(STATS) – The Big Sky welcomes founding member Idaho back into the conference in a drop down from the FBS level this year.
But the other teams aren’t getting too chummy because there’s not a lot of elbow room in the largest FCS conference.
Idaho believes it will be competitive right away in a conference in which over half the programs carry legitimate aspirations of making the FCS playoffs. Seven different Big Sky teams have grabbed postseason bids in just the last two seasons.
Following is a look across the Big Sky with spring practices getting underway in college football:
HEAD COACH: Tim Walsh (51-52, nine seasons; 168-134 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 1-10, 1-7 Big Sky (12th)
SPRING PRACTICES: April 4-28
WHAT TO KNOW: Injuries hampered the Mustangs in 2017 as they plunged from a seven-win, playoff season in 2016. They’re anxious to get back fullback Joe Protheroe, the key player on their triple-option offense, who likely will be held back in the spring. Also, quarterback Khaleel Jenkins missed the final six games last season. Both will be helped by an experienced offensive line. The defense is undergoing an overhaul after losing eight starters. Rush linebacker Noah Thompson and safety Carter Nichols figure to be answers as they return from injuries.
HEAD COACH: Aaron Best (7-4, one season)
2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/3rd)
SPRING PRACTICES: April 3-28
WHAT TO KNOW: Best’s first season is considered subpar by Eastern’s standard, and the Eagles weren’t pleased when they were denied an at-large playoff bid. A veteran lineup, including 17 starters and as many as 28 seniors, figures to get them back on track. While the run game improved last season, quarterback Gage Gubrud hopes his senior season more resembles 2016 than 2017, which included a one-game team suspension. The defense loses two starters in the secondary, but the top five tacklers are back and All-Big Sky defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli returns off a medical redshirt. One of the offseason storylines is Eastern trying to fill an open date in the first week of the season.
HEAD COACH: Paul Petrino (19-41, five seasons)
2017 RECORD: 4-8 FBS level
SPRING PRACTICES: March 26-April 27
WHAT TO KNOW: After 21 seasons on the FBS level, the Vandals are back in the Big Sky, where they competed as a founding member from 1963-95. Petrino isn’t shying away from being successful right now in the return. The big question is whether the Vandals can replace four-year quarterback Matt Linehan with Mason Petrino, the coach’s son, Colton Richardson or redshirt freshman Dylan Lemie. The team’s strongest position is linebacker, where all three starters return, led by 2017 All-Sun Belt first-teamer Tony Lashley. The Vandals will play their first Big Sky game on Sept. 22 at UC Davis.
HEAD COACH: Rob Phenicie (4-7, one season)
2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 27-April 21
WHAT TO KNOW: Phenicie wasn’t hired last year until late March, so his preparations were behind schedule. It’s all different this time around, and he’s brought in new coordinators, Mike Ferriter (offense) and Roger Cooper (defense), as the Bengals’ struggling program moves forward. Ferriter must like what he sees in the skills positions with quarterback Tanner Gueller, wide receivers Mitch Gueller and Michael Dean, and running backs James Madison and Ty Flanagan. The defense needs considerable improvement, although it returns eight starters.
HEAD COACH: Bobby Hauck (80-17, seven seasons; 95-67 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/6th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 5-April 14
WHAT TO KNOW: Back-to-back seasons outside the playoffs led to Bob Stitt’s firing and Hauck’s rehiring as coach. Hauck had an 80-17 record and led the Griz to Big Sky titles in each of his seven seasons from 2003-09, with three national runner-up finishes. The future arrived with freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen taking over last season, and the offense returns most of its skills position players, including a run game that Hauck will like with senior backs Jeremy Calhoun and Alijah Lee. Senior linebacker Josh Buss headlines the aggressive defense, and defensive end Chris Favoroso and safety Josh Sandry are coming off breakout campaigns.
HEAD COACH: Jeff Choate (9-13, two seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 5-6, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/6th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 3-April 14 (spring game is April 7)
WHAT TO KNOW: It would be disappointing if the Bobcats aren’t in the title picture. Their potential was evident in last year’s close losses to South Dakota State, Weber State and Kennesaw State, which all reached at least the FCS quarterfinals. The Bobcats have grown up with junior quarterback Chris Murray, who averaged over 100 rushing yards per game last year. Murray has to improve as a passer and the Bobcats need to put more playmakers around him (former Indiana running back Tyler Natee has transferred into the program). Big Sky freshman of the year Troy Anderson is well-suited for running the ball, but the plan is to mostly use him at linebacker instead of keeping him a two-way player. Overall, there 15 returning starters (eight on offense and seven on defense).
HEAD COACH: Jerome Souers (119-108, 20 seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 7-5, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/3rd)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 25-April 22 (spring game is April 21)
WHAT TO KNOW: A blowout loss to San Diego in the playoff first round put a damper on the Lumberjacks‘ late-season rally, which earned a lame-duck Souers a one-year contract extension. The ‘Jacks feature one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS, junior Case Cookus. While top wide receiver Elijah Marks departs, Emmanuel Butler, who’s surpassed 1,000 receiving yards twice, returns following a medical redshirt. The defense returns nine starters and will get after quarterbacks and be strong against the pass, but one of the losses is linebacker Byron Evans who led the team in tackles.
HEAD COACH: Earnest Collins Jr. (24-53, six seasons; 32-65 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 3-7, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 21
WHAT TO KNOW: A healthier season will go a long way as the Bears seek to bounce back to their 2015 and ’16 levels, when they were 6-5 each year. Quarterback Jacob Knipp and left tackle Zach Wilkinson will be back and counted on heavily. Plus, the Bears are experienced with 15 returning starters (eight on offense and seven on defense). With running back Trae Riek and wide receiver Alex Wesley expecting to have banner senior campaigns, and the line particularly stout, the offense should move the ball a lot. The defense ranked 12th in the conference against the run, so finding improvement there is a big goal for the spring.
HEAD COACH: Bruce Barnum (12-22, three seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 0-11, 0-8 Big Sky (13th)
SPRING PRACTICES: April 4-28
WHAT TO KNOW: The Vikings and Barnum hope to leave last season behind them, but have to survive a difficult first half of the schedule. While the offense often moves the ball, only three starters return. The quarterback job should go to Jalani Eason or Davis Alexander, a pair of sophomores, and the running backs and wide receivers are young. It hurts that only one starter returns on the offensive line, although center Garrett Stauffer also is welcomed back from injury. The defense returns seven starters, but it was awful last season. Hence the change of defensive coordinator to Payam Saadat, who’s filled that role at FBS, FCS and Division II schools.
HEAD COACH: Jody Sears (18-27, four seasons; 22-46 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/3rd)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 6-April 13
WHAT TO KNOW: Sears seemed to be barely hanging on to his job last offseason, but after spearheading a turnaround, winning co-Big Sky coach of the year honors and earning a contract extension, he is hoping to lead the Hornets to the playoffs. They return 16 starters (seven on offense and nine on defense). The defense posted 43 sacks last season and feature All-America possibilities in defensive end George Obinna and safety Mister Harriel. Kevin Thomson is a dynamic quarterback who simply needs to stay healthy for an entire season (he missed three games last year). The big priority is replacing the left side of the offensive line.
HEAD COACH: Demario Warren (15-8, two seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 9-3, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 21-April 14
WHAT TO KNOW: The other co-Big Sky coach of the year honor went to Warren, who guided the Thunderbirds to a share of the conference title and the automatic playoff bid. Senior losses are going to make it hard to stay at that level. There are a lot of holes defensively, although linebacker Chinedu Ahanonu returns from injury. The offense remains more intact, but quarterback Patrick Tyler remains a big loss. Junior Aaron Zwahlen, last year’s backup, has the inside track to the starting job. Running back James Felila and wide receivers Landon Measom and Logan Parker will ease the transition.
HEAD COACH: Dan Hawkins (5-6, one season; 117-67-1 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 5-6, 3-5 Big Sky (8th)
SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 15-March 10
WHAT TO KNOW: One of the keys last season was the Aggies were relatively injury-free compared to recent years. They breathed a sigh of relief when wide receiver Keelan Doss, who finished third in the 2017 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award voting, decided to return for his senior season. He and quarterback Jake Maier will team up again as two of the seven returning offensive starters. Hawkins, though, must replenish the offensive line. Linebacker is the strength of the defense, although the Aggies are replacing leading tackler Ryan Bua.
HEAD COACH: Jay Hill (26-23, four seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 11-3, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 14-April 14
WHAT TO KNOW: Coming off their best season ever, including a co-Big Sky title and a trip to the national quarterfinals, the Wildcats have to find a new quarterback, replacing Stefan Cantwell. There are several different candidates on the roster, but no clear favorite. Fortunately for the ‘Cats, they should run the ball well with their veteran linemen and running backs. Also, some big losses in the receiving game are tempered by the return of senior Darry Denby, who caught 48 passes in 2016. Three defensive linemen and cornerback Taron Johnson, the conference’s defensive player of the year, are among the losses.
HEAD COACH: Kyle “Bubba” Schweigert (24-22, four seasons; 46-43 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 3-8, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 2-April 13
WHAT TO KNOW: As UND heads toward the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020, its games will count in the Big Sky standings for two more seasons to accommodate pre-existing contracts, but it’s officially considered an independent and not eligible for the Big Sky’s automatic FCS playoff bid. The Fighting Hawks, who were 9-3 in 2016, seek to bounce back from an injury-plagued season and reach the playoffs with an at-large bid. Standout cornerback Deion Harris‘ return will infuse a secondary that loses Cole Reyes. The quarterback job is up for grabs, but there are running backs, running backs and more running backs with UND returning John Santiago, Brady Oliveira and James Johannesson.