Herd and Brandon Kaufman. The one to watch this season is senior Ashton Clark, although the Eagles need redshirt freshman Cooper Kupp to take his excellence in practice to the main field.
Fatu Moala will be Southern Utah's go-to wide receiver, but it's always a deep position and Mitch Jessop, who missed the last four games a year ago, wants to put his 6-foot-4 size to good use.
Montana defensive end Zack Wagenmann took a lot of the spotlight last season, but another young D-end, sophomore Tyrone Holmes, who had five sacks as a true freshman, will blossom this season.
After serving as the backup quarterback in 2011 and redshirting last season, Idaho State's Justin Arias hopes to post Kevin Yost-type numbers as a junior.
The left cornerback spot on Northern Colorado's defense should be a terrific battle between Courtney Hall and James Davis, but really much of the secondary is up for grabs. Seven returning players had starts a year ago and six more are coming off a redshirt season.
Weber State is replacing two-year starting quarterback Mike Hoke. Backup Jordan Adamczyk was ahead of Ben Maraz and Tyler Parson last year, but the trio returns, and redshirt freshman Jadrian Clark and JUCO transfer Alfonso Medina will be in the mix, too.
Opponents picked on Portland State's secondary last season and senior cornerback Dennis Fite is the only full-time returning starter. Emerging Nick Rothstein should grab a starting safety spot.
Cal Poly is replacing its team leader, quarterback Andre Broadous. Tanner Trosin, Vince Moraga and Chris Brown are vying for the starting job.
Sacramento State could replace standout safety Ryan McMahon with one of two FBS transfers, Tyronne Duckett (Washington State) or Mike Sellers (Hawaii).
Southern Utah has a bunch of quarterback candidates as it looks to move forward without three-year starter Brad Sorensen. At the forefront are redshirt freshman Austin Young, JUCO transfer Aaron Cantu and Utah transfer Mitch Dahlen.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Cal Poly: April 10-May 4
Eastern Washington: April 5-27
Idaho State: April 2-27
Montana: March 18-April 19
Montana State: March 19-April 20
North Dakota: March 25-April 20
Northern Arizona: March 26-April 27
Northern Colorado: March 25-April 20
Portland State: April 8-May 18
Sacramento State: April 3-27
Southern Utah: March 25-April 27
UC Davis: April 2-27
Weber State: March 12-April 13