Here are some of the highlights of my initial read on the league:
Bad Time to Go on Probation
Eastern Washington was a big disappointment last season to those like me who predicted the Eagles would challenge for the league championship, but they finished with a three-game win streak and a 6-5 record. They return former league MVP Matt Nichols at QB, and the wide receiver trio of Aaron Boyce, Brynsen Brown and Tony Davis, who combined for 166 catches, 2,229 yards and 17 touchdowns last year. Defensively, EWU welcomes back the Johnson twins, who combined for 179 tackles and four interceptions last season. Under normal circumstances, Eastern would probably be a strong pre-season playoff contender.
And they might still be, IF: if they can convince the NCAA to drop their post-season ban which was imposed as part of a three-year probation imposed for NCAA rules violations. The Eagles are appealing that ban.
Can the Wildcats Repeat?
Weber State returns quarterback Cameron Higgins, who thew for a Big Sky record 4,477 yards and 36 touchdowns last year for the conference co-champs, as well as WR Tim Toone (84 catches for 1,525 yards and 7 TDS), and Bengal scourge Trevyn Smith, who put up 2,363 all-purpose yards and scored 28 touchdowns. The Wildcats also have playmakers back on defense, including DE Kevin Linehan (10.5 sacks) and all-conference safety Beau Hadley.
Stars Who May Not Be Back
We told you last week that Northern Arizona RB Deonte Williams, the league Newcomer of the Year, has transferred out of the NAU program. Other stars with eligibility who won't, or may not play this year include Sac State RB Bryan Hilliard, a thousand-yard rusher for the Hornets who will sit out this year following shoulder surgery; and Mario D'Ambrosio, who caught 76 passes for 9 TDS for Portland State last year. D'Ambrosio is sitting out spring ball after suffering a major knee injury in the Vikings' last game of the 2008 season, and may not be available next season.Grizzly Standouts
Montana, who made it all the way to the FCS National Championship Game before losing to Richmond (not Furman, as an attentive reader notes) last year, returns their bell-cow, RB Chase Reynolds, and their big play guy, WR Marc Mariani. Reynolds ran for 1,583 yards and 22 touchdowns, while Mariani caught 69 passes for 1,308 yards and 15 touchdowns (and had a back-breaking punt return for a TD against Idaho State). The Griz will have to replace six starters on defense, but their five returning starters all got some kind of all-conference mention.
Stability at the Top
Every Big Sky school returns their head coach this fall. Montana's Bobby Hauck is the winningest coach among them, with an .867 winning percentage in conference games in his six seasons in Missoula. Jerome Souers is the longest-tenured of the league's head coaches, with 11 seasons under his belt at NAU. Only four league coaches have career winning records in conference play -- Hauck, Rob Ash at Montana State (9-7), EWU's Beau Baldwin (5-3) and Ron McBride of Weber (18-13).
Popular Nonconference Foes
As usual, Cal Poly and UC Davis are the most popular non-conference opponents for Big Sky teams. Cal Poly hosts Sac State and plays at Montana and Weber State. UC Davis hosts Montana, and plays at Sacramento State and Portland State.
Not surprisingly, Idaho State has the toughest non-conference slate, playing at Arizona State and Oklahoma back-to-back, after opening with Montana Western at home. Other tough non-conference schedules include NAU (at Arizona and Ole Miss), and Weber State (at Wyoming and Colorado State). The weakest non-league slate probably belongs to Montana, who has Western State and Cal Poly at home, in addition to the UC Davis road trip, although both Cal Poly and UC Davis are typically good FCS squads.
And Now for a Basketball Note
Ken Bone of Portland State is expected to be introduced today as Washington State's new head basketball coach. Bone becomes the second Big Sky hire by Wazzu AD Jim Sterk, who brought in Eastern Washington's Paul Wulff as his football coach last year. Here's hoping Bone's first season in Pullman is a little more enjoyable than Wulff's. The Cougars football team went 1-11 last fall, and then Eastern Washington went on probation for sins committed under Wulff's leadership.
So far, Bone's move to the PAC 10 is the only coaching change in either of the Big Sky's major sports this year -- football or basketball.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.