After the last two national champions hailed from the West in North Dakota State a year ago and Eastern Washington in 2010, other Western schools could be knocking on the playoff door in 2012.
By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
College Sporting News
Wow, it is hard to believe the summer is coming to end. It seems like yesterday I was in Frisco watching North Dakota State win its first national championship at the Division I level.
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, we saw a little movement and there is a little shakeup in the West’s overall lineup.
But that does not mean there wasn’t some movement except for the expected departures of Texas State and Texas-San Antonio moving on to the Western Athletic Conference.
The WAC will be in its last year of existence and two teams will go to the Sun Belt and Conference USA respectively in 2013.
There is speculation that two FBS teams may fall back to the FCS level from the WAC in Idaho and New Mexico State but both are trying to stay at the top level of Division I for now.
Cal Poly, UC Davis, North Dakota, and Southern Utah will join the Big Sky this fall and South Dakota will join the Missouri Valley. That means the Great West Conference is no longer in existence for football.
After finally seeing a West team win the title in 2010, NDSU made it two years in a row for a team from west of the Mississippi River last year. I am personally hungry to see another West team win the championship.
Frisco, Texas will again be the host of the championship this year for a third time and will again technically be next year with the game slated for the first Saturday in January. Last year was the first time the Division I title game was played in the next calendar year.
Last year, both titlists were from the West with Sam Houston State falling to NDSU in the title game.
This year, my definition of "West" will be the Big Sky and Missouri Valley Football Conferences, along with the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, and the Southland Conference.
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 West schools.
For a more detailed review of each of my conferences, you can see more details in 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 Montana and Montana State, along with Eastern Washington, should again be the top two teams within the now 13-team league.
Montana had a tumultuous offseason in losing both their head coach and athletic director, but the Griz have always seemed to overcome issues like this in the past so I expect them to be back in the fold.
Montana State and Eastern Washington seem like the top two teams to me coming into the season, however.
I could see the newcomers doing some damage as well with North Dakota, Southern Utah, and Cal Poly being the most likely.
The Missouri Valley Football Conference also had co-champions last year in NDSU and Northern Iowa. I think those two teams will again battle it out with Illinois State and Youngstown State also being in the mix.
Indiana State also could be a fifth team as the Sycamores have made almost a complete turnaround.
Having ten teams now might lead to a third team getting into the playoffs this year as the MVFC will not play a complete round robin schedule for the first time with one school not on each school’s schedule.
The Southland Conference looks to me like it is Sam Houston State’s to win.
I see Stephen F. Austin and McNeese State; along with 2011 playoff participant Central Arkansas as the teams that I think will challenge the Bearkats the most.
In the Pioneer Football League, last year's co-champions of Drake and San Diego look to be the cream of this conference again, but will see opposition from Dayton and Jacksonville.
This will be the last year that the PFL will not have a playoff team as the league will get an automatic bid next year when the playoff goes from 20 teams to 24 teams.
Who are the players in the West to watch in 2012?
The West has some of the most talented athletes on both the offensive and defensive sides.
Here are my picks for each:
Offensive Players (in alphabetical order, 2011 stats):
Zach Bauman, RB, Northern Arizona, Jr. (1,435 rushing yards, 15 TD)
Shakir Bell, RB, Indiana State, Jr. (1,670 rushing yards, 14 TD)
Jamaine Cook, RB, Youngstown State, Sr. (1,386 rushing yards, 14 TD)
Tim Flanders, RB, Sam Houston State, Jr. (1,644 rushing yards, 24 TD)
Kurt Hess, QB, Youngstown State, Jr. (2,460 passing yards, 26 TD)
Brock Jensen, QB, North Dakota State, Jr. (2,524 passing yards, 14 TD)
Brandon Kaufman, WR, Eastern Washington, Sr. (29 recept, 373 yards, 1 TD—injured after 4 games)
DeNarius McGhee, QB, Montana State, Jr. (2,799 passing yards, 24 TD)
Cordell Roberson, WR, Stephen F. Austin, Sr. (63 recept., 793 yards, 9 TD)
Rodrick Rumble, WR, Idaho State, Sr. (112 recept., 1,348 yards, 9 TD)
Richard Sincere, WR, Sam Houston State, Jr. (26 recept., 485 yards, 4 TD & 979 rushing yards, 9 TD)
Brad Sorensen, QB, Southern Utah, Sr. (3,143 passing yards, 17 TD)
Defensive Players (2011 stats)
Malcolm Bronson, FS, McNeese State, Sr. (90 tackles, 3 INT)
Clarence Bumpas, LB, Northern Colorado, Jr. (145 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 1 sack)
Willie Jefferson, DE, Stephen F. Austin, Sr. (29 tackles, 15 sacks, 2 INT)
Zach Minter, DT, Montana State, Sr. (52 tackles, 10 TFL, 7.5 sacks)
Ben Obaseki, DE, Indiana State, Sr. (69 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks)
Blake Olario, DE, San Diego, Jr. (57 tackles, 19.5 TFL, 15 sacks)
Derek Rose, LB, Northwestern State, Sr. (91 tackles, 10 TFL, 2 INT)
Tyler Starr, LB, South Dakota, Jr. (51 tackles, 19 TFL, 14 sacks)
Darnell Tayler, S, Sam Houston State, Sr. (128 tackles, 10 TFL, 3 sacks)
Marcus Williams, CB, North Dakota State, Jr. (53 tackles, 7 INT, 4 TD)
What teams might be better than anticipated coming into the season?
In the Big Sky, Sacramento State is a team that I think could surprise some teams after they defeated Montana and had a FBS win over Oregon State last year.
If the Coyotes are more consistent, I think USD will be able to have a winning record in its first year after moving to the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The team in the MVFC that should surprise after two down seasons is one from last year in Southern Illinois.
A very young team was very competitive in most games in 2011 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 Southland, Northwestern State will be a team that will challenge for at least a playoff spot.
The Demons have improved dramatically in the past two seasons prior to last year when they reached a plateau but believe they have the talent to go further.
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 West teams amongst the final 20 teams playing this fall.
From the Big Sky, Montana, Eastern Washington, and Montana State will be the first four team group to make the postseason from this conference.
In the Missouri Valley Football Conference, three teams, Northern Iowa, North Dakota State, and Youngstown State are likely to make the postseason party.
In the Southland, I like Sam Houston State to make it as the league winner and believe rival Stephen F. Austin will join them into the postseason party.
I feel San Diego will repeat as champions in the PFL and will finally get a chance to compete in the postseason a year early.
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 each week on our 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.
Southern Illinois at Eastern Illinois
, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., (all times Eastern)
This should be a good out-of-conference matchup between the MVFC’s Salukis and the Ohio Valley’s Panthers.
Both teams are coming off of sub-.500 seasons in 2011 after both were previously playoff hopefuls in prior seasons.
It should be a rather warm evening on the eastern side of Illinois this Thursday night and I like the Southern Illinois running game to take over the game.
I like the Redbirds by a touchdown. Southern Illinois 27 Eastern Illinois 20.
San Diego at Cal Poly
, Saturday, Sept. 1, 7:05 p.m.
This is another in-state match-up. This battle of California should tell us a little about both teams. USD is coming off the Pioneer League title and Cal Poly is hopeful in their new conference of the Big Sky.
This game will likely tell us if San Diego can be considered as an at-large playoff team should the Toreros win the PFL.
I think this might be a little too much to ask for USD to beat the Mustangs in San Luis Obispo but think they will keep it close.
I will take the Mustangs by ten. Cal Poly 31 San Diego 21.