Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Montana State keeps earning the favorite's role in the Big Sky Conference preseason poll, but Eastern Washington keeps going the farthest in the FCS playoffs.
Make no mistake, Eastern Washington will be the preseason pick in the Big Sky this year and that status also may extend to the national level. The Eagles, who won the FCS title in 2010 and reached the semifinals in each of the past two seasons, boast the talent to win another national crown under coach Beau Baldwin.
Among the returnees are quarterback Vernon Adams, the runner-up for the 2013 Walter Payton Award as FCS player of the year, and wide receiver Cooper Kupp, the Jerry Rice Award winner as FCS freshman of the year.
Although Montana State has questions on offense and Montana on defense, the 13-team conference still has plenty of talented teams to at least keep Eastern Washington from going undefeated in Big Sky play again.
Here's a look across the conference with spring practices getting underway across the nation:
Montana State's offense has to replace its all-time leading passer (DeNarius McGhee), touchdown scorer (running back Cody Kirk) and pass catcher (Tanner Bleskin). And last year's preseason conference favorite was utterly disappointed by its 7-5 record and failure to make the FCS playoffs.
Montana will have a potent offense again, but the Grizzlies surrendering 42 points at home in an FCS playoff loss was a lasting image for a defense that lost its three starting linebackers and seeks consistency at cornerback.
Cal Poly has to replace three starters on both its offensive and defensive lines, none more prominent than All-America defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz.
With the return of quarterback Jimmy Arias and 19 starters, Idaho State might be ready to pull some upsets. The struggling Bengals haven't won a road game in 45 tries since Oct. 7, 2006 at Northern Colorado.
Portland State's back-to-back one-point losses to end the 2013 campaign summed it all up: almost, but not quite there. The Vikings finished 6-6 and five of the losses were by a combined 23 points. They are a wild card in this year's Big Sky race.
It might have gone under the radar that UC Davis went 5-3 in Big Sky games in coach Ron Gould's first season because the Aggies started 0-4 last year. Continuing the momentum in 2014 might be difficult because the Aggies have a tough schedule, including FBS opponents Stanford and Colorado State.
Despite last year's big season - a 9-3 record, including 7-1 in the Big Sky - Northern Arizona has a fairly young team. Gone are Zach Bauman, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons, and nine of the 11 defensive starters.
Sophomore Sean Rubalacaba might be ready to replace Seth Lobato as Northern Colorado's quarterback, but Brock Berglund is on campus awaiting word from the NCAA on his eligibility. The one-time highly regarded Kansas signee is at his fourth college.
There are new head coaches at North Dakota (Kyle Schweigert) and Weber State (Jay Hill).
There are plenty of dangerous passing combinations in the Big Sky, but don't overlook quarterback Garrett Safron (3,289 yards, 27 touchdowns) and DeAndre Carter (14 TDs) at Sacramento State.
Despite being slowed by an ankle injury in three games, Cal Poly's Kristaan Ivory rushed for 1,113 yards as a junior.
Injuries to key players hurt Montana State a year ago. Standout linebacker Na'a Moeakiola didn't even make it out of preseason camp. He returns this year.
Northern Arizona is thrilled to welcome back Ify Umodu, the team's leading receiver in 2012 who missed last season with a leg injury.
Well, Eastern Washington hopes leading tackler Ronnie Hamlin is back. The Eagles are confident he will gain a sixth year of eligibility to team with linebacker Cody McCarthy.
Weber State wide receiver Shaydon Kehano has battled injuries the last two seasons, playing in only four games last year, but he should be productive if he remains healthy as a senior.
Southern Utah's young standouts on defense are all grown up, including defensive end James Cowser, linebacker Zak Browning and strong safety Miles Killebrew - each a junior in 2014.
Yeah, it seems crazy, but Montana still has Jordan Johnson at the controls of its offense. He threw for 32 touchdowns with only five interceptions last season, although he must improve on a 56.7 completion percentage.
Sacramento State must decide on a starting running back between the speedy Jordan Robinson, the bigger Brandon Kellerman and the most experienced De'jon Coleman.
Not only did UC Davis lose a four-year starter at quarterback in Randy Wright, but Boise State transfer Jim Laughrea, who made two starts last year, decided not to remain in the program. Senior London Lacy is the most experienced quarterback, but sophomore Ben Scott and City College of San Francisco transfer Turner Baty figure highly in the race for the starting job.
Similar to last year, Northern Arizona quarterbacks Kyren Poe and Chase Cartwright are battling for the No. 1 job. Poe held it for the majority of last season.
Although Weber State quarterback Austin Chipoletti took over the starting job as a true freshman last year, the Wildcats have a number of young signal callers in their program.
Portland State is rebuilding its defensive line, so stellar play in the secondary is vital. Safety Patrick Onwuasor, a transfer from the University of Arizona, will be counted on heavily.
Montana State has graduated a Buck Buchanan Award-winning defensive end after each of the last two seasons (Caleb Schreibeis in 2012 and Brad Daly last year). Grambling State transfer Robert Wilcox hopes to settle in at the position.
As a freshman, running back Raysean Martin led Southern Utah in rushing (444 yards) and touchdowns (six). He figures to be markedly better this year, especially as the Thunderbirds' offensive line matures.
UC Davis cornerback and kick returner Shamawn Wright will keep making a name for himself as a junior.
North Dakota could be much-improved if some of last year's redshirt freshmen - running back Patrick Sharp, wide receiver Aaeron Carr and safety Cole Reyes - take advantage of openings at their positions.
Redshirt freshman Quinn Zamora might be the answer as Northern Colorado seeks to replace running back Tromaine Dennis.
Eastern Washington is looking to replace Ashton Clark's 83 receptions. Shaquille Hill only had 38 catches, but nine went for touchdowns.
READY FOR IMPROVEMENT
Former Weber State head coach and Eastern Washington defensive coordinator Jody Sears has taken over a Sacramento State defense which ranked only 10th in scoring defense and total defense in the Big Sky last year.
The Idaho State defense, led by linebacker Mitch Beckstead, made strides a year ago - surrendering 20 fewer points per game than 2012 - but has to give up fewer yards per game.
Junior college transfer Ian Boozer might be able to help a Portland State kicking game that made only three of 16 field-goal attempts.
That would make Montana's 11-for-20 accuracy on field goals look terrific, but coach Mick Delaney seeks a better percentage.
Eastern Washington needs its depth on the offensive line to be effective after losing All-America center Ashton Miller and guards Steven Forgette and Brandon Murphy, who combined for 132 games of experience and 114 starts.
North Dakota's new coaching staff will put emphasis on running the ball and stopping the run after subpar results last season.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Cal Poly: April 5-May 3
Eastern Washington: April 4-May 1
Idaho State: April 1-26
Montana: March 16-April 18
Montana State: March 18-April 19
North Dakota: March 28-April 26
Northern Arizona: March 25-April 26
Northern Colorado: March 25-April 26
Portland State: April 7-May 10
Sacramento State: March 10-April 12
Southern Utah: March 24-April 26
UC Davis: April 8-April 26
Weber State: March 12-April 19