CSJ Big Sky Conference Football Preview: Fall 2021

The Big Sky Football Conference saw a crazy COVID season that ended with a vastly disappointing playoff performance. Last season the Big Sky was making a play at being the second-best conference in the FCS landscape, but a rough playoff performance and lack of improvement from the bottom feeders tore down that case. This fall will be a chance to revamp the entire resume of the Big Sky as the craziness of opt-outs and forfeits should be behind us. Whole rosters of seniors with another season of eligibility, transfers looking to make a new story for themselves, and new recruits looking to establish their name will be tirelessly working towards the elusive conference title and beyond.

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/E7PHNJvUUAYIhfL?format=jpg&name=large
Via Big Sky Conference.

The Schedule

2021 Big Sky Schedule

HomeTime/ResultsAwayVenueMatch Day TV/Streaming
CEFCU Stadium
San Jose, CA -
H.A. Chapman Stadium
Tulsa, OK -
Rice-Eccles Stadium
Salt Lake City, UT -
Walkup Skydome
Flagstaff, AZ -
Allegiant Stadium
Las Vegas, NV -
Sun Devil Stadium
Tempe, AZ -
Folsom Field
Boulder, CO -
Holt Arena
Pocatello, ID -
War Memorial Stadium (Wyoming)
Laramie, WY -
Torero Stadium
San Diego, CA -
Kibbie Dome
Moscow, ID -
Husky Stadium (Washington)
Seattle, WA -
Greater Zion Stadium
St. George, UT -
Ching Athletics Complex
Manoa, HI -
DakotaDome
Vermillion, SD -
Roos Field
Cheney, WA -
Torero Stadium
San Diego, CA -
Gesa Field
Pullman. WA -
Husky Stadium
Houston, TX ESPN+
Memorial Stadium (Indiana)
Bloomington, IN -
Bobcat Stadium
Bozeman, MT -
Washington-Grizzly Stadium
Missoula, MT -
Hornet Stadium
Sacramento, CA -
Greater Zion Stadium
St. George, UT -
Mackay Stadium
Reno, NV -
Bulldog Stadium (Fresno State)
Fresno, CA -
Bobcat Stadium
Bozeman, MT -
Reser Stadium
Corvallis, OR -
Hanson Field
Macomb, IL -
California Memorial Stadium
Berkeley, CA -
Nottingham Field
Greeley, CO -
Hillsboro Stadium
Hillsboro, OR -
Globe Life Park
Arlington, TX -
Stewart Stadium
Ogden, UT -
Alex G. Spanos Stadium
San Luis Obispo, CA -
Arizona Stadium
Tucson, AZ -
UC Davis Health Stadium
Davis, CA -
Washington-Grizzly Stadium
Missoula, MT -
Holt Arena
Pocatello, ID -
Nottingham Field
Greeley, CO -
Hillsboro Stadium
Hillsboro, OR -
Eccles Coliseum
Cedar City, UT -
Stewart Stadium
Ogden, UT -
Walkup Skydome
Flagstaff, AZ -
Nottingham Field
Bozeman, MT -
Eccles Coliseum
Cedar City, UT -
Alex G. Spanos Stadium
San Luis Obispo, CA -
UC Davis Health Stadium
Davis, CA -
Roos Field
Cheney, WA -
Nottingham Field
Greeley, CO -
Holt Arena
Pocatello, ID -
Washington-Grizzly Stadium
Missoula, MT -
Bobcat Stadium
Bozeman, MT -
Kibbie Dome
Moscow, ID -
Hornet Stadium
Sacramento, CA -
Stewart Stadium
Ogden, UT -
Washington-Grizzly Stadium
Missoula, MT -
Walkup Skydome
Flagstaff, AZ -
Roos Field
Cheney, WA -
Hillsboro Stadium
Hillsboro, OR -
UC Davis Health Stadium
Davis, CA -
Bobcat Stadium
Pocatello, ID -
Roos Field
Cheney, WA -
Kibbie Dome
Moscow, ID -
Eccles Coliseum
Cedar City, UT -
Alex G. Spanos Stadium
San Luis Obispo, CA -
Hornet Stadium
Sacramento, CA -
Washington-Grizzly Stadium
Missoula, MT -
Holt Arena
Pocatello, ID -
Nottingham Field
Greeley, CO -
Kibbie Dome
Moscow, ID -
Hillsboro Stadium
Hillsboro, OR -
Nottingham Field
Greeley, CO -
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Provo, UT -
Walkup Skydome
Flagstaff, AZ -
Roos Field
Cheney, WA -
Kibbie Dome
Moscow, ID -
Hornet Stadium
Sacramento, CA -
Stewart Stadium
Ogden, UT -
Bobcat Stadium
Bozeman, MT -
Walkup Skydome
Flagstaff, AZ -
Eccles Coliseum
Cedar City, UT -
Alex G. Spanos Stadium
San Luis Obispo, CA -
UC Davis Health Stadium
Davis, CA -
Hornet Stadium
Sacramento, CA -
Washington-Grizzly Stadium
Missoula, MT -
Holt Arena
Pocatello, ID -
Stewart Stadium
Ogden, UT -
Hillsboro Stadium
Hillsboro, OR -
Alex G. Spanos Stadium
San Luis Obispo, CA -
UC Davis Health Stadium
Davis, CA -

Players to Watch

Player PositionSchoolYear
Eric BarriereQBEWUSR
Tyler Vander-WaalQBIdaho StateJR
Justin MillerQBSouthern UtahRS-SO

Eyes from around the nation and NFL scouts will be checking in on Eric Barriere throughout the season as he makes one final push towards an FCS Championship. Barriere has earned top awards in multiple categories at the FCS level, but the national championship keeps avoiding him. Despite his turnover total, Tyler Vander-Waal was second in yards and third in touchdowns in the Big Sky’s spring season. His experience at Wyoming transferred into a fiery start at Idaho State that flickered with success and turmoil. Justin Miller’s outstanding freshmen campaign continued with a serviceable sophomore season that defied the usual slump. Miller has talent but is he surrounded with enough talented weapons to throw to in order to register some wins.

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Player PositionSchoolYear
Josh DavisRBWeber StateJR
Isaiah Ifanse RBMontana StateJR
Ulonzo Gilliam Jr.RBUC DavisJR

Honorable Mention: Elijah Dotson, RB, Sacramento State, SR

The three true freshmen of Davis, Ifanse, and Gilliam Jr. have shaped into a scary trio causing havoc across the league. Davis tallied 1,419 and 1,176 yards, Ifanse earned 1,025 and 825 yards, and Gilliam Jr. racked up 976 and 1,249 yards in their first two years. While the COVID spring season yielded lower numbers the two who participated still rushed around 400 yards. Elijah Dotson is an amazing talent, but this will be a transition year for the Hornets as their starting QB transferred out and they are left with a talented transfer from Middle Tennessee (FBS) and four freshmen backups.

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Via Big Sky Conference.
PlayerPositionSchoolYear
Logan KendallFull BackIdahoJR

Honorable Mention: Zach Angelillo – FB – Northern Colorado – RS-SO

Kendall is a multitalented full back and tight end combo player that chose to play for Idaho rather than for his hometown Eastern Washington. Idaho’s meaty Swiss-Army Knife may not get the ball all the time, but when he does he is a mobile brick wall that does not intend on stopping.

Player PositionSchoolYear
Samuel AkemWRMontanaRS-SR
Talolo Limu-JonesWREWURS-SR
Tanner ConnerWRIdaho StateGrad Student

Honorable Mention: McCallan Castles, TE, UC Davis, Sophomore

The Big Sky has been notorious for talented receivers in recent years. This batch of receivers is no different as Limu-Jones and Conner were human highlight reels over the past two seasons. Conner ranks as Phil Steele’s 60th best receiver in all of Division I football. Samuel Akem missed an opportunity to shine this past spring, but with Samori Toure off to Nebraska, he will be the main attraction in Missoula. Castles is an incredible young talent at the tight-end position who should be seen as a top receiving threat until proven otherwise.

Player PositionSchoolYear
Braxton JonesOLSouthern UtahRS-JR
Ty Whitworth OLWeber StateSR
Tristen TaylorOLEastern WashingtonSR
Noah AtagiOLWeber StateSO
Lewis KiddOLMontana StateSR

Weber State and Montana State have some of the most talented offensive line players in the entire FCS. While those two are top groups in the FCS, Braxton Jones of Southern Utah is listed within Phil Steele’s 26th best offensive tackles in all of Division I football. Rounding out the top five is Tristen Taylor from EWU who is a reliable and trustworthy senior.

PlayerPositionSchoolYear
George TarlasDefensive LineWeber StateJR
Bryce RodgersDefensive LineUC DavisSR
Mitchell JohnsonDefensive LineEastern WashingtonRS-JR

The Defensive Line representatives from the Big Sky face tough competition from the linebackers who play pass coverage and edge rushers. This versatile group is the bread and butter for why the linebackers are so successful as they have a knack for trapping running backs behind the line and chasing quarterbacks out of the pocket. An underappreciated talent of this group is the vast amount of quarterback pressures and hurries.

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Via Big Sky Conference.
PlayerPositionSchoolYear
Tre Walker LinebackerIdahoJR
La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-DavisLinebackerSouthern UtahRS-JR
Jace LewisLinebackerMontanaRS-SR
Conner MortensenLinebackerWeber StateSR
Troy AndersenLinebackerMontana StateSR

Honorable Mention: Charles Akanno, LB, Idaho, JR

The Big Sky may have the most talented linebacker core in the entire FCS. These six players are not only difference-makers but game-clinching superstars. Walker, Davis, Lewis, and Andersen all earned a spot on the Buck Buchanan preseason watch list. Tre Walker also earned the 37th best inside linebacker in all of D1 on Phil Steele’s top 50 list. Look for these players to be instrumental in the success of their teams in close games.

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Via Big Sky Conference.
PlayerPositionSchoolYear
Eddie HeckardDefensive BackWeber StateSO
Jordan PerrymanDefensive BackUC DavisJR
Morgan VestDefensive BackNorthern ArizonaSR
Anthony SweenyDefensive BackNorthern ArizonaRS-JR

The defensive backs are multi-talented players who not only cause havoc in pass defense but also in the turnover game. Heckard and Perryman are young talented pass coverage backs while Vest and Sweeny play a bit more zone and are more involved in creating and receiving turnovers. The Big Sky is often labeled a pass-heavy league, but these four stars look to curve that opinion.

PlayerPositionSchoolYear
Anthony AdamsSafteyPortland StateJR
Robby HauckSafetyMontana RS-JR
Preston SmithSafetyWeber State SR

Honorable Mention: Desmond Williams, S, Weber State, JR

Anthony Adams is a true all-star for Portland State and in the Big Sky. Adams is the Big Sky’s only other candidate for the Buck Buchanan preseason award list. Adams is not only a threat in the secondary, but can also be found in the offense’s backfield causing tackles for a loss. Robby Hauck plays all over the field and racks up the most or second-most tackles on the team on a weekly basis. Preston Smith is a ball hawk in its truest form as his specialty is pass breakups and interceptions any time he is in an opportune spot.

PlayerPositionSchoolYear
Luis AguilarKickerNorthern ArizonaGrad Student
Isaiah GomezKickerUC DavisJR

Northern Arizona looks to be the new Special Teams flavor of the year. Last year Idaho was the phase three specialists, but the Lumberjacks have a duo of powerful kickers and a scrappy return team that tries their best. NAU lost a lot of NFL-worthy talent over the past few years, but if they can compete in all three phases that will give them a great chance to succeed.

PlayerPositionSchoolYear
Daniel WhelanPunterUC DavisSR
DJ ArnsonPunterNorthern ArizonaGrad Student

While NAU has the spotlight firmly planted in their neck-of-the-woods UC Davis has a top 25 punter according to Phil Steele. Whelan does not have the advantage of elevation like Arnson does which makes his 25th best rank in all of D1 football even more impressive. At the end of the year, it will be interesting to see which duo made the bigger impact, the Vandals or the Lumberjacks.

PlayerPositionSchoolYear
Rashid ShaheedReturnerWeber StateSR

Honorable Mention: Nick Romano – Returner – Idaho – SO

Rashid Shaheed is the Big Sky’s best imitation of Tyreek Hill. Shaheed has great speed, amazing footwork, and a work ethic rivaled by few. The biggest deficit for Shaheed is the lack of chances he is afforded. Shaheed’s 28.8 yds per return and one touchdown were most closely followed by Romano’s 26.5 yds per return. I

PlayerPositionSchoolYear
Matthew O’DonoghueLong SnapperMontanaRS-SR

O’Donoghue finds himself on two of the three major All-American lists for good reason. His consistency, tight snap range, and hustle to get down the field are a welcome addition to Montana’s special team’s unit. Montana proves itself to be a true competitor in all phases of competition.

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Via Big Sky Conference.

Any FCS over FBS Games in the Big Sky?

Any given Saturday anything can happen. While this holds true the Big Sky does not yield a great chance for many upsets this season. Many of the Big Sky reps playing FBS foes are not the top representatives of the conference or the ones that are top-rated face opponents that are far greater in roster depth and size.

The three best chances come in Week 1 of the season. EWU travels to the “Death Star” of Allegiant Stadium to battle the UNLV Rebels. While the Mountain West conference is ranked seventh in the FBS the Big Sky teams have struggled to overcome and secure the upset. EWU poses a great chance to get a win for the FCS as league MVP quarterback Eric Barriere returns to lead a dynamic offense. These two teams could put up large numbers on the field with both teams feeling the need to reach the limits of their air raid.

Big Sky’s second-best chance Week 1 will be when Montana State visits Laramie, Wyoming to take on the Cowboys. Again, the Mountain West will not be a push-over opponent, but Montana State is one of the few teams in the Big Sky that has a formidable offense and defense. The Bobcat run-heavy offense will fit right in and the stout front seven of the defense will put enough pressure on Sean Chambers that it will be a war of attrition and tough running.

The last best chance from Week 1 will be Northern Colorado traveling down to Boulder, Colorado to take on the Buffaloes. Granted this is will be an underdog matchup from hell, but the one thing riding on the Bears side is the McCaffrey Magic. From the few interviews and talent on the roster, it is assumed Coach McCaffrey will be running a standard Spread offense with some zone running, but the Buffaloes will have zero game tape, unless they resort to Valor Christian High School, as McCaffrey is a rookie at the college level. The surprise factor and talent of Dylan McCaffrey could be enough to force a close game.

Fearless Predictions

As the season is still a few weeks out I will save the game predictions until the game week, but there are plenty of predictions to be had about the upcoming season.

Conference Only Strength of Schedule.
Photo via Tubs At The Club
  1. Weber State has the easiest conference strength of schedule, but will suffer a minimum of two losses and put their conference title at risk. Six of their games will be heavily favored towards the Wildcats, but they also play @ FBS Utah, home vs. JMU, home vs. Montana State, and @ EWU.
  2. UNC’s last season (2019) ended with a 2-10 overall record, but this year they will win four or more games. Houston Baptist lost allstar Bailey Zappe to the FBS making them vulnerable, Lamar is a bottom feeder in the Southland despite some surprise wins, the NAU-UNC rivalry has been completely dependent on home venue since 2013, and Southern Utah has a losing record against UNC since they won the Big Sky title. Not to mention the Bears have an upgraded roster, coach, and field.
  3. The conference title will go to Montana, Montana State, Weber State, or Eastern Washington. Pending a life changing season from UC Davis or the field this fall we will see a return of the heavy weights versus the field. The talent across the Big Sky has vastly improved over the past two seasons, but the giants remain so until slain.
  4. Sacramento State does not belong in the Top 25. The Hornets will depend all too heavily on star running back Elijah Dotson now that they have no clear starting quarterback. The once fierce defense has also seen only practice reps since 2019 and that spells even more trouble for a potentially one dimensional offense.
  5. Eric Barriere will win conference MVP, if not the Walter Payton award, unless he gets injured. The hype over Trey Lance was absolutely unreal, but Barriere deserves at least part of that same hype level.

Polls and Our Predicted Finish

COACHES POLL

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

MEDIA POLL

  1. Weber State (14)
  2. Montana (4)
  3. Eastern Washington (3)
  4. Montana State (3)
  5. Sacramento State 
  6. UC Davis
  7. Northern Arizona             
  8. Idaho
  9. Idaho State
  10. Portland State
  11. Southern Utah
  12. Northern Colorado 
  13. Cal Poly

CSJ Predicted Finish

  1. Eastern Washington 9-2 (7-1)
  2. Montana 9-2 (7-1)
  3. Weber State 8-3 (7-1)
  4. UC Davis 8-3 (6-2)
  5. Montana State 7-4 (5-3)
  6. Idaho State 6-5 (6-2)
  7. Sacramento State 6-5 (5-3)
  8. Northern Arizona 5-6 (4-4)
  9. Northern Colorado 4-7 (2-6)
  10. Idaho 3-8 (2-6)
  11. Portland State 2-9 (1-7)
  12. Southern Utah 1-10 (1-7)
  13. Cal Poly 0-11 (0-8)
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Via Big Sky Conference.

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