By Kent Schmidt
College Sporting News
Last year was a year of firsts in the Big Sky Conference.
The top first happened for Eastern Washington, which won its first-ever national title.
This was also the first national title for the conference since Montana won it 2001, although the league has participated in the championship game three years in a row now (Montana in 2008 & 2009).
And speaking of Montana, the Grizzlies also had some rather inglorious firsts.
Montana missed the playoffs for the first time since 1992. That broke a 17-year streak that was by far the longest such run in FCS play.
Eastern Kentucky is in second place for that all-time FCS record with 10 consecutive appearances.
The Grizzlies also failed to at least share in the Big Sky title for the first time since 1997.
Another first was the one of the co-offensive player of the year in the conference in Montana State quarterback DeNarius McGhee. He was the first freshman to be named to this stature since Northern Arizonaís quarterback in 2003, Jason Murrietta.
This year will have a conclusion to something, rather than a first.
After this year, the current nine schools will be joined by four new schools.
North Dakota and Southern Utah will join the Big Sky on July 1, 2012 as full members, while Cal Poly and UC Davis will begin play as football-only members in 2012.
For this year, however, the league will remain with the same lineup as a season ago and Eastern Washington, along with co-Big Sky 2010 champions Montana State look to be the class of the league again.
Montana should be closer to normalcy this year and Sacramento State is another team that should be on the rise.
All four have realistic goals of winning the conference title this year and competing in the FCS playoffs.
Montana State actually won the league's automatic playoff bid a season ago and garnered the No. 4 seed going into the playoffs by virtue of defeating co-champion Eastern Washington.
The Bobcats, however, did not use their home field advantage and lost to North Dakota State in their opening postseason game in the second round of the playoffs.
While the loss was a tough way to end the 2010 season, the Bobcats did finish the year with a nine win season for the first time since 1984 when they won the FCS title (12-2) and competed in their first postseason berth since 2006.
MSU also defeated Montana for the first time since 2005 and the first time in Missoula since 2002.
As mentioned, the reigning Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year is the main reason for the Bobcat success in DeNarius McGhee.
He returns for his sophomore season along with seven other offensive starters and six defensive starters, along with the kicker and the punter from last yearís squad.
McGhee averaged 278.7 yards of total offense per game and led the Big Sky in passing efficiency at 153.8. Under McGhee's leadership under center, MSU topped the conference in passing, total offense, and scoring offense in 2010.
Senior center Alex Terrien returns to anchor the offensive line, while Leo Davis returns on the right tackle and Conrad Burbank moves from guard to left tackle. Guards Ben Tauanuu and Casey Dennehy are the others that have seen starting time.
Starting wide receivers Elvis Akpla (43 recept, 683, 4 TD), Julius Lloyd (36 recept, 711 yards, 7 TD) and Everett Gilbert (48 recept, 574 yards, 2 TD) and also return, to anchor the receiving positions for the Bobcats.
Running back Orenzo Davis (1126 yards, 10 TD) was lost to violations of team rules, so MSU will likely count on a FBS transfer in junior Dontrayevous Robinson, who comes to Bozeman from Nebraska. He is a former prep teammate of McGhee's at Euless (TX) Trinity High School.
Robinson rushed for 67 yards on 24 carries for the Cornhuskers as a sophomore last fall, including a 13-carry, 55-yard game against Colorado.,
Another FBS transfer that might be able to contribute right away is sophomore guard Tyler Thomas (Oregon State).
While the offense is returning much of its talent, the Bobcat defense will see some talent returning but must replace All-American Tackle Dan Ogden.
In total, there will be six starters back overall.
Senior end John Laidet (28 tackles, 6 TFL, 3 sacks) and junior tackle Zach Minter (26 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2 INT) join starting junior cornerback Darius Jones (team best 11 pass break-ups, 30 tackles) as well as a talented group of three linebacker returning starters at linebacker in junior Jody Owens (80 tackles, 8.5 TFL), senior Clay Bignell (42 tackles, 5 TFL), and sophomore Aleksei Grosulak (team high 88 tackles, 8 TFL, 2 INT -- though now injured).
The Bobcats also flaunt two of the best kickers in the conference and perhaps the country in senior placekicker Jason Cunningham and sophomore punter Rory Perez.
Cunningham was named to a number of All-American teams after he set MSUís career and single-season field goal records, finishing 20-of-24 on field goals with 106 total points. His current 47 career field goal total ranks tenth in Big Sky Conference history.
Perez had a 38-yard average and placed 13 of his punts inside the 20-yard line.
The national champions of Eastern Washington finished tied with the Bobcats last year for the Big Sky title and claimed its fifth playoff appearance in the past seven seasons and won the title from the #5 overall seed.
Most seasons, the national champion would be placed atop their conference preseason poll especially one that returns eight offensive starters and another seven on defense.
Five All-Americans and a total of 10 players who earned All-Big Sky Conference accolades are also among the returning players.
But the Eagles will lose two key members — one each on each side of the ball.
Running back Taiwan Jones, who was last year's co-MVP for the conference with MSU's McGhee, decided to leave for the NFL after his junior year and was drafted by in the fourth round by the Oakland Raiders.
The other major loss is Buck Buchanan Award winning linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who finished his illustrious career with a conference-record-breaking 432 tackles and signed with the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos.
The EWU defense will likely be the key for this year's team to improve even though they won the national title a season ago.
The Eagles 2010 defense ranked just 60th in FCS in scoring, giving up nearly 25 points per game.
The defense was, however, opportunistic in takeaways.
The Eagles ranked first nationally in interceptions (total of 26) and turnovers gained (47), and finished 17th nationally in turnover margin (.80 less turnovers per game than its opponents).
These statistics will likely need to remain and the scoring allowed down to see similar results as last season.
While losing Sherritt will hurt, the Eagles will still have senior All-American Renard Williams at his defensive tackle spot.
The linebacker position will be headed by senior Zach Johnson, and junior Tyler Washburn. In the defensive backfield, senior safety senior Matt Johnson should be the leader as he enters this season with the most starting experience on EWU's entire roster with 38 career starts.
The Eagle offense will need to replace Jones' running game and will likely look to more consistency in senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who finished with 3,496 passing yards and a school-record 37 touchdown passes but had 15 interceptions as a junior.
Mitchell's main 2010 target of junior All-American Brandon Kaufman is back after finishing his sophomore campaign with 76 grabs for 1,214 yards and 15 scores.
Kaufman will be joined by fellow returning juniors Nicholas Edwards and Greg Herd as the main Mitchell targets.
The running back situation looks to go to sophomore Mario Brown as the likely top choice, after finishing the 2010 rushing for 341 yards on 100 carries for an average of 3.4 yards per rush with one touchdown as a true freshman in 2010 season and Jones' backup.
Senior Darriell Beaumonte, a first team All-Big Sky performer on special teams, is the other returning running back who saw significant carries in the 2010 season.
FBS Washington transfer Demitrius Bronson could also compete for the starting position.
The offensive line will be headed by two seniors; All-American center Chris Powers and tackle Gabriel Jackson.
Finishing 7-4 by many other schools would be a good season but that doesn't meet expectations for Montana.
The first season for the Grizzlies under Coach Robin Pflugrad was the lowest win total since 1992 (6-5) — also the last season the Grizzlies did not make the playoffs.
The Grizzlies, however, lost their four games by a combined 25 points and two of the games by less than a touchdown (Cal Poly 35-33 and Montana State 21-16).
This year's Montana team will have seven starters on each side of the ball back.
The Grizzlies defense was not an issue a year ago and most likely won't be an issue in 2010.
The Grizzlies ranked among the national leaders in several categories.
Montana was third in pass defense (140.0 ypg), seventh in pass efficiency defense (98.08), and tenth in total defense (289.82 ypg).
The team returns All-American cornerback Trumaine Johnson to lead this side of the ball, but Johnson is the only member of the secondary back.
Among the losses was cornerback Jimmy Wilson, who was drafted by the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
Johnson will be joined by All-BSC members senior tackle Bryan Waldhauser and senior linebacker Caleb McSurdy.
The defense should also see high performances from senior end Ryan Fetherston and junior linebacker Jordan Tripp.
Montana was 16th in scoring offense (31.73 ppg) and 28th in passing (233.55 ypg) in all of FCS, but the Grizzlies lose their top two quarterbacks from a season ago in Andrew Selle and Justin Roper.
This position appears to be a battle between junior Nate Montana, the son of NFL legend Joe Montana, who transferred from Notre Dame during the offseason (and also had some off-the-field issues in his short tenor in Missoula with a DUI in late spring), along with sophomore Jordan Johnson.
Johnson and Montana bring a little game experience from last fall. Montana completed nine of 16 passes for 116 yards for Notre Dame and Johnson played in four games for the Grizzlies, passing for 44 yards and one touchdown.
Former running back Gerald Kemp has also been moved to quarterback and could be in the mix.
The running back position is another question mark coming into 2011 for Montana with the graduation of record-setter Chase Reynolds gone.
Brett Kirschner, a greyshirt last season, comes in with fellow freshman Jordan Canada, along with juniors Dan Moore, and Beau Donaldson, who both are coming off of injures, are the top replacement candidates.
The wide receiver position should be a strength this fall for the new quarterback with the top three wide outs back in seniors Jabin Sambrano (39 receptions, 584 yards, 3 TDs) and Antwon Moutra (36 recept, 600 yards, 6 TD), along with junior Sam Gratton (28 receptions, 327 yards, 4 TD). Senior tight end Greg Hardy also returns after an All-BSC performance despite just 10 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown.
The offensive line will be anchored by All BSC senior tackle Chuck Burton.
Sacramento State seems poised to make a run at the Big Sky title or at least vie for a FCS playoff spot in 2011 for the first time in their Division I history.
The Hornets closed 2010 by winning four of their final six games and the two losses were close. Sac State lost two road games to eventual national champion Eastern Washington 28-24 and 17-16 to rival UC Davis.
Overall, the Hornets finished 6-5, their first winning season since 2000.
Over the final seven games of the season, Sacramento State scored at least 40 points in four contests and averaged 36.6 points per game through this period.
Most of the key contributors for that unit return in 2011 as the Hornets feature eight returning starters.
Second-team All-BSC senior quarterback Jeff Fleming will lead the offense after finishing ninth in the FCS in passing efficiency (147.42) and setting the school record with 24 passing touchdowns in 2010.
The running game will be headed by senior Bryan Hilliard, who averaged 98.11 yards per game in 2010 and rushed for 12 touchdowns.
Senior Brandyn Reed, who was an all-conference selection in 2009, returns after redshirting last season as a running option as well.
With three All-BSC selections at wide receiver, the position is one of the deepest for the Hornets.
Senior Chase Deadder (37 recept, 788 yards, 6 TD) and sophomore Morris Norrise (35 recept, 532 yards, 8 TD) were recognized with conference honors after breakout seasons.
Senior Brandyn Reed, who was an All-BSC selection in 2009, returns after redshirting last season. On the offensive line, four of the five starters are back including All-BSC honorees in senior tackles Nate Doverspike and John Taylor.
The Hornet defense will likely be the main improvement area to determine if the Hornets are playoff caliber.
A year ago, the Hornets allowed nearly 25 points per game and over 330 yards per game.
This group, however, will have senior All-American Zack Nash, who led the Big Sky and ranked fourth in the FCS with 1.18 sacks per game.
Sacramento State will need to replace three-year starter Christian Clark on the interior line, but have David Coleman (26 tackles, 5 TFL) and Matt Lawrence (20 tackles, 4.5 TFL) back to join Nash.
Junior Jeff Badger will head the linebacker corps for the second consecutive season after he totaled 41 tackles with 7.5 of those for loss.
In the secondary, cornerbacks sophomore Osagie Odiase (44 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 INT) and senior Kyle Monson (47 tackles, 2 INT) and senior nickel back Evander Wilkins (33 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2 INT) all return to their starting spots this fall. Senior Joe Larche (25 tackles) also returns at his safety spot.
Hoping to finally finish a season the way they start is Northern Arizona.
The Lumberjacks won four of their first six games but lost three of their last four games to finish 6-5 overall.
Coach Jerome Souers, who is the longest tenured coach in Big Sky history, now in his 14th season in Flagstaff, hopes to reverse this similar trend that has been happening over the past three seasons.
One thing the team will see is some new surroundings in their home of the Walkup Skydome. NAU's football home since 1977 is getting some changes in the seating to accommodate people with disabilities and for fire safety.
The changes will also create a new press box and new football offices.
As for the team on the field, the Lumberjacks return just 11 starters, which includes their two kickers.
Offensively, NAU will need to replace quarterback Michael Herrick, who finished his career as the NAU all-time leader in completion percentage (65.0) and yards per attempts (7.5).
The leading candidate to take his spot under center appears to be Chasen Stangel, who saw action last year and threw for 376 yards.
The Lumberjacks will have two All-BCS honorable mention performers on the line in junior tackle Trey Gilleo and senior guard Alex Mott will need to be the leaders upfront as those two are the only returning starters.
The receivers will mostly be new as well, with the graduation loss of leading 2010 pass catcher Daiveun-Curry Chapman but second leading senior Austin Shanks (65 recept, 613 yards, 3 TD), who was an All-BSC second teamer a season ago, returns.
The running game bucks the trend of replacements needed as sophomore Zach Bauman is back after a school record setting freshman campaign.
Bauman rushed for 1,059 yards last season and finished with 14 rushing touchdowns. He also added another 308 receiving yards and two more scores through the air. He will also have blocking in the backfield from senior fullback Vinnie Pacuilli
The NAU defense returns only four starters but will look for leadership from All-BSC selections senior defensive lineman Isaac Bond and senior linebacker Scott McKeever.
Bond tied for the team lead in sacks with 5.5 to go with his 31 tackles, while McKeever also had 5.5 sacks and led the team in tackles for a loss with 9 to go with his team third best 52 tackles. Tackle Dan Pela (27 tackles, 3.5 TFL) and safety Taylor Julio (38 tackles, 2 INT) are the other two returnees to provide further leadership of the new starters.
For the NAU kicking game, both starters (place kicker Matt Myers and punter Drew Zamora) were named to the All-BSC teams .
Zamora averaged 42.2 yards per punt to rank third in the Big Sky and 16th in the nation. Myers made 14-of-18 field goal attempts with a long of 51 yards.
Another team that hopes to improve on a 2010 6-5 mark is Weber State.
The Wildcats advanced to the FCS playoffs in 2008 and 2009 but slipped a little a season ago. This year will have a similar schedule for Coach Ron McBride's team as last year with two FBS opponents but neither are from BCS conferences as was the case a year ago in trips to Wyoming and Utah State.
Last year, WSU had trips to Boston College and Texas Tech.
Offensively, the post-Cameron Higgins quarterback era begins in Ogden.
Higgins finished his career with more touchdown passes (98) than any player in Big Sky history and ranked second all-time in passing yards (12,274).
Junior Mike Hoke, who has been the backup the past two seasons, appears to be the heir apparent.
He has thrown for 419 yards and three touchdowns, and has rushed 42 times for 144 yards and one touchdown in his career thus far.
The running game will be headed by sophomore running back Josh Booker, who rushed for 563 yards and two touchdowns last season. Elsewhere in the backfield, the Wildcats lost all-conference fullback Vai Tafuna to graduation and Bo Bolen has left on a two-year LDS Mission.
The passing game for the new Wildcat signal caller will have several new hands catching too.
The top receiver back was the fourth leading receiver a year ago in now senior Austin Raught, who had just 18 catches for 184 yards in 2010.
The one area of the Wildcats that should not be a concern offensively is the offensive line where all five starters return with seniors guard J.C. Oram and tackle Caleb Turner leading the group.
Both were named to the All-BSC first team last year and Oram received All-American accolades.
Adding to the line is returning junior tight end Brian Jankowski, who took over for now senior Tyrell Francisco, who had an Achilles tendon injury before the 2010 season began.
A strong blocker, and an able-handed receiver, Jankowski had 10 catches for 89 yards and one touchdown. Francisco is back but has been moved to the receiver position during spring practices.
Weber State's defense will be led by All-BSC senior linebacker Nick Webb, who tallied a team second best 99 tackles last season. Ryan Eastman, a junior defensive tackle, has returned to Weber State.
Eastman played for the Wildcats in 2008 and 2009, earning honorable mention All-Conference honors both seasons.
Eastman transferred to FBS Hawaii for the spring semester of 2010, but returned to Weber State last fall. Senior Blake Keller returns at a safety spot where he had 79 tackles, and should be the secondary leader.
The biggest news at Portland State is the return to their old, now renovated stadium that is now also the home to Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers.
The old home also received a name change from what used to be called PGE Park to Jeld-Wen Field.
A year ago, the Vikings were forced to use nearby Hillsboro Stadium as their home field.
The fans in Oregon's largest city hope that the change back to the old venue, along with 21 returning starters, improve upon a 2-9 first season for Coach Nigel Burton.
A year ago, the offensive turned from the run-and-shoot offense that former coach Jerry Glanville employed to one that was more of a run based pistol offense.
The Vikings in fact finished last in the league in rushing in 2009, but averaged a league-best 203.3 rushing yards per game in 2010.
Cory McCaffrey, who will be a senior this season, averaged 117.0 rushing yards per game and was named first-team All-BSC.
The Vikings also return quarterback Connor Kavanaugh and the entire offensive line. Kavanaugh completed 60% of his passes for 1,109 yards and six touchdowns with just three interceptions. He also ran for 506 yards and four touchdowns.
Competition for the starting quarterback could come from Drew Hubel, who was a starter in his prior three seasons from 2007-09 after he returns from injury and a redshirted season for his senior year.
The offense must also replace NFL-drafted tight end Julius Thomas.
Defensively, All-BSC cornerback DeShawn Shead, who will be moved to strong safety this season, will lead the return of the entire defensive backfield.
Veteran defensive end Carl Sommer and fourth-year linebacker Ryan Rau also return. Shead made 51 tackles, a team-high seven pass breakups and had two fumble recoveries.
Carl Sommer (93) led the Vikings in tackles for loss (11) and sacks (4) in 2010. Rau led the team in for a second straight season in tackles with 83 a year ago.
The Vikings special teams boast one of the top kickers in the country in junior Zach Brown, to go with third-year starting punter Thomas Duyndam.
Brown already holds PSU records for field goals in a season and a career and consecutive extra points made.
Junior Duyndam, who has played American football for just three years, had a 42.6 average in 2010 which ranks as third-best for a season in school history.
The first of two new coaches in the Big Sky this year starts with Northern Colorado. Bear alum Earnest Collins Jr. takes control of the program.
Collins was a former standout and assistant coach for UNC.
He spent the previous two seasons as the head coach at Alcorn State before returning to Greeley.
Collins is the second coach for the Bears since they joined the Big Sky and replaces Scott Downing, who was let go after a 3-8 mark in 2010.
The Bears offense will be led by Dylan Orms, who returns for his second season as the Bears' starting quarterback.
Orms completed 52.4 percent of his passes for 2,055 yards with 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a junior.
He should have one of the top receivers in the Big Sky with the return of Patrick Walker. The duo combined for 90 catches for 1,562 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
Junior tackle Lee Barbiasz should lead the offensive line group.
The Bears have some major holes to fill on defense, especially with the losses of linebackers John Eddy and Matt King, safety Max Hewitt and cornerback Korey Askew.
What they do have back is a duo of defensive ends in senior Nick Hernon and junior VJ Holmes to lead this defense. Hernon led the Bears in tackles for a loss with 10.5 to go with 45 total tackles and Holmes had a team second high 3.5 sacks to go with 17 total tackles.
The second new coach this year in the Big Sky is not really too new to the conference but new to Idaho State.
The Bengals tabbed former Eastern Washington and Montana State front man Mike Kramer to replace John Zamberlin.
In his Big Sky history, Kramer coached both EWU and MSU to Big Sky championships and currently ranks in the top five in Big Sky history in overall and conference victories.
His 53 Big Sky wins ranks third in most conference wins in Big Sky history.
Kramer needs one victory to tie Don Read (Montana) for second place. Kramer takes over a program that went a combined 3-31 overall and 2-22 in Big Sky play the last three seasons. ISU has also not won a road game since the 2006 season.
As expected, this year's team will have a number of question marks but one area that should be a strength is the play of senior linebacker A.J. Storms, who led the nation in tackles last season with an average of 13.3 per game.
Two other seniors in linebackers Jordan Monga (41 tackles, 10 TFL) and Basim Hudeen (100 tackles, 8 TFL) should also be key members to the Bengal defense that will need to improve on their over 33 point per game given up statistic.
The Bengal offense will see a new signal caller with JUCO transfer junior Kevin Yost leading the pack out of spring ball.
As a sophomore at Glendale (CA) CC, he threw for 2,500 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The leading rusher and receiver was running back Tavoy Moore, who will be a senior this fall.
Moore did most of his damage, however, on the special teams as a kick returner and was named to many All-American teams for these efforts.
He became the first player in Big Sky history to return a kickoff and punt return back for a touchdown in the same game in two different contests.
Also on special teams, the Bengals boost another All-American caliber performer in senior punter David Harrington, who led the Big Sky after he averaged 44.3 yards a punt.
He had a season-long 60 yarder and 13 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line with 20 punts of 50-yards or more.
Big Sky Games of the Week
Eastern Washington @ Washington, Sept.3
The defending champs open with their in-state FBS rivals in Seattle in the first of their seven road games. Will the Eagles start off the 2011 season with an upset?
Sacramento State @ Southern Utah, Sept. 10
The Hornets play at a future Big Sky foe in the Thunderbirds. Can they come back from Cedar City with a victory?
Eastern Washington @ Montana, Sept. 17
The Grizzlies are looking for revenge from last year's loss in Cheney. Will the friendly confines of Washington-Grizzly Stadium aid them over the Eagles?
Montana State @ Eastern Washington, Sept. 24
The Eagles get the other Montana school, but this time at home. Will these two consecutive games against a Treasure State foe cause any concerns for EWU?
Portland State @ Idaho State, Oct. 1
These two teams might be playing to stay out of the BSC cellar as they meet in Holt Arena.
Sacramento State @ Northern Colorado, Oct. 8
The Hornets will likely know if they are contenders or pretenders by this contest. They will not be able to over look the improving Bears.
Idaho State @ Weber State, Oct. 15
This rivalry game has been rather one-sided in favor of WSU over the past few years. Will that trend continue this year?
Montana @ Northern Arizona, Oct. 22
The Lumberjacks have traditionally been a fast starter and slow finisher in the past few seasons. This game should tell us if that trend will continue or change.
Weber State @ Montana, Oct. 29
Both of these schools were off from their recent historically good season last year. Will this game tell us which one might still be a conference contender to end the 2011 season?
Sacramento State @ Portland State, Nov. 5
Will the newly renovated stadium aid in this Big Sky battle for the Vikings, or will the Hornets come away with a road victory?
Eastern Washington @ Cal Poly, Nov. 13
This late out of conference battle will likely be one to determine who will still be in the running for a playoff spot. Will the soon-to-be Big Sky Mustangs use the home field to their advantage?
Montana at Montana State, Nov. 20
This should continue to be the best way to end the Big Sky schedule. Will this year's battle in Bozeman be another classic between these two rivals?
Eastern Washington Eagles
Location: Cheney, WA
Stadium: Roos Field (8,600)
Head Coach: Beau Baldwin (27-11, EWU, 37-14 Overall), 4th Season
Who's Gone: LB J.C. Sherritt, RB Taiwan Jones, CB Dante Calcote.
Who's Back: QB Bo Levi Mitchell, WR Brandon Kaufman, OC Chris Powers, S Matt Johnson, DT Renard Williams, RB/KR Darriell Beaumonte, OT Gabriel Jackson, LB Zach Johnson, S Jeff Minnerly.
Historical Fact: EWU is home to two Buchanan Award winners (J.C. Sherritt in 2010 and Greg Peach in 2008) and a Payton Award Winner (Erik Meyer in 2005) in the past six seasons.
Last Season: The Eagles won their first ever national title over Delaware 20-19, overcoming a 19-0 third-quarter deficit to win the game.
This Season: Coach Baldwin's team will look to be the Big Sky's first ever repeat national champions.
Idaho State Bengals
Location: Pocatello, ID
Stadium: Holt Arena (12,000)
Head Coach: Mike Kramer (0-0, ISU, 77-75 overall), 1st Season
Who's Gone: QB Russel Hill, DE Sean Rutten, OT Mitch Rudder.
Who's Back: LB A.J. Storms, RB/RS Tavoy Moore, P David Harrington, DT Jordan Monga, LB Basim Hudeen.
Historical Fact: Idaho State won the FCS 1981 national title with a 34-23 victory over Eastern Kentucky.
Last Season: ISU finished just 1-10 for the third consecutive season, a fact that cost coach John Zamberlin his job.
This Season: The Bengals hope to turn things around under long time Big Sky coach Kramer's regime.
Location: Missoula, MT
Stadium: Washington-Grizzly Stadium (25,217)
Head Coach: Robin Pflugrad (7-4, UM & overall), 1st Season
Who's Gone: RB Chase Reynolds, S Jimmy Wilson, S Erik Stoll, QB Justin Roper, QB Andrew Selle.
Who's Back: WR Sam Gratton, DE Ryan Fetherston, WR Jabin Sambrano, DE Bobby Alt, WR Antwon Moutra, FS Mike McCord, OG Stephen Sabin, DT Bryan Waldhauser, OT Jon Opperud, LB Alex Shaw, OT Chuck Burton, LB Jordan Tripp, TE Greg Hardy, LB Caleb McSurdy, CB Trumaine Johnson, K/P Brody McKnight.
Historical Fact: The Grizzlies have appeared in seven national title games and won two titles in 1995 and 2001.
Last Season: The Grizzlies missed the playoffs for the first time since 1992 in finishing 7-4 overall for new coach Pflugrad.
This Season: The Griz hope to start a new playoff streak this season in returning 14 starters.
Montana State Bobcats
Location: Bozeman, MT
Stadium: Bobcat Stadium (13,500)
Head Coach: Rob Ash (29-17, MSU, 205-116-5, Overall), 5th Season
Who's Gone: DT Dan Ogden, OT Mike Person, TE Kyle Begger, WR Julius Lloyd, RB Orenzo Davis.
Who's Back: QB DeNarius McGhee, OC Alex Terrien, OT Leo Davis, OT Conrad Burbank, WR Elvis Akpla, WR Everett Gilbert, DE John Laidet, DT Zach Minter, CB Darius Jones, LB Jody Owens, LB Clay Bignell, LB Aleksei Grosulak.
Historical Fact: The Bobcats are the only school to win a national football title at the NAIA, Division II, and Division I levels. Their FCS title came in 1984 in a 19-6 victory over Louisiana Tech.
Last Season: The Bobcats tied for the Big Sky title a year ago and were the automatic qualifier for the FCS playoffs and garnered the #4 overall seed but lost their second round playoff game to North Dakota State to finish 9-4 overall.
This Season: The Bobcats look to finish 2011 like 2010 but to have more playoff success.
Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
Location: Flagstaff, AZ
Stadium: Walkup Skydome (15,000)
Head Coach: Jerome Souers (72-75, NAU & Overall), 14th Season
Who's Gone: QB Michael Herrick, OG Kris Poindexter, LB Reid Worthington, WR Daiveun Curry-Chapman.
Who's Back: OG Alex Mott, OT Trey Gilleo, WR Austin Shanks, WR Mike Czyz, RB Zach Bauman, DE Isaac Bond, DT Dan Pela, LB Scott McKeever, SS Taylor Julio, K Matt Myers, P Drew Zamora.
Historical Fact: NAU has won two Big Sky titles in its history (1978 & 2003)
Last Season: The Lumberjacks again started the season strong with but finished slowly to finish 6-5 overall.
This Season: Coach Souers will need to replace a number of key members but will look to finish stronger.
Northern Colorado Bears
Location: Greeley, CO
Stadium: Nottingham Field (8,500)
Head Coach: Earnest Collins Jr. (0-0, UNC, 8-12 Overall) 1st Season
Who's Gone: LB John Eddy, CB Korey Askew, OC Tim McGraw.
Who's Back: WR Jace Davis, RS Dominic Gunn, WR Patrick Walker, OT Lee Barbiasz, DE V.J. Holmes, DE Nick Hernon.
Historical Fact: The Bears moved up to the FCS ranks in 2002 and were members of the Great West from 2003 to 2006 before moving the Big Sky.
Last Season: Northern Colorado finished with three wins for the second straight year
This Season: Coach Downing hopes to build his 2010 team on the better 2009 season and a number of returning starters.
Portland State Vikings
Location: Portland, OR
Stadium: Jeld-Wen Field (20,000)
Head Coach: Nigel Burton (2-9, PSU & overall) 2nd Season
Who's Gone: TE Julius Thomas, TE Rory Richards, WR Nick Hutter, DT Travis Beckley, LB DJ Macarthy.
Who's Back: RB Cory McCaffrey, CB DeShawn Shead, QB Connor Kavanaugh, OC Adam Kleffner, OT Dustin Waldron, OT Kyle Ritt, K Zach Brown, DE Carl Sommer, DT Julious Moore, P Thomas Duyndam, QB Drew Hubel
Historical Fact: The Vikings were the first college team to use the Run and Shoot offense, under coach Mouse Davis in the 1980s, breaking numerous NCAA records along the way.
Last Season: The first season under Coach Burton started out at 2-2 but the Viking lost their last seven games to finish 2-9 overall.
This Season: PSU hope for a better season with 21 starters returning this year.
Sacramento State Hornets
Location: Sacramento, CA
Stadium: Hornet Stadium (21,195)
Head Coach: Marshall Sperbeck (20-25, CSU-S, 129-78 Overall) 5th Season
Who's Gone: DT Christian Clark, LB Peter Buck, S Zach Schrader.
Who's Back: DT Zack Nash, WR Chase Deadder, OT John Taylor, QB Jeff Fleming, WR Morris Norrise, OT Nate Doverspike, RB Bryan Hilliard, DE David Coleman.
Historical Fact: The Hornets have three postseason years in their history; Pasadena Bowl, loss to Grambling St. 34-7 in 1968, Camellia Bowl, lost to Montana St. 28-7 in 1964, and a 2-1 record in the 1988 DII playoffs, reaching the semi-finals that year.
Last Season: The Hornets finished the 2010 season with a 6-5 mark, their first winning season since 2000.
This Season: Coach Sperbeck hopes his team can grow from last year's team with 16 starters back and get the Hornets first ever FCS playoff spot and first since a DII appearance in 1988.
Weber State Wildcats
Location: Ogden, UT
Stadium: Stewart Stadium (17,500)
Head Coach: Ron McBride (38-26, WSU & 126-95 Overall) 7th Season
Who's Gone: QB Cameron Higgins, WR Joe Collins, FB Vai Tafuna, RB Bo Bolin, S Jordan Brown.
Who's Back: WR Caleb Turner, ROV Nick Webb, OG J.C. Oram, OC Tyson Tiatia, TE Brian Jankowski, OT Adam Sagapolutele-White, P Josh Kealamakia, OG Jiniki Timoteo OT Tytan Timoteo, OC Tyson Tiatia, DE Gabe Bowers, CB David James, S Blake Keller, LB Mo Neal, DE Trevor Pletcher, DT Adam Sagapolutele-White.
Historical Fact: QB Jamie Martin won the Payton Award in 1991 and played in the NFL from 1993-2008.
Last Season: The Wildcats fell off a little last year, finishing 6-5 overall after reaching the FCS playoffs the prior two seasons.
This Season: The Wildcats and Coach McBride need to replace all-time great quarterback Cameron Higgins but they do return 14 total starters to try to better the mark from a year ago to get back to the postseason.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Montana State
2. Eastern Washington
4. Sacramento State
5. Northern Arizona
6. Weber State
7. Portland State
8. Northern Colorado
9. Idaho State
Offensive Player of the Year:
DeNarius McGhee, QB, Montana State, So.
Defensive Player of the Year:
Renard Williams, DT, Eastern Washington, Sr.
Biggest Shoes to Fill:
LB J.C. Sherritt, Eastern Washington