Another change that will affect all FCS teams is the increasing of the FCS playoffs from 16 teams to 20 teams —meaning an extra week of playoff action after the regular season concludes. This playoff change also means a move from the long-running championship game host Chattanooga, Tenn., to Frisco, Texas.
That move makes the first time a Division I champion will be crowned west of the Mississippi River since 1988 when Idaho State’s Holt Arena hosted its second straight such contest. And a first ever, a FCS title game will be played in January instead of December.
A "West" team has gone to the title game the last two seasons in Montana, but as we know the Grizzlies lost the contest to Richmond and Villanova, respectively, those two seasons. And as you know throughout my history of covering the region in my seven-plus seasons of covering FCS playoffs, I hope for another team and hope for a ‘West" team to finally win the title.
Like last year, my definition of "West" will be the Big Sky, Great West and Missouri Valley Football Conferences, along with the nonscholarship Pioneer League. For the first time in really the time that I have covered these conferences, we will not see any changes from the prior season in conference membership.
In this column, I will give a brief overview how I believe the conference races will stack up and some key players to watch among the "West" schools. For a more detailed review of each of my conferences, you can see my conference previews in the CSN Preview Magazine.
Who are the teams to beat in their respective "West" conferences?
In the Big Sky, I believe the run of Montana’s streak of winning 12 conference titles will continue. The Griz finished the 2009 regular season undefeated before falling in the national title game.
The Griz dominance will need to run with a new head coach as former coach Bobby Hauck has left for the FBS ranks at Nevada-Las Vegas. He is being replaced by Robin Pflugrad, a former Grizzly assistant who coached the wide receivers as well as helping the offense a season ago.
Montana should be a playoff team for an 18th straight year but will be challenged by Weber State again, as well as Eastern Washington, Montana State and Northern Arizona.
In the Great West, I think UC Davis will be able to overcome Cal Poly in a tough race between the two California schools. The Aggies look to repeat as the GWC champions after they finished 2009 6-5 overall. UC Davis struggled early in the season before finishing strong — losing three of its first four but finished winning five of six to gain its first ever outright GWC title
Cal Poly will have Coach Tim Walsh’s system for a second season in San Luis Obispo, and he will return 19 starters and lose just six seniors in the hopes of getting back to its winning ways. The Mustangs finished 2009 with their first losing season since 2002 at 4-7. The Golden Horseshoe Trophy game Nov. 13 between the Aggies and Mustangs will determine who this year’s GWC champion will be, but the game is in San Luis Obispo.
The Missouri Valley Football Conference had a change of the top two teams a year ago with a familiar Southern Illinois team but a newcomer in South Dakota State. Both teams made the playoffs with SIU winning the outright title. Northern Iowa was the third-place team and just missed out with a 7-4 overall record.
Those three teams look to continue to be a factor in 2010, and I believe will be joined by upstart Illinois State.
Southern Illinois returns just nine starters but also several nonstarters that have seen action in the past in the hopes of an eighth-straight FCS playoff appearance. SIU will see a new home this year as it opens up a new 15,000-seat stadium to replace the former McAndrew Stadium.
South Dakota State will have to face UNI and SIU on the road this year, to go with out-of-conference road games at traditional FCS power Delaware before later visiting FBS Nebraska.
In the Pioneer League, last year’s co-champions Butler and Dayton look to be the cream of this conference again but will see opposition from Drake and Jacksonville.
Butler has gone from a last-place PFL team to one that won its first postseason game ever at the Division I level. The turnaround really started in 2008 when Butler finished 6-5 and then last year, it went 11-1 and won the final Grid Iron Classic. The Bulldogs return 10 of their 14 All-PFL performers to help get to another title.
Dayton and Drake have been the top two teams in the history of the PFL and Jacksonville won the PFL crown in 2008. The Flyers return 14 starters from last year's co-championship team with 10 of those back on offense. Drake also returns 14 starters after an 8-3 overall mark and Jacksonville returns 16 starters after a 7-4 2009 campaign.
Who are the players in the "West" to watch?
The "West" has some of the best talent on the offensive and defensive sides. Here are my picks for the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Here is a list of players I think will be ones to watch this year from the West.
Offensive Players (2009 stats):
Cameron Higgins, Weber State, QB, Sr. (289-of-454 passes, 3,326 yards, 30 TD, 20 INT)
Chase Reynolds, Montana, RB, Sr. (321 carries, 1,583 yards, 22 TD)
Michael Herrick, Northern Arizona, QB, Sr. (270-of-407 passes, 3,356 yards, 22 TD, 8 INT)
Taiwan Jones, Eastern Washington, RB, Jr. (162 carries, 1,213 yards, 15 TD)
Kyle Minett, South Dakota State, RB, Sr. (1,304 yards, 17 total TD, 16 rushing TD)
Tysson Poots, Southern Utah, WR, Sr. (85 receptions, 1,081 yards, 15 TD)
Andrew Selle, Montana, QB, Sr. (224-of-356 passes, 3,043 yards, 28 touchdowns, 6 INT)
Steve Valentino, Dayton, QB, Sr. (65.6 rushing yards/game, 216 passing yards/game, 10 rushing TD, 14 passing TD, 1 receiving TD.)
Domonique Johnson, Cal Poly, WR, Sr. (43 receptions, 741 yards, 6 TD)
Mike Phillips, Weber State, WR, Sr. (39 receptions, 704 yards, 6 TD)
Schuyler Oordt, Northern Iowa, TE, Sr. (18 receptions, 358 yards, 6 TD)
Defensive Players (2009 stats)
Christian Clark, Sacramento State, DE, Sr. (44 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 10 sacks)
Trumaine Johnson, Montana, CB, Sr. (54 tackles, 3 TFL, 5 INT, 12 PBU)
Korey Lindsey, Southern Illinois, CB, Sr. (63 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 6 INT, 4 PBU)
Mike McElroy, Southern Illinois, S, Sr. (78 tackles, 7 TFL, 7 INT, 5 PBU)
J.C. Sherritt, Eastern Washington, S, Sr. (170 tackles, 14 TFL, 1 INT)
Renard Williams, Eastern Washington, DT, Jr. (35 tackles, 16 TFL, 9 sacks)
Dan Ogden, Montana State, DE, Sr. (44 tackles, 8 TFL, 5.5 sacks)
Derek Domino, South Dakota State, LB, Sr. (100 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 sacks, 5 INT)
Grant Hunter, Butler, DE, Jr. (39 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 10 sacks)
Dain Taylor, Drake, DE, Sr. (48 tackles, 19.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks)
Kyle Glazier, Western Illinois, LB, Sr. (120 tackles, 7 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INT)
James Vercammen, Dayton, S, Sr. (134 tackles, 17 TFL, 6 sacks)
What teams might be better than anticipated coming into the season?
In the Big Sky, I think Sacramento State might be the team that might move up even further in the league standings this year. In Coach Marshall Sperbeck's fourth season, he had the Hornets playing better as they finished 5-6 a year ago. I think a seven-win season might be possible for the Hornets.
In the Great West, I think Southern Utah is on the right track to progress potentially into the third position in the league standings in Coach Ed Lamb’s third season in Cedar City. The Thunderbirds finished 5-6 a year ago. A six-win season for SUU is what I see given its daunting schedule.
The team in the MVFC that should surprise after two down seasons is North Dakota State. A young team was competitive in most games in 2009 but seemed to find ways to lose at the end. Coach Craig Bohl’s team has several talented, returning players that saw much of their first action last year. In the tough MVFC, however, a six-win total might be in order for the Bison this year.
In the Pioneer League, San Diego might be the team to surprise folks. The Toreros were down to a 4-7 season a year ago but return a number of key pieces in the hopes of returning to the top of the PFL standings as they were a few years ago. I see USD finishing with a winning record of six wins.
Who will be the "West" playoff teams?
I believe the following will be the "West" teams among the final 20 teams playing this fall. One reminder, the Big South and Northeast Conference will receive bids this year. With 20 teams, there will be two additional at-large selections so there is a better chance for an additional West team making the playoffs.
I think Montana, Eastern Washington and Montana State will be the three teams to make the postseason from the Big Sky Conference.
In the Great West, I think UC Davis will be close, but I just don’t see it overcoming the two FBS opponents or going undefeated within league play so it might be sitting on the outside even if it wins the conference title.
In the Missouri Valley Football Conference, I think three teams likely will make it in: Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Illinois State being the postseason teams.
I believe Butler will repeat as the PFL champions but will likely not be invited to the playoffs either. The PFL also will not have a postseason game as its former Grid Iron Classic opponent in the NEC champion will now have a bid to the 20-team field.
That leaves six of the 20 playoff teams coming from the "West," but I am hoping for more.
And who knows what surprises will be in order this year. Maybe another team will emerge that us so-called experts did not expect. In any event, it is a great time of year, and I can’t wait to see what unfolds out "West" this year.
CSN West Games of the Week
This week there are several FCS vs. FBS games, but there are two interesting FCS inter-regional games that have grabbed my attention. These two games appear to be the best two matchups with the outcomes going either way among the "West" teams.
Eastern Kentucky @ Missouri State, 6 p.m. Central, Thursday
This will be the first night game at Plaster Field since Sept. 4, 2008, also the last Thursday game for the Bears after fixing the stadium lighting. The Bears are 3-1 in home openers under Coach Terry Allen. Missouri State returns 17 starters and 20 seniors from a 6-5 team that finished 4-4 and tied for fifth in MVFC. The Bears are picked
The OVC’s Colonels open on the road for the fifth consecutive year and ninth overall in the last 10 seasons. The Colonels have lost nine straight season openers. EKU finished 2009 at 5-6 overall. EKU is picked third in the OVC behind Eastern Illinois and Jacksonville State by the preseason coaches' poll.
The Colonels will be tops on defense with eight starters returning with junior Jeremy Caldwell leading the way from his defensive back position. The EKU defense also includes three preseason all-conference picks in senior tackle Andrew Soucy and senior linebacker Jordan Dalrymple.
On offensive, 2009 OVC Freshman of the Year T.J. Pryor threw for 2,153 yards in his first college season and has a main target in wide receiver Orlandus Harris who totaled 432 yards on 31 receptions last season. The EKU offense also includes four transfers in its starting lineup, including former FBS Air Force runningback Kyle Lumpkin who ran for 452 yards for the Falcons in 2008.
The Bears will be headed by All-American offensive lineman David Arkin and All-MVFC preseason quarterback Cody Kirby. Kirby was 51st in pass efficiency (123.85) and 52nd in total offense per game (192.36) a season ago. Senior linebacker Antoine Wilkinson and senior end Waylon Richardet as well as senior safety Skylar Smith will head the Bear defense.
This is the first meeting between the two teams in this home and home series. Missouri State is slated to visit EKU in 2011. The two teams shared two common opponents in 2009 – UT Martin and Murray State — which were both victories for the two teams. The last time EKU faced a MVFC team was 2006 when Eastern defeated rival Western Kentucky. Missouri State’s last games were mentioned above against OVC opponents a year ago — wins over UT Martin and Murray State.
This game will show whether Missouri State is ready to take the next step in the tough MVFC. A win over a perennial playoff team such as the Colonels might propel the Bears to a good season. A loss, especially with MSU playing at FBS Kansas State next week, might leave it in a position where it cannot overcome.
I think the Bears will pull out the victory at home in a closely fought contest. I will take MSU by a field goal. Missouri State 27 Eastern Kentucky 24.
Lehigh @ Drake, 6 p.m. Central, Saturday
First, this will be a game I will attend after doing a double-header in the state of Iowa — seeing Eastern Illinois play Iowa at 11 a.m. local time and then going to this one in Des Moines at 6 p.m. This is a rematch of a game that was played in Pennsylvania in 2008 that saw the Bulldogs lose to the host Mountain Hawks. That season was one of transition for Drake — moving to new coach Chris Creighton. It was the second game of his Bulldog career after they narrowly defeated DII Upper Iowa the previous week.
Drake finished 2008 with a 6-5 mark — winning four of its last five contests. That winning continued into last season when the Bulldogs improved to an 8-3 overall mark and finished third in the PFL. Drake returns 14 starters. The Bulldogs are led by senior defensive end Dain Taylor, who was named to four preseason All-America teams. Senior linebacker Ben Morrison was an honorable All-PFL choice while sophomore defensive back Tyler Moorehead was named the PFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009. The Bulldog offense is led by senior runningback Steve Platek, a two-time All-PFL selection.
Lehigh finished 2009 with a 4-7 mark after finishing that 2008 season at 5-6. Lehigh hopes to improve after competing in the playoffs last in 2004. Lehigh returns seven All-Patriot League performers from last year’s team that saw all four victories come in conference play. The Mountain Hawks were picked to finish third in the league’s preseason poll and are led by preseason All-American offensive lineman Will Rackley as well as fellow senior captain, linebacker Al Pierce.
One thing that might play a role in this game is that Lehigh has rarely traveled by plane. The last time Lehigh flew to a road game was in 2001 when the Mountain Hawks traveled to Greenville, S.C., to play Furman in a FCS quarterfinal playoff game. Lehigh’s last regular-season plane trip was to Wofford in Spartanburg, S.C., for the 2000 season opener.
I think this game will be much closer than the contest these two teams had in 2008. I know the Bulldogs have upset members of one of the automatic conferences in defeating Illinois State in 2007, but I'm not sure the Bulldogs will be able to stick with the Mountain Hawks.
I will take Lehigh by a touchdown. Lehigh 24 Drake 17.
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CSN West News & Notes
- In the Big Sky Conference, Eastern Washington and Sacramento State replaced natural surfaces with Sprinturf this summer. EWU will debut its red turf Sept. 18. Sacramento State plays on its new field for the first time Sept. 11. Weber State and Northern Colorado are the only teams still playing on natural grass. Weber State plans to remove its natural grass next summer.
- In the Big Sky, Montana’s Robin Pflugrad and Portland State’s Nigel Burton make their collegiate head coaching debuts Saturday. Pflugrad’s Montana team plays at home against Division II Western State. Burton’s Vikings are on the road against Arizona State of the Pac-10.
- Entering the 2010 season, Dayton has not been shut out in 377 consecutive games, dating to Oct. 16, 1976. During that streak Dayton has blanked its opponent 63 times.
- In the Pioneer League, Butler and Jacksonville have renovated their football facilities while Valparaiso added lights to Brown Stadium. Butler is completing renovations to its seating area and press box at the Butler Bowl, matching updates to its playing surface in 2005. Jacksonville has installed a new Astroturf playing surface at D.B. Milne Field, replacing the natural turf that was the field’s surface since 1998. One year after installing its own artificial surface, Valparaiso has added lights at Brown Stadium and will play its first game under the lights when it hosts St. Joseph’s (Ind.), Sept. 18.
- While the PFL didn't receive an automatic qualifying spot into the 2010 championship, the league could still receive what would amount to an automatic at-large bid. Under criteria established by the championship committee, the PFL champion could receive an automatic at-large bid if it meets three criteria. First, it must win eight games against Division I opposition. Second, it must win two games against opponents from the 10 automatic qualifying conferences. Finally, it must finish the season ranked among the top 20 in the polls as calculated by the championship committee.