Welcome to the 2020 FCS summer preview series.
Every week will be dedicated to a conference as we break down the top teams, top players and what you need to know about the league heading into the season. We’ll have standings predictions, preseason All-Conference teams, top players to keep an eye on, podcasts and more.
This week, we have the …
Big Sky Conference
For a more in-depth look at the conference, check out the new episodes of B-Mac and Herd’s FCS Podcast coming this week.
THE FAVORITE: Weber State — The Wildcats have won a share of the last three conference titles and advanced to the FCS semifinals last season. The offense won’t have much of a setback with starting quarterback Jake Constantine transferring, but it does need to get more explosive to complement an outstanding defense that brings back a majority of its starters. Weber basically has all of its skilled talent back, led by All-American RB Josh Davis and some good athletes on the outside – WRs Rashid Shaheed and Devon Cooley. Yesterday, Weber got a commitment from an FBS transfer QB. Randall Johnson redshirted at Middle Tennessee State last season. He played JuCo ball before that and in 2018, he was named the Golden Coast Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He is 6-foot-5 and has two years of eligibility. The Wildcats are one quarterback away from being serious FCS national title contenders.
THE THREATS: Montana, Montana State, Sacramento State — Don’t write off Sac State just yet even with the news of All-American QB Kevin Thomson entering the transfer portal. The Hornets still return an experienced and talented team. Plus — and this is sometimes even more important — the Hornets got a favorable draw in the conference schedule. They play at Montana, but avoid Montana State, Weber State and EWU. Excluding Montana, their seven Big Sky opponents had a combined 2019 conference record of 16-40. Sac State should still be near the top of the standings.
And then you have the two Montana schools. The Griz are stacked with All-American talent. If the new starting QB can step in and play well, Montana is poised to threaten for a national title. Montana needs to improve in the trenches as well. MSU is coming off of a semifinal appearance. The Bobcats will once again have an elite rushing attack and a strong defense, though there’s a lot of defensive production to replace. The passing attack questions aren’t going anywhere. MSU will have a QB battle once against with NC State transfer Matt McKay coming in. And while there’s a question on who the starter will be, there’s an equally big question on who the starter is going to throw to. MSU’s top two receivers from last season are gone and they combined for more than half of the receiving yards in 2019.
THE DARK HORSES: Eastern Washington, UC Davis — UC Davis didn’t live up to preseason expectations last year. But the Aggies return a great nucleus of that team, minus the biggie in All-American QB Jake Maier. Ulonzo Gilliam is a standout RB, four OL starters return along with all of the top WRs. And the defense brings back seven of the top 10 tacklers. This is an experienced team worthy of watching.
EWU finished 6-2 in the conference last year, winning its last four games. The Eagles came alive, but it was too late as their overall playoff resume wasn’t deemed good enough to make the bracket. While the Eagles lose their 1,000-yard RB, a few experienced OL and a lot of defensive production, QB Eric Barriere is the best offensive player in the conference and he has three of his top four pass-catchers back. EWU always seems to rebound in a big way after a down year.
BEST OFFENSE: Montana — It’s not typical for an offense with a new starting QB to be put in a spot like this. But that’s how good Montana’s skilled-position players are. Samuel Akem and Samori Toure are two NFL Draft prospects at wide receiver and RB Marcus Knight is a Second Team preseason All-American. The offensive line continues to get better and brings back three starters. It’s an open battle for the QB1 spot, but Cam Humphrey has the edge after stepping in just fine for an injured Dalton Sneed for a few games last year. This will be his third year with the program after starting his college career at Boise State before playing at the JuCo level in 2017.
BEST DEFENSE: Weber State — The Wildcats ranked 19th in the FCS and first in the Big Sky last year in scoring defense, allowing 20.8 PPG. They return their top three tacklers — Conner Mortensen, Noah Vaea and Preston Smith — and 7/11 of their top tacklers.
Names To Know
THE NFL PROSPECT: Samori Toure, Montana WR — The 6-foot-3 WR had a breakout junior season last year, hauling in 87 catches for 1,495 yards and 13 TDs. Draft Scout ranks Toure the 16th best small-school prospect.
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Eric Barriere, EWU QB — With a deadly combination of arm talent and blazing speed, Barriere can make a defense hurt in a multitude of ways. Last year, he threw for 3,712 yards and 31 TDs while rushing for 558 yards and eight TDs.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Jace Lewis, Montana LB — Dante Olson grabbed a lot of attention, but fellow linebacker Jace Lewis was just as good. Last season, Lewis had 131 tackles and 12 tackles for loss. With Olson gone, Lewis is expected to play a bigger role in a defense that relies on strong middle linebacker play.
Most Returning All-Conference Players From 2019
Any returning player that had a 2019 on-field honor from their conference counts toward their team total, including honorable mentions and All-Newcomer Teams.
10 – Weber State
8 – Sacramento State
7 – UC Davis
6 – Montana
5 – Idaho, Southern Utah
4 – Eastern Washington, Montana State
3 – Cal Poly, Northern Arizona, Portland State
1 – Idaho State, Northern Colorado
Most Returning All-American Players From 2019
Includes HERO Sports 1st Team, 2nd Team, 3rd Team, Sophomore, Freshman
4 – Montana: WR Samori Toure (1st Team), DB Robby Hauck (2nd Team), RB Marcus Knight (3rd Team), KR Malik Flowers (Soph.)
4 – Northern Arizona: PK Luis Aguilar (1st Team), P DJ Arnson (3rd Team), WR Brandon Porter (Soph.), WR Hendrix Johnson (Freshman)
4 – Weber State: PK Trey Tuttle (2nd Team), RB Josh Davis (3rd Team), DL George Tarlas (Soph.), DB Eddie Heckard (Freshman)
3 – Eastern Washington: QB Eric Barriere (3rd Team), DB Tre Weed (Freshman), PK Seth Harrison (Freshman)
3 – UC Davis: RB Ulonzo Gilliam (Soph.), DB Devon King (Soph.), LB Nick Eaton (Freshman)
2 – Cal Poly: FB Duy Tran-Sampson (Soph.), P Mitch Souza (Soph.)
2 – Idaho: LB Tre Walker (Soph.), KR Nick Romano (Freshman)
2 – Montana State: RB Isaiah Ifanse (Soph.), OL Connor Wood (Soph.)
2 – Sacramento State: AP Elijah Dotson (2nd Team), TE Marshel Martin (Freshman)
1 – Portland State: DB Anthony Adams (Soph.)
1 – Southern Utah: OL Braxton Jones (Soph.)