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March 11, 2016

(STATS) - The more, the merrier.

OK, preseason favorites Eastern Washington and Montana State may not have liked what happened in Big Sky football last season, when the largest FCS conference wasn't ruled by the usual mix of teams.

But it sure made for a thrilling November title race with perhaps a few too many of the 13 teams left on the doorstep of the FCS playoffs (we hear you, North Dakota). Having the talent to sweep STATS' on-field postseason awards (Offensive, Defensive, Freshman and Coach) certainly didn't hurt the league's entertainment value either.

The 2016 season could be pretty special as well, with only a few programs not holding a realistic shot of earning a Top 25 ranking or making the upper half of the standings. The old guard - Eastern Washington and Montana State included - is working to regain top billing from defending champion Southern Utah.

Following is a look across the Big Sky Conference with spring practices getting underway in college football:

CAL POLY=

2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (tie/8th)

Spring Practices: April 6-30

Storyline: The Mustangs disappointed last season, especially considering they opened with a win at Montana. Their triple option led the FCS in rushing yards per game, and while the loss of quarterback Chris Brown is significant, it won't slow down the attack because key backs Kori Garcia, Joe Protheroe, Kyle Lewis and D.J. Pelusa return, and quarterbacks Dano Graves and Khaleel Jenkins are capable of running the ball as well. The major concern is with defensive improvement. Only four starters return from a defense that was knocked around for 35.5 points and 458 yards per game. The defensive strength is on the line, where the veteran mix features ends Colin Dzubnar and Kelly Shepard and tackle Marcus Paige-Allen. But the linebacker and defensive end units aren't nearly as fortunate.

EASTERN WASHINGTON=

2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (tie/4th)

Spring Practices: March 31-April 29 (spring game: April 23)

Storyline: If Cal Poly disappointed last season, imagine how the three-time reigning Big Sky champs felt as they fell apart with three season-ending losses. The truth is, EWU was winning tight games and wasn't the usual national power. They still had the best offensive player in the FCS in wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who's back as a senior and basically should set all the national receiving records as he looks to repeat as STATS Offensive Player of the Year. But will it be Jordan West or Reilly Hennessey throwing to Kupp and a tremendous group of wide receivers? The concern is more on the offensive line, which lost all five starters. All but one starter is back on defense, which has seniors Samson Ebukam (end) and Matthew Sommer (tackle) coming off all-conference second-team honors. The schedule is brutal in September, but coach Beau Baldwin is still expecting a bounce back in a big way.

IDAHO STATE=

2015 Records: 2-9 overall, 1-7 Big Sky (tie/12th)

Spring Practices: March 15-April 23

Storyline: Speaking of disappointing teams, the Bengals might have been the biggest one in the Big Sky last season following their 8-4 record in 2014. Max Troxel takes over as offensive coordinator and will coach the quarterbacks, hoping to get Tanner Gueller to a higher level leveraging his three starts as a redshirt freshman. Running back Jakori Ford is being asked to replace Idaho State's all-time leading rusher, Xavier Finney. Linebacker Mario Jenkins and defensive back Taison Manu could sit out spring practices, but they are expected back in summer camp after missing last season with injuries. Linebackers Hayden Stout and Jake Pettit, the No. 1 and 3 tacklers, respectively, are key returnees for a defense that is seeking better play at safety. The Bengals will play two FBS opponents (Colorado and Oregon State) for the ninth straight season.

MONTANA=

2015 Records: 8-5 overall, 6-2 Big Sky (tie/2nd)

Spring Practices: March 21-April 23

Storyline: Second-year coach Bob Stitt is known for offense, but his Griz lost eight defensive starters as well as popular defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak to rival Montana State, so the focus is there this spring. Jason Semore, who had been with Stitt at Colorado School of Mines before UM, makes the jump to defensive coordinator. Among the losses is defensive end Tyrone Holmes, the 2015 STATS Defensive Player of the Year. The top returnee is All-Big Sky defensive tackle Caleb Kidder. The Griz will simply try to outscore opponents with 6-7 quarterback Brady Gustafson working the ball around. Leading rusher John Nguyen will benefit from Stitt going heavy on the signing of offensive linemen. Ben Weyer, a fifth-year senior on the O-line, is expected to return and make an impact. The contrast between road games (difficult) and home games (easy) is striking this season.

MONTANA STATE=

2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (tie/8th)

Spring Practices: March 7-April 18 (spring game: April 15)

Storyline: New coach Jeff Choate, who has a deep background in Montana, has impressed in Bozeman with his high-energy, highly structured style. The Bobcats are coming off their first losing season since 2001 and return only four offensive starters following Dakota Prukop's departure for Oregon as a graduate transfer. One of the starters, standout offensive lineman JP Flynn, is sitting out the spring after offseason surgery. Most of the spots would have been up for grabs anyway with a new coach, but leading rusher Chad Newell and wide receiver Mitchell Herbert are secure. Defense was the Bobcats' undoing last season as they surrendered 34.3 points and 472.5 yards per game. Leading tacklers Mac Bignell and Grant Collins, who are both linebackers, are among the eight defensive starters back. It's a fresh start for the Bobcats … and they probably need one.

NORTH DAKOTA=

2015 Records: 7-4 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (tie/4th)

Spring Practices: March 4-April 16

Storyline: UND's new performance center allows the Fighting Hawks to move indoors when necessary. There is great optimism under third-year coach Bubba Schweigert, whose squad was one of the last two teams left outside the playoff field last season. The theme of spring practices is building depth because some key injuries set them back last season. But they also need starters on the offensive line - only A.J. Stockwell returns - for improved quarterback Keaton Studsrud and highly productive running back John Santiago. UND was strong against the run and should remain that way despite the graduation of linebacker Will Ratelle. There are nine returning starters as well as inside linebacker Taj Rich, who missed the final six games. Standout safety Cole Reyes will sit out the spring. This year's conference schedule is favorable because it doesn't include Montana, Eastern Washington and Portland State.

NORTHERN ARIZONA=

2015 Records: 7-4 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (tie/4th)

Spring Practices: March 22-April 23

Storyline: Case Cookus' emergence into the STATS Freshman of the Year brought excitement to NAU, whose season-ending loss prevented a trip to the playoffs. Cookus will remain on an elite level with the return of big-play wide receiver Emmanuel Butler and breakout candidate Elijah Marks. But coach Jerome Souers needs to find a replacement for 1,000-yard rusher Casey Jahn - most likely junior Corbin Jountti. There are seven returning starters on offense and one fewer on defense, which will have a healthy line again with the return of Siupeli Anau and Lorenzo Melvin. The secondary is quite young except for LeAndre Vaughn, a senior safety. Place-kicker and punter Ryan Hawkins had a superb senior campaign, so those are critical roles the Lumberjacks seek to fill in the spring.

NORTHERN COLORADO=

2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (tie/8th)

Spring Practices: March 22-April 23

Storyline: Coming off their first winning record since 2003 and Earnest Collins' first as a collegiate head coach (seven seasons, five at UNC), the Bears return 16 starters (nine on offense and seven on defense). His alma mater rewarded him with a five-year contract extension through 2020. The Bears have a new defensive coordinator in James Jones, so the focus will be on learning his schemes and making improvements on the defensive line and in the secondary. The Bears allowed 34.4 points and 493.5 yards per game and must improve with a nucleus that returns the likes of defensive end Mikhail Dubose and safety Taylor Risner, a pair of seniors. Injuries will keep a few players on the two-deep defense from participating in spring drills. Quarterback Jacob Knipp saw plenty of playing time as a redshirt freshman and should only get better for a veteran offense which returns leading rusher Trae Riek and top wide receiver Stephen Miller.

PORTLAND STATE=

2015 Records: 9-3 overall, 6-2 Big Sky (tie/2nd)

Spring Practices: March 30-April 23

Storyline: Bruce Barnum, the 2015 STATS Coach of the Year, jokes he has been turning over rocks while trying to add players who will keep the momentum going after the Vikings reversed a 3-9 record in 2014 and went to the FCS playoffs for only the second time in program history. The Vikes were hit hard by senior losses and linebacker A.J. Schlatter died from complications following throat surgery in January. Quarterback Alex Kuresa made the offense go last year and returns alongside a number of key skill-position players. The Vikings have to figure out their defense up the middle after losses at defensive tackle, middle linebacker and free safety. Their playmakers include cornerback Xavier Coleman and defensive ends Michael Doman and Davond Dade. The Vikings are helped by the Big Sky's unbalanced scheduling - they miss Montana, Montana State, North Dakota and Northern Arizona.

SACRAMENTO STATE=

2015 Records: 2-9 overall, 1-7 Big Sky (tie/12th)

Spring Practices: March 8-April 16

Storyline: Former Eastern Washington and Washington State coach Paul Wulff (offensive line and assistant head coach) was a nice addition to the staff, which also saw head coach Jody Sears hand over defensive coordinator duties to safeties coach Sammy Lawanson. The Hornets return a lot of players with starting experience, including sophomore quarterback Nate Kettingham, whose 1,257 passing yards and 11 touchdowns to two interceptions over the final four games were impressive. If the offensive line stabilizes as well, running back Jordan Robinson will have a big senior season. All-America linebacker Darnell Sankey appears irreplaceable, but eight of the team's top 10 tacklers last season are returning. The Hornets have to get better against the pass.

SOUTHERN UTAH=

2015 Records: 8-4 overall, 7-1 Big Sky (1st)

Spring Practices: March 18-April 16

Storyline: Last year's Big Sky champions will be hard-pressed to stay there after the Thunderbirds lost an outstanding senior class as well as coach Ed Lamb, who was replaced by Demario Warren, an assistant the last eight years and the defensive coordinator the last two. The defense lost NFL prospects James Cowser, Miles Killebrew and LeShaun Sims, but the D-line will remain a strength and Matt Holley is one of the conference's better linebackers. The offense didn't lose as much, but quarterback Ammon Olsen is gone after a record-setting season. Whoever wins the No. 1 job will benefit from all five starters on the offensive line and a well of running backs (Malik Brown and Jarom Healey) and wide receivers (Brady Measom and Mike Sharp). Warren will be putting his stamp on the championship program this spring.

UC DAVIS=

2015 Records: 2-9 overall, 2-6 Big Sky (11th)

Spring Practices: March 1-April 16

Storyline: Despite plenty of injuries, the Aggies played harder, and perhaps better, than last year's second straight 2-9 record might indicate. With 17 returning starters (nine on offense and eight on defense) plus plenty on special teams, they expect improvement in coach Ron Gould's fourth season. Considering Gould's experience in the run game, the Aggies want to establish that first with emerging sophomore Joshua Kelly and senior Manusamoa Luuga. The offense also boasts talented quarterbacks with Ben Scott and C.J. Spencer, who finished strong last season when Scott was sidelined. Opponents averaged nearly six yards per carry against the injury-riddled defense, and the key graduation losses are on the D-line, so the Aggies have to get stronger there throughout the offseason.

WEBER STATE=

2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (tie/4th)

Spring Practices: March 16-April 16

Storyline: Last year's big improvement - the Wildcats won only two games in each of the previous three season - came with only 10 seniors on the roster, which allows coach Jay Hill to bring back a lot of experienced players. The defense, which returns eight starters, ranked first in the conference in yards allowed per game, and six of the top seven players in tackles, led by linebackers Emmett Tela and Karsen Liljenquist, were underclassmen. Defensive end McKay Murphy also rejoins the mix after he was injured all of last season. The offense returns nine starters, but it has to replace standout center Joe Hawkins and several other offensive linemen from the rotation. Quarterback Jadrian Clark has to become more consistent if he is going to hold on to the top job. Not to be overlooked is the Wildcats' new look on special teams. They are replacing their kicker, punter and holder.

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