CSJ Big Sky Conference Football Preview: What to Expect in Spring

The majority of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) will attempt a spring season in an effort to have some version of FCS Football this year. The Big Sky plans for a six-game conference-only schedule with two open weeks (March 20th & April 17th). In the time leading up to that, there has been a lot of changes in staff and players, with plenty of time for more chaos.

Some of the changes include new head coaches, numerous FBS transfers, high profile recruits, and some big-name departing Big Sky players. While many old faces return the standings will undeniably be up for anyone’s grabs as COVID will be the wildcard effect. Good teams could stumble, bad teams could ascend above their worth, or level the playing field into a crap-shoot.

Let’s take a look into what each team is dealing with at this point in time before spring approaches. The madness can and will continue to build, but there has been a lot to cover in an even crazier year. Think of this as an off-season recap with an early season preview.

Those Opting Out

Sacramento State took the jump early into the COVID messiness by saying on October 15th that they would not participate in the spring football season. The Hornets cited a concern about player health in a “short turnaround season and the need to keep the Hornet Family safe”. Despite that “grave concern” for student health basketball, volleyball, tennis, and golf are still actively competing in their seasons. While the injury risk may have been a factor in their analysis to call out so early points to a larger concern for outside factors such as sponsors and budget.

Portland State, Montana, and Montana State all made an announcement on January 15th that they will opt-out as well for the sake of an easier off-season for student-athletes. Viking head coach Bruce Barnum stated, “We have been out of competition and practice for nearly a year and to get our team ready by a scheduled Feb. 27 game doesn’t make sense”.

Photo via MSU Athletics.

Leon Costello, Montana State Athletic Director, echoed a similar statement in conjunction with Kent Haslam, Montana Athletic Director, that players simply need to return to a normal preparation. Costello stated, “The timeline for our football student-athletes to be physically prepared for the current conference schedule can’t be guaranteed given our climate and related circumstances. By altering our spring season, we will be able to focus on their physical training during the appropriate conditions and proper recovery for the fall season.”

Northern Colorado messed up the flow of this article and my day as they added their names to the cancellation list quite late. Sources close to the team hint that this was the plan since fall to cancel, but made many last-minute efforts to salvage preparation since players wanted to play.

It is truly a shame for the cancellation since Northern Colorado has an extremely exciting storyline that was quickly overlooked due to the Jackson State hire of another NFL star. The Bears are looking forward to Ed McCaffrey being the solution to a winning culture at the Division I level. Since 2006 the Bears only had Earnest Collins Jr., a former Bear player, at the coaching helm of the ship, but it never amounted to UNC going anywhere above two 6-5 seasons.

An added piece to the mystic and unpredictability of the Bears is the addition of Dylan McCaffrey at quarterback. Dylan brings experience from being a part of FBS Michigan and being a 4-star product coming out of high school. This combined with his Dad’s NFL expertise at head coach plus Max’s brief NFL experience going into coaching the receiving core could be the perfect family sponsored storm to bring the Bears into a winning spotlight.

Drama from the South

In non-COVID related developments, it was confirmed that Southern Utah will be leaving the Big Sky to compete in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) in 2022. Until then, the Thunderbirds will compete in the Big Sky through July 2022. SUU is excited about the move since the schools and areas involved in the WAC are on the rise and growing. It also provides fans new rivalries that the fans are excited about according to SUU President Scott L. Wyatt.

The move to the WAC offers Southern Utah a chance to refocus and revamp the athletics program. Many of the universities to join the WAC have been quick to establish they are not necessarily trying to be football pioneers by reviving the WAC’s football category, but more so as a total package that includes an upgraded position in basketball conference power.

This opportunistic refocusing will allow for a new recruiting base to be established in the Southwest region with less spread out competition. It also gives the school an opportunity for more exposure with a higher profile in basketball and with the 60+ mandatory minimum ESPN televised games contract. An interesting clause in the WAC agreement states all schools will participate in a move-up study for ability to classify as FBS football programs in the coming years. If anything more than studies will be done on that front will be a long term gamble for the WAC.

Photo via Southern Utah University/ Cedar City News/ St. George News.

Those Who Still Stand

Southern Utah

For two more football seasons we will see the Thunderbirds compete in Big Sky competition. The closest Southern Utah will come to securing another Big Sky title before leaving will hinge entirely on COVID-19 causing enough chaos for this dysfunctional team to even peek at such an occurrence. Their offense has been 90 percent disappointing for the past two seasons. Why 90? Because out of the 11 players that step on the field for offense only their quarterbacks have appeared to give 100 percent and are the only player to make meaningful plays on the field. Southern Utah should head to the Southwest early to start picking off recruits since they need talent in a HUGE way.

SUU did step up and recruit talent in 2020 and 2021. Whether or not these players make a difference will remain to be seen on the field. Over the two signing periods, SUU brought in four 3-star recruits and five 2-star recruits. They focused on O-line with three 2-star linemen in 2020, some talented skill position players, and recruited two unranked players from Top 25 caliber high schools (Bishop Gorman and De LaSalle High). Dylan Flowers is one of their most talented recruits as an 85 overall cornerback. Flowers could make the Thunderbirds much more credible on defense if he can become a lockdown player.

Photo via SUU Athletics.

Season Projection
*Big Sky out of 13 from 2020 projection and College Sports Journal out of 8 to account for recent events/ opt-outs.
2020 Big Sky Media Poll: 12th
2020 Big Sky Coaches Poll: 12th
2021 College Sports Journal: 8th
2021 Recruiting Ranks: 7th/25th (Big Sky/ FCS)
*recruiting based on 24/7 Sports as of Feb. 6th

Yes, the Thunderbirds are slated to finish last in my analysis of the Big Sky Conference due to a lack of talent, team chemistry, and play calling suited to the strengths of the team. SUU did win a Big Sky title just a few years ago, but their fall from grace is hard and permanent until meaningful roster strength and thoughtful play calling return to Cedar City. It looks like the SUU staff just cannot put the components in the right order to account for respectable performances.

Idaho State

Matt Struck decided to transfer to Missouri State and now the Bengals are once again in a quarterback lurch. Do they choose between a 3-star Freshmen or an ex-Wyoming player with a lot of talent, but off-the-field issues. It will be a catch-22 for the Bengals fans and Vander Waal’s last chance to play Division I football. Overall, the Bengals have good pieces on each side of the ball, but struggle to play a complete game. 12th in scoring offense last year above only the struggling Bears, 10th in scoring defense, and second-worst in penalties gives away the Bengals secrets as to why they play so poorly. The inability to play a full game.

Between the two recruiting periods the Bengals have brought in four 3-star commits, two 3-star transfers, and a 2-star commit. The two high-profile transfers are Isaiah Smalls a 6’4″ 222lbs tight end from Oregon State and outcast ex-Wyoming quarterback Tyler Vander Waal who measures 6’4″ 210lbs. Vander Waal will be an interesting addition to Idaho State as he did not produce well for Wyoming and created quite the off-the-field drama when being overlooked for an underclassmen quarterback to start above him at Wyoming. Vander Waal has a lot of arm talent and athleticism to bring to Idaho State, but when he gets frustrated he looks like a bad version of Jake Constantine. The Bengals better hope they gambled right on this Jekyll and Hyde type player.

Photo via ISU Athletics.

Season Projection
2020 Big Sky Media Poll: 11th
2020 Big Sky Coaches Poll: 11th
2021 College Sports Journal: 7th
2021 Recruiting Ranks: 12th/62nd

The Bengals are in more of a pickle than I think they realize. Vander Waal is either going to be a complete rockstar and give Idaho State an offense to believe in, or it will be a slow painful decision to start the 3-star freshmen quarterback with talent and promise. Either scenario could positively or negatively impact the team’s overall success. Outside of 3-star freshmen Josh Alford at cornerback, I do not see enough roster improvement in the defense for Idaho State to make any significant contributions.

Cal Poly

Beau Baldwin is returning to the Big Sky, but will he return in a big way? The former Big Sky head coach had a great deal of success before moving up to Cal-Berkley to be their offensive line coach. Baldwin was 95-35 overall and 58-14 in the Big Sky while coaching at Eastern Washington.

Cal Poly takes a big step forward with a new coach and a solid recruiting class to fill the necessary holes. On 24/7 Sports top recruits for Cal Poly all-time five of the top ten are from the 2020/2021 recruiting periods. The Mustangs bring in two 2-star and two 3-star offensive linemen that Baldwin will surely mold into a formidable force. Overall the Mustangs gained eleven 3-stars and six 2-stars over the recruiting periods.

The Mustangs also have Hunter Raquet, a Fresno State transfer QB, who is the favorite to win the starting job. Raquet’s journey has been bumpy, but his talent could make the transition to a new offense easier. That being said I think it will take a few recruiting classes later for Baldwin to have the depth and talent able to make a run for the playoffs, even with the fifth best-recruiting class in the FCS. Cal Poly has the ability to finish higher than sixth this spring, but with COVID, a new coach, a new offense, and losing valuable seniors the Mustangs have a lot of hurdles to cross before they can compete for a top position.

Photo via Cal-Poly Athletics.

Season Projection
2020 Big Sky Media Poll: 10th
2020 Big Sky Coaches Poll: 10th
2021 College Sports Journal: 6th
2021 Recruiting Ranks: 2nd/5th

Even with Beau Baldwin coming into Cal Poly to rejuvenate the Mustangs there will be an enormous amount of work to be done. The triple-option offense has a very particular goal that requires a particular set of individuals and roster depth. Baldwin will need to be creative in his schemes until he can recruit exactly who he wants if he brings his own offense to the table. The Mustangs look to run full speed at the season, but I wonder how long they will keep up. If anyone can put them in an opportunistic position it is Beau Baldwin if he can shape this team into a glimmer of his past success.

Northern Arizona

Chris Ball enters season two in Flagstaff, AZ with big expectations. The first year of Ball’s legacy started with a marginal 4-8 record. NAU fans should be upset about the lack of defense that the former Memphis defensive coordinator brought to the table as NAU finished last in total defense, scoring defense, and second to last in interceptions.

Despite the lack of campaign promises from Ball, he managed to pull off the second-best FCS recruiting class for 2021. Only Deion Sanders and his star-studded cast outrank NAU in recruiting this year. The recruiting class is quite diverse positional wise and features a talented linebacker, Cosmas Kwete, from Washington State to help cover some of the deficiencies on defense. Additionally, two University of Louisana-Lafayette, one Boise State, and two New Mexico transfers, including original 4-star cornerback De’Von Graves look to fix the defense.

Photo via NAU Athletics.

Season Projection
2020 Big Sky Media Poll: 9th
2020 Big Sky Coaches Poll: 7th
2021 College Sports Journal: 5th
2021 Recruiting Ranks: 1st/2nd

Northern Arizona is a wildcard of a team. They bring in a plethora of talent, but the players who back up those stars do not always keep the offense or defense gelling efficiently. The Lumberjacks need a solid QB to build their offense around and a high motor individual to call plays on defense to establish any sort of consistency. If this team is able to incorporate the younger players earlier on, rather than simply rely on the stars of the team, their ceiling could rise much higher than fifth. The transfers and new recruits could be the pieces Ball missed last season. Personally, for a defensive coach at an FBS school to drop down to an FCS head coaching job and not rock it on defense worries me. Chris Ball cannot drop the ball again or NAU fans will turn on him.

UC Davis

After a stunning 2018 season of 10-3 and pushing Eastern Washington to the limits in the playoffs Coach Dan Hawkins promised of more to come in the Aggies future. We are still waiting to see if that is a fluke since the powerful Aggies dropped to 5-7 the next season. Many of the games against ranked opponents finished only as a one or two score loss, but UC Davis had a sense of flatness that was incurable. Hawkins has an incredible FBS resume and has the ability to take his alma mater back to the top of the Big Sky.

The looming problem is stellar QB Jake Maier has since graduated and left Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. to carry the team on his back. Despite 2019 struggles, Maier was still a large threat through the air for 3,563 yards, 28 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. The next most experienced QB on the roster is Hunter Rodrigues who has subbed in for Maier a combined 21 pass attempts in his two years at UC Davis. While his community college career was impressive, that is not an ideal situation for a struggling team to insert a knowledgable, but untested junior into the starting role.

UC Davis pulled in the 14th best 2021 recruiting class and look to fill their vacancies very well at all positions, except the uncertainty of the quarterback position. Over the two recruiting periods the Aggies have eleven 2-star and seven 3-star players coming in. An impressive 3-star Fresno State transfer running back and a pair of great size tight ends should give the next quarterback up a great advantage on offense. 3-star Cal-Berkeley transfer tight end McCallan Castles lists as 6’5″ 230 lbs. and 3-star freshmen recruit tight end Michael Ambagtsheer lists as 6’5″ 240 lbs.

Photo via UC Davis Athletics.

Season Projection
2020 Big Sky Media Poll: 6th
2020 Big Sky Coaches Poll: 6th
2021 College Sports Journal: 4th
2021 Recruiting Ranks: 5th/14th

If UC Davis can find an offense that finishes games and a defense that can remain more stout then this will be a fierce team once again. The big question will be if the quarterback situation can become successful or a season-long growing pain without Jake Maier. In this spring season, the Aggies deserve the title of fringe/ spoiler team since the Montana schools and Sacramento State are out of the way. In the fall season, this title could remain the same, but a good performing quarterback will be necessary to distinguish them from a middle of the pack roller-coaster team that loses late in the game.


Idaho looks to recover itself from the Petrino-Petrino experiment that was lackluster at best. The 5-7 overall record, including a loss to Northern Colorado, is not something Vandal fans should be proud of. Now Idaho has a chance to repair itself with a seventh overall FCS draft class and absence of nepotism.

Mike Beaudry, a graduate transfer from Connecticut, and Nikhil Nayar, a redshirt sophomore, will be the main attractions for the quarterback positioning. There are several freshmen on the roster, but the experience of Beaudry or the playbook familiarity of Nayar are too valuable to pass up on. Where will this position Idaho is yet to be seen as a positive or negative.

Idaho’s recruiting class is riddled with fifteen plus 2-star athletes and eight 3-star athletes. Whether or not all of those players are around on the opening roster Idaho is wholly committed to competing in the Big Sky arms race of talent. Among those are transfer students from Montana, Washington State, UCONN, Oregon State, and University of Miami (FL).

Photo via Idaho Athletics.

Season Projection
2020 Big Sky Media Poll: 8th
2020 Big Sky Coaches Poll: 9th
2021 College Sports Journal: 3rd
2021 Recruiting Ranks: 3rd/7th

Idaho benefits well from the teams opting out of the season as third is a generous ranking. The true potential of the Vandals was not shown last season. A 5-7 record is a reflection of the worth of Mason Petrino and not of where this team deserves to be. The question remains if one season removed will be enough to rocket them to the prestige they hope for. The prestige of the recruiting class surely points towards a bright future, but does the sun shine on Moscow, Idaho this soon?

Eastern Washington

Eastern Washington is a perennial power within the Big Sky and one to make noise on the national level every few seasons. Eric Barriere and a slew of talented skill players look to take advantage of being the second most talented team choosing to play. The Eagles have a winning system that is only a few pieces away from another national title. The hardest challenge for Eastern is to survive the Big Sky. If they make it out of the conference unscathed then a long playoff push could be in order.

Eastern Washington is a winning team that recruits high-caliber players no matter their ranking or star level. Despite that, EWU brings in thirteen 3-stars, twelve 2-stars, and a talented 85 overall transfer linebacker from Arizona State. Eastern also pulled in twelve players who had no star rankings. This is more significant in their case as Cheney seems to produce hidden superstars. Coach Best has a knack for finding exactly the player he wants for each position.

Photo via EWU Athletics.

Season Projection
2020 Big Sky Media Poll: 4th
2020 Big Sky Coaches Poll: 4th
2021 College Sports Journal: 2nd
2021 Recruiting Ranks: 4th/8th

Eastern Washington could make a case for the playoffs in a normal year. In this spring season will a 5-1 Big Sky team be enough for an at large bid? It is likely they could go 5-1 or better, but Weber State is still the favorite for the automatic qualifier position for the Big Sky. Eastern Washington has a lot of talent that simply needs to build their chemistry to become a high level threat.

Weber State

Readers and Wildcat sympathizers may be appalled at my disdain and ultimate relief of Jake Constantine departing Weber State, but I wholeheartedly believe with a more dynamic quarterback at the helm the Wildcats are national title competitors. There are severe competitors for the national title and I see the Wildcats within the top five considerations. Weber State retains a great deal of starters on both sides of the ball and that will lead them through valleys and peak tops.

The Wildcats do not participate that well in 24/7 Sports, but the rankings available are two 2-stars, three 3-stars, and a 4-star player. Transfer students from Middle Tennessee, Utah State, UNLV, and Tennessee will make a significant impact immediately. Jordan Allen (6’4″ 241lbs) is an athletic 4-star transfer from Tennessee that should be a big target across the middle immediately. Reedley College Coach Eric Marty believes that Randall Johnson, 3-star transfer quarterback from Middle Tennessee and former player of his, can take Weber State to the National Championship.

Photo via Weber State Athletics.

Season Projection
2020 Big Sky Media Poll: 1st
2020 Big Sky Coaches Poll: 1st
2021 College Sports Journal: 1st
2021 Recruiting Ranks: 13th/79th

Weber State is undoubtedly the number one contender in the Big Sky Conference due to their stacked roster, many returning upperclassmen, and impressive coaching. The Wildcats only improved over the offseasons which is a scary thought to consider based off the recent success they had these past seasons.

Big Sky Media Poll – 2020

Photo via SUU Athletics.

Big Sky Coaches Poll – 2020

Photo via SUU Athletics.

College Sports Journal Prediction – 2021

  1. Weber State
  2. Eastern Washington
  3. Idaho
  4. UC Davis
  5. Northern Arizona
  6. Cal Poly
  7. Idaho State
  8. Southern Utah

*(Pre-COVID ranking included Montana State below Weber, Montana tied with or just below EWU, Sacramento State above Idaho, and Portland State tied with Northern Colorado just above Southern Utah).

2021 Big Sky Recruiting Ranking

SchoolFCS RankBig Sky Rank
Northern Arizona21
Cal Poly52
Eastern Washington84
UC Davis145
Montana State246
Southern Utah257
Sacramento State318
Northern Colorado569
Portland State5911
Idaho State6212
Weber State7913
Info via 24/7 Sports Recruiting Table.