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Big Sky Conference Media Day 2022: What We Learned

Will Sac State win another conference title? Can Montana State repeat their run? Will Weber State turn things around?

2022 NCAA Division I Football Championship Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Big Sky Conference had a tremendous year in 2021. The league sent a record five teams to the postseason, saw one of its programs appear in the national championship and was home to the Walter Payton Award winner. It’ll be hard to top all that but, at the same time, the conference didn’t exactly get weaker since then.

In a modern college football world where re-alignment seems to be affecting everyone, the Big Sky came through relatively unscathed losing only Southern Utah. With 12 teams still in the fray, the league again looks to be one of the FCS’ best in 2022.

Northern Arizona Plans to Build Quiet Success

Head coach Chris Ball stressed the importance of his team being able to handle “the adversity of success” while reminiscing about NAU’s improbable victory over FBS Arizona last fall. It’s a trait he hopes his Lumberjacks can carry into this season as fall camp approaches.

“We’re walking around campus and people are telling you how good you’re doing, how great you’re playing,” said Ball. “We’ve got to remember how we got there and continue to build on that.”

Northern Arizona will be looking to improve on their 5-6 season from a year ago. The team had two players, safety Morgan Vest and offensive lineman Jonas Leader, selected to the Preseason All-Conference team.

NAU will open their 2022 campaign at Arizona State on September 1.

Weber State Seeks Improvement from ‘21

By several standards, the Wildcats’ 2021 season was a letdown compared to where the program has been in recent years. Weber State still had a winning record at 6-5 and beat a playoff team in Eastern Washington. Head coach Jay Hill, however, knows there’s still room for improvement.

“Prior to last season we had won 27 of 30 games at home, so we were a great home team,” Hill pointed out. “We’ve got to get back to those ways … we’ve got to get back to that.”

Weber State lost four of its five games in Ogden last year, enough to keep them out of the postseason. This season the Wildcats are picked to finish fourth in the Big Sky in both the polls and have one player, offensive tackle Noah Atagi, on the Preseason All-Big Sky squad.

Weber State will kick off the 2022 season by hosting Western Oregon on September 1.

UNC Sees Stability in Experience

Northern Colorado was a relatively young team this time a year ago and fresh off a pandemic altered season, the Bears struggled to find any real success last fall. With a full year of experience now, members of UNC’s team have hopes for a much more solid season ahead.

“There was a lot of guys on our team in my position last year, that got in late and didn’t have a full year,” Bears quarterback Dylan McCaffrey stated. “And I think that this entire year, having a winter cycle, having a summer cycle and a whole spring ball has been so good for us … it’s helped everyone align their vision.”

McCaffery was one of several Northern Colorado players who did not have a full season under his belt until this year. The Bears went 3-8 in 2021 while winning only two games in conference play. Head coach Ed McCaffrey, too, now has a full season in his pocket as he enters his second year.

UNC will start their season against Houston Baptist on September 3.

Gilliam Looks to Pace UC Davis Back to Playoffs

Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. was selected as the Big Sky’s preseason Offensive MVP.
Photo by Kara Hoffman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Aggies look to again be a force to be reckoned with this season and they’ll have the tools to stay relevant in a crowded league. UC Davis boasts the Big Sky Preseason Offensive MVP in running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr and head coach Dan Hawkins had high praise for both Gilliam and his offense as a whole.

"With a lot of our guys, the physical portion you see, but you don't see the work ethic, the toughness, the humility... he (Gilliam) is a hard worker. He's a tough guy. I was happy he got the award."

Gilliam is well deserving of the preseason accolades after rushing for 901 yards and six touchdowns last fall. In 2021, he helped UC Davis reach the playoffs with an 8-4 record and this time around he is expected by many to be the main catalyst of the offense.

The Aggies will kick off their season against Cal on September 3.

Sacramento State Has Eyes on Third Conference Crown

Last year’s Big Sky champs have no plans of relinquishing their title in 2022 and two-time conference Coach of the Year Troy Taylor was quick to point out that winning a third league championship will be no easy task.

“It’s a challenge,” Taylor admitted. “This conference is very deep. It’s got great coaching, great players … it’ll be a challenge.”

Sac State was not picked in either poll to win the conference this year but they have as good a shot as any. The Hornets did not lose a game in Big Sky play last year, going a perfect 8-0 including several key victories over teams like Montana and UC Davis.

With returning stars like dual-threat QB Asher O’Hara and tight end Marshel Martin, Sac State has an offense able to compete. Those two, along with kicker Kyle Sentkowski, guard Brandon Weldon and receiver Pierre Williams were all named to the Preseason All-Conference Team.

The Hornets begin their run on September 3 against Utah Tech (formerly Dixie State).

Montana Ready to Prove No. 1 Ranking

Both the coaches and the media think very highly of the Grizzlies this summer. UM was picked in both polls to win the conference this fall and the Griz are ready to face those lofty expectations head on. They aren't getting ahead of themselves, though.

"We've got to be where our feet are at," said senior CB Justin Ford "Which right now is before fall camp."

“We feel good about our team and it’s nice to see that other people do too,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck added. “It’s a series of one-week endeavors throughout the season … we’ve got to continue to work through August and get our team ready to go.”

Montana is a hot pick by several to contend for a national championship thanks in large part to returning studs on the defensive side like Ford and Preseason Big Sky Defensive MVP Patrick O’Connell.

UM finished 2021 with a 10-3 record and a trip to the quarterfinals. The Grizzlies, though, have not won a conference title since 2009 but seem well on their way to ending that streak.

Montana will start its campaign at home against Northwestern State on September 3.

Montana State Hopeful for Fresh Faces After Run Last Year

The Bobcats will have a hard time topping last year after a run that took them all the way to Frisco. Montana State head coach Brent Vigen, however, is just coming into his second season and sees more success ahead in 2022 despite losing stars this offseason.

“We’re certainly proud of the things we accomplished in 2021,” Vigen said. “But we’ve got to move forward. I’m excited to see new playmakers emerge and some new faces and new names emerge as guys we can really count on this fall.”

MSU lost several key players from last year’s team including All-American linebacker Troy Andersen and defensive end Daniel Hardy. While the defense took a hit, the offense continues to look brighter. Tommy Mellott leads the charge this season and star running back Isaiah Ifanse is returning (both players were selected to the Preseason All-Conference squad).

Montana State will begin its season at home against McNeese State on September 3.

PSU Seeks Balance of Fun, Business

Portland State v Idaho State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Head coach Bruce Barnum is not one to shy away from having fun on and off the field, any Portland State fan or player knows that. He famously picked up a beer tab at PSU’s stadium to get people in the seats last year and brought in saloon doors to remind his staff that they play in the “wild west”. Barnum, though, understands the importance of being serious when need be also.

“We’re canceling some of it,” Barnum said of his team’s Americana tours; extended stays during road weekends to see what areas around the country have to offer. “I’m going to make sure there’s no distractions … just to make sure my football team’s in the best spot to win every Saturday.”

Portland State went 5-6 last fall and was an even 4-4 in Big Sky play. They will be returning one of the top DBs in the country in cornerback Anthony Adams as well as a top receiver in Beau Kelly.

The Vikings will kick off their 2022 campaign at San Jose State on September 1.

Ragle Excited to Begin HC Career with Bengals

After a 1-10 season in 2021, Idaho State made a change at head coach this offseason, announcing Charlie Ragle as the team's new head man. Ragle, the former special teams coach at Cal, is excited to get going with the Bengals.

"The opportunity to go out and to put together a program with the vision that I have [is exciting]," Ragle said. "It's here. It's time to go to work."

Ragle has coached from the high school level to the FBS level but will be making his head coaching debut this season and will look to bring Idaho State its first winning season since 2018.

The Bengals will begin their run this fall on September 3 at UNLV.

Eck Looks to Turn Idaho Around

The Vandals' transition back into the FCS hasn't gone as smoothly as fans in Moscow had hoped. Since rejoining the subdivision in 2018, Idaho has only won 15 games and failed to reach the postseason each year. This offseason, though, the program named Jason Eck as its new head coach and Eck sees brighter days ahead.

"I want to bring energy, I want to have a lot of positivity around our program,” said Eck. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work but you can certainly have fun while you’re doing it. I hope we can eventually be one of the powers in FCS football. Idaho was back in the 80s and 90s.”

The Vandals are coming off a 4-7 season but are retaining several key players including linebacker Fa’Avae Fa’Avae who landed on the Preseason All-Big Sky team.

Idaho will start its 2022 season at Washington State on September 3.

Cal Poly Hopes Foundational Work Pays Off

The Mustangs will be returning one of the more tenured teams in the Big Sky this fall with the most letter winners of any team coming back in 2022. Head coach Beau Baldwin, though, credits his team’s habits in the weight room this spring and summer more than anything.

“Your strength program is everything in the offseason,” Baldwin said. “The thing I notice the most is where we are strength wise ... if you’re talking about culture and makeup of your team, it’s built within those times in the weight room.”

Cal Poly only won two games in 2021 and is looking to improve on a season in which they went 1-7 in conference play.

The Mustangs open the upcoming season at Fresno State on September 2.

Eastern Washington Looks Ahead to Post-Barriere Era

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Eastern Washington at Washington
Eagles head coach Aaron Best is entering his sixth season with the program.
Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Eagles enter 2022 as perhaps the Big Sky’s biggest question mark. Losing Walter Payton Award winner Eric Barriere (who played for the USFL’s Michigan Panthers this past spring) is a big blow but EWU head coach Aaron Best feels as though he still has a good enough team to compete this fall.

"I think collectively we’re going to have to pick up the pieces,” said Best. “It’s going to be a heavy lift but it’s not going to be by one, it’s going to have to be by all. He (Barriere) will be sorely missed but [there’s] new opportunities for other people.”

Receiver Efton Chism III will likely play a large role on the Eagles offense. The question of who will be throwing him the football is still up in the air, however. Gunner Talkington, Trey Turner and Simon Burkett could all be in the mix.

As a whole, EWU will still boast a very talented team. Coming off a playoff trip in 2021, the Eagles hope to build upon their 10-3 season that saw them reach the second round last fall.

Eastern Washington will kick off their slate against Tennessee State at home on September 3.