Opinion: Opportunities and obstacles of Big Sky Football

Weber State preparing to play against Northern Colorado on Nov. 20, 2021.

With many of the key players in the Big Sky graduating over spring, this season starts a new era. The fall season is just around the corner, and major questions will be answered. For example, will Sacramento State’s dominant reign remain? How will Eastern Washington play without Eric Barriere? To answer these questions, it’s time to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team in the Big Sky conference.

Sacramento State University
Strengths: If momentum plays into how well a team does in the following season, then the Hornets are in good shape. With an undefeated in-conference record last year, it seemed impossible to stop Sacramento State as they dominated against UC Davis for their second Big Sky title of the last two years. They also led the conference in All-Conference player selections last season with many returning.

Weaknesses: Although the Hornets have some incredible returners, they will be losing major parts of their stacked offensive line, including Kooper Richardson and Thomas Parker. This leaves less protection for their Jake Dunniway/Asher O’Hara quarterback rotation.

Montana State University
Strengths: The Bobcats were only one game behind undefeated Sacramento State in the regular season. Breakout quarterback Tommy Mellott will be coming back after his injury against the University of California, Davis, and running back Isaiah Ifanse will return with him to facilitate the offense. Despite suffering major losses after graduation, Montana State is projected to finish high in the conference this year under the direction of their second-year coach Brent Vigen.

Weaknesses: Montana State is losing major parts of their defense this season, specifically in defensive end Daniel Hardy and Middle Linebacker Troy Andersen. Although Tommy Mellott is coming back, it’s unpredictable to determine how well he’ll perform after his injury.

Eastern Washington University
Strengths: Eastern Washington had one of the best run offenses in the Big Sky last season. Despite losing the cornerstone of that offense, the Eagles will still be getting back wide receivers Efton Chism III, Freddie Roberson and Johnny Edwards IV. Standout offensive linebacker Wyatt Musser will be back next season as well to protect new quarterback Gunner Talkington.

Weaknesses: It’s hard to not panic when thinking of Eastern Washington next season. Eric Barriere has been undoubtedly the best quarterback in the Big Sky for the last two years. Although they have great receivers coming back, they’ll still be losing Talolo Limu-Jones. Although their defense wasn’t a major talking point last season, middle linebacker Jack Sendelbach and defensive back Calin Criner will be missed next season. It’s possible to say this is the most unpredictable team in the Big Sky next season.

University of Montana
Strengths: Many are already crowning the Grizzlies as next season’s Big Sky conference champions, and it’s not hard to see why. Montana acquired a new asset in San Diego State transfer Lucas Johnson. However, it’s their defense that makes this team scary. Defense back Justin Ford, who made his grand entrance to the Big Sky last year, will be returning with outside linebacker Patrick O’Connell, safety Robby Hauck and defensive tackle Alex Gubner.

Weaknesses: What makes betting on Montana hard isn’t their lineup. It’s their last ten seasons in the Big Sky. Montana hasn’t won a Big Sky title since 2009 when their head coach Bobby Huack was there the first time. After a good run with a heartbreaking ending in the Football Championship Subdivision tournament, its win or bust for Montana this season.

University of California, Davis
Strengths: For his last season at UC Davis, running back Ulonzo Gilliam comes back to the Aggies poised to prove he’s still one of the best running backs in the Big Sky. This team is loaded with offensive talent to make the run game easier, including offensive linebackers Jake Parks, Connor Pettek and tight end McCallan Castles.

Weaknesses: Like last year, this team has a quarterback problem. Last year’s leading passer Hunter Rodrigues, who threw more interceptions than touchdowns last season, won’t be returning. Miles Hastings will likely be taking his place. This team doesn’t have to have an elite passing offense to win games, but they need a more accurate system that gives up less turnovers.

Weber State University
Strengths: After what could be considered an off-year for the Wildcats last season, head coach Jay Hill is looking to get Weber State back into title contention with new offensive coordinator Mickey Mental at his side. Star offensive lineman Noah Atagi will return to the lineup along with star cornerback Eddie Heckard. Mental, notorious for a powerful run game at Notre Dame College, may be exactly what running backs Josh Davis and Dontae McMillan need this season.

Weaknesses: Losing players like Jared Schiess and Rashid Shaheed will make things difficult for Weber State. Quarterbacks Bronson Barron and Kylan Weisser will still have tight end Hayden Meacham and wide receiver Ty MacPherson to throw the ball to this season. However, the Wildcat’s will need more than the 2,384 yards they threw last season to contend for the Big Sky title this year.

University of Northern Arizona
Strengths: The Lumberjacks are a team ready for the future. With quarterback RJ Martinez, last year’s freshman of the year, and running back Kevin Daniels at the helm, this is an offense with weapons. Look to players like wide receiver Coleman Owens to make a name for themselves this season.

Weaknesses: Northern Arizona could benefit from adding more receivers to the mix, but their offense still looks pretty great. However, as good as Northern Arizona’s offense looks, their defense needs work. The Lumberjacks had a hard time defending the pass last season, giving up more passing yards than any team in the Big Sky. If Northern Arizona’s defense can’t complement their offense, we’ll see the Lumberjacks stuck at .500 overall once again.

Portland State University
Strengths: Portland State has what it takes to make a good defense this season. Safety Anthony Adams will return this season alongside defensive end VJ Malo. The team also has a decent receiving core that consists of Nate Bennett and Beau Kelly. Although the team needs to fill some holes, they have a veteran core that can take this team further than their previous 4–4 if they get a good enough push.

Weaknesses: While Portland State has some All-Big Sky talent returning, they’re losing veteran quarterback Davis Alexander, who finished only behind Eric Barriere in yards and touchdowns. Portland State’s quarterbacks are still unproven. While they have a fairly solid lineup, this is a team that’s in need of a rebuild, and one we’ll probably hear more about after this season.

University of Idaho
Strengths: Led by running backs Zach Borisch, Roshaun Johnson and Logan Kendall, the Vandals had the fifth best rushing offense in the Big Sky last season. Developing an offensive line led by Logan Floyd, this team might be able to cause problems next season if they’re able to develop a passing game.

Weaknesses: Idaho’s passing game last year struggled. One of the only teams in the Big Sky to not have a quarterback finish top 12 in passing, the team threw more interceptions than touchdowns last season. It doesn’t help that they couldn’t defend the pass last year either, allowing 2,821 yards. With many of their best defensive players leaving this season, including Tyrese Dedmon and Charles Akanno, the Vandals need to fill a lot of holes this season.

University of Northern Colorado
Strengths: Despite finishing near the bottom of the conference last season, Northern Colorado didn’t have a bad offense. They were one of the best in defending the pass, only allowing 2,302 yards. Their star offset linebacker David Hoage will return this season.

Weaknesses: The Bears didn’t have a lot last season, and they’ve lost almost all of what they had this season. Middle linebacker Jace Bobo, defensive end Joe Golden and defensive back Jerone Jackson won’t be returning. Along with that, Northern Colorado was the worst passing team in the conference last season, finishing last in yards. They didn’t fare much better on the ground either with only 1,184 yards. The lowest scoring team in the Big Sky, this team needs to develop an offense.

California Polytechnic State University
Strengths: Cal Poly may not have had much going for them last season, but they do have some of their best players returning. Tight end Ryan Rivera will return this season as well as defensive end Elijah Ponder.

Weaknesses: This team had all the ingredients of a team last year who would finish 1–7. They couldn’t run the ball and were hopeless in defending the run on the other end. Their passing defense was decent, but didn’t have an offense that could score the ball on the other end. This is a team in desperate need of more offensive production.

Idaho State University
Strengths: This team has one of their all Big Sky players returning next season in offensive lineman Terren Carey. A team with a slightly better passing offense than the two other teams that finished in the bottom with them, it’s possible we’ll see this team improve this year.

Weaknesses: Out of their five players who received even Big Sky honorable mentions, only one is returning. This was a young team last season and is still a young team. Though there’s a chance they’ll finish with more than one win under their belt, it’s hard to determine what success this team can have.