(STATS) - Two years ago, Portland State was the darling of the Big Sky. Picked to finish 12th in the league by the media, the Vikings tied for second in the ultra-competitive 13-team conference and reached the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2000 - all while interim coach Bruce Barnum was named the 2015 STATS FCS National Coach of the Year.
Last season, Cal Poly was a feel-good story in the Big Sky while Portland State saw its record crumple from 9-3 in 2015 to 3-8. Projected for a ninth-place finish by both the coaches and media, the Mustangs saw a three-win improvement from '15 and made the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Portland State and Cal Poly are the only Big Sky teams in action in Week Zero of college football, and it's anyone's guess how they'll finish in one of the FCS' hardest conferences to predict.
The Mustangs, however, have a more positive outlook. No. 23 in the STATS FCS preseason poll and picked to finish fourth in the Big Sky, they get going Saturday against Colgate in a matchup that pits strength against strength.
Led by Joe Protheroe, Cal Poly's triple-option offense finished atop the FCS in rushing for the fourth straight year in 2016, amassing an average of 360.6 yards on the ground in the regular season. Its average of 5.7 yards per carry ranked third, as did its 39 rushing touchdowns, and Protheroe and company will be tested immediately.
No team was better at stopping the run last season than Colgate, which allowed a mere 69.4 rushing yards per game, and permitted just two rushing TDs in its final six contests. The Mustangs scored at least two on the ground in all but one 2016 game and ranked 14th in the FCS in scoring, averaging 34.7 points.
Protheroe, a STATS FCS 2017 Preseason All-American first-team selection, ran for 1,334 yards last season and will be joined in the backfield by Kyle Lewis, whose 9.7 average yards per carry was the best in the FCS among those with at least 60 attempts. Lewis had 591 rushing yards and team highs of 22 receptions for 375 yards.
Junior Khaleel Jenkins takes over at quarterback after serving as backup the last two seasons and as a QB running the triple option he'll obviously pile up yards on the ground. However, Cal Poly opponents can't simply focus on stopping the run, as the Mustangs' 9.65 yards per pass attempt last season ranked second in the FCS.
"Khaleel made extraordinary growth this year in practice," said coach Tim Walsh, who is beginning his ninth year at Cal Poly, "and at 6-2 and 214 pounds, he's big for a quarterback and one of our best athletes. He needs game experience, no question about that, but our expectations are that he can run our offense. He is a good runner and an efficient thrower."
Cal Poly's ability to keep defenses guessing as a result of their success on the ground and efficiency through the air made them one of college's most difficult offenses to stop - especially on third down. The Mustangs led the nation in third down conversions, moving the chains on 53.6 percent of their 179 attempts.
Portland State was also one of the nation's best in converting third downs, ranking fifth in the FCS at 49.7 percent, and was 18th in scoring at 33.2 points per game, but didn't get a lot of help from its defense.
The Vikings, picked to finish ninth by the coaches and 10th by the media in the Big Sky, open Saturday at BYU - the first of two straight FBS opponents to begin 2017.
Defense was Portland State's calling card in its magical 2015, but it was a liability last season. The Vikings ranked 119th out of 125 FCS schools in scoring defense in 2016, allowing an average of 39 points - nearly doubling the 22.3 they yielded a season earlier.
Barnum has given the keys to the offense to true freshman Jalani Eason, a dual-threat quarterback who fits into Portland State's offensive scheme.
"It was all Jalani," Barnum told the school's official website. "Between his poise he showed, picking up the package so quickly, making plays with his feet and his arm and the team started following him."
Eason beat out Josh Kraght, who played QB as a freshman before spending the last two seasons as a slot receiver. Kraght had a team-high 36 catches for 518 yards last season. Darnell Adams returns after leading the Vikings with 22 receptions and 478 yards in 2015 before missing most of last season due to plantar fasciitis.
Za'Quan Summers played in just the final four games in 2016 after an early-season injury and he'll shoulder a bulk of the carries after the graduation of Portland State's top three rushers who accounted for 2,285 yards and 30 touchdowns. Summers ran for 212 yards and averaged 7.3 per carry.
Although the defense took a step back last season, it was quite young. Anthony Del Toro was one of four freshmen to play on the d-line in 2016, and was named to the Big Sky preseason team.
"They're seasoned a little bit," Barnum said of the defense. "We took some hits last year. The scoreboard wasn't where we wanted it as much."
After opening against a BYU team which went 9-4 in 2016 and beat Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl, Portland State visits Oregon State. Once conference play begins, it's not going to get a lot easier for the Vikings, as they face all four Big Sky teams which made the 2016 playoffs. Portland State has the most difficult conference schedule, according to Montana State's Media Relations. Cal Poly, on the other hand, has the easiest path to a Big Sky crown, as it avoids No. 5 Eastern Washington and eighth-ranked North Dakota.
"We need to earn it," Walsh said. "This team needs to go out there and show people we are serious about who we are and we want to be competitive for a Big Sky championship."