As the 2024 FCS offseason marches on, HERO Sports will look at five questions for the 2023 quarterfinalists.
Next up is Montana.
Montana finished 13-2 last year and advanced to the FCS national championship, losing 23-3 to South Dakota State. Here are five questions the Grizzlies face entering 2024.
Can Montana Make It Back To Frisco?
Tasting an FCS championship game makes the appetite to play for another title even stronger. But reaching Frisco a second time isn’t as easy as South Dakota State, or past North Dakota State teams, make it look.
There have been plenty of one-hit wonders in the Frisco era.
Montana State hasn’t returned to Frisco since its 2021 season appearance. Eastern Washington hasn’t made it back since 2018. Same thing with Youngstown State in 2016, Jacksonville State in 2015, Illinois State in 2014, and Towson in 2013.
Sam Houston didn’t make it back in 2021 despite returning its entire team from the spring championship. After back-to-back appearances in 2011 and 2012, it took SHSU nearly 10 years for another trip to the title game.
The Grizzlies bring back an experienced team, which we’ll touch on below. And the schedule is manageable, featuring a nice non-conference slate of hosting Missouri State, Morehead State, and playoff contender Western Carolina while going to one of the better home-field advantages at North Dakota. Montana avoids ranked Idaho and Sac State in Big Sky play, hosts postseason contenders Weber State and UC Davis, and has to go to rival and likely highly-ranked Montana State. Other road games are favorable at Eastern Washington, Northern Colorado, and Cal Poly.
An 11-1 record is certainly plausible, resulting in plenty of home playoff games for a run back to Frisco. It seems favorable. Then again, making it back there hasn’t been easy for past runner-ups.
Who Is The Starting QB?
For the fourth season in a row, Montana will have a new starting quarterback.
After transferring to Montana and leading the Griz to the title game, Clifton McDowell hit the transfer portal again. He committed to Temple, his fifth college stop.
The loss of McDowell is tough. He settled a rocky quarterback situation and elevated his play every week as a catalyst in Montana’s run. However, there was a very good chance he would be in a QB battle entering 2024. Montana is very high on Keali’i Ah Yat, who will be a redshirt freshman in the fall. He’s the son of Griz Hall of Fame QB Brian Ah Yat.
Montana brought in Fresno State transfer Logan Fife, who started six games from 2022 to 2023. Sam Vidlak, a 2023 transfer from Boise State, also returns after beginning last season as Montana’s starter.
McDowell was good, sometimes great, during the regular season. He was fine during the playoffs. But you need better than fine to win a title. Ah Yat may have a higher ceiling than McDowell. He’s also still young in his college career.
A positive is the new QB will have great weapons to utilize. The standout WR trio of Junior Bergen, Aaron Fontes, and Keelan White is expected to return. All-American TE Cole Grossman is back after missing all of 2023 with an injury. RB Eli Gillman returns after winning the Jerry Rice Award. Veteran and productive RB Nick Ostmo announced he’ll be returning for one more year.
Can The O-Line Continue To Improve?
Montana’s o-line was very good down the stretch. It’s a unit that has taken a bit to reach Bobby Hauck’s standard. And there’s still room to improve.
Will that improvement continue with the loss of a few starters?
The good news is Montana still has plenty of experience returning up front. Injuries at various points of the season resulted in different starting lineups and rotations. Liam Brown (6’5” 301 lbs), Brandon Casey (6’5” 305 lbs), Journey Grimsrud (6’3” 291 lbs), and Cannon Panfiloff (6’6” 285 lbs) return after starting games.
Casey earned All-Big Sky First Team honors, and Grimsrud was an honorable mention selection.
A good offensive line isn’t enough to win an FCS title. It may not even be hyperbole to say a very good offensive line isn’t enough to win an FCS title. You need an elite o-line to reach the bar that’s been set to win it all. Past national title squads have had multiple NFL players up front.
Montana is loaded at WR, RB, and TE. QB play will be the big question. But continued development on the OL is crucial.
How Are The Defensive Leaders Replaced?
The heart and soul of the 2023 Montana squad was its defense, led by veteran talent and Montana natives.
There are key names to replace heading into 2024. Like leading tackler Braxton Hill. And Alex Gubner, a force at DT. Tyler Flink and Levi Janacaro have also exhausted their eligibility after being in the Top 5 in 2023 team tackles.
A good nucleus is back, though, and you can always trust Montana’s defense to range from good to great.
Safety Ryder Meyer (No. 2 tackler) and LB Ryan Tirrell (No. 4 tackler) were 2023 juniors. LB Riley Wilson (No. 6 tackler and leader in TFLs and sacks) was a sophomore. Safety Jaxon Lee (No. 8 tackler) was a junior. And starting defensive ends Kale Edwards (6’5” 235 lbs) and Hayden Harris (6’5” 252 lbs) were also juniors.
How Do The Transfers Gel?
For how much FCS fans complain about the transfer portal, it isn’t all negative. Some FCS programs have actually benefited from the portal. Two of those teams were recently in Frisco.
Montana has lost one transfer to the FBS this offseason, and it has brought in six FBS transfers and three FCS transfers. Last offseason, the Griz lost zero transfers to the FBS. They landed 10 FBS transfers, including impact guys like Riley Wilson (LB), Grant Glasgow (K), and Hayden Harris (DL). In 2022, they lost two transfers to the FBS. They brought in eight FBS transfers, led by impact players like Lucas Johnson (QB), Sawyer Racanelli (WR), Chris Walker (OL), and Nico Ramos (K).
The Griz have leveraged the portal positively. They’ve been able to keep a majority of its star players. And they have found guys in the portal who have become key starters while maintaining a tight-knit locker room. Montana looks to do the same in 2024, replenishing its roster with guys from Arizona, Cal, Fresno State, Kent State, San Diego State, Utah, Monmouth, Montana State, and Youngstown State.