By Lance Berndt
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Expansion is here, even in the Big Sky Conference.
The past couple of years have been a period of change for the NCAA with conference realignment becoming the newest trend. Schools all over the FBS were jumping ship and joining other conferences.
The Big Sky got a little jealous of the conference expansions, so in the fall of 2010, the conference took a big bite out of the Great West Football Conference, announcing it would add four new schools for the 2012 season.
Cal Poly, North Dakota, Southern Utah, and UC Davis have finally joined the Big Sky’s football competition. After two years of excitement and anticipation, the new, 13-team Big Sky has finally arrived.
From the fans perspective, the most frustrating part of conference expansion is the fact that each school will only play two-thirds of the other teams in the conference.
This sets up nightmare tiebreaking procedures and unfair rankings when solely based off conference standings.
The 2012 Big Sky conference schedule, for instance, has given some schools a smooth trail (Northern Arizona, Cal Poly, UC Davis and Idaho State), while others face a more treacherous path (North Dakota, Eastern Washington and Southern Utah).
This will create a lot of arguments in the years to come. Sure, it’s nice to have all these teams from the west in one conference, but the large size is bound to bring a fair share of headaches.
The tiebreaking procedure has the potential to get very confusing.
For example, if three teams finish conference play with one loss, all against one of each other, the automatic bid would go to the team with the best Sagarin ranking. Yikes.
With that said, I’ll give my projected finish for the Big Sky Conference in 2012.
Please note the schedule conflict mentioned above and that this finishing order is merely set upon the predicted final standings.
Also note that the “who they don’t play” category refers to games that count for the conference standings. Records reflect last year's standings for the old guard of the Big Sky and the records for the four new teams are from the Great West Conference.
1. Eastern Washington (6-5 overall, 5-3 in conference): Although the reigning Walter Payton Award winner Bo Levi Mitchell has graduated, the Eagles bring in transfer quarterback Kyle Padron. He comes over from SMU, where he had previously won the starting job from Mitchell.
EWU also has an extremely gifted group of receivers returning in Nicholas Edwards (95 receptions, 1250 yards, and 19 TDs), Greg Herd (67 receptions, 1,022 yards, 7 TDs), and Brandon Kaufman who was injured in 2011 but was the team’s top receiver and the playoff MVP in 2010.
The offensive line was battered by injuries in 2011, but they have a strong healthy group returning to protect the team up front.
Former All-Big Sky selection Zach Johnson, a special exemption sixth-year senior linebacker, will look to lead the Eagles defense along with senior safety Jeff Minnerly, junior linebacker Ronnie Hamlin, and senior defensive end Paul Ena.
The Eagles return 15 starters and look to return to the top of the Big Sky, where they shared the title with Montana State in 2010.
Prediction: 7-1 – Key Win: @Montana State – Key Loss: @Southern Utah – Finish: Co-Champion
Who the Eagles don’t play: Cal Poly, Idaho State, Northern Arizona, and Northern Colorado
2. Montana State (10-3, 7-1): Denarius McGhee and company come into the 2012 season still with a lot to prove.
For the second straight season, the Bobcats looked like an elite national championship contender in 2011, only to get blown out in the playoffs.
Frenchtown, MT. native Cody Kirk, who ran for over 1,350 yards in 2011, returns to lead the outstanding corps of running backs for the Bobcats along with Orenzo Davis and Tray Robinson.
MSU should have an easy time running with the All-American McGhee taking the snaps (2,799 yards passing, 24/14 TD/INT).
With nine returning starters on defense, the team might possibly be even better than last season.
The Bobcats will be led by potential Buck Buchanan candidates defensive tackle Zach Minter, (7.5 sacks and 10 TFL), and defensive end Brad Daly (12.5 sacks and 13 TFL).
Also providing strong help on defense will be senior Jody Owens, who surpassed the century mark in tackles in 2011. Defensive end Caleb Schreibeis and linebacker Aleksei Grosulak also will provide key contributions.
Prediction: 7-1 – Key Win: @Montana – Key Loss: Eastern Washington – Finish: Co-Champion
Who the Bobcats don’t play: Cal Poly, Idaho State, Weber State, Northern Arizona
3. Northern Arizona (4-7, 3-5): After a 2011 filled with several single digit losses, the Lumberjacks come into the 2012 season with a chip on their shoulder.
One motivating factor will be that neither EWU nor MSU is on NAU's schedule. Also keeping the Lumberjacks head up is the return of one of the top running backs in all of the FCS in 2011.
Zach Bauman ran for just over 130 yards per game, which is doubly impressive considering NAU only won four games. However, Bauman isn’t the only talented member of the backfield.
In a league of phenomenal quarterbacks, Cary Grossart of NAU led the Big Sky in passing efficiency completing over 65% of his passes while garnering only seven interceptions. NAU's offense returns eight offensive starters.
The Lumberjack defense will hope to improve off a lackluster performance in 2011, after forcing a mere 12 turnovers.
Only three teams in the FCS forced less. NAU did pick up 11 defensive transfers in the offseason and does return seven starters.
Prediction: 7-1 – Key Win: @Southern Utah – Key Loss: @Montana – Finish: Co-Champion
Who the Lumberjacks don’t play: Montana State, Eastern Washington, Weber State, and Sacramento State
4. Southern Utah (6-5, 1-3): Considering their strong schedule, this is definitely a dark horse position for the Thunderbirds, especially considering SUU only has 10 returning starters.
The reason the Thunderbirds are so high? Brad Sorensen.
The senior quarterback, who was last season’s Great West Conference player of the year, is no slouch at his position. In fact he is clearly ranked as the top FCS quarterback in the 2013 NFL draft class.
Aside for the QB, the T-birds don’t return much on offense at the skill positions, but Sorenson has that knack that has even some pro scouts looking his way.
Zach Brackus and Gavin Farr are two of the top guards in FCS and key an outstanding offensive line.
All-American senior tackle Cody Larsen and junior linebacker Chad Hensen will hold the fort for the SUU defense. Hansen finished last season with 104 TT, three sacks, seven TFL, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Prediction: 5-3 – Key Win: Eastern Washington – Key Loss: @North Dakota – Finish: Tied For Fourth
Who the Thunderbirds don’t play: Cal Poly, UC-Davis, Northern Colorado, and Idaho State
5. Weber State (5-6, 5-3): The Wildcats in purple hope to regain some of the charm they had just a few seasons ago.
WSU's chances are looking good this season with nine returners who earned Big Sky all-conference honors a year ago.
Leading the team will be senior quarterback Mike Hoke who threw for over 2,000 yards, 19 TDs, and only four interceptions and was in the top 15 in the nation in pass efficiency.
Hoke’s top receiver and dangerous deep threat, Shaydon Kehano, also returns. Kehano averaged over 20 yards per catch in 2012 and hauled in eight TDs.
Everywhere man Anthony Morales leads the defense at the linebacker position after an impressive 2011 complete with 115 TT, 10 TFL, two sacks and one interception.
Prediction: 5-3 – Key Win: Montana – Key Loss: @UC-Davis – Finish: Tied For Fourth
Who the Wildcats don’t play: Montana State, North Dakota, Portland State, and Northern Arizona
6. Montana (11-3, 7-1): It has been quite the offseason for the Griz.
Amidst campus wide crime charges, the football team took in a significant amount of hits.
Athletic Director Jim O’Day and coach Robin Pflugrad both were dismissed by the school. Star quarterback Jordan Johnson won't play this season as a criminal case against him continues to run its course.
However, Montana does return the three-headed monster it boasts at the running back position in Jordan Canada, Peter Nguyen, and Dan Moore. Both Nguyen and Canada averaged over five yards per carry in 2011 and all three should do some damage again behind a strong offensive line led by junior tackle Danny Kistler.
The Grizlies do bring back a breakout linebacker from 2011 in John Kanongata’a who had an impressive 12 TFL. He’ll be joined at the LB position by Jordan Tripp, who was injured for most of last season, but had a sensational 2010 campaign.
Prediction: 4-4 – Key Win: Northern Arizona – Key Loss: Southern Utah – Finish: Tied For Sixth
Who the Grizzlies don’t play: Cal Poly, Portland State, UC-Davis, and Sacramento State.
7. Portland State (7-4, 5-3): The Vikings made a habit of running around teams in 2011, but lose their 1,000 yard rushing quarterback and top running back.
PSU brought in an impressive recruiting class, though, with a solid amount of local talent. The Vikings also welcome JUCO transfer Collin Ramirez, who literally put up Aaron Rodgers type numbers, breaking Rodgers’ school record at Butte JC.
Kicker Zach Brown will likely dominate both the Big Sky and possibly all of the FCS in the place kicking department.
Linebacker Ian Sluss (13.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks) and safety Joel Sisler (7.5 TFL and 3 INTs) will lead the Viking defensive squad.
Prediction: 4-4 – Key Win: @Cal Poly – Key Loss: Southern Utah – Finish: Tied For Sixth
Who the Vikings don’t play: Weber State, Sacramento State, Montana, and North Dakota.
8. UC-Davis (4-7, 1-3): This Big Sky newcomer could sneak up on a few teams this season in the final year of coach Bob Biggs' career.
Biggs (140-78-1) has been with the Aggies for 38 years as an All-American quarterback, assistant coach and head coach — a position he has held for 20 years.
The Aggies were picked to finish in the bottom three in both the preseason media and coaches’ poll, but these choices could simply be from a lack of exposure.
UC-Davis welcomes back 15 starters from last year’s squad, including quarterback Randy Wright who passed for 2,250 yards, 14 TDs, and only six interceptions in 2011.
To contend, UCD will need to improve on its ball security this season after a terrible campaign of 15 lost fumbles last year.
Senior linebackers Byron Gruendl, Reece Ludwig, and Jordan Glass combined for 180 TT, and 18.5 TFL last season and will lead a strong pack of returning defensive lettermen.
Prediction: 3-5 – Key Win: Weber State – Key Loss: @Idaho State – Finish: Tied For Eighth
Who the Aggies don’t play: Montana, North Dakota, Southern Utah, and Northern Colorado.
9. Cal Poly (6-5, 3-1): A lot of people have the Mustangs high in their Big Sky predictions because of both their recent history and extremely favorable conference schedule.
Cal Poly returns just seven starters from its 2011 squad, though.
Quarterback and playmaker of the Mustangs' vaunted triple option Andre Broadous is one of the returners though and he will have teams scrambling in their preparations for facing Cal Poly in 2012.
He accounted for 27 TDs, 1,235 passing yards, and 646 yards on the ground last season.
The Mustangs don’t have any Buck Buchanan talent on defense, like in years past. They will be led by senior linebacker Kennith Jackson, who comes into 2012 with 205 career TT.
Prediction: 3-5 – Key Win: @Sacramento State – Key Loss: UC-Davis – Finish: Tied For Eighth
Who the Mustangs don’t play: Montana, Montana State, Eastern Washington, and Southern Utah
10. Idaho State (2-9, 1-7): The Bengals look to build on their 1-7 record in conference play a year ago as they will face their second season under coach Mike Kramer.
It has been quite a bumpy road the past several seasons as ISU hasn’t won a road game since the late stages of the most recent Bush presidency (2006).
The Bengals do have hope, though, in the fact that they return All-American senior wide receiver Rodrick Rumble (112 receptions, 1,348 yards, 12 TDs).
The boys in orange, black, and white return a total of nine offensive starters, including Kevin Yost (300 pass completions, 2,973 yards, 15/12 TDs/INTs).
Idaho State's defense was awful in 2011, so maybe it’s a good thing that the Bengals only return four defensive starters.
Prediction: 3-5 – Key Win: UC-Davis – Key Loss: @Cal Poly – Finish: Tied For Eighth
Who the Bengals don’t play: North Dakota, Montana State, Eastern Washington, and Southern Utah.
11. North Dakota (8-3, 3-1): These artists formerly known as the Fighting Sioux could have a tough time adjusting to life in the Big Sky, but they also could do it pretty smoothly.
Coming off a Great West title last year, UND has a lot of coin-flip games this season and have a schedule set up for multiple upset opportunities.
UND has 11 returners who made the 2011 Great West all-conference team.
North Dakota native Jake Miller looks to lead the green and white’s balanced offensive production after averaging nearly five yards per carry at the running back position.
Defensive ends Ross Brenneman and Jay Nelson will lead the North Dakota defense.
Prediction: 3-5 – Key Win: Southern Utah – Key Loss: @Northern Colorado – Finish: Tied For Eighth
Who UND doesn't play: Idaho State, UC-Davis, Weber State, and Portland State.
12. Northern Colorado (0-11, 0-8): Ever since joining the Big Sky in 2006, the UNC Bears have only won five conference games. The Bears' overall record is 9-58 since that point.
UNC brings back a solid group of athletes this season, none better than All-American linebacker Clarence Bumpas who led the Big Sky in tackles last year with 145.
He is joined by a few transfers and a few 90 tackle guys as they hope to keep their team in more games this season.
The Bears’ offense will be anchored by Seth Lobato (2,448 yards, 17/10 TDs/INTs), the return of wide-out Jace Davis, and a group of experienced linemen.
Prediction: 1-7 – Key Win: North Dakota – Key Loss: Idaho State – Finish: Tied For 12th
Who the Bears don’t play: Eastern Washington, Southern Utah, UC- Davis, and Sacramento State.
13. Sacramento State (4-7, 3-5): The Hornets — one of the most confusing teams in the country last year with a win over Oregon State, but a losing record in conference — will again be one of the toughest teams to figure out.
SSU lost a lot of skill positions to graduation, but brought in several transfers to fill many of those positions.
Wide receiver Morris Norrise returns as a back-to-back honorable mention All-Big Sky selection and will give the inexperienced quarterbacks a reliable target week in and week out.
Linebackers Todd Davis and Jeff Badger will headline the defense after a season with 96 and 85 total tackles respectively. Davis was also picked honorable mention All-Big Sky in 2011.
Prediction: 0-8 – Key Win: N/A – Key Loss: @Idaho State – Finish: Tied For 12th
Who the Hornets don’t play: Northern Colorado, Montana, Portland State, and Northern Arizona.