By Kent Schmidt
College Sporting News
The summer is coming to an end and the best time of year is nearly upon us — the start of the football season.
After another off-season that looked as if the shape of Division I conferences would see major changes including many that were rumored to affect FCS teams saw a little movement and there is a little shakeup in the Big Sky and the Missouri Valley Football Conference that grabbed the five teams from the Great West.
Cal Poly, UC Davis, North Dakota, and Southern Utah will join the Big Sky in 2012 and South Dakota will join the Missouri Valley next season.
Last year finally saw a West team win the national title in Eastern Washington so I am personally hungry to see another West team win the championship, with a western state of Texas hosting the game.
Frisco will again be the host of the championship this year or should we say next year on Jan. 7.
A "West" team, or I should say a Big Sky team has gone to the title game the past three seasons with Montana losing the prior two seasons to Richmond and Villanova of the Colonial Athletic Association before Eastern Washington edged Delaware 20-19 last season.
This year, my definition of "West" will be the Big Sky, Great West, and Missouri Valley Football Conferences, along with the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, and the Southland Conference, which used to be in the fold a few years ago.
We have seen a couple teams move to the independent ranks this year in Texas State and Texas-San Antonio.
In this column, I will give a brief overview how I feel the conference races will stack up and some key players to watch amongst the ëWestí schools.
For a more detailed review of each of my conferences, you can see my conference previews in the CSN Conference Preview Columns.
Who are the teams to beat in their respective West conferences?
In the Big Sky, last year's co-champions of Eastern Washington and Montana State should again be the top two teams within the conference.
I expect Montana will get back to its winning ways after missing the postseason for the first time after 17 straight playoff appearances.
Sacramento State will also be in the running this year to garner their first FCS playoff spot.
In the Great West, last year's winner of Southern Utah, as well as perennial power Cal Poly should be at the top of the standings.
UC Davis will likely also be in the final year of the conference race.
The Missouri Valley Football Conference had Northern Iowa win the title a year ago and should see the most competition for the title from North Dakota State.
Southern Illinois is another team that hopes to get back to the FCS playoffs after a year away.
A team from the playoffs last year in Western Illinois likely will come back to the middle of the pack.
The Southland Conference should be a highly contested league but McNeese State should come out on top this year.
The two time defending champion in Stephen F. Austin and upstart Northwestern State are the two teams that I think will challenge the Cowboys the most.
In the Pioneer Football League, last year's co-champions of Jacksonville and Dayton look to be the cream of this conference again, but will see opposition from Drake.
Who are the players in the West to watch?
The West has some of the most talented on both the offensive and defensive sides.
Here are my picks for both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball:
Offensive Players (in alphabetical order, 2010 stats):
Carlos Anderson, RB/RS, Northern Iowa, Jr. (27.2 yards per KOR, 2 TD, 974 rushing yards, 2 TD)
Jamaine Cook, RB, Youngstown State, Jr. (1276 rushing yards, 11 TD)
Brandon Kaufman, WR, Eastern Washington, Jr. (76 recept, 1,214 yards, 15 TD)
DeNarius McGhee, QB, Montana State, So. (3,163 passing yards, 23 TD, 6 INT)
Josh McGregor, QB, Jacksonville, Sr. (3,049 passing yards, 32 TD, 7 INT)
D.J. McNorton, RB, North Dakota State, Sr. (1,559 rushing yards, 433 receiving yards 19 TD)
Bo Levi Mitchell, QB, Eastern Washington, Sr. (3,496 yards, 37 TD, 15 INT)
Tirrell Rennie, QB, Northern Iowa, Sr. (1,291 rushing yards, 15 rushing TD, 1,526 passing yards, 8 TD, 11 INT)
Cordell Roberson, WR, Stephen F. Austin, Jr. (61 recept., 1,011 yards, 16 TD)
Brad Sorensen, QB, Southern Utah, Sr. (3,163 yards, 21 TD, 6 INT)
Simmie Yarborough, WR, Southeastern Louisiana, Sr. (60 recept, 709 yards, 9 TD)
Defensive Players (2010 stats)
Ben Boothby, DT, Northern Iowa, Sr. (56 tackles, 16 TFL, 9.5 sacks)
Coulter Boyer, DE, North Dakota State, Sr. (58 tackles, 13 TFL, 10 sacks)
Malcolm Bronson, FS, McNeese State, Jr. (58 tackles, 5 INT)
Gavin Cooper, DE, Cal Poly, Sr. (59 tackles, 10 TFL, 1 INT)
Asa Jackson, CB, Cal Poly, Sr. (55 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT)
Matt Johnson, S, Eastern Washington, Sr. (105 tackles, 5 INT)
Trumaine Johnson, CB, Montana, Sr. (44 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 4 INT)
Mario Kuhn, DE, San Diego, Sr. (66 tackles, 27 TFL, 17 sacks)
Desmond Lighten, DT, McNeese State, Sr. (65 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4 sacks)
Mike McElroy, SS, Southern Illinois, Sr (injured in 2010)
Zack Nash, DE, Sacramento State, Sr. (37 tackles, 16.5 TFL, 13 sacks)
Ben Obaseki, DE, Indiana State, Jr. (70 TT, 16 TFL, 9 sacks)
Derek Rose, LB, Northwestern State, Jr. (142 tackles, 12 TFL, 2 sacks)
A.J. Storms, LB, Idaho State, Sr. (146 tackles)
Renard Williams, DT, Eastern Washington, Sr. (54 tackles, 16 TFL, 6.5 sacks)
What teams might be better than anticipated coming into the season?
In the Big Sky, Sacramento State could be a team that makes the FCS playoffs this year.
In Coach Marshall Sperbeck fifth season, he had the Hornets playing better as they finished 6-5. A seven or eight win season might be possible for the Hornets in 2011.
In the Great West, South Dakota may have a chance to do better than expected.
The Coyotes defeated BCS Minnesota last year so they showed their potential but just did not show it consistently.
If the Coyotes are more consistent, I think USD will be able to have a winning record in its last transitional year before moving to the Missouri Valley Football Conference next year.
The team in the MVFC that should surprise after two down seasons is one from last year in Indiana State.
A very young team was very competitive in most games in 2010 but seemed to find ways to lose at the end.
ISU has a number of talented, returning players that saw much of their first action last year.
In the tough MVFC, however, a six or seven win total might be the best for the Sycamores this year.
In the Southland, Northwestern State will be a team that will challenge for the title or at least a playoff spot.
The Demons have improved dramatically in the past two seasons and I believe they will continue to rise.
In the Pioneer Football League, San Diego might be the team to surprise some folks.
The Toreros were just 5-6 last year, but return a number of key pieces in the hopes of returning to the top of the PFL standings like they were a few years ago.
I see USD finishing back with a winning record with at least six wins or could be seven this year.
Who will be the West's playoff teams?
I see the following will the West teams amongst the final 20 teams playing this fall.
From the Big Sky, Montana, Eastern Washington, Sacramento State, and Montana State will be the first four team group to make the postseason from this conference.
In the Great West, Cal Poly will give a playoff spot a ride but will likely finish a win short after playing two FBS teams and a DII team this year.
In the Missouri Valley Football Conference, three teams, Northern Iowa, North Dakota State, and Southern Illinois are likely to make the postseason party.
In the Southland, I like McNeese State to make it as the league winner and believe they probably will be the only team from this conference to make it.
I feel Jacksonville will repeat as champions in the PFL and will finally get a chance to compete in the postseason as I like the Dolphins' all-D-I schedule and believe they could finish 10-1.
That leaves nine of the 20 playoff teams coming from the West, but I am always 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.
Regardless, it is great to have football back. It should be fun all the way to Frisco in January.
CSN West Games of the Week
This week there are a number of FCS vs. FBS games but there are two interesting FCS inter-regional games this opening week that have grabbed my attention.
These two games appear to be the best two matchups with the outcomes as a toss-up amongst the West teams.
Illinois State at Eastern Illinois, Thursday, Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m., (all times Eastern)
This will be the 100th meeting between these two rivals so just in that, we should see a good matchup. I also will get a chance to see this game.
But for the first time, the two teams will play for a traveling trophy in the newly-renamed Mid-America Classic, with the winner taking home the new trophy that was unveiled this past summer.
It should be a rather warm evening on the eastern side of Illinois this Thursday night and I like the Illinois State running game to take the trophy home.
I feel the Redbirds by a touchdown. Illinois State 27 Eastern Illinois 20.
Southern Utah at South Dakota State, Saturday, Sept. 3, 7 p.m.
These two former Great West rivals met again for the first time since SDSU left the league in 2007.
The Thunderbirds are coming off a GWC title — their first title ever for football and finished 6-5 overall.
SDSU is coming off a 5-6 season and lost a number of components from that team.
I believe the Thunderbirds will be able to use their strong passing game in this game from Brad Sorensen and win this game.
I like SUU by a field goal. SUU 31 SDSU 28.