HERO Sports will preview each FCS conference through Aug. 25 (see full list below). Today, it's the Big Sky Conference.
The wild west of the FCS. Each week seems to feature wacky results in the Big Sky. As one of the more competitive conferences in the subdivision, last season was unorthodox by its standards. Eastern Washington remained a conference and national power. But it split the conference title with North Dakota, who climbed quickly from the bottom of the conference.
Traditional powerhouse programs Montana missed the playoffs while Montana State continues to rebuild out of its down years.
This season should bring many answers. Is UND legit after a favorable conference schedule last year? Is EWU a national contender despite losing three receivers to the NFL? Is the Bob Stitt era at Montana going to resemble his first game, a win against North Dakota State on ESPN in 2015, or his last game, a home loss to Montana State?
While we find these answers, we'll probably be rewarded with several surprises along the way.
Eastern Washington's Gage Gubrud is one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS, but he'll need to replace three 1,000 yard receivers. (EWU Athletics)
THE VETERAN COACH: Jerome Souers, Northern Arizona
Begins his 20th season at NAU and is the winningest head coach in Big Sky history with 112 victories.
TOP PASSER: Gage Gubrud, Eastern Washington
Led the FCS with 5,160 passing yards to go along with 48 touchdowns.
TOP RUSHER: Joe Protheroe, Cal Poly
Rushed for 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns.
TOP RECEIVER: Emmanuel Butler, Northern Arizona
Racked up 69 catches for 1,003 yards and 9 touchdowns.
TOP TACKLER: Manny Anderson, Sacramento State
Led his team and finished second in the Big Sky with 107 total tackles.
TOP SACK MAN: Josh Buss, Montana
Got to the quarterback 5.5 times.
TOP INT ARTIST: Mike Needham, Southern Utah
Snagged five of them from last season.
BOUNCE BACK ARTIST: Case Cookus, Northern Arizona
The quarterback was the FCS STATS Freshman of the Year two years ago and was sidelined last season after four games.
Montana – Led the entire FCS with an average attendance of 25,377 fans.
DID YOU KNOW?
Since 1995, either Montana or EWU has won or shared the Big Sky championship every year but two times (2011 and 2015).
Since winning the national title in 2010, EWU has appeared in the semifinals in 2012, 2014 and 2016, losing by a combined nine points.
Cal Poly. Not to take anything away from UND's conference title last season – because the strides under head coach Bubba Schweigert and playing football the right way shows the Fighting Hawks are here to stay for awhile – but they did take advantage of an easy conference schedule. With 13 teams, that's bound to happen. This season, Cal Poly avoids UND, EWU, Montana and Montana State. The Mustangs, a playoff team last season, could very well go through the conference schedule with 0-1 losses. [divider]
North Dakota. While many did try to diminish their conference title last year, the Fighting Hawks are ready to prove they are the real deal. Schweigert has increased his wins total each season since taking over in 2014. He's gone against the typical Big Sky mold by playing solid defense and a physical brand of offensive football. And it's working. UND is coming off a historic season when it earned a playoff seed. With two of the best running backs in the conference coming back in John Santiago and Brady Oliveira, UND should continue to improve as excitement builds in Grand Forks.
John Santiago is one of the more feared running backs in the FCS and he's just a junior. (UND Athletics)
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