How’s the conference looking in 2023? Here are the top returning players and our predicted order of finish.
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Returning All-Conference Players
From last season’s All-Big Sky Team
Montana State — 10: FB Derryk Snell (1st Team), DL Sebastian Valdez (1st Team), DL Brody Grebe (1st Team), QB Tommy Mellott (2nd Team), OL Rush Reimer (2nd Team), AP Sean Chambers (2nd Team), OL JT Reed (3rd Team), KR Marqui Johnson (3rd Team), OL Justus Perkins (HM), LB Nolan Askelson (HM)
Idaho — 9: WR Hayden Hatten (1st Team), WR Jermaine Jackson (1st Team), PR Jermaine Jackson (1st Team), RB Anthony Woods (2nd Team), CB Marcus Harris (2nd Team), K Ricardo Chavez (2nd Team), QB Gevani McCoy (3rd Team), S Tommy McCormick (3rd Team), ST Sean McCormick (3rd Team), OL Ayden Knapik (HM)
Sacramento State — 9: TE Marshel Martin (1st Team), OL Jackson Slater (1st Team), LB Armon Bailey (1st Team), OL Nathan Mejia (2nd Team), OL Troy Stiefel (2nd Team), DL Jett Stanley (2nd Team), DB Caleb Nelson (2nd Team), RB Marcus Fulcher (3rd Team), P Cal McGough (3rd Team), PR Marcus Fulcher (3rd Team)
UC Davis — 8: QB Miles Hastings (1st Team), DL Zach Kennedy (1st Team), S Rex Connors (1st Team), ST Lan Larison (1st Team), OL Jordan Ford (2nd Team), DL Chubba Maae (3rd Team), LB Teddye Buchanan (3rd Team), DB Jehiel Budgett (3rd Team), KR Lan Larison (HM)
Weber State — 8: OL Noah Atagi (1st Team), LB Winston Reid (1st Team), CB Maxwell Anderson (1st Team), KR Abraham Williams (1st Team), OL Jordan Lutui (2nd Team), PR Haze Hadley (2nd Team), OL Ethan Atagi (3rd Team), RB Damon Bankston (HM)
Montana — 6: OL Hunter Mayginnes (1st Team), DL Alex Gubner (1st Team), ST Tyler Flink (2nd Team), AP Junior Bergen (Third Team), OL AJ Forbes (3rd Team), LB Levi Janacaro (HM)
Eastern Washington — 4: P Nick Kokich (2nd Team), DB Marlon Jones Jr. (3rd Team), WR Efton Chism III (3rd Team), OL Wyatt Hansen (HM)
Northern Arizona — 4: DL Eloi Kwete (2nd Team), WR Coleman Owen (3rd Team), AP Draycen Hall (HM), WR Hendrix Johnson (HM)
Cal Poly — 2: LB David Meyer (3rd Team), DL Elijah Ponder (HM)
Northern Colorado — 1: DB Jordan Knapke (3rd Team)
Idaho State — 0
Portland State — 0
Teams Bringing In The Most D1 Transfers
Northern Arizona — 28 (18 FBS, 10 FCS)
Montana — 12 (10 FBS, 2 FCS)
Eastern Washington — 8 (7 FBS, 1 FCS)
Northern Colorado — 7 (7 FBS)
Names To Know
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Hayden Hatten, Idaho WR — Hatten is arguably the most dominant Big Sky player since EWU WR Cooper Kupp. Hatten was unguardable last season, snagging anything thrown in his wide catch radius, even against solid coverage. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder hauled in 83 catches for 1,209 yards and 16 touchdowns.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Winston Reid, Weber State LB — Reid was a breakout star in 2022. A First Team All-Big Sky selection, he totaled 112 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three quarterback hurries, one interception, two passes defended, and five forced fumbles. The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder’s PFF defensive grade of 90.1 is the third-highest for a returning FCS linebacker.
TOP NFL PROSPECT: Chris Walker, Montana OT — Josh Buchanan ranks Walker the No. 29 small-school prospect for the 2024 NFL Draft. He has the build at 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds. Walker has high expectations this season after transferring to Montana from Nebraska last year. He started all 13 games at left tackle and continued to grow more comfortable there. Thanks to an NCAA waiver, this is Walker’s seventh year of college football.
HERO Sports’ Predicted Order of Finish
1. Montana State
3. Sacramento State
4. Weber State
6. UC Davis
7. Eastern Washington
8. Portland State
9. Northern Arizona
10. Northern Colorado
11. Cal Poly
12. Idaho State
The Big Sky tiers can be cut right in the middle.
The top six will be playoff-worthy teams, and they all are in HERO Sports’ Preseason FCS Top 25. I would be very surprised if any of the bottom six make the playoffs.
As an olive branch to a traditionally strong EWU team, I do believe EWU will turn some heads in its Week 1 game vs. NDSU at US Bank Stadium. The Eagles have some dudes at WR, and NDSU has questions/concerns in the secondary. So if redshirt sophomore QB Kekoa Visperas can deliver on his three-star recruit potential, I could see a 45-35 type of NDSU win and a “quality loss” for EWU. But overall, EWU’s fall late last season was an under-the-radar storyline in the FCS. The Eagles returning to FCS national power is important for the subdivision, but I just don’t see enough coming back to get there in 2023.
For the top six, orders can vary in several ways.
Montana State brings back most of its two-deep from last year’s squad that went 8-0 in the Big Sky and advanced to the FCS semifinals. This season’s conference schedule is brutal with road games at No. 11 Weber State, No. 10 Sacramento State, No. 5 Idaho, and No. 16 Montana. But if MSU’s intact offensive and defensive line gets even better in 2023, the Bobcats have what it takes to go 8-0 again, or possibly 7-1 with one hiccup somewhere.
Idaho is getting a lot of preseason hype, from me as well. The Vandals have a good home draw to stack up Big Sky wins. And while its defensive front seven has questions, the offense will be tough to slow down.
I like Sac State and Weber State at 3 and 4, even with first-year head coaches. Weber is just always consistently good, even when there are significant roster departures. The narrative around Sac State is it loses a ton. But that’s not true. They lose some star-power names, but the Hornets return 15 starters, including its top pass-catcher, No. 2 RB, four starting offensive linemen, and eight of its top 11 tacklers.
I fully expect Montana to start the season 5-0 overall, but we won’t know if this team is really a Top 10 FCS squad until the second half of the schedule. Road trips to UC Davis and Idaho in early October will tell us a lot. The defense may take a slight step back this year, but the offense has strong potential if the new starting QB play is solid.
UC Davis could be very, very good this year. But I’m most comfortable putting them 6th for now until I see if the potential can turn into wins over ranked teams instead of close losses. The Aggies return seven of their top 11 tacklers, their All-Big Sky First Team quarterback, leading WR, and two All-Big Sky performers on the OL.