Breaking down the race for the Big Sky football title

Bobcat Beat
We just returned from a fun few days in Park City for the annual Big Sky Conference football kickoff. We will have a few follow up stories on a few pieces of news from the event: the addition to instant replay and coaches’ reactions; a follow-up story on five Bobcats being named preseason All-Big Sky; and a follow-up on the preseason poll.
Thursday, we will break down our predictions for the upcoming season. Montana State was picked by the coaches by the slightest of margins, edging Eastern Washington by a single point as the teams each received six first-place votes. EWU was the pick by the media, edging MSU by eight points despite each squad getting 17 first-place nods.
For the record, Bobcat Beat chose Montana State to win the league. We voted Eastern Washington second and Cal Poly third. This is how we think it will play out. Here’s a breakdown of the composite Big Sky schedule along with games of the week crucial to the Big Sky race and our final predictions for who will emerge from the 13-team FCS powerhouse league.
Saturday, August 29
North Dakota State at Montana (ESPN)
GAME OF THE WEEK: It’s the game of the week because it is the only game, but Montana’s hosting of four-time defending national champion North Dakota State would be the top billing even if the rest of the FCS was in action. The matchup pits the Bison, a juggernaut who has run through all challengers, including those from the Big XII against the Grizzlies, once the standard bearer of the FCS after winning 12 straight Big Sky titles and advancing to seven national title games between 1995 and 2009. It’s also the first game of the Bob Stitt era. Montana doesn’t lose at home often but a Griz team with a new quarterback and a brand new offense will have their hands full with NFL hopeful NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz and the Bison.
Thursday, Sept. 3
Fort Lewis at Montana State
UC Davis at Nevada
Friday, September 4
Weber State at Oregon State
Saturday, Sept. 5
Eastern Washington at Oregon
Portland State at Washington State
Southern Utah at Utah State
North Dakota at Wyoming
Eastern Oregon at Sacramento State
Black Hills State at Idaho State
Western State at Northern Colorado
Cal Poly at Montana (Non-Conference)
Northern Arizona at Stephen F. Austin
GAME OF THE WEEK: Cal Poly at Montana — Assuming former Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams takes care of business and graduates, his start for Oregon against his former team is an intriguing story line. But it’s the Grizzlies again as Montana will try to avoid going 0-2. The Griz have lost twice in a row at Washington-Grizzly Stadium one time since the venue opened in 1986. So it’s hard to pick against them. But Cal Poly’s potent triple option will give UM all it can handle. The biggest question mark in this game is can CP’s rebuilding defense make enough stops to keep them in the game. If Montana doesn’t win here, the Griz could be staring an 0-3 start right in the face and Stitt might find a collection of “For Sale” signs in his yard at his new Missoula home.
Saturday, September 12
Cal Poly at Arizona State
Weber State at North Dakota State
Sacramento State at Washington
Eastern Washington at Northern Iowa
Southern Utah at South Dakota State
*Portland State at Idaho State
New Mexico Highlands at Northern Arizona
Drake at North Dakota
South Dakota at UC Davis
Northern Colorado at Houston Baptist
GAME OF THE WEEK: Eastern Washington at Northern Iowa: Nothing will seem as fast to the EWU defense as the electrifying offense of the Ducks, so expect a salty effort from a unit that is often overlooked. EWU has stockpiled speed and young talent on defense and the departure of stalwarts like Ronnie Hamlin and Evan Day will give way to much more athletic playmakers who can swarm and stick. UNI is a perennial Missouri Valley power but it won’t have any answers for Cooper Kupp and the EWU receivers as Jordan West gets his first win under center and helps begin to make Big Play VA a distant memory.
Friday, September 18
Idaho State at Boise State
Saturday September 19
Montana State at Eastern Washington (Non-Conference)
Sacramento State at Weber State (Non-Conference)
*Northern Colorado at Southern Utah
Northern Iowa at Cal Poly
Northern Arizona at Arizona
UC Davis at Hawaii
Montana at Liberty
North Dakota at North Dakota State
GAME OF THE WEEK: Montana State at Eastern Washington — The last time MSU played in Cheney, the results were disastrous for the Bobcats. Montana State did not record a single stop as Adams and the Eagles piled up 571 yards and averaged 13.2 yards per snap in a 52-29 win. A year ago in Bozeman, MSU put the rest of the FCS on watch by going blow for blow with the Eagles, but VA’s two-point conversion gave EWU a 52-51 win in one of the games of the year. Now Adams is gone and Montana State will have 17 days to prepare for the Eagles following a Week 2 bye. MSU has only won in Cheney once (2011) this generation but Dakota Prukop and the Bobcats will earn a confidence-building early-season victory on the blood-red turf this time around.
Saturday, September 26
*UC Davis at North Dakota
*Cal Poly at Montana State
*Eastern Washington at Sacramento State
*Northern Arizona at Montana
*Weber State at Northern Colorado
Brevard College at Southern Utah
Western Oregon at Portland State
Idaho State at UNLV
GAME OF THE WEEK: Cal Poly at Montana State: The Big Sky opener for both teams will serve as a stout test for Montana State’s revamped defense. A season ago, the Bobcats couldn’t take the ball away from Cal Poly’s triple-option offense in the fourth quarter. The Mustangs milked almost 12 minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter to help secure a 35-27 victory in San Luis Obispo. Part of that victory’s credit goes to Cal Poly’s swarming defense, a unit that lost star linebackers Cameron Ontko and Nick Dzubnar. Although the option will be just as hard to stop with stud quarterback Chris Brown at the helm, the defense won’t be as salty. Montana State will be able to score more easily than last fall and that will mean a crucial 1-0 Big Sky start for the Bobcats.
Saturday, October 3
*Southern Utah at Weber State
*Northern Colorado at Sacramento State
*Idaho State at Cal Poly
*Montana at UC Davis
*Montana State at Northern Arizona
*North Dakota at Portland State
GAME OF THE WEEK: Montana State at Northern Arizona: The last time Montana State played at the Walkup Skydome, the Bobcats looked helpless. NAU put relentless pressure on DeNarius McGhee, handing MSU its lone loss of a season that otherwise helped kick start the momentum of an excellent first portion of the decade. Montana State has had trouble with moving, unorthodox defenses during the Rob Ash era and that’s again what they will see in Flagstaff. For MSU to have a chance, the Bobcats will have to hit some big plays against NAU’s swarming defense that hangs its hat on a risk-taking secondary. If NAU can force a turnover or two, the Lumberjacks will earn the upset.
Saturday, October 10
*Sacramento State at Montana State
*Cal Poly at Eastern Washington
*Northern Arizona at UC Davis
*Weber State at Montana
*Idaho State at North Dakota
Portland State at North Texas
GAME OF THE WEEK: Cal Poly at Eastern Washington — The question in the early going for Cal Poly will be can the Mustangs score enough points to keep pace with the breakneck offenses like EWU, MSU and ISU. With a depleted defense, they’ll have to score in order to keep up. Eastern Washington may not have headliners on its defense, but the Eagles are deep and that will aid in slowing down Cal Poly’s option attack just enough to win in a shootout.
Saturday, October 17
*UC Davis at Northern Colorado
*Sacramento State at Southern Utah
*Eastern Washington at Idaho State
*Montana State at Portland State
*North Dakota at Weber State
GAME OF THE WEEK: Eastern Washington at Idaho State: The tale of the tape says this is a matchup between the two best receiving corps in the league, two of the Big Sky’s best offensive lines and two of the league’s most athletic secondaries. Each defensive line has a star — Samson Ebukam for EWU, Tyler Kuder for ISU — and the linebackers look like a draw. ISU has the advantage at tailback in 2014 league rushing champion Xavier Finney but EWU will have the advantage at quarterback. West has had more time to gel with his receivers than junior college transfer Michael Sanders, ISU’s presumed starter. But Idaho State will be playing with something to prove. The rebuilt Bengals will have a raucous crowd on hand at Holt Arena and Mike Kramer will not forget his team’s narrow 56-53 loss to EWU a season ago. ISU will notch a signature win and hand EWU its first league loss.
Saturday, October 24
*Portland State at Cal Poly
*Eastern Washington at Northern Colorado
*Southern Utah at UC Davis
*Weber State at Northern Arizona
*North Dakota at Montana
*Idaho State at Sacramento State
East Tennessee State at Montana State
GAME OF THE WEEK: North Dakota at Montana — A season ago, a narrow 18-15 loss by UND to Montana at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks cost North Dakota an above-.500 record. UND returns most of its hard-hitting league-leading defense from a season ago and figures to be at least somewhat improved offensively. But the home-field advantage in Missoula combined with the Grizzlies’ stout defense and their ability to smash pro-style offenses will keep UM undefeated in league play.
Saturday, October 31 
*Cal Poly at Southern Utah
*Northern Colorado at Northern Arizona
*Weber State at Eastern Washington
*Montana at Portland State
*Montana State at North Dakota
GAME OF THE WEEK: Cal Poly at Southern Utah — The Thunderbirds have the physicality defensively to stifle Cal Poly’s option attack but do they have the endurance? Big-time players should come up in big-time games so expect both CP quarterback Chris Brown and SUU defensive end James Cowser to shine. As is the trend in the Big Sky, this one will likely be a shootout. SUU quarterback Ammon Olsen’s arm doing its best to keep up with Brown’s productive legs. It could be a one-score game, something that favors a team that can possess the ball like Cal Poly. Plus, this is essentially a playoff game so tensions will be high throughout.
Saturday, November 7
*UC Davis at Weber State
*Sacramento State at Cal Poly
*Portland State at Northern Colorado
*Northern Arizona at Eastern Washington
*Southern Utah at Montana State
*Montana at Idaho State
GAME OF THE WEEK: Montana at Idaho State — The first week of November brings three games with crucial ramifications in the league race. A Southern Utah upset at Montana State could derail the Bobcats’ title hopes and boost the T-Birds into the playoffs. An NAU upset at Eastern Washington could do the same thing for the Lumberjacks while making EWU’s playoff hopes muddy. But the game of the week has to be Montana’s first trip to Pocatello since 2011. The game will be for a share of first place in the league standings. It will be ISU’s first home game since hosting Eastern Washington. It will be the biggest home game of the Mike Kramer era to date. And an Idaho State win could not only boost the Bengals but could send Montana into a tailspin as the Grizzlies enter a brutal November stretch that could result in a winless final month of the season.
Saturday, November 14
*Sacramento State at Northern Arizona
*Cal Poly at UC Davis
*Eastern Washington at Montana
*Southern Utah at Portland State
*Northern Colorado at North Dakota
*Montana State at Idaho State
GAME OF THE WEEK: Eastern Washington at Montana OR Montana State at Idaho State — You might as well call this championship week. And both Montana schools better not overlook the opponents at hand in anticipation of the following week’s Cat-Griz clash.
For the Grizzlies, this is a must-win if they want to stay alive in the playoff hunt. But it’s hard to imagine Montana’s offense — even if Stitt’s spread attack is all its cracked up to be — can keep up with Cooper Kupp and the Eagles. During the Big Sky Kickoff, Kupp did not hesitate when asked who he wanted to beat most on his team’s upcoming schedule. “I want to beat Montana, no question. It’s our biggest game of the year every year.” The Eagles will win a close one and remain alive for the league title.
For Montana State, not only does this mark the first trip to Pocatello since 2011 but it also is a rematch of last year’s instant classic that essentially ended ISU’s playoff hopes. On a frigid sub-zero Bozeman afternoon, MSU rode Chad Newell and Jake Bleskin to a 44-38 victory. This year’s rematch is in Holt Arena, a venue that will be busting at the seams due to ISU’s previous home takedowns of EWU and Montana. While ISU’s offense was able to out-shoot the Eagles and the Grizzlies, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to keep pace with the Bobcats, an attack that should be firing on all cylinders by this time if quarterback Dakota Prukop can keep himself healthy. An Idaho State win would likely boost the Bengals into the playoff picture and would be another thrilling chapter in Kramer’s storybook coaching career. But as anyone close to the Big Human knows, he’s a master of tragedy and this year’s tragic climax will come against his former team.
Saturday, Nov. 21
*UC Davis at Sacramento State
*Portland State at Eastern Washington
*Northern Arizona at Southern Utah
*Idaho State at Weber State
*Montana at Montana State
*North Dakota at Cal Poly
Abilene Christian at Northern Colorado
GAME OF THE WEEK: Montana at Montana State — Some of the biggest Griz fans outside the Treasure State might reside in Cedar City, Cheney and San Luis Obispo this week. A Montana win could help the Grizzlies make a case for the playoffs while also helping boost the resumes of Southern Utah and Cal Poly. A Griz win could also help Eastern Washington claim the league title outright if the Eagles take care of business against downtrodden Portland State.
But none of that will matter as the Bobcats will finally take care of Montana at home. Montana State has won just three times — 1985, 2003, 2005 — on its home field against its rival over the last 30 years. The Griz will be as good as anyone in the league in the back seven of their defense, but a depleted, undersized defensive line will be no match for an MSU offensive front that returns all five starters, including All-America candidates J.P. Flynn and John Weidenaar. Many question marks surround the MSU defense but at the end of the day, this is a quarterback league and Montana State has one of the gems in the entire FCS in Prukop. The last time the two teams faced off with such a slanted advantage under center, DeNarius McGhee led MSU past Shay Smithwick-Hann and UM in Missoula in 2012. The only difference this time around is it won’t be a one-score game. The Bobcats should dispose of the Griz and ensure Stitt’s first season ends outside the playoff picture while building steam and entering the playoffs with momentum for the first time in the Rob Ash era.
Predicted finish
Team              Conf    Overall
*Mont. St        7-1      10-1
*E. Wash        7-1      8-3
*Cal Poly        6-2      9-3
S. Utah            6-2      7-4
Idaho St.        6-2      7-4
NAU                5-3      7-4
Montana        5-3      6-5
UND                3-5      4-7
Weber St.      3-5      4-7
N. Colo           2-6      5-6
Portland St.   1-7      2-9
Sac St.             1-7      2-9
UC Davis        0-8      1-10
*Playoff teams