The Big Sky is coming off of its best season in years. Five teams made the FCS playoff bracket, two teams reached the quarterfinals, and Montana State made a run to the national championship game. The conference was also in its first year streaming games on ESPN+ with a couple of matchups shown on national television.
How’s the conference looking in 2022? Here are the top returning players and our predicted order of finish.
Returning All-Conference Players
From last season’s All-Big Sky Team
Montana — 10: DB Justin Ford (1st Team), DB Robby Hauck (1st Team), DL Alex Gubner (2nd Team), RS Malik Flowers (1st Team), OL Hunter Mayginnes (3rd Team), ST Trevin Gradney (1st Team), TE Cole Grossman (HM), WR Mitch Roberts (HM), LB Patrick O’Connell (1st Team), DB Jayden Dawson (HM w/ Idaho State)
Sacramento State — 9: AP Asher O’Hara (1st Team), DL Jett Stanley (HM), K Kyle Sentkowski (1st Team), NB Marte Mapu (2nd Team), OL Brandon Weldon (2nd Team), QB Jake Dunniway (3rd Team), RB Cameron Skattebo (3rd Team), TE Marshel Martin (1st Team), WR Pierre Williams (1st Team)
UC Davis — 8: AP Trent Tompkins (2nd Team), DB Jaylin White (2nd Team), K Isaiah Gomez (2nd Team), KR Lan Larison (2nd Team), OL Jake Parks (1st Team), OL Connor Pettek (2nd Team), RB Ulonzo Gilliam (1st Team), TE McCallan Castles (2nd Team)
Montana State — 5: DB Ty Okada (2nd Team), DB Jeffrey Manning Jr. (HM), K Blake Glessner (3rd Team), LB Callahan O’Reilly (2nd Team), RB Isaiah Ifanse (1st Team)
Weber State — 5: DB Marque Collins (HM), DB Eddie Heckard (1st Team), DL Doug Schiess (HM), OL Noah Atagi (1st Team), TE Hayden Meacham (3rd Team)
Eastern Washington — 5: DL Mitchell Johnson (3rd Team), DL Joshua Jerome (3rd Team), OL Wyatt Musser (3rd Team), WR Efton Chism III (3rd Team), WR Freddie Roberson (3rd Team)
Northern Arizona — 5: DB Morgan Vest (2nd Team), OL Jonas Leader (3rd Team), RB Kevin Daniels (2nd Team), WR Coleman Owen (HM), WR Hendrix Johnson (HM)
Portland State — 4: DB Anthony Adams (1st Team), DL VJ Malo (2nd Team), WR Nate Bennett (HM), WR Beau Kelly (2nd Team)
Idaho — 3: OL Logan Floyd (3rd Team), RB Roshaun Johnson (3rd Team), WR Terez Traynor (3rd Team)
Cal Poly — 2: DL Elijah Ponder (HM), FB Ryan Rivera (2nd Team)
Northern Colorado — 2: LB David Hoage (2nd Team), WR Kassidy Woods (HM)
Idaho State — 1: OL Terron Carey (3rd Team)
Returning HERO Sports All-Americans
From last season
Montana — 6: LB Patrick O’Connell (1st Team), DB Justin Ford (1st Team), RS Malik Flowers (2nd Team), DB Robby Hauck (3rd Team), DL Alex Gubner (Soph.), TE Cole Grossman (Fr.)
Eastern Washington — 3: DL Joshua Jerome (Soph.), WR Freddie Roberson (Soph.), WR Efton Chism III (Fr.)
Weber State — 2: OL Noah Atagi (Soph.), DB Eddie Heckard (Soph.)
UC Davis — 2: TE McCallan Castles (Soph.), RS Lan Larison (Fr.)
Northern Arizona — 1: RB Kevin Daniels (Fr.)
Idaho — 1: WR Terez Traynor (Soph.)
Montana State — 1: RB Isaiah Ifanse (2nd Team)
Sacramento State — 1: TE Marshel Martin (Soph.)
Northern Colorado — 1: LB David Hoage (Soph.)
Portland State — 1: DB Anthony Adams (2nd Team)
Teams With The Most D1 Transfers
Northern Colorado — 11 (9 FBS, 2 FCS)
Portland State — 9 (7 FBS, 2 FCS)
Montana — 9 (8 FBS, 1 FCS)
Montana State — 5 (5 FBS)
Sacramento State — 5 (3 FBS, 2 FCS)
Eastern Washington — 5 (4 FBS, 1 FCS)
Names To Know
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Isaiah Ifanse, Montana State RB — Ifanse is recovering from offseason knee surgery and is questionable to play in the season-opener. But when he’s back ready to roll, he’s arguably the best running back in the FCS in 2022. MSU would be wise to lighten his load after he carried the ball 280 times last season. Ifanse is very productive, though, and a good weapon to build an offense around. He ran for 1,623 yards last season, 813 yards in 2019, and 1,025 yards in 2018.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Patrick O’Connell, Montana LB — O’Connell was a machine last season, disrupting offenses in so many ways. He totaled 105 tackles, 22 TFLs, 14 sacks, six quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles, and one defensive touchdown in 13 games. O’Connell finished third in the Buck Buchanan Award voting, and he’ll be a top favorite again this year. The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder was named the Big Sky’s Preseason Defensive MVP.
TOP NFL PROSPECT: McCallan Castles, UC Davis TE — Castles is viewed as a top draft prospect in the FCS. A four-star recruit who began his career at Cal, the 6-foot-5 and 240-pounder transferred to UC Davis for the 2020-21 season. He caught 12 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns in five games during the spring. Last fall, Castles had 27 receptions for 387 yards and four scores.
HERO Sports’ Predicted Order of Finish
1. Montana State
3. Sacramento State
4. Weber State
5. UC Davis
6. Eastern Washington
7. Northern Arizona
8. Portland State
10. Cal Poly
11. Northern Colorado
12. Idaho State
There seems to be four clear tiers in the Big Sky this preseason.
The top tier is interchangeable between Montana State, Montana, and Sac State. Honestly, I think there’s a legit chance we see a three-way tie at the top of the standings with these three going 7-1. Based on last year’s Brawl of the Wild and looking at who is coming back and who is gone, it’d be understandable to put the Griz ahead of the Bobcats. I kept MSU at No. 1 based on three things. No. 1 — UM and MSU may have the same record heading into the Brawl this year, and the game is in Bozeman. No. 2 — I have more confidence in MSU’s QB situation with Tommy Mellott. And No. 3 — Even though MSU lost a lot of star power from last year, I have confidence in the talent previous head coach Jeff Choate brought in, plus current HC Brent Vigen’s double-rep practice system and his developmental-focused program will have a lot of guys ready to step up this season.
Both Montana schools will be legit nationally with a good shot to make a run to the semifinals. Sac State is also in that mix at the top of the Big Sky. The Hornets have great talent on their roster and have gone 15-1 in conference play in 2019 and 2021. Some may take their success with a grain of salt until they prove their worth in the playoffs, but they do appear poised to make a run in 2022.
The second tier features three teams fighting for two remaining playoff spots. It’s likely the Big Sky gets five total bids again this year. Weber State will be much improved, UC Davis has the talent, and EWU brings back a lot of standout players but has to answer the QB question.
The third tier has teams that could surprise and knock off the top half of the standings any given week. Perhaps we call this the sleeper tier. NAU is getting better, had standout young players last year, and has a good conference schedule draw. Portland State has a majority of its starters back besides QB after going 4-4 last year. And new HC Jason Eck has brought some much-needed juice to an Idaho program with great potential.
And finally, the last tier features teams (Cal Poly, Northern Colorado, Idaho State) that have struggled recently but should at least be improved compared to last year, increasing the depth of play in the Big Sky.