It’s the Big Sky Conference, so who really knows.
The largest FCS conference has a good eight or nine of its 13 teams harboring realistic hope to reach the FCS playoffs. Seven different teams have reached the postseason over the last two seasons.
Idaho’s return adds to the depth -- and intense rivalries-- and the Big Sky is insanely deep in outstanding quarterbacks this season.
Here are five bold predictions for the Big Sky season ahead:
Idaho won’t make the FCS playoffs
Considering its non-conference schedule, Idaho may have to win the Big Sky title and automatic bid to reach the FCS playoffs in its first year back following 22 seasons on the FBS level. The Vandals’ non-conference schedule likely isn’t conducive for earning an at-large bid unless they upset Fresno State or Florida. Their game against Division II member Western New Mexico won’t help their resume much, so they probably need to go 7-1 in Big Sky games to get enough Division I wins.
Southern Utah won’t make the playoffs, either
If they follow their every other year pattern since joining the Big Sky in 2012, the Thunderbirds are due to miss the playoffs this season. They earned the automatic bid last year by claiming a share of the conference title. This year, third-year head coach Demario Warren’s team, which returns 14 starters, but only five on defense, is up against arguably the toughest schedule in a conference that has unbalanced scheduling (13 teams each playing an eight-game conference schedule). The Thunderbirds face five teams that went 5-3 or better in the conference plus Idaho.
At the end of the regular season, the Big Sky will have the nation’s leading passer, receiver and rusher
Hey, who’s going to dispute the idea? The conference features Eastern Washington’s Gage Gubrud, who set the FCS single-season record for passing yards two years ago; UC Davis’ Keelan Doss, who was No. 1 in receiving yards per game last season; and Cal Poly’s Joe Protheroe, who rushed for 1,334 yards two years ago, but missed much of last season with a knee injury.
Eastern Washington will win the conference title
Before tying for third place in head coach Aaron Best’s first season last year, the high-flying Eagles won at least a share of the conference title in four of Beau Baldwin’s final five campaigns in Cheney. A large senior class is motivated by what it perceived to be a playoff snub last year. The key is always with the defense, which returns eight starters and should be stronger. If the Eagles can survive the first half of the schedule, November is favorable.
Hauck will lift the Griz again
The return of Montana head coach Bobby Hauck for a second stint will be considered a success when the Griz get back to the playoffs again after two straight years missing out. It might come down to winning the “Brawl of the Wild” against rival Montana State, but Washington-Grizzly Stadium will be abuzz all season. Unlike last season, a 7-4 record would appear good enough because the Griz have a stronger non-conference schedule.
-- Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo courtesy of Southern Utah Athletics)