As much as we all hate to see summer wind down, there’s always one major silver lining as we turn the calendar from July to August…
…Oh, that’s right, gang. I’m talking about college football season, and it’s practically just around the corner. Anticipation for the upcoming year is greater than ever in the Dakotas, with three of the four DI schools in the region coming off FCS postseason appearance and each expecting to hit – and exceed – those heights in 2017.
Missouri Valley Football’s preseason news won’t hit for another week, meaning NDSU, SDSU and USD will have to wait a bit longer to find where their respective coaches and media think they’ll end up...although if we're honest, Bison and Jacks fans can pretty much pencil themselves in to the 1-2 slots in the nation’s toughest FCS conference.
Meanwhile, in the Big Sky, the results are already in, and the UND faithful have much to celebrate, as Bubba Schweigert’s program has been picked to repeat as league champions while earning a Big Sky-high six spots on the preseason All-Conference team.
With that announcement of the Big Sky’s preseason football polls in mind, here’s a deeper dive into how I think the conference will shake out. For the most part, I agree with the Media and Coaches – two groups who agreed with each other this year, almost to the letter – so that might tell you something about the sense of order that could be in play this year in the normally topsy-turvy world of Big Sky football…
Big Sky Football : 2017 Preseason Picks
1. North Dakota : Bubba Schweigert’s squad was the consensus preseason pick to win the conference by both the Media and the Coaches, and for good reason, as 18 starters – including nine on offense – return from a team that went unbeaten in Big Sky play in ’16. Big-time production at linebacker will need to be replaced after the graduation of All-Conference performers Brian Labat and Dylan Bakker as well as the retirement of team captain Connor O’Brien, but every other position on both sides of the ball features proven talent and depth, especially in the offensive and defensive backfield. Add in the fact that this team has a chip on their shoulder after a 2nd RD Playoff exit at home against Richmond, and it’s fair to expect big things from UND this season. Prediction: 7-1 BSC, 9-2 overall
2. Eastern Washington : Cooper Kupp and Samson Ebukam are in the NFL, and head coach Beau Baldwin and play caller Troy Taylor are now at Cal and Utah, but ’16 Big Sky Co-Offensive POY Gabe Gubrud is back to lead an offense that averaged over 42 points a game last year. While the Eags will be hard-pressed to hit the heights of 2016, a campaign that saw them go 12-2 and reach the national semifinals, they’re still one of the most dangerous – and consistent – teams in the conference. Their matchup in Grand Forks on November 11 could decide who raises the conference title. Prediction: 6-2 BSC, 7-4 overall
3. Cal Poly : 2016 signal caller Dano Graves is now on Tim Walsh’s coaching staff, but All-American fullback Joe Protheroe is still around to carry the load for an offense that’s led the FCS in rushing in each of the last four seasons. Talent-wise, NAU, Weber and Montana are probably all “better” teams, and with six key defensive starters gone, stopping the opposition will be a concern, but the Mustangs’ schedule – no UND, no EWU, no Montana, no MSU, and Weber and NAU at home – is by far the easiest of the contenders. All signs point to the ‘Stangs reaching the FCS playoffs for a second straight year. Prediction: 6-2 BSC, 7-4 overall
4. Northern Arizona : No team has bigger offensive stars than the Lumberjacks, as 2015 FCS Freshman of the Year Case Cookus returns from injury to team up again with All-Big Sky WRs Emanuel Butler and Elijah Marks, yet the trouble still lies with a defense that was exploited against the conference’s best teams in 2016. Both the Media and Coaches picked the ‘Jacks to finish third, but remember, this team was 5-6 a year ago with a decent replacement quarterback in FBS transfer Blake Kemp and faces Cal Poly, Montana and Southern Utah on the road. They do avoid UND, EWU and Weber, however...and if they can win two of those three roads games, they’ll be in the hunt. Prediction: 6-2 BSC, 7-4 overall
5. Weber State : Good things have been happening in Ogden since Jay Hill took over the program three years ago, and that trend should continue in 2017. Three-year starter Jadrian Clark will have to be replaced under center, but All-American TE Justin Vollert and standout RB Treshawn Garrett should help whoever wins the job (likely Stefan Cantwell), plus the defense should be stout with eight starters back. The down side? The middle section of their conference schedule is a bear, with trips to Bozeman, San Luis Obispo and Cheney sandwiched around home games against Southern Utah and Montana. They’ll be on the bubble for a second-straight postseason berth. Prediction: 5-3 BSC, 7-4 overall
6. Montana : The Griz had a disappointing 2016, losing four of their last five to finish 3-5 in the Big Sky and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Electric receiver/return man Jerry Louis McGee is back, but there are questions at QB and on defense. The schedule isn’t kind, though at least EWU, UND and NAU all come to Washington-Grizzly. Prediction: 5-3 BSC, 7-4 overall
7. Southern Utah : The T-Birds should be great again on the defense with All-Big Sky linebackers Mike Needham and Chineda Ahanonu back in the fold, but can second-year head coach Demario Warren find suitable replacements for All-Big Sky skill guys Mike Sharp and Malik Brown? SUU avoids Montana and gets most of their top competition at home – Cal Poly, EWU, UND and NAU all come to Cedar City – but home field only counts for so much against the league’s best. Prediction: 4-4 BSC, 5-6 overall
8. Montana State : Jeff Choate’s Cats went 4-7 last year and just 2-6 in Big Sky play, but four of those losses were by a touchdown or less. All-Big Sky linebacker Mac Bignell leads a defense that showed flashes against good teams in 2016, while BSC Freshman of the Year Chris Murray should have better control of the offense in his sophomore season. Still, despite the bright spots, MSU’s not ready for a true title challenge just yet, though they'll prove a tough out for the teams above them in the standings and should beat the teams below. The Big Sky's Good-Bad team for 2017. Prediction: 3-5 BSC, 4-7 overall
9. Northern Colorado : Back-to-back games at Florida and Colorado in early September will prove a trial-by-fire for a Bears team that’s replacing QB Kyle Sloter and 21 other seniors who helped lead UNC to a pair of 6-5 seasons in the last two years. To fill those departures, head coach Earnest Collins brought in a jaw-dropping 39 new players, six of whom from the JUCO ranks. With all the new faces and that brutal non-conference schedule, a third-straight winning season will be tough to come by. Prediction: 3-5 BSC, 4-7 overall
10. UC Davis : The Dan Hawkins Era begins, but outside of play-making WR Keelan Doss, there’s not much talent in house to work with. Davis fans will miss the familiar rumbling of graduated All-Conference tailback Mausamoa Luuga, and a new QB will need to be found as well. Still, the Aggies feel like the best squad in this bottom third of the league. Prediction: 2-6 BSC, 2-9 overall
11. Portland State : Viks fans wondering if 2015’s dream season was an aberration might get their answer this year, and it’s not looking positive. The offensive line will be one of the league’s most experienced, but the entire offensive backfield – including dual-threat QB Alex Kuresa and PSU’s top two running backs – have all graduated, meaning there might not be much talent for the guys up front to protect or open holes for. A rebuilding defense and a brutal schedule doesn’t help. Prediction: 1-7 BSC, 2-9 overall
12. Sacramento State : One of the worst teams in the Big Sky last year in almost every metric, Sac State doesn’t appear to be much better in 2017. All-Conference tailback Jordan Robinson has graduated, QB Nate Ketteringham has transferred, and it’d be a stretch to say help is on the way. Prediction: 1-7 BSC, 2-9 overall
13. Idaho State : Yikes. The Bengals are coming off a year in which they were last in the Big Sky in scoring offense, last in scoring defense, last in total offense and second-to-last in total defense. New head coach Rob Phenicie, who steps into the role after spending the last two years as the receivers coach, will have a job on his hands to get back to the heights of ISU’s eight-win campaign of 2014. Prediction: 1-7 BSC, 2-9 overall
North Dakota opens their 2017 season in Salt Lake City against Utah on August 31, while the Fighting Hawks’ first Big Sky contest is at the Alerus Center against Montana State on September 23. Stay tuned to Midco Sports Network and MidcoSN.com for more coverage of UND Football as the season approaches!