It used to be real easy with Big Sky Conference football — mark down Montana, Montana State or Eastern Washington as the champion.
Feel fortunate if you’re using a pencil this year.
Last season changed everything in the nation’s largest FCS conference (13 teams). It had the most surprising title race, with Southern Utah crowned as the champion for the first time.
This year, uncertainty reigns again. Every title contender can stick out its chest, but each seems to have a major question mark.
Here are five key questions for the Big Sky season ahead:
1. Which team is the next Southern Utah, or is it Southern Utah?
The Big Sky race turned upside down with champion Southern Utah and runner-up Portland State rebounding from 3-9 records in 2014. Few saw it coming considering SUU was picked eighth in both the conference’s preseason coaches and media polls, and Portland State was ninth and 12th, respectively. With significant senior losses as well as head coach Ed Lamb leaving for BYU, the defending champion Thunderbirds probably won’t gain much respect in this year’s preseason polls as well. Will they surprise again? If another team comes from out of nowhere and into title contention, it might be North Dakota, Weber State or Northern Colorado, which all laid the foundation last season and return plenty of key players this year.
2. Is this the best title race around?
This year’s preseason polls should reflect a wide-open Big Sky title race. Perennial powers Eastern Washington and Montana or perhaps Northern Arizona, which features record-setting quarterback Case Cookus, may warrant the favorite’s role, but it’s precarious in such a deep race. The conference’s unbalanced schedule has an impact, and Portland State and North Dakota benefit this season, missing some of the other powers. Montana State is used to being there in the end, but last year the Bobcats slumped to their first losing season since 2001 and they have a new coach in Jeff Choate. It all points to another November to remember.
3. Will Cooper Kupp win FCS offensive player of the year again?
Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp has been named to the FCS All-American first team in each of his three seasons. Last season wasn’t even his best one, yet he was a deserving FCS offensive player of the year. He’s the favorite to claim the award again heading into his senior season, although only one other player, former Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards, has won the honor twice (2008 and ’09). Kupp ranks fourth in FCS history in receptions (311, 84 behind the record), second in reception yards (4,764, 486 behind the record) and second in TD receptions (56, two behind the record).
4. Does #BarnyBall have to do an even better job?
The feel-good story of the 2015 FCS season was at Portland State, which went from 3-9 in 2014 to 9-3 behind Bruce Barnum. He began the season as the Vikings’ interim head coach, but they finished second in the Big Sky, beat two FBS opponents (Washington State and North Texas) and made the FCS playoffs for only the second time, and the popular Barnum was rewarded with a five-year contract extension. #BarnyBall, as it’s called in Portland, has faced an even greater test this offseason as two starters passed away, linebacker AJ Schlatter (complications from throat surgery) andleft tackle Kyle Smith (drug overdose). The Vikings will no doubt play with added emotion and try to rally in the former teammates’ honor in 2016.
5. Who are the NFL prospects?
Kupp (6-1, 210) has put on added muscle during the offseason to become more NFL-ready. Targeted for roughly the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Kupp is a slot receiver with terrific hands and is adept at gaining yards after catch. Also among seniors, Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson (6-7, 230) has the size to gain a long look. He needs to have a big senior season after playing in only seven games last year because of a leg injury. But he’s a drop-back signal-caller who makes good decisions, and owns a win over North Dakota State and Carson Wentz to open last season. Scout Josh Buchanan, a leader in evaluating FCS-level draft prospects, says the Portland State duo of cornerback Xavier Coleman (5-11, 190) and offensive guard Cam Keizur (6-4, 320) came out of the spring with added interest.
— 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 by Dean Hendrick/Eastern Washington University Athletics)