2022 BIG, Big Sky Football Conference Preview

The off-season is finally in a normal format, but college football feels anything but normal. The FBS Power Conferences are in an unprecedented arms-race, Name-Image-Likeness (NIL) deals and rules continue to be controversial, and three household names of the FCS are on the rise to the FBS (Sam Houston State, Jacksonville State, and James Madison University).

Photo via Big Sky Conference (BSC).

Meanwhile in the Big Sky, Eric Barriere the 2021 Walter Payton award winner who tortured the Big Sky has graduated, the Montana schools are dominating the preseason polls, and new leaders are eager to emerge as the new faces of the Big Sky Conference. Sacramento State dominated league play last year with an 8-0 record, yet they are not favored as highly as the Griz or Bobcats in the national preseason polls, despite the multiple Bobcats drafted to the NFL. Another massive change to the 2022-23 season is that Southern Utah has officially departed for conference play in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).

2021 Season Results

The Big Sky Conference had many proud achievements from the past season, including, but not limited to:

  • Montana State finished as the National Title Runner-Up
  • Eric Barriere wins the Walter Payton Award (FCS MVP)
  • League record five teams made the playoffs and three as national seeds
  • Brian Buschini was named the FCS Punter of the Year
  • Troy Taylor wins BSC Coach of the Year
  • Sacramento State wins BSC Title with 8-0 conference record
  • 12 AP All-Americans from the BSC
  • Troy Andersen named the Phil Steele 2021 FCS Defensive Player of the Year
  • Three players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft
Photo via EWU Athletics.

2022 Team Previews

The Top Six

These top six teams are the best bets to take a share of the conference title or play first spoiler to the title or playoffs. The top six have shown an ability to recruit, win, and reload more effectively than the other half of the conference. These teams are no strangers to the playoffs and will continue those trends pending health and conference records.

Montana State

2021 Season 12-3 (7-1)

  • National Title Runner-Up
  • Phil Steele National Defensive Player of the Year
  • Two players selected in the NFL Draft
  • 4 All American Players (1 returning – RB Isaiah Ifanse)
  • Three-point loss to FBS Wyoming then 9 consecutive wins
  • Only conference loss in the Brawl of the Wild to Montana 29-10
  • Beat UT Martin, Sam Houston State, and South Dakota State en-route to Frisco
Isaiah Ifanse (22). Photo via MSU Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • Isaiah Ifanse Athlon Preseason All-American
  • Impact Transfer: Sean Chambers, QB, Wyoming
  • Impact Recruits: 3* WR Taco Dowler 5-10 165 (59 catches for 943 yards and nine touchdowns, 22 tackles and two interceptions, #2 Recruit in Montana)
    Brother and 3* Safety Caden Dowler 6-0 195 (#3 Recruit in Montana)
    2* QB/ATH Jake Vigen 6-2 205 (Coach Vigen’s Son)
  • Preseason Top 25 Ranked: Third by Hero Sports, Fourth by Athlon Sports

Projected Outcome: 9-2 (7-1)
The Bobcats lose a lot of talent, but the stout team is still athletic enough to comeback as a power within the conference. A good recruiting class and smart transfers such as Chambers will help the crew from Bozeman not miss a step going into 2022. As middle of the pack teams may take a step forward this season Eastern Washington (EWU) will likely fall out of the title talk as the Montanas’ take the front seat. A healthy schedule will allow the Bobcats to reasonably capture a playoff spot as Oregon State (FBS) and Montana will be the toughest tests. The strength of schedule will not aid the Bobcats this year so they will have to shine bright in big games and avoid trap games often.

Montana

2021 Season 10-3 (6-2)

  • Major FBS win over University of Washington 13-7
  • Win over eventual National Title Runner-Up and In-State Rival MSU
  • Revenge win over EWU in the playoffs 57-41
  • Brian Buschini wins FCS Punter of the Year
Malik Flowers (19). Photo via Montana Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • Three Athlon Preseason All-Americans: LB Pat O’Connell, DB Justin Ford, KR Malik Flowers
  • Impact Transfers: 3* OL Dylan Mayginnes 6-5 298 from Washington State
    3* WR Sawyer Racanelli 6-2 208 from University of Washington
  • Impact Recruit: 2* WR Sam Alford 6-3 195 (HS Career: 39 catches for 730 yards and 7 TD)
    3* QB Kaden Huot 6-4 200 (#1 recruit in Montana, HS Career: 6,977 offensive yards and 61 total touchdowns)
  • Preseason Top 25 Ranked: Third by Athlon Sports, Fourth by Hero Sports

Projected Outcome: 9-2 (6-2)

Montana returns a ton of talent including three All-Americans and running back Marcus Knight will reportedly be ready for this season after debilitating leg injuries kept him sidelined for the past year. Knight set rushing touchdowns (23), total touchdowns (25), and points in a season (150) records in 2019. Quarterback play and smart coaching will determine where this team ends up in the standings, but not if they reach the playoffs. A favorable schedule like their counterparts in Bozeman will lend them swift consequences if they do not take care of lesser competition easily and battle tough in big games. With Weber State and EWU possibly taking a step back this year in toughness their two toughest opponents will be the defending Sacramento State Hornets which find a way to pierce the Griz armor constantly and Brawl of the Wild foes the Montana State Bobcats.

UC Davis

2021 Season 8-4 (5-3)

  • FBS Win over Tulsa University 19-17
  • Beat #14 Weber State 17-14 in Ogden, UT
  • Late in the season the Aggies under-performed in big games
  • Knocked out of the playoffs by South Dakota State 56-24
Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. Photo via UCD Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • Head Coach Dan Hawkins signs extension through 2027
  • New FieldTurf set to be installed over the summer
  • Impact Transfers: Punter Justin Dwinell 6-4 200 from CSU-Pueblo (D2) with a long list of Division 2 accolades
    WR Logan Kraut 6-2 203 from University of Arizona (Local kid – Santa Rosa, CA – returning to play close to home)
  • Impact Recruit: 3* LB Clayton Lynam 6-4 230
  • Preseason Top 25 Ranked: 25th by Hero Sports, NA by Athlon Sports

Projected Outcome: 7-4 (6-2)

UC Davis has put together some solid seasons over the past couple years with help from Alum and Head Coach Dan Hawkins. Signing Coach Hawkins was a necessity for Aggie Nation’s growth and stability. While Hawkins stint at the University of Colorado with his son Cody was a nepotistic-nightmare the duo have given UC Davis a respectable team that causes problems for the powers of the conference. Signing coach plus upgrading the field surface to FieldTurf is a sign that the administration values the football team’s future in this wild college landscape. On the field, Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. will have to be the offensive work horse, captain, and leader this team needs as a band of young, undersized, and inexperienced quarterbacks will be in a starting role this season. Gilliam’s 2,534 career rushing yards and 25 rushing touchdowns show he can be a big impact when called upon. McCallan Castles at tight end will be the other offensive stud on the team who can help the Aggies flourish, even if the defense is not perfect.

Sacramento State

2021 Season 9-3 (8-0)

  • 2021 Conference Title
  • 2021 Coach of the Year – Troy Taylor
  • Win over Montana in WA-Griz Stadium
  • Playoffs loss to South Dakota State 24-19
  • Four All-American Players (Two returning – TE Marshel Martin and Kicker Kyle Sentkowski)
  • Season-High 16 players on All-Conference list
Photo via Skyline Sports.

2022 Outlook

  • Impact Transfer: OL Paul Sogialofa 6-5 342 from Missouri State
  • Impact Recruit: 3* RB Zeke Burnett 5-10 205 (Senior year rushed for 1,534 yards and 27 TD)
  • Preseason Top 25 Ranked: Sixth by Athlon Sports, 10th by Hero Sports

Projected Outcome: 7-4 (6-2)

Sacramento State came out of 2021 with the Conference Title, but along the way they missed playing some of the tougher teams that year. As shown by the playoffs Montana State and Montana had more longevity than the Hornets and will again this year. Sacramento State has a true niche for spoiling Montana’s perfect seasons, but they will need to over-perform in more than just that game. Northern Iowa was too hot to handle at home so on the road will likely not result any better. Last year there were many FBS upsets and FCS pundits have circled this year’s travel to Fort Collins, Colorado against the CSU Rams as a favorite. Odds-makers may want to rework the money-line again as CSU became the third best transfer location within the Mountain West. Outside of the out-of-conference and easy games the Hornets will need to aim their stingers at Montana and UC Davis if they want to defend their title successfully this year.

Eastern Washington

2021 Season 10-3 (6-2)

  • FBS win over UNLV 35-33 2OT
  • One-point loss to Weber State
  • Three-point loss to Montana State
  • Regular season win over Montana 34-28
  • Second round FCS Playoffs loss to Montana 57-41
  • Eric Barriere wins Walter Payton Award
Photo via EWU Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • Graduating QB Eric Barriere will be a momentous loss, but EWU has a miraculous record of having high-performing quarterbacks in their first year starting
  • Strong receiving core returners to support passing game
  • Impact Transfer: OL Seth Carnahan 6-6 298 from Idaho
  • Impact Recruit: 3* WR Miles Williams 6-0 180 (31 catches for 687 yards and 12 TD – Senior Year)

Projected Outcome: 5-6 (4-4)

Eastern Washington will have to take a step back from the high-flying success from Eric Barriere. The Eagles will be in regrouping mode, yet they will earn several hundred thousands of dollars in FBS games as they play Oregon and Florida. Although, Gunner Talkington may have seen a plethora of talent come through EWU he will have to put vision into real time success. Coach Aaron Best quite literally draws the best out of players, but this season a team full of grit will still be behind the eight-ball in talent compared to the top of the conference. The Eagles will need to focus on “all the small things” each game to keep playoff hopes alive. Overall, everything EWU does is a large effort with little inventory so it will still be exciting to see new faces firing up The Inferno.

Weber State

2021 Season 6-5 (5-3)

  • Two-score loss to #2 James Madison
  • One-score loss to #12 UC Davis and #9 Montana State
  • One-point win over #2 EWU
  • Four-in-a-row conference title share streak capped
Photo via WSU Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • Impact Transfer: LB/DE Shad Pulsipher 6-7 260 from Snow College CC
  • Impact Recruit: 3* QB Tiger Adolpho 6-2 194 (2,578 passing yards, 26 TD, 5 INT and a 68% completion rate and 128 rushes for 622 yards and 12 TD – Senior Year, #4 Recruit in Idaho)
  • Future Beehive Bowl Series signed with Southern Utah for six games from 2026-2031

Projected Outcome: 5-6 (3-5)

Weber State lost some pivotal talent including Conner Mortensen, George Tarlas and Rashid Shaheed that will leave a massive hole for underclassmen to step up to. A formidable defense with a top five conference tackler and a stout pass rush will leave the defense on their heels to desperately replace that intimidation factor onto opposing offenses. Similarly, Shaheed was the lead receiver and an all decade worthy returner for the Wildcats. All three sides of the ball will be feeling a loss of production this year. Without a prolific air raid passer to keep up with the Big Sky arms race Weber will have to rely on their three headed rushing attack to be their saving grace. Josh Davis burst onto the scene as a freshmen, but injuries and lack of production have slowed down his career leading into senior year. Can Davis, newcomer Dontae McMillan and bruiser Kris Jackson be the stability the Wildcats need for a winning season?

The Bottom Six

The Big Sky has been known for dramatic finishes much like the Wild Wild West. The top six of the conference should play out very close to projections, but the bottom of the conference has become an absolute blood-bath of scraping to avoid last. These six teams may finish in any given order due to their wide margin lacking depth, talent, and consistency.

Northern Colorado

2021 Season 3-8 (2-6)

  • Kept the NAU rivalry series alive with a win at Nottingham Field
  • Gave Sacramento State a run for their money in a 27-24 loss
  • One win improvement in Head Coach Ed McCaffrey’s first season as the Bears HC over the 2019 campaign
  • Led the nation in FCS transfers out of a program (35)
  • Unverifiable claims by local newspaper of scandal leading to high transfers dismissed with no wrong doing found
  • Tied for third longest field goal made in all Division 1 in 2021 of 57 yards and set a program record (Raybon transferred out)
David Hoage (34). Photo via UNC Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • 27 players added through the signing periods
  • Added several new coaching positions including Defensive Line Coach and former standout Eddie Gonzales III
  • Added a new weight room facility that is fully donor funded
  • 3* Transfers: RB Jordan Hornbeak 5-11 200 from Fresno State
    QB Jacob Sirmon 6-5 230 from Central Michigan
    TE Kyle Helbig 6-3 250 from Colorado State
    TE Alec Pell 6-4 235 from Colorado
  • Impact Recruit: 2* Kicker Hunter Green 6-4 195

Projected Outcome: 5-6 (3-5)

Northern Colorado has a lot to prove this season as 2021 was a cesspool of drama, disappointment, and dysfunction. Over the off-season hopefully the cleaning house of over 30 players will reset the culture and expectations throughout the locker room. There is a lot of talent on the Northern Colorado roster, but the question is can the McCaffrey family and friends find an effective role for each player. The Bears schedule is easier than the majority of the teams below them on the list and will need to earn every victory as 5-6 is a generous estimation, even as an alumni. If the Bears use all of their offensive talent well, stop throwing 1,000 screen passes a season, and rally the defense behind a young and talented David Hoage they could flirt with a .500 type season.

Idaho

2021 Season 4-7 (3-5)

  • Close loss to UC Davis 27-20
  • Beat Simon Fraser (D2) and Southern Utah by three scores each
  • Shut-out rival Idaho State in the Battle of the Domes 14-0
New Head Coach Jason Eck. Photo via Idaho Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • New Head Coach Jason Eck from South Dakota State (previously their offensive coordinator)
  • Impact Transfer: 3* LB Juliano Falaniko 6-4 230 from USC
  • Impact Recruits: 3* TE Chance Bogan 6-3 215 (recorded over 1,000 receiving yards twice in his high school career)
    3* QB Ridge Docekal 6-3 210 (1,577 passing yards, 12 TD, 2 INT, and 71% completion rate – senior year)

Projected Outcome: 4-7 (3-5)

Idaho football is about to undergo a much needed renovation. Like their new basketball arena Jason Eck will be a good upgrade in the pursuit of installing a healthier culture for the Vandals to rebuild their glories around. This proven position coach has a lot on his hands in the midst of this rebuild, but the Vandals are in capable hands. Idaho has been a hot-spot for NFL talent on defense the past few years and continued development of the defense along with creating leaders on offense is a no-brainier game-plan. J’Bore Gibbs at quarterback will give the Vandals a big advantage, IF he is healthy and can stay healthy. There are plenty of play-makers to lean on, but Gibbs is a huge question mark and CJ Jordan is athletically gifted, yet inexperienced. Pair the leadership worries with a tougher schedule and we arrive at the same result as last year unless Gibbs blows the doors off and wins toss-up games.

Portland State

2021 Season 5-6 (4-4)

  • Tough loss to FBS Hawaii 49-35
  • Surprise win over Weber State 30-18
  • High quality recruiting, but still waiting on widespread results
Anthony Adams (14). Photo via PSU Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • Preseason All-American and arguably the best DB in the BSC Anthony Adams
  • 5 FBS Transfers: Boise State, Fresno State, Utah State, UMass., and San Jose State
  • Impact Recruit: 3* RB Quincy Craig 5-9 175 (Nine rushing TD, four receiving TD, one kick return TD, averaged 39.9 yards as a kick returner, and won a HS National Championship at Mater Dei HS)

Projected Outcome: 4-7 (3-5)

Portland State has waves of fighting off being on the bottom and spoiling those trying to make it into the playoffs. Despite high ranked recruiting classes the Vikings have not turned that dominance into conference titles. Additionally, the Vikings have an elite DB flying around their defense, but cannot win the games solely off Adam’s back. Portland State will need to invest in solid offensive game-plans and systematically breakdown good teams like they did to Weber State last season. Impressive resumes are packed in the freshmens’ backpacks for fall and several players from decent FBS schools are looking to make this a season to remember. Bruce Barnum’s 26-43 record as Head Coach will not sit well with everyone around the program forever without some winning seasons, despite his great relationship ability with players.

Idaho State

2021 Season 1-10 (1-7)

  • Close loss to Sacramento State 23-21
  • Surprise win over UC Davis 27-17
  • Close loss to Cal Poly 32-29
  • Blanked by Idaho in the Battle of the Domes 14-0 on the heels of AD Pauline Thiros firing Rob Phenicie the week before the game
Photo via ISU Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • Rob Phenicie bolts for Montana to link up with Coach Hauck as his offensive analyst
  • ISU hires 10-year PAC 12 assistant coach Charlie Ragle (Arizona/ Cal-Berkeley)
  • Assistant Coach Davante Neal arrested for 1st Degree Murder, Drive-by-shooting, and shooting at an occupied structure. Neal played for Ragle when he coached at Chaparal HS in Arizona.
  • Impact Transfer: 3* RB Damir Collins 5-9 185 from Oregon State
  • Impact Recruits: 3* DL Hunter and Curtis Hill 6-2 270 and 6-3 290 (Twins and both rated 84 on the 24/7 Sports Composite Score)

Projected Outcome: 2-9 (2-6)

Idaho State has not had a kind off-season as Idaho has an eye-catching basketball arena, a change in leadership, and bad behavior catches up with an assistant coach putting the university in national headlines. There is a massive amount of needed change at Idaho State, but not everyone gets as lucky as Eastern Washington and rebuilds with diamonds. The change of culture and creation of a winning approach could take awhile this time around. With few pivotal players and an unfriendly schedule the Bengals should plan to stay healthy and recruit aggressively for next year.

Northern Arizona

2021 Season 5-6 (4-4)

  • FBS win over Arizona 21-19
  • Overtime loss to Northern Colorado as the Bears keep the rivalry competitive
  • High scoring wins over struggling conference foes, but almost a non-existent offense against ranked conference foes
Angel Flores, Quarterback. Photo via NAU Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • Big time recruiter last several years, lacking results
  • 3* Transfers: OT Noah Nelson 6-8 295 from Oklahoma
    WR Tray Pettway 6-2 185 from UMass
  • Impact Recruit: 3* QB Angel Flores 6-0 207 (7,957 yards passing and 62 passing TD
    3,583 yards rushing and 60 rushing TD – HS Career)

Projected Outcome: 2-9 (2-6)

The Lumberjacks constantly find themselves with all of the puzzle pieces needed and still cannot complete the puzzle. Chris Ball was supposed to be this defensive mastermind from FBS Memphis, but NAU has not put together a full team effort worthy of the playoffs. Since Case Cookus graduated there has been a lack of winning culture around the program. The quality of players brought into Flagstaff is not the issue as they are worthy of the Division 1 level, but the chemistry and whole team efforts are holding this team back. This team has the potential to repeat last year’s record, but the lack of leadership and consistency has this outcome on the lower side. Chris Ball will need to unite this year behind a common goal to get the most from their talent.

Cal Poly

2021 Season 2-9 (1-7)

  • Only wins came against San Diego and Idaho State
  • Averaged only 15.36 pts/gm
  • Tough sledding trying to install a new offense
Photo via Cal Poly Athletics.

2022 Outlook

  • Installed new FieldTurf at Alex G. Spanos Stadium
  • Impact Recruit: 3* DL Nilasoni Finau 6-4 320 (39 tackles, 24 solo, 11 sacks, 5 pass breakups, 3 blocked field goals)
  • Impact Transfer: WR Bryson Allen 6-3 180 from College of Sequoias – JUCO (81 catches for 1,668 yards and 15 TD)

Projected Outcome: 1-10 (1-7)

Southern Utah was the perenial bottom-feeder, but now Cal Poly seems to be the new “bottom of the pile”. It is a shame to say the Mustangs are struggling so desperately especially since the coaching roster is at least as talented as the whole team with Big Sky Titans like Beau Baldwin and Erik Meyer steering the team and all-star Asa Jackson joins the staff this year as an assistant position coach. Installing a new system and culture always takes time, but coming from a system as niche as the triple-option will continue to pose personnel issues through a few recruiting classes. Cal Poly is not etched into stone as a bottom feeder forever, but will need to show signs of life as they roll through the motions of momentous change. Beau Baldwin is a pro, but he will need many tricks to pull off a truly successful program revamp.

Big Sky Conference Predicted Finish

  1. Montana State
  2. Montana
  3. UC Davis
  4. Sacramento State
  5. Eastern Washington
  6. Weber State
  7. Northern Colorado
  8. Idaho
  9. Portland State
  10. Idaho State
  11. Northern Arizona
  12. Cal Poly

20212022 NFF Hampshire Honor Society (Big Sky honorees)

Brandon Davis, Cal Poly

Frederick Gaines, Cal Poly

Zachary Hernandez, Cal Poly

Timothy Miller, Cal Poly

Trevor Owens, Cal Poly

Dominic Stellini-Splan, Cal Poly

Nicholas White, Cal Poly

 Conner Crist, Eastern Washington

Ty Graham, Eastern Washington

Jack Sendelbach, Eastern Washington

Jusstis Warren, Eastern Washington

Michael Beaudry, Idaho

Tyrese Dedmon, Idaho

Trase LeTexier, Idaho

Oluwakayode Rufai, Idaho

Justin Belknap, Montana 

Dylan Cook, Montana 

Kevin Macias, Montana 

Troy Andersen, Montana State

Tadan Gilman, Montana State

Lewis Kidd, Montana State

Byron Rollins, Montana State

Tucker Rovig, Montana State

DJ Arnson, Northern Arizona

Tristen Vance, Northern Arizona

Josiah Erickson, Sacramento State

Marcus Hawkins, Sacramento State

Wyatt Hjelm, Sacramento State

Malik Jeter, Sacramento State

Taylor Powell, Sacramento State

Kooper Richardson, Sacramento State

Carson Crawford, UC Davis

Jared Harrell, UC Davis

Sherwin Lavaka, Weber State

Conner Mortensen, Weber State

Jared Schiess, Weber State

Ty Whitworth, Weber State

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