2017 Big Sky Season Preview

(STATS) - North Dakota was the favorite in the Big Sky Conference preseason football polls, but no teams face more pressure than Eastern Washington and Montana.

Eastern has won four of the last five titles, including a share with North Dakota last season, and advanced to the FCS semifinals. The Eagles are transitioning to a new head coach in Aaron Best, promoted from the offensive line position.

Montana has won more Big Sky titles than any program, but the conference's other big national team with Eastern slumped to a 3-5 Big Sky record in coach Bob Stitt's second season last year.

In the Big Sky's preseason polls, Eastern was picked to finish second, right behind North Dakota, and Montana a mere sixth. Neither program will be satisfied unless it's sitting on top of the 13-team conference - the FCS' largest - come late November.

"Every year is a new team," Best said. "Everybody wants to make comparisons to the 2016 team, but we want the 2017 team to develop. Our identity is yet to be determined and that's what we are starting to do."

Said Stitt: "We'll use these polls as motivation to play a complete season and finish where we want to be in the final poll."

Seven different Big Sky teams have made the playoffs the last two seasons, although none in both seasons. Plenty are legitimate contenders this season.

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2017 Big Sky race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. North Dakota

2. Eastern Washington

3. Cal Poly

4. Montana

5. Weber State

6. Northern Arizona

7. Southern Utah

8. Montana State

9. Northern Colorado

10. Portland State

11. Sacramento State

12. Idaho State

13. UC Davis

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TEAM CAPSULES=

1. NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING HAWKS=

LOCATION: Grand Forks, North Dakota

STADIUM: Alerus Center

COACH: Kyle "Bubba" Schweigert (21-14, three seasons; 43-35 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 9-3, 8-0 Big Sky (Tie/1st); No. 12 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (9 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Michael Coe, OL; Brian Labat, LB; Dylan Bakker, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: John Santiago, RB/KR, Jr. (183 carries, 983 yards, 7 TD; 27.8-yard KO return average, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Cole Reyes, S, Sr. (70 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 Sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 5 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Keaton Studsrud, QB, Sr.; Brady Oliveira, RB, Jr.; James Johannesson, RB, So. (Minnesota transfer); Kyle Norberg, FB; Luke Stanley, WR, Jr.; De'mun Mercer, WR, Sr.; Travis Toivonen, WR, So.; Noah Wanzek, WR, So.; A.J. Stockwell, OT, Sr.; Demon Taylor, OG, Jr.; Tank Harris, NG, Jr.; Brandon Dranka, DE, Sr.; Drew Greely, DE, Sr.; Connor O'Brien, OLB, Sr.; Jake Disterhaupt, ILB, Sr.; Torey Hunt, CB, So.; Reid Taubenheim, PK, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Last year's co-champion Fighting Hawks are primed for a deeper run in the FCS playoffs after qualifying for the first time and falling to Richmond in the second round. They suffered a pivotal injury in the preseason when cornerback and NFL prospect Deion Harris was lost to a season-ending lower leg injury. Their defense had already lost some key parts from a unit that paced the Big Sky in scoring defense (22 ppg) and rushing defense (91.3 ypg). However, Reyes is back to try to win a second straight Big Sky defensive player of the year award. The offense is stacked in the running game, including the versatile Santiago, and QB Strudsrud is a 3 1/2-year starter who knows how to run the attack. It helps to get Eastern Washington in the Alerus Center.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, at Utah

Sept. 9, Missouri State

Sept. 16, at South Dakota

Sept. 23, Montana State*

Sept. 30, at UC Davis*

Oct. 7, Northern Colorado*

Oct. 14, at Montana*

Oct. 21, Sacramento State*

Oct. 28, at Portland State*

Nov. 4, at Southern Utah*

Nov. 11, Eastern Washington*

* - Big Sky game

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2. EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES=

LOCATION: Cheney, Washington

STADIUM: Roos Field

COACH: Aaron Best (first season)

2016 RECORDS: 12-2, 8-0 Big Sky (Tie/1st); No. 4 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Cooper Kupp, WR; Samson Ebukam, DE; Zach Bruce, S

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Gage Gubrud, QB, Jr. (386 of 570, 5,160 yards, 48 TD, 14 INT; 134 carries, 606 yards, 5 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Jay-Tee Tiuli, DT, Sr. (33 TT, 5 TFL, 4 Sacks, 1 PBU, 2 QBH)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Antoine Custer Jr., RB, So.; Nsimba Webster, WR, Jr.; Nic Sblendorio, WR, Sr.; Stu Stiles, WR, So.; Nick Ellison, OL, Jr.; Spencer Blackburn, OL, Jr.; Matt Meyer, OL, Jr.; Chris Schlichting, OL, So.; Tristen Taylor, OL, So.; Albert Havili, DE, Sr.; Andre Lino, DL, Sr.; Alek Kacmarcik, LB, Jr.; Mitch Fettig, DB, Jr.; Josh Lewis, DB, Jr.; Nzuzi Webster, DB, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Best, a 16-year assistant at Eastern Washington, has succeeded the highly successful Beau Baldwin as head coach. Although the playing style won't change significantly, the high-flying Eagles want to get more out of the running game so they can control the clock better. Gubrud, who works out of the shotgun, was their leading rusher last season, but he set the FCS single-season record for passing yards. The loss of Kupp, who holds most of the major receiving records in the FCS, and fellow 1,000-yard receivers Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill, is immense. Defensively, the Eagles were much stronger last year under coordinator Jeff Schmedding than in previous seasons, and that helped them to come within a last-second touchdown against Youngstown State of reaching the FCS championship game. The non-conference schedule is exceptionally tough leading into the Big Sky opener at Montana.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Texas Tech

Sept. 9, North Dakota State

Sept. 16, at Fordham

Sept. 23, at Montana*

Sept. 30, Sacramento State*

Oct. 7, at UC Davis*

Oct. 14, Montana State*

Oct. 21, at Southern Utah*

Nov. 4, Weber State*

Nov. 11, at North Dakota*

Nov. 18, Portland State*

* - Big Sky game

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3. CAL POLY MUSTANGS=

LOCATION: San Luis Obispo, California

STADIUM: Alex G. Spanos Stadium

COACH: Tim Walsh (50-42, eight seasons; 167-124 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 7-5, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th); No. 24 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (5 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Dano Graves, QB; Kori Garcia, RB; Josh Letuligasenoa, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Joe Protheroe, FB, Sr. (252 carries, 1,334 yards, 13 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: B.J. Nard, DB, Sr. (59 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 Sack, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FR, 4 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Khaleel Jenkins, QB, Jr.; Kyle Lewis, RB, Sr.; Chuby Dunu, RB, R-Fr.; Jared Mohamed, FB, Sr.; Reagan Enger, TE/FB, Sr.; Joey Kuperman, OL, Sr.; Harry Whitson, OL, Jr.; Augustino Elisaia, NT, Sr.; Jack Ferguson, DL, Sr.; Anders Turner, LB, Jr.; Jayson Lee, LB, So.; Jerek Rosales, DB, Sr.; Kevin Griffin, DB, Sr.; Kitu Humphrey, DB, So.; Aaryn Bouzos, DB, Sr.; Casey Sublette, PK/P, Jr.

OUTLOOK: With Protheroe leading the way as a senior, the Mustangs' triple option will continue to be one of the top rushing attacks in the FCS. The key offensively is for Jenkins to make a smooth transition into the No. 1 role and to overcome the loss of three offensive linemen. It helps the defense to have all four starters back in the secondary because the Mustangs have to generate more of a pass rush. They slumped over the final month last season, but it was successful campaign overall with a trip to the playoffs.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 26, Colgate

Sept. 2, at San Jose State

Sept. 9, at Northern Iowa

Sept. 23, Northern Arizona*

Sept. 30, at Idaho State*

Oct. 7, at Southern Utah*

Oct. 21, Weber State*

Oct. 28, at UC Davis*

Nov. 4, Portland State*

Nov. 11, Sacramento State*

Nov. 18, at Northern Colorado*

* - Big Sky game

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4. MONTANA GRIZZLIES=

LOCATION: Missoula, Montana

STADIUM: Washington-Grizzly Stadium

COACH: Bob Stitt (14-10, two seasons; 122-72-1 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (8th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (8 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Brady Gustafson, QB; Caleb Kidder, DE; JR Nelson, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Jerry Louie-McGee, WR/RS, R-So. (73 receptions, 651 yards, 3 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Josh Buss, LB, R-Jr. (81 TT, 20 TFL, 5.5 Sacks, 1 PBU, 7 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Reese Phillips, QB, R-Sr.; Jeremy Calhoun, RB, Jr.; Justin Calhoun, WR, R-So.; Keenan Curran, WR, Jr.; Josh Horner, WR, Sr.; David Reese, OL, Sr.; Cooper Sprunk, C, R-Sr.; Tucker Schye, DE, R-Sr.; Chris Favoroso, DE, R-So. (Arizona Western transfer); David Shaw, DT, Jr. (Maryland transfer); Connor Strahm, LB, R-Sr.; James Banks, LB, Sr.; Justin Strong, S, Sr.; Josh Sandry, S, R-So.

OUTLOOK: The Grizzlies seek to make amends for last year's collapse in the Big Sky schedule, which left their locker room divided. It's put Stitt under the microscope following his successful debut in 2015. Phillips should fit into the offense nicely as the Grizzlies replace Gustafson in their first-paced attack. The defense is usually one of the best in the conference and this year's front seven will be ferocious, including a defensive player of the year candidate in Buss. The Grizzlies are playing an FBS opponent (Washington) for only the third time since 2007.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Valparaiso

Sept. 9, at Washington

Sept. 16, Savannah State

Sept. 23, Eastern Washington*

Sept. 30, at Portland State*

Oct. 7, at Idaho State*

Oct. 14, North Dakota*

Oct. 28, at Weber State*

Nov. 4, Northern Arizona*

Nov. 11, Northern Colorado*

Nov. 18, at Montana State*

* - Big Sky game

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5. WEBER STATE WILDCATS=

LOCATION: Ogden, Utah

STADIUM: Stewart Stadium

COACH: Jay Hill (15-20, three seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 7-5, 6-2 Big Sky (3rd); No. 25 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (6 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Jadrian Clark, QB; Cameron Young, OL; Tre'von Johson, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Andrew Vollert, TE, Sr. (62 receptions, 840 yards, 7 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Taron Johnson, CB, Sr. (48 TT, 5 TFL, 12 PBU, 1 FR)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (6 offense)

KEY PLAYERS: Stefan Cantwell, QB, Sr.; Treshawn Garrett, RB, Jr.; Darryl Denby, WR, Sr.; Tui Satuala, TE, Jr.; Iousa Opeta, OT, Jr.; Jonah Williams, DE, So.; McKay Murphy, DT, Sr.; Landon Stice, LB, Jr.; Legrand Toia, LB, Jr.; Trey Hoskins, S., So.; Xequille Harry, CB., Sr.; Jacob DeMaio, P, Sr.

OUTLOOK: After last year's first playoff appearance since 2009, the Wildcats are hoping Cantwell will be a breakout player behind center. They ranked only 10th in the Big Sky in scoring last season, but Cantwell has dual-threat ability and will benefit from one of the nation's leading tight ends, Vollert, and experienced running backs. Their defense returns nine starters, including NFL prospect Johnson, but standout linebacker Emmett Tela, who was a medical redshirt a year ago, left the program during the offseason.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Montana Western

Sept. 9, at California

Sept. 16, at Sacramento State

Sept. 23, UC Davis*

Sept. 30, at Montana State*

Oct. 14, Southern Utah*

Oct. 21, at Cal Poly*

Oct. 28, Montana*

Nov. 4, at Eastern Washington*

Nov. 11, at Portland State*

Nov. 18, Idaho State*

* - Big Sky game

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6. NORTHERN ARIZONA LUMBERJACKS=

LOCATION: Flagstaff, Arizona

STADIUM: Walkup Skydome

COACH: Jerome Souers (112-103, 19 seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 5-6, 4-4 Big Sky (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (7 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Jacob Julian, LT; Siupeli Anau, DE; Jake Thomas, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Case Cookus, QB, R-So. (80 of 119, 1,173 yards, 13 TD, 1 INT in four games)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Khalil Dorsey, CB, So. (47 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 Sack, 2 INT, 9 PBU, 1 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Joe Logan, RB, So.; Cory Young, RB, Jr.; Emmanuel Butler, WR, Sr.; Elijah Marks, WR, Sr.; Chance Brewington, WR, Fr.; William Morehand, WR/PR, Jr.; Tyler Shank, OG, Sr.; C Blake Porter, C, Sr.; James Walton, DT, Sr.; Clarence Smith, DE, Sr.; Jake Casteel, LB, R-Jr.; Taylor Powell, LB, So.; Wes Sutton, S, RS-Jr.; Griffin Roehler, PK, So.

OUTLOOK: The Lumberjacks flopped as the Big Sky's preseason favorite last season, but they were forced to overcome the loss of Cookus, the 2015 STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award winner, to a season-ending shoulder injury. He returns to one of the nation's more dangerous receiving duos in Butler (two straight 1,000-yard seasons) and Marks as well as last year's breakout running back, Logan. The defense isn't as stacked, returning only three starters. Last year's Big Sky co-champs, Eastern Washington and North Dakota, are not on the schedule.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Arizona

Sept. 9, Western Illinois

Sept. 23, at Cal Poly*

Sept. 30, Northern Colorado*

Oct. 7, Illinois State

Oct. 14, at Portland State*

Oct. 21, UC Davis*

Oct. 28, Sacramento State*

Nov. 4, at Montana*

Nov. 11, Montana State*

Nov. 18, at Southern Utah*

* - Big Sky game

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7. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS=

LOCATION: Cedar City, Utah

STADIUM: Eccles Coliseum

COACH: Demario Warren (6-5, one season)

2016 RECORDS: 6-5, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Malik Brown, RB; Mike Sharp, WR; Josh Thornton, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Patrick Tyler, QB, Sr. (212 of 356, 2,294 yards, 23 TD, 7 INT; 3 rushing TDs)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Mike Needham, LB, Sr. (76 TT, 9 TFL, 3 Sacks, 5 INT, 8 PBU, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Aaron Zwahlen, QB, So. (Hawaii transfer); James Felila, RB, So.; Ty Rutledge, WR, Jr.; Cameron Chambers, WR, Sr.; Logan Parker, TE, Jr.; Zach Larsen, OL, So.; Taylor Pili, DL, Sr.; Chance Bearnson, DL, Sr.; Robert Torgerson, DL, Sr.; Taylor Nelson, LB, Sr.; Chinedu Ahanonu, LB, Jr. (returning missionary); Kyle Hannemann, S, Sr.; Tyler Collet, S, Sr.; Jarmaine Doubs, CB, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Warren says the Thunderbirds "have to leave no doubt" this season. They made the playoffs in 2013 and '15, and it's another odd-numbered year. Their 4-3 defense will be particularly strong with the likes of Needham, Torgerson and a returning Ahanonu. The question is whether there is enough talent in the skill positions after the T-birds lost Brown and Sharp. Tyler, who was solid running the spread last season, is being pushed by Zwahlen, a Hawaii transfer. A strong non-conference schedule precedes the Big Sky slate.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Utah

Sept. 9, at Stephen F. Austin

Sept. 16, Northern Iowa

Sept. 23, at Sacramento State*

Oct. 7, Cal Poly*

Oct. 14, at Weber State*

Oct. 21, Eastern Washington*

Oct. 28, at Northern Colorado*

Nov. 4, North Dakota*

Nov. 11, at UC Davis*

Nov. 18, Northern Arizona*

* - Big Sky game

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8. MONTANA STATE BOBCATS=

LOCATION: Bozeman, Montana

STADIUM: Bobcat Stadium

COACH: Jeff Choate (4-7, one season)

2016 RECORDS: 4-7, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Chad Newell, RB; Monte Folsom, OG; Fletcher Collins, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Chris Murray, QB, So. (47 of 105, 778 yards, 6 TD, 8 INT; 138 carries, 860 yards, 12 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Mac Bignell, LB, Sr. (97 TT, 14.5 TFL, 3.5 Sacks, 3 PBU, 2 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Nick LaSane, RB, Sr.; Edward Vander, RB, So. (Saddleback College transfer); Kevin Kassis, WR, So.; Jabarri Johnson, WR, Jr. (American River transfer); Connor Sullivan, TE, Jr.; Mitch Brott, RT, So.; Dylan Mahoney, LT, Sr.; Jake McFetridge, OG, So.; Lewis Kidd, OG, Fr.; Caleb Gillis, OG, Sr.; Grant Collins, DE/LB, Jr.; JoJo Henderson, CB, So.; Damien Washington, CB, So.; Bryce Alley, CB, Sr.; Bryson McCabe, S, Sr.; Luke Daly, PK, Sr.

OUTLOOK: Season-closing wins over UC Davis and rival Montana gave a lift to Choate's first season in Bozeman. Murray, the Big Sky freshman of the year, is a lightning-quick runner whom new QBs coach DeNarius McGhee, the former MSU great, will try to develop into a better passer. The defense, with eight returning starters, also should be improved, led by Bignell and Collins. It helps to get back long-range kicker Daly after he missed last season. The schedule is quite difficult, so a winning record is unlikely.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Washington State

Sept. 9, South Dakota State

Sept. 23, at North Dakota*

Sept. 30, Weber State*

Oct. 7, Portland State*

Oct. 14, at Eastern Washington*

Oct. 21, at Northern Colorado*

Oct. 28, Idaho State*

Nov. 4, Kennesaw State

Nov. 11, at Northern Arizona*

Nov. 18, Montana*

* - Big Sky game

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9. NORTHERN COLORADO BEARS=

LOCATION: Greeley, Colorado

STADIUM: Nottingham Field

COACH: Earnest Collins Jr. (21-46, five seasons; 29-58 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 6-5, 4-4 Big Sky (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (7 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Stephen Miller, WR; Austin Hendrickson, C; Kyle Newsom, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Hakeem Deggs, WR/KR, R-Sr. (34 receptions, 449 yards, 10 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Michael Walker, CB, R-So. (45 TT, 8 PBU, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jacob Knipp, QB, R-Jr.; Dontay Warren, QB, Fr.; Trae Riek, RB, R-Jr.; Ellis Onic II, WR/PR, R-Sr.; Alex Wesley, WR. R-Jr.; Zach Wilkinson, OL, Sr.; Eddie Gonzales, DT, R-So.; Khairi Bailey, DT, Sr.; Keifer Morris, DE, R-Jr.; Peter Mitchell, LB, Jr. (Glendale CC transfer); Henry Stelzner, LB, Jr. (Santa Rosa JC transfer); Stone Kane, S, Sr.; Marques Combs, PK, Jr.

OUTLOOK: The Bears lost some seniors who were pivotal players in the success of the last two seasons. It will help if Knipp, who stood out as a freshman in 2015, can make it back strong from last year's season-ending shoulder injury. Riek (736 rushing yards) will take pressure off the QB and Deggs turned 10 of his 34 receptions into touchdowns last season. The Bears are rebuilding on defense, so they brought in a handful of midyear transfers to help facilitate it. The road portion of the schedule is particularly difficult, including FBS trips to Florida and Colorado.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, College of Idaho

Sept. 9, at Florida

Sept. 16, at Colorado

Sept. 23, Idaho State*

Sept. 30, at Northern Arizona*

Oct. 7, at North Dakota*

Oct. 21, Montana State*

Oct. 28, Southern Utah*

Nov. 4, at Sacramento State*

Nov. 11, at Montana*

Nov. 18, Cal Poly*

* - Big Sky game

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10. PORTLAND STATE VIKINGS=

LOCATION: Portland, Oregon

STADIUM: Providence Park

COACH: Bruce Barnum (12-11, two seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 3-8, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Alex Kuresa, QB; Cam Keizur, OL; Xavier Coleman, CB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Randin Crecelius, LT, Sr.

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Anthony Del Toro, DT, So. (33 TT, 3 TFL, 2.5 Sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Josh Kraght, WR/QB/PR, Sr.; Davis Alexander, QB, R-Fr.; Za'Quan Summers, RB, Sr.; Darnell Adams, WR, Sr.; Andre Petties-Wilson, WR, Jr. (TCU transfer); Kahlil Dawson, WR/KR, Sr.; Charlie Taumoepeau, TE, So.; Chad Bach, RG, Sr.; Tyshon Mosley, RT, Sr.; Davond Dade, DE, Sr.; Sam Bodine, LB, Jr.; Kasun Jackett, LB, Jr. (Chaffey College transfer); Chris Seisay, CB, Sr.; Artuz Manning, SS, Jr.; Beau Duronslet, FS, Sr.

OUTLOOK: After regressing from a 9-3 playoff season in 2015, the Vikings hope to get back on their feet. Some young players saw a lot of action last season, and eventually that will pay off. The quarterback position is unsettled, and they would be better off if Kraght (36 receptions) can stay at wide receiver and Alexander settles in as a redshirt freshmen. Fortunately for the Vikings, they have an experienced offensive line. The defense, which slumped to No. 10 in the conference overall, will play better with improved health.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 26, at Brigham Young

Sept. 2, at Oregon State

Sept. 16, UC Davis

Sept. 30, Montana*

Oct. 7, at Montana State*

Oct. 14, Northern Arizona*

Oct. 21, at Idaho State*

Oct. 28, North Dakota*

Nov. 4, at Cal Poly*

Nov. 11, Weber State*

Nov. 18, at Eastern Washington*

* - Big Sky game

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11. SACRAMENTO STATE HORNETS=

LOCATION: Sacramento, California

STADIUM: Hornet Stadium

COACH: Jody Sears (11-23, three seasons; 15-42 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 2-9, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (8 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Nate Ketteringham, QB; Jordan Robinson, RB; Nick Crouch, S

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Isiah Hennie, WR/RS, Sr. (49 receptions, 594 yards, 5 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Ben Sorensen, DE, Sr. (41 TT, 10 TFL, 4.5 Sacks, 5 QBH, 2 FR, 3 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kevin Thomson, QB, Jr. (UNLV transfer), Jr.; Joseph Ajeigbe, RB, Gr. (Duke transfer); Jaelin Ratliff, WR, Jr.; Johnnie Rucker, WR, So.; Jonathan Bade, OL, Sr.; Lake Aiono, OL, Sr.; Ruben Meza, OL, Jr.; George Obinna, DL, Jr.; Malcolm Thomas, LB, Jr.; Tyler Meteer, LB, Sr.; Manoah Pearson, LB, Jr.; Elijah Wallace, LB/DB, Jr.; Manny Scott-Anderson, S, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Only one of Sears' five seasons as a Big Sky head coach (Weber State and Sac State) has ended with more than two wins. The key for this year's team is to play with consistency, and last year's young team is now led by seniors and juniors. Ketteringham transferred out of the program and Robinson was a senior last season, so two transfers, Thomson and Ajeigbe, figure to be the starting quarterback and running back, respectively. The defense gave up too many big plays last year, but Sorensen should have a big senior season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 1, at Idaho

Sept. 9, Incarnate Word

Sept. 16, Weber State

Sept. 23, Southern Utah*

Sept. 30, at Eastern Washington*

Oct. 14, Idaho State*

Oct. 21, at North Dakota*

Oct. 28, at Northern Arizona*

Nov. 4, Northern Colorado*

Nov. 11, at Cal Poly*

Nov. 18, UC Davis*

* - Big Sky game

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12. IDAHO STATE BENGALS=

LOCATION: Pocatello, Idaho

STADIUM: Holt Arena

COACH: Rob Phenicie (first season)

2016 RECORDS: 2-9, 1-7 Big Sky (13th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: KW Williams, WR; Josh Cook, TE; Hayden Stout, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Skyler Phillips, OL, Sr.

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Mario Jenkins, LB, Sr. (93 TT, 9.5 TFL, 3 Sacks, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tanner Gueller, QB, Jr.; Ty Flanagan, RB, So.; Michael Dean, RB/WR, So.; Hagen Graves, WR, Sr.; Mitch Gueller, WR, So.; Dallen Collins, OL, So.; Brian Fineanganofo, OL, Jr.; Rasheed Williams, DL, R-So.; JonRhyeem Peoples, DL, Sr.; Joe Martin, LB, Jr.; Kody Graves, LB, R-So.; Nikko Haves, DB, Jr.; Anthony Ricks, DB, Jr.

OUTLOOK: With Idaho a year away from rejoining the Big Sky, Idaho State surely feels pressure to rejuvenate its football program. The Bengals fired coach Mike Kramer (the conference's 2014 coach of the year) and brought back Phenicie, who had left for an assistant's job at Northern Iowa, to become a first-time head coach. Gueller will be improved, but the key skill position players surrounding him are young. The defense allowed a gaudy 41 points and 502 yards per game. Hoping for improvement, the unit is led by Jenkins and Martin. The schedule-maker was kind because co-champs Eastern Washington and North Dakota, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah are not on it.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, Western Oregon

Sept. 7, at Utah State

Sept. 16, at Nevada

Sept. 23, at Northern Colorado*

Sept. 30, Cal Poly*

Oct. 7, Montana*

Oct. 14, at Sacramento State*

Oct. 21, Portland State*

Oct. 28, at Montana State*

Nov. 4, UC Davis*

Nov. 18, at Weber State*

* - Big Sky game

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13. UC DAVIS AGGIES=

LOCATION: Davis, California

STADIUM: Aggie Stadium

COACH: Dan Hawkins (first season; 112-61-1 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 3-8, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Manusamoa Luuga, RB; Christian Schneider, OL; Zach Jones, DB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Keelan Doss, WR, Jr. (66 receptions, 911 yards, 10 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Keleen Culberson, S, Sr. (47 TT, 5 TFL, 1 Sack, 1 INT, 11 PBU, 1 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Brock Dale, QB, Jr.; C.J. Spencer, QB, Jr.; Justin Williams, RB, Sr.; Derek Baljeu, FB, Sr.; Jared Harrell, WR, So.; Kyle Sulka, OL, Sr.; Anthony Baumgart, DL, Jr.; Ryan Bua, LB, Sr.; Nas Anesi, LB, So.; Ryan Parenteau, S, Jr.; Darryl Graham, DB, Sr.; Isiah Olave, CB, Jr.; Matt Blair, PK, So.

OUTLOOK: Hawkins, a UC Davis alum who had a 53-11 record at Boise State from 2001-05, but struggled to go 19-39 at Colorado from 2006-10, returns to try to lift the Aggies' struggling program. He added a school-record 32-member signing class as he tries to reshape the roster. But the Aggies are breaking in a new quarterback and the home portion of the schedule doesn't have a single gimme. Doss is the team's go-to player and defenses will focus on him. The defense has to improve a lot. Over the last the last three seasons, the Aggies are 2-16 on the road.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at San Diego State

Sept. 9, San Diego

Sept. 16, at Portland State

Sept. 23, at Weber State*

Sept. 30, North Dakota*

Oct. 7, Eastern Washington*

Oct. 21, at Northern Arizona*

Oct. 28, Cal Poly*

Nov. 4, at Idaho State*

Nov. 11, Southern Utah*

Nov. 18, at Sacramento State*

* - Big Sky game

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