Q&A: How FCS Nation’s Montana residents see the Big Sky
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Perennially considered one of the best FCS conferences in the country, the
Big Sky should be no different this year. At least half of its dozen teams figure to be in the race
for Top 25 rankings by season’s end while some lower half teams could surprise.
While that recipe for success will keep the BSC amongst the best in college football, it does
offer some intrigue. Exactly how the standings will shake out is entirely up for debate. Starting
with the top of the totem pole, there could be some mix-ups.
Defending conference co-champ Sacramento State lost Offensive Player of the Year Cameron
Skattebo to Arizona State, while both of its quarterbacks from its two-QB system, Jake
Dunniway and Asher O’Hara, graduated. Plus, head coach Troy Taylor left for Stanford, being
replaced in-house by Andy Thompson.
Conversely, other co-champ Montana State returns nearly all its heavy contributors from a
team that lost in the national semifinals to South Dakota State, the eventual champions. Like
the Bobcats, Idaho retained the bulk of its roster after enjoying a breakout 2022 campaign.
From there, Montana, Weber State and UC Davis all had crucial personnel changes that could
make or break their seasons. Teams like Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington, with a few
major breakouts, could even leapfrog towards the upper half of the standings. Simply put, the
Big Sky Conference could have some serious parity.
And on Monday morning from the Northern Quest Resort and Casino, media and fans will get
their first feel for these 2023 teams. The Big Sky Football Kickoff event will take place all
weekend long with media day set for Monday (get ready for some coach speak).
But before having a chance to be swayed, FCS Nation founder Kevin Marshall and FCS Nation
writer, Lucas Semb, casted their ballots for the Big Sky preseason rankings and discussed their
decisions. Both heavily involved in the following and coverage of Big Sky football, here’s how
they see the fall season playing out.
Kevin’s Ballot: Lucas’ Ballot:
1. Montana State 1. Idaho
2. Idaho 2. Montana State
3. Montana 3. Montana
4. Sacramento State 4. Weber State
5. Weber State 5. UC Davis
6. UC Davis 6. Sacramento State
7. Eastern Washington 7. Northern Arizona
8. Northern Colorado 8. Eastern Washington
9. Northern Arizona 9. Portland State
10. Portland State 10. Idaho State
11. Cal Poly 11. Cal Poly
12. Idaho State 12. Northern Colorado
Q: We had Montana State and Idaho flip-flopped at the top spot. Why did you pick that
the way that you did?
Kevin: Montana State brings back two really dynamic quarterbacks – Tommy Mellot
and Sean Chambers. Don’t be surprised to see them both on the field at the same time
with some trickeration this fall. Montana State’s schedule lines up fairly well for them
and Idaho has some really tough road games. It’s hard to win on the road in the Big Sky
and I think Montana State will win the league.
Lucas: This has less to do with MSU and more to do with Idaho. The Vandals, in their
first season under a new head coach, burst onto the scene after struggling mightily
since returning to the conference in 2018. The engineer of it all, BSC Freshman of the
Year, Gevani McCoy, is back with potential Offensive Player of the Year Hayden Hatten.
In year two, they’ll have a full understanding of the system, can add in additional folds
and can seemingly only improve.
Q: We both have Montana at three. How do you view them this year, in a year where a
lot of people don’t have them finishing quite that high?
Kevin: You hate to point to the Big Sky schedule maker and say, ‘wow, he did you a favor’ but
the Griz have an extremely favorable schedule. They should win a lot of games. Will that mean
that they are an exceedingly good team? We’ll have to wait until the playoffs to find that out,
but the schedule is really favorable for the Griz but circle that Ferris State game. It’s going to be
a really tough out-of-conference game against the back-to-back Division II national champions.
Lucas: From my standpoint as the Griz beat writer last year, their weapons weren’t utilized
exactly how they should’ve been, and they didn’t have an extremely clear-cut QB1 – at least
according to the coaching staff. With starter Lucas Johnson injured frequently, they played
musical chairs with the next man up. All of that led to a down year. Now, new offensive
coordinator Brent Pease was promoted to bring a fresh attack that should pay dividends. Boise
State transfer QB Sam Vidlak looks like the real deal – and so do his receivers, not to mention
one of the deepest RB rooms in the country. The Griz will score a lot of points and they’ll need
to in order to finish third – the defense lost a lot.
Q: Between Sacramento State, Weber State and UC Davis, I’ve seen it a lot of different ways.
Why do you have it the way that you do?
Kevin: I think Sacramento State and Weber State did smart things by promoting from within.
They’ve had a lot of success as programs, and they promoted from within when their head
coaches left for what some would consider greener pastures. I think Sac brings back a little bit
more on the offensive side of the ball. Weber is going to be solid on the defensive side of the
ball and Mickey Mental is an offensive coach. Weber State, as usual, is going to go as far as
their quarterback play can take them. UC Davis, it’s hard to know what to expect from this team
except that they’ll be well-coached, play fundamentally sound and play hard. Dan Hawkins is a
good football coach, and he is not going to have anything less than a fundamentally sound,
tackle well, don’t beat themselves type football team. I think UC Davis, if some guys emerge,
could creep way up in the standings but with the question marks they have right now I think 6 is
a good spot.
Lucas: To me, Sacramento State lost everything. It lost an all-world running back, it lost both its
quarterbacks and between those three, the vast majority of its offensive output. It’ll be nearly
impossible to replace that in one season which is why I think it’ll be the worst of these three
teams. I think UC Davis brings back a balanced attack. Miles Hastings had a nice season under
center and could take another step this year while the defense will be rock solid again. The only
reason I put them behind Weber is because Ulonzo Gilliam is no longer. Weber to me has the
makings for the best season of the trio. Though it’s a new head coach in Mental, its someone
they are familiar with as their offensive coordinator last season and that’s exactly what they
need – an offensive mind. He was able to convince a lot of portal guys to stay so he has the
weapons to push them over the edge on that side of the ball. Defensively, they’ll be up there
for best in the conference – maybe the country.
Q: You have UNC at eight and I have them dead last. Let’s explain our decisions.
Kevin: Well, I know Ed Lamb is an extremely solid college football coach. Like one of the best
ones that maybe a lot of people haven’t heard of. He did a fantastic job at Southern Utah and
UNC has some players. They have some talent. Quarterback can sling it. This is going to be a lot
better football team than people think just because of the addition of solid coaching under Ed
Lamb and the staff that he hired. This was not a team that was bad last season, they were just
poorly led, and you could tell. I expect Northern Colorado to surprise some people and by the
middle to the end of the season, people are not going to want to play that football team.
Lucas: I beg to differ here; I think they were bad. The toxicity of Ed McCaffrey’s coaching
situation of course played into that, but they won just two conference games, and the losses
weren’t even competitive. There’s more to that than coaching. They had seven all-conference
players – only two return. Elijah Dotson, their all-conference returner and running back, has
graduated. Dylan McCaffrey graduated. Brady Odom, all-conference offensive lineman,
graduated. Elijah Anderson-Taylor, all-conference linebacker, transferred FBS. Punter Devin
Bale transferred to a Power 5 – that’s important when you’ll be punting a lot. They just have a
lot of holes to fill, a first-year head coach to adjust to and their confidence right now must be at
a very low starting point.
Q: Do you think that the Ed McCaffrey situation will be hard for them to look past?
Kevin: I think all of that was put down immediately when that bunch was shown the door and
Ed Lamb walked in. At the FCS level I really don’t think you can overestimate the guy leading the
program and the staff that they have. I think the players at similar at most schools – it’s the
leadership and what the standards are that sets teams apart. I think they are going to be a team
that, it might take them a couple weeks to get it together, but they’ll be a halfway decent
football team and I don’t think I’m wrong about this.
Lucas: As great as Ed Lamb may be, I do think he has his work cut out for him and moving past
the scandals of the McCaffrey era will be tough. When you have a coach giving certain players
favoritism, hiring guys without coaching experience and tampering with scholarships, it’s going
to take a lot to earn guys’ trust back – no matter who you are. That sort of stuff breaks guys and
Lamb will have to win them over.
Q: The bottom third of the standings could go many ways with a lot of those teams being
interchangeable. Why did you pick it the way you did?
Kevin: I think NAU could be a pretty good football team when it’s all said and done. First of all, I
hate to use the make-or-break year term, but they’ve been close. They lost some people to the
transfer portal, their quarterback, this is a team that’ll have to get after you on defense because
the offensive will probably be pretty challenged early on. And then you talk about Portland
State, Cal Poly and Idaho State, I think those teams are pretty interchangeable. Portland State
though, if you look at the recruiting rankings, seems to be pretty high every year in the Big Sky
and Bruce Barnum is a good football coach and you have to think that one of these years,
they’ll put it all together. Maybe this will be the year but if you look at the history, Portland
State hasn’t been that good, but they’ve been a team that’ll give you trouble, they’ll fight you.
Cal Poly and Idaho State, those are complete rebuild jobs. Cal Poly, coach Beau Baldwin when
he was there scrapped a pretty potent triple-option offense for a spread attack and generally
that takes a little while to get your players up to speed and now he’s on to greener pastures.
Now coach Wulff comes in and he’s a very good football coach as well, had all that success at
EWU so it’s not like they are changing a whole bunch from Baldwin to Wulff, but I think a
successful season for them will be winning three or four games. And Idaho State, the younger
Hawkins, that’s a job that we scratch our head and wonder why somebody would take that gig.
But being a head coach is something that a lot of people want to do and if he can build that up
and have it on his resume that he won at ISU, I guess that means you can win just about
Lucas: I think NAU is actually going to be really good. They were right on the cusp last year of
getting many signature wins, narrowly losing to Weber and MSU. They showed that they can
play with the best of them and though they lost QB RJ Martinez to the portal, they brought in
two good ones. Kai Millner from Cal, who went 8-of-11 against Oregon last year with two TDs
and no turnovers. Daniel Britt from Montana who many Griz fans last year wanted to be the
starter as he showed true dual-threat capabilities. Pair them with what’s already cooking there,
and they may get over the hump and win a few more of those close losses. As for the rest of
them, you can put it any way you want. I like Portland State’s chances of being a higher end
bottom tier team simply because of Dante Chachere’s explosiveness. I like the Cody Hawkins
hire at ISU which is why I put them higher. He comes from a good football tree. But again, you
can mix and match these teams for several different reasons. This is just how I see it.
Q: How do you feel about the Big Sky Conference’s current state of affairs going into the 2023
Kevin: I think the MVC is going to be much better this year than it was last year, so if you’re
talking about best FCS conferences, I think you have 1A and 1B with the Big Sky and the
Missouri Valley. And then you have the SoCon and the CAA as 2A and 2B with the SoCon on a
bit of a rise and the CAA on a bit of a decline. Its close and the playoffs are such a strong
indicator of where a league is, but they can also not be a good indicator for where a league is. I
think MSU is not as bad of a team as they showed there in Brookings, SD in the playoffs last
season. We’re going to get a really good matchup very early in the season – a rematch between
the Bobcats and the Jackrabbits in Brooking again – and I think that’ll be a game we can circle
and go ‘OK, let’s see how good the Bobcats are.’ There are several games like that this year and
that’s what I love about FCS football. Yes, preseason prognostications and polls are fun for
discussion, but we settle who the best team is on the field. The last team to win a game is our
Lucas: In my short time covering FCS football, starting last year as the Griz beat writer, I got
extremely caught up to speed fast with the landscape. And both historically and currently, I
think the Big Sky still stands as the best conference. I think there’s one very simple way to look
at it – aside from having the most teams in the playoffs nearly every season. But take a lower
half team from the BSC like NAU or EWU or Portland State and put them in a different
conference. They are almost certainly a top 50% team there. That settles that conversation very