By Kent Schmidt
College Sporting News
It was good while it lasted. That is what we can say about the Great West Conference, at least for football.
We will get to enjoy one more season of this conference before it dissolves with four of its current members moving to the Big Sky and one moving to the Missouri Valley Football Conference next season.
This league started out in 2003 as a group of western half of the country independents and DII move-ups that gained notoriety almost immediately since its inception.
The league started as a seven-team league with three western independents and four new DII to DI move-ups.
Of the original seven, Saint Mary's of California dropped football before a GWC game was ever played.
Northern Colorado left for the Big Sky after the 2006 season.
North Dakota State and South Dakota State left for the Missouri Valley after the 2007 season.
UC Davis was the other move-up team and is a current member, along with already DI at the time Cal Poly and Southern Utah.
North Dakota and South Dakota moved up a little later to take the place of NDSU and SDSU with the 2008 season to have the current five members.
Next year, UC Davis, Cal Poly, Southern Utah, and North Dakota will move to what will be a 13-member Big Sky Conference with SUU and UND as full members and UC Davis and Cal Poly as member for football only.
South Dakota will be a member of a ten-team Missouri Valley Football Conference and will be in the Summit League for all other sports.
This year, Cal Poly and Southern Utah will likely be the top teams battling for this last GWC crown.
A year ago, SUU won its first-ever football conference crown and Cal Poly finished in second.
The other three teams will likely also have improved teams so it would not be too surprising if one of them challenge for the title either in what always seemed like an even conference race within the GWC and this final year should be no different.
Cal Poly has won the most GWC titles (3) of all time and hope to put one last title before moving to the Big Sky next year.
The Mustangs finished 7-4 overall and 2-2 within league play.
From that team, Cal Poly returns 18 total starters that started a least a game a season ago and hopes to finish at least one win better to get to the postseason for the third time in its FCS history.
Coach Tim Walsh, in his third season in San Luis Obispo, welcomes back six full-time starters on offense and eight on defense.
Among those are junior Andre Broadous, who started four games at quarterback last fall. He completed 41 of 64 passes (64.1%) for 510 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing 87 times for 305 yards and three more scores running the Mustang triple option attack.
Broadous will be joined in the backfield by two senior running backs in Mark Rodgers and Jake Romanelli.
Rodgers rushed for 882 yards and eight touchdowns in 2010 while also catching 20 passes for 208 yards and three more scores en route to first-team All-GWC.
Romanelli accumulated 459 yards on 102 rushes, scoring eight touchdowns, en route to second-team All-GWC honors.
The Mustang offensive line will be anchored by Scott Winnewisser, who has started every game the last two years on Cal Poly's offensive front, but likely will move from tackle to a guard for his senior season.
The Mustang wide receiver group will need to replace All-GWC Dominique Johnson. Hoping to replace his production is Jarred Houston, who was a slotback a year ago, but returns to the wide receiver position for his senior season after playing that position up to his sophomore season.
Headlining the list of returning defensive starters are senior cornerback Asa Jackson
and end Gavin Cooper, both first-team All-GWC selections a year ago and preseason All-Americans this year.
Jackson, a Buck Buchanan Award candidate, recorded 55 tackles, intercepted a pair of passes and broke up nine other passes.
Cooper notched 39 tackles and led the team in tackles for loss e (10) and sacks (6).
The other six returning starters on defense are linebackers Kenny Jackson and Johnny Millard, ends Kyle Murphy, Matt Singletary and Brandon Roberts, and safety Greg Francis. Cornerbacks Bijon Samoodi and Nico Molino also started several games last season.
Last year's GWC champion was Southern Utah and look to make it two title years in a row before moving to the Big Sky Conference in 2012.
The Thunderbirds growth under Coach Ed Lamb, who took over a winless team in 2008 and has steadily increased the win total in his tenor.
Last year resulted in an undefeated GWC mark at 4-0 but SUU finished just 6-5 overall, with the losses including two FBS opponents (Wyoming and San Jose State) and national champion Eastern Washington.
Of the five losses, however, four were by eight points or less.
This year's team will play an entire DI slat and will see just one FBS opponent in Nevada-Las Vegas and one future FBS team in Texas-San Antonio to go with two Missouri Valley teams in Northern Iowa and South Dakota State and three future Big Sky foes in Sacramento State, Weber State, and Northern Arizona.
SUU returns 16 starters overall in its attempt to repeat and possibly get an FCS playoff spot for the first time.
Of the 16 total returning starters back, nine of those on the offensive side.
The Thunderbirds will need to replace All-American wide outs Tysson Poots and hFesi Sitake, but return All-GWC quarterback junior quarterback Brad Sorensen to lead the team.
Sorenson, a preseason All-American, recorded SUU's single-game and single season records last year, as he completed 261-of-390 attempts for a school-record 3,163 passing yards and 21 touchdowns.
His 261 completions were the second-most in school history, his 390 attempts were third most and the 21 scoring strikes are tied as the third-most in a season at SUU.
While replacing the production of two All-Americans at wide receiver will difficult, senior Jared Ursua and junior Justin Brown, along with a handful of newcomers in junior Michael Clore (Mesa (AZ) CC), sophomore Fatu Maola (FBS Utah) and junior Matt Putnam (Snow (UT) JC) will try to step into those roles.
While the wide out spots are questionable, there are few other question marks on the remainder of the offense with first-team all-conference performers Austin Minefee at running back, and linemen Gavin Farr, Trevor Schauerhamer and Zach Brackus all back.
Farr was named Offensive Lineman of the Year in the conference last year.
Minefee led the team in rushing with 764 yards and five touchdowns and finished third on the team in receptions with 27, for 257 yards.
Offensive tackle Brandon Beddes also returns after earning second-team honors, while lineman Brock Christensen and tight end Abbel Aiono were honorable mention selections last year.
On the defensive side of the ball, 2010 leading tackler (97) Blake Fenn, a second-team all-conference linebacker, returns, along with consensus first-teamers defensive end Tyler Osborne (team high 18.5 TFL, 7 sacks and a preseason All-American) and safety Erron Vonner (60 tackles, team high 7 pass breakups.
Defensive tackle Cody Larsen (6.5 TFL, 4 sacks), and cornerback Dion Turner (54 tackles, 2.5 TFL) are also back after being named to All-GWC teams as well.
On special teams, sophomore kicker Brock Miller returns after taking over the job midway through last season and earned an honorable mention all-GWC after converting on 12-of-17 field goal attempts.
UC Davis is a team that hopes to improve back to its 2009 GWC championship form after finishing 6-5 overall and placing second in the GWC at 3-1.
UC Davis highlighted their season by defeating FBS in-state rival San Jose State 14-13, along with fellow FCS rivals Cal Poly and Sacramento State.
The Aggies return eight starters on each side of the ball this year but will face a daunting schedule with two FBS teams in Arizona State and Hawaiíi and Big Sky champion Montana State and Causeway Classic rival Sacramento State, along with soon-to-be FBS Texas-San Antonio and in-state rival San Diego and one-time DII rival Humboldt State.
The Aggies offense will be headed by sophomore quarterback Randy Wright, who was named the GWC Rookie of the Year last season after throwing for 2,432 yards and 17 touchdowns with only eight interceptions.
Junior center Ray Wilburn and senior tackle Robert Ayotte will be the anchors of the offensive line.
Junior wide out Anthony Soto is the leading returning after grabbing 29 balls for 344 yards and two touchdowns. He was the third leading receiver a year ago behind the now departed Sean Creadick and tight end Dean Rogers.
The Aggie running game was by committee a year ago and the three leading rushers are back this season in junior Nick Aprile (389 yards, 6 TD) and seniors Josh Rees (329 yards, 2 TD) and Corbin Cutshaw (210 yards, 1 TD).
The Aggie defense hopes to improve on their points allowed mark after giving up over 26 points per game.
The linebacker group is highlighted by senior Jordan Glass and the secondary will be led by junior cornerback Jonathan Perkins.
Glass is the leading returning tackler on the team after recording 66 tackles a year ago. Perkins had two interceptions to go with his 39 tackles.
The Aggie defense upfront will be headed by junior tackles Andrew Benjamin (32 tackles, 3.5 TFL) and Brock Galvin (39 tackles, 1 TFL).
The Aggies will arguably have the best place kicker in the conference back in senior Sean Kelley, who was named to the first team All-GWC squad after converting on 13-of-17 field goal attempts.
Junior punter Colton Schmidt is another special teams weapon after he averaged just short of 39 yards per punt and placed 18 inside the opponents 20 yard line a year ago.
South Dakota was the second Great West team to pull off a FBS upset last year as the Coyotes knocked off the Big Ten's Minnesota.
The Coyotes, however, finished the season just 4-7 overall with just one win within conference play.
The Coyotes will be the only GWC team to not join the Big Sky next season and instead will join the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
This year's team will return 13 members of the All-GWC team, including four that were on the first team in the hopes to improve on the four win total.
The USD defense will be the most experienced with 10 of the 11 starters back this fall.
Senior Adam Broders should lead the team as he was an all-around threat in 2010 with 75 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and an interception from his linebacker spot.
Senior safety Shane Potter finished the 2010 campaign with 76 tackles, and will be joined by fellow senior cornerback Marquis Butler in the secondary after 48 tackles and one interception a year ago.
Senior defensive lineman Jesse Weisbrod had a team-high three sacks, while senior linebacker Shea Williams posted a team-high 89 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss to be other key returning performers this year.
On offense, the Coyotes will be headed by senior quarterback Dante Warren and is a threat with arm and with his feet.
He totaled 2,530 yards of total offense a year ago and was the biggest reason the Coyotes pulled off the upset of Minnesota where he totaled 433 yards of total offense and five touchdowns.
In total, Warren threw for 18 scores and ran for another six and threw just six interceptions.
He will be helped by senior running back Chris Ganious, who was the Coyotes leading ground gainer with 817 yards and four scores and added 156 more yards catching the ball and two more touchdowns.
Warren's top receiving target from a year ago in junior Will Powell will also be back.
The Coyotes offensive line will also be a strength with four All-GWC honorees back this fall including senior tackles Tom Compton and RJ Polley, senior guard Brent Johnson, and junior center Tim Ross.
The special teams for the Coyotes will be highlighted by one of the country's top punters in GWC Special Teams player of Year junior Cole Zwiefelhofer, who averaged 43.2 yards per punt.
That ranked sixth in the nation, with 18 kicks inside the opponentsí 20-yard line and a long of 60 yards.
Normally, North Dakota would not be selected last in any preseason rankings and could very well finish out of the cellar this year but this is where they placed last year and the Fighting Sioux lost a number of key members from that team.
This year's team lost 10 starters including All-GWC members quarterback Jake Landry, safety Joel Schwenzfeier, defensive tackle Ty Boyle, and linebackers Ross Cochran and Ryan Kasowski.
UND finished 2010 just 3-8 and were winless in GWC play and this year will play three sub-DI teams (Black Hills (SD) State, Sioux Falls (SD), and Montana Western) to go with two FBS opponents (Idaho and Fresno State). The Fighting Sioux will also play the Pioneer League's Drake and future Big Sky foe Northern Colorado in the hopes to eclipse the three-win mark this season.
The Sioux offense will be the more experienced side of the ball this fall with seven starters back but as mentioned will be looking for a new signal caller this fall.
There are four in the mix for the spot with senior Brent Goska, junior Marcus Hendrickson, junior college transfer Joey Bradley, and redshirt freshman Chris Comes all vying for the spot.
The UND running back spot will also see someone new with the dismissal of All-GWC Josh Murray, which might go to junior Mitch Sutton.
The wide receiver spot should be headed by All-GWC sophomore Greg Hardin. He led the Sioux in receptions (41), receiving yards (736), touchdown receptions (nine) and total touchdowns (10) a season ago.
The offensive line will be another area of inexperience with three All-GWC members gone but seniors in tackle Brandon Quesenberry and guard Connon McKendry will look to be the leaders this year.
The Sioux defense returns just six starters but might have the more playmakers back on this side of the ball headed by All-GWC members in senior safety Dominique Hawkins, senior linebacker Dan Hendrickson, and junior end Ross Brenneman.
Hawkins was fourth on the team with 52 tackles (46 unassisted), three breakups, and a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Hendrickson led the Sioux in tackles (78) and solo tackles (54), tied for the team lead with eight tackles-for-loss and tied for second with 3.5 sacks.
Brenneman led the team with four sacks to go with 35 tackles.
The Sioux kicking game also was a highlight in 2010 with both place kicker sophomore Zeb Miller and junior punter Brett Cameron being named to the All-GWC squads. Miller made nine of his 15 field goal attempts and Cameron averaged over 39 yards per punt.
Great West Games of the Week
Southern Utah @ South Dakota State, Sept. 3
The Thunderbirds open up at former GWC member Jackrabbits. Will they get off to a good start on the road?
Cal Poly @, Montana Sept. 10
The Mustangs defeated the Grizzlies a year ago in San Luis Obispo. Can they make it two years in a row but this time in Missoula?
San Diego @ UC Davis, Sept. 17
Two non-conference California schools face off in Davis. Will the Aggies win again like they did in San Diego last year?
Cal Poly @ Northern Illinois, Sept. 24
This is the Mustangs second FBS foe. Will they pull off an upset here or against San Diego State on Sept. 3?
North Dakota @ Southern Utah, Oct. 1
This is the first of the GWC conference matchups. Will the Sioux pull off the upset in Cedar City?
Southern Utah @ South Dakota, Oct. 8
SUU handed the Coyotes a loss last year in Cedar City. Will the T-Birds be able to do it again but this time in Vermillion?
Southern Utah @ Cal Poly, Oct. 15
SUU defeated the Mustangs in Cedar City last year so can they do it again at road?
UC Davis @ South Dakota, Oct. 22
The winner of this contest likely will still be in the running for the conference title. Who will come out on top in this one?
UC Davis @ Southern Utah, Oct. 29
This is the last conference game of the year for the T-birds. Will they be celebrating another conference title after this game?
Cal Poly @ UC Davis, Nov. 5
The Battle for the Golden Horseshoe is in Davis this year. Will the winner still be in the conference race or still be vying for a FCS playoff spot?
North Dakota @ UC Davis, Nov. 13
Can the Aggies hand another loss like they did to the Sioux in this contest?
UC Davis @ Sacramento State, Nov. 20
This one is for the Causeway Carriage in the Causeway Classic, in Sacramento this year.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Cal Poly
2. Southern Utah
3. UC Davis
4. South Dakota
5. North Dakota
Offensive Player of the Year:
Brad Sorensen, Southern Utah, QB, Jr.
Defensive Player of the Year:
Asa Jackson, Cal Poly, CB, Sr.
Biggest Shoes to Fill:
WR Tysson Poots, Southern Utah
Cal Poly Mustangs
Location: San Luis Obispo, CA
Stadium: Alex G. Spanos Stadium (11,075 Capacity)
Head Coach: Tim Walsh (11-11, CP & 128-93 overall) 3rd Season
Who's Gone: WR Dominique Johnson, OG Will Mitchell, OC Hal Kelley, DT James Chen, LB Marty Mohamed.
Who's Back: FB Jake Romanelli, OT Art Munoz, OG Scott Winnewisser, SB Mark Rodgers, LB Gavin Cooper, LB Kenny Jackson, CB Asa Jackson, QB Andre Broadous, DE Kyle Murphy.
Historical Fact: Cal Poly won the Division II national title in 1980 by defeating Eastern Illinois 10-3. The Mustangs also beat I-AA champion Boise State that year.
Last Season: The Mustangs finished 7-4 overall but just 2-2 within the league.
This Season: Cal Poly hopes to win another game to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
North Dakota Fighting Sioux
Location: Grand Forks, ND
Stadium: Alerus Center (12,748 Capacity)
Head Coach: Chris Mussman (12-9, UND & Overall) 4th Season
Who's Gone: DB Kris Ankenbauer, DL Ty Boyle, LB Ross Cochran, RB, Jarrel Davis, WR Ryan Dressler, LB Curtis DuBlanko, LB Paul German, LB Ryan Kasowski, QB Jake Landry, TE Nick Long, OL Keith Queoff , OL Creighton Schroyer, DB Joel Schwenzfeier.
Who's Back: WR Chris Anderson, WR Greg Hardin, OL Joe Kleason, OL Ian McGurran, OL Emmett Lynch, RB Catlin Solum, TE Seth Wisthoff, DL Broc Bellmore, DL Ross Brenneman, DB Dominique Hawkins,LB Dan Hendrickson, DB Chavon Mackey.
Historical Fact: UND made the DII playoffs 14 times and have one national title and another championship game appearance in their football history.
Last Season: The Sioux, in their third season as a DI team, finished 3-8 overall and winless in GWC contests.
This Season: This year's team hopes to improve on the win total in their last transitional season before becoming a full DI member.
South Dakota Coyotes
Location: Vermillion, SD
Stadium: DakotaDome (10,000 Capacity)
Head Coach: Ed Meierkort (44-23, USD & 99-78 Overall) 8th Season
Who's Gone: TE London Landry, TE Mitch Mohr.
Who's Back: OT Tom Compton, QB Dante Warren, WR Will Powell, RB Chris Ganious LB Adam Broders, P Cole Zwiefelhofer, K Kevin Robb, S Shane Potter, CB Marquis Butler, DL Jesse Weisbrod, LB Shea Williams, OL Brent Johnson, OC Tim Ross.
Historical Fact: The Coyotes have made the playoffs three times, including a championship game appearance in 1986 as a Division II member.
Last Season: USD finished just 4-7 but posted a big 41-38 win over Big Ten foe Minnesota in Week 2.
This Season: The Coyotes hope to continue to make strides and improve on the four win total.
Southern Utah Thunderbirds
Location: Cedar City, UT
Stadium: Eccles Coliseum (8,500 Capacity)
Head Coach: Ed Lamb (15-18, SUU & Overall) 4th Season
Who's Gone: WR Tysson Poots, WR/KR Fesi Sitake, LB Akeem Anifowoshe, DE Trent Barney, LB Troy Bunting, S Matt Holley.
Who's Back: TE Abbel Aiono, OL Brandon Beddes, OL Zach Brackus, OL Brock Christensen, OL Gavin Farr, RB Austin Minefee, OL Russell Peterson, OL Trevor Schauerhamer, QB Brad Sorensen.
Historical Fact: Last year's GWC crown was the Thunderbirds first ever outright conference title at any level SUU has played at.
Last Season: While SUU won the GWC crown with a 4-0 league mark, they finished just 6-5 overall.
This Season: Lamb hopes to continue his team's success and take a step further this year.
UC Davis Aggies
Location: Davis, CA
Stadium: Aggie Stadium (10,849 Capacity)
Head Coach: Bob Biggs (136-71-1, UCD & Overall), 19th Season
Who's Gone: WR Sean Creadick, TE Dean Rogers, OL Mark Tos, DL Eric Sobotka, LB Dozie Amajoyi.
Who's Back: QB Randy Wright, OC Ray Wilburn, K Sean Kelley, OL Robert Ayotte, DB Jon Perkins, P Colton Schmidt, DT Andrew Benjamin, LB Byron Gruendl.
Historical Fact: The Aggies were a DII power, playing in the national title game in 1981, a loss to then Southwest Texas State. UC Davis moved to the DI ranks in 2002 but still holds the DII record of 18 playoff appearances.
Last Season: The Aggies finished above the .500 mark (6-5) for the second year in a row. Prior to the losing season in 2007, the Aggies had 37 straight winning seasons.
This Season: UC Davis hopes for at least one more win more than in 2010 to get consideration for the FCS postseason for the first time in their short DI history.