The Big Sky Conference really is the Wild Wild West of the FCS.
The three teams that made the FCS playoffs in 2015 didn’t make them last year and the four which made them last year didn’t make them the year before.
Once again, the largest FCS conference at 13 teams has plenty of contenders heading into the 2017 season.
With the college football season fast approaching, here are five key questions for the Big Sky season ahead:
No Kupp, no problem?
Eastern Washington, last year’s Big Sky co-champ and national semifinalist, has to replace Cooper Kupp’s production as the greatest FCS wide receiver in history, and, more importantly, his ability to play big and lead the way against top opponents. Record-setting quarterback Gage Gubrud will become the face of the offense and he doesn’t discriminate while spreading around the passes.
How does the bull’s-eye fit on North Dakota?
North Dakota has played in the shadow of a certain other program downstate, so last year head coach Bubba Schweigert’s Fighting Hawks didn’t mind being the hunter on their way to an unbeaten season and co-title in the Big Sky. This time, they’re the hunted, returning a veteran squad that has to handle higher expectations while also facing a tougher conference schedule.
With seven different teams making the last two national playoffs, there is little margin for error In the conference. Northern Arizona wasn’t one of the qualifiers, but the outlook is bright. Star quarterback Case Cookus returns after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury. Plus, the Lumberjacks’ conference schedule doesn’t include last year’s three top teams (Eastern Washington, North Dakota and Weber State).
Do the Griz have bite?
This year’s Montana season should more resemble head coach Bob Stitt’s 8-5 debut in 2015 (with quality wins) than last year (6-5, losses in four of the last five games and an 0-4 conference road record). But the Griz were widely inconsistent during both seasons and that has to end. With 17 returning starters (eight on offense and nine on defense), they should have a smoother ride.
Who are the NFL prospects?
Scouts will look toward the North Dakota secondary, which boasts the shutdown skills of lanky cornerback Deion Harris (6-foot-2½, 180) and hardnosed style of strong safety Cole Reyes (6-2, 215). It’s a deep season in the Big Sky with the likes of Eastern Washington defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli (6-4, 315), Cal Poly fullback Joe Protheroe (6-0, 225), Idaho State offensive guard Skyler Phillips (6-2, 322) and Weber State teammates Andrew Vollert (6-5, 245), a tight end, and Taron Johson (6-0, 180), a cornerback.
— 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 University of North Dakota Athletics)