Friday, August 04, 2006

The Bottom Line -- 2006 Season Preview Part Two/Page 1

Columnist Chris Kelly provides an inside look on the upcoming Great West Football Conference season

Aug. 3, 2006

What are they saying? The last two years the GWFC roundtable helped out on a weekly basis by contributing some thoughts on each game of the week. The contributors all cover Great West teams and know these teams as well as anyone. They're back and will continue to offer their insights and perspective throughout the course of the season. First off they'll start with some overall thoughts on this season's Great West race.

Kent Schmidt, I-AA West Columnist, "Cal Poly and UC Davis appear to be the top two schools again this year as they have been the prior two seasons and the GWFC title may be decided when the two meet October 7th in San Luis Obispo. The two will have to fend off opposition from North Dakota State but I think Cal Poly will wind up winning the title this year and again making the post season."

Jeff Kolpack, North Dakota State beat writer, Fargo Forum: "It's been hot and sunny all summer in the Upper Midwest, so it's kind of tough to start thinking football. But here it goes. Cal Poly lost some key players from last year starting with Chris Gocong. But in watching all five teams last season, my gut feeling tells me the Mustangs had the best overall talent. I'm not going to pick against a team that has James Noble in the backfield. And I thought receiver Ramses Barden was the most talented receiver in the league.

Davis has Jon Grant back at quarterback, but I'm a little suspect of the Aggies' defense with graduations and defections. SDSU returns solid running backs in Watson and Koenig. Like Davis, I'm not convinced its defense is good enough to win a league title.

Southern Utah needed some work from last year and how are we to know how good the new players are. But the fact a team has to depend on new faces is not a promising sign for this year.

That brings me to the team in my backyard. The Bison have a few question marks: How healthy is Steve Walker's knee? With Cinque Chapman academically ineligible, can Kyle Steffes carry the load all season? Is there any depth on the defensive line? NDSU overall keeps getting better in I-AA football, but at the same time, its schedule keeps getting tougher. The Bison play two I-A games and are on the road six weeks in seven games in one stretch.

By the time the GWFC season rolls around, the Bison stand a good chance of being either too beat up or too road weary.

So, the picks: 1. Cal Poly 2. UC Davis 3. NDSU 4. SDSU 5. SUU

Michael Mirer, U.C. Davis beat writer, Davis Enterprise: "My favorite thing about Cal Poly is its predictability.

I know that the Mustangs will struggle to score points consistently, but win games with their defense. They'll play a classic game with UC Davis that will come down to the final possession. And they'll have a Buck Buchanan winner/finalist that will go on to sign a pro contract. You can write those in with pen every year.

Does that sound cynical? Fear not because there will be something new this season. This is the year we start to list Cal Poly among the perennial playoff favorites in I-AA. And that's great for the league, which, despite its size and cohort of transitional teams, is one of the best in I-AA.

In fact: the top three teams in the GWFC (Cal Poly, North Dakota State and UC Davis) are as good as any comparable list you could make from any other I-AA conference. I'm taking the Mustangs this year because everything lines up perfectly for them in those two key match-ups. UC Davis has a young front seven, which will struggle to stand up to the option for 60 minutes. NDSU has a brutal schedule and some uncertainty offensively, which isn't good news, given that the Bison haven't done much offensively against the Mustangs in two years.

But it should be fun.

GWFC Projections (Listed in projected order of finish)

1. CAL POLY - Cal Poly's most successful season at the I-AA level last season saw them capture a share of the Great West conference title, beat Montana in Missoula, win a second Buck Buchanan award, and advance into the quarterfinals of the national playoffs. Couple a young, athletic offense with the best defense of the Rich Ellerson era and it not only makes the Mustangs the team to beat in the Great West, but a national championship contender.

Defense - If there is one thing we've learned over the past few seasons it's that head coach Rich Ellerson knows defense. Every time the Mustangs appear to be in a situation where the defense will need to be rebuilt the Mustangs coach is able to reload without problems. I've talked about the complication of defending the Mustangs Double Eagle Flex defense, but Cal Poly's ability to plug in players who contribute immediately can't be understated either. The great news for Mustang fans is the defense doesn't need to be rebuilt in 2006 and stands to be better than any they've had over the past few years. This group has eight starters returning, a handful of all-American candidates, and a couple of guys who could win the Buchanan. Perhaps the one area of concern is along the line where the Mustangs lost both ends in Buchanan winner, Chris Gocong (23.5 sacks) and Matt Cachere (10.0 sacks). The foursome that will attempt to replace the losses at end are expected starters Adam Torosian (DE), and Carlton Gillespie (Quick end) along with backups Louis Sheppard and Ryan Shotwell. The starter jobs haven't been awarded yet and these battles will be hotly contested during fall camp. Still, the four have combined for 29 tackles at the college level. As untested as the ends are Chris White brings back a wealth of athletic ability coupled with great size at 6'3, 273. The senior defensive tackle, a first team Sports Network All-American, had 42 tackles along with 10.5 sacks last season. The final starter along the line is nose guard Sean Lawyer who notched seven tackles last season. While the line is the question mark heading into the season the rest of the defense is as solid as it gets. The secondary returns four starters, but not in the traditional sense. Randy Samuel, (54 tackles, 5 pd) a starting corner last season, moves over to strong safety this season to replace departed Aaron Williams. He's joined by free safety Kenny Chicoine, who has 15 career interceptions and is one of the best at his position nationally. The two starting corners are standout All-American Courtney Brown and Anthony Randolph. Brown, the Mustangs lock down corner with 4.5 speed returns this season after a strong '05 campaign which saw him nab seven picks and breakup 12 passes. He is considered by some to be one of the top two corners in I-AA and will probably play corner or free safety at the next level. Randolph (mentioned in Part I of the preview) moves over from his starting wide receiver position. Finally, the linebackers return virtually in tact. The loss of Tom Curiel doesn't hurt much when you have starters Kyle Shotwell (158, 13.5 for loss, 5 sacks) and Justin Peek (47 tackles, 6 fl, 2 sacks) returning as well as sophomore Mark Restelli. (83 tackles, 3 sacks) While Chris White is more of the lesser known potential Buchanan candidate, Shotwell is the big name most fans recognize from a huge season in 2005. The linebackers and secondary as a group could be the best in the nation, which should speak to their tremendous athletic ability. In fact, in Brown, Chicoine, Shotwell, and White you have players who are all among the top 5 at their position across the nation. This defense will get its accolades throughout the year, but the difference between a very, very good defense and a great, dominating defense rests in the play of the inexperience along the line.

Offense - The biggest difference in this years Mustang team should be the explosive capability of the offense. This group held its own last season but started a handful of freshman who return a year wiser. Now this group has aspirations of taking the program to the next level. In fact, Cal Poly is expected to start seven sophomores this season, all whom saw plenty of playing time a year ago so it's not a question of inexperience. One of those sophomores is James Noble, the key around which the offense is built. Last season Cal Poly averaged over 200 yards rushing per game (21st) the number will probably remain about the same this season if Noble has his say. The Mustangs are sure to feed their nearly 1600 yard back the ball at least the 18 carries he averaged last season. If he can repeat the successes of a year ago Noble is sure to find himself a Walter Payton candidate by year's end. To begin the season there's no doubt the opposition will game plan around stopping Noble and force quarterback Matt Brennan to beat them. Brennan came on last season when Anthony Garnett was injured during a game in Montana. After a brutal game at Davis, his football play was efficient enough to help his team win three key games which helped the Mustangs earn he school's first ever playoff birth. Brennan is a mobile quarterback with a big arm whose ability to run the option and improvise is a huge asset, but he must improve his passing this season. He finished under 50% completion rate throwing seven picks to just four touchdowns. Let's not forget, though, that Brennan was just a freshman last year forced into action. Expect that Brennan's comfort level has increased over the spring as well as his ability to lead this team. And feeling more comfortable surely goes hand in hand with the return of four starters along the offensive line, highlighted by (of course) sophomore center Stephen Field. Field stepped into a starting role as a freshman last season and hasn't looked back earning first team All-GWFC. He's already getting looks from pro scouts and could be a national All-American by years end, the kid is that good. Back are tackles Josh Mayfield and Dylan Roddick, as well as guard Julai Tuua. Another sophomore, Mike Porter, takes over at quick guard for Beau Finato. Cal Poly is known to generally have smaller offensive lines than their opponents which will be the case again in most instances this season. But the Mustangs prefer the smaller, quicker, more athletic lineman which has consistently been successful for them and their option. If fans enjoyed watching Noble last season, they should be very excited to watch the Mustangs sophomore receiving duo, Ramses Barden and Tredale Tolver. Barden led the team in receiving last season with 655 yards and nine touchdowns. His 6'6 220 frame and physical ability to go get the ball makes a difficult matchup for opposing cornerbacks. Barden, like Field, is also drawing some early interest from NFL scouts. He and Tolver (20 catches, 315 yards) will be the face of Cal Poly wide receivers for three years to come. Cal Poly is loaded offensively with dynamic talents at the skill positions along with a very good line. This group could be the ultimate compliment to a talented defense but it all rests on Matt Brennan's maturity as a quarterback.

Schedule - While the Mustangs schedule is loaded, it's probably as favorable as a team can get considering the difficult competition. Cal Poly opens with three games that should put them at 3-0. Then San Jose State, U.C. Davis, and South Dakota State are cushioned by a game with Southern Utah and a bye making the first eight weeks of the season pretty bearable. It's not until the stretch run that the Mustangs will see a monster test with three consecutive road games: San Diego State, Montana, and North Dakota State. A playoff birth could be hinging on the outcomes of all of those final three games.

Key Game - @ Montana, 11/4. Yes, the Davis game is important but this game is the benchmark against which all I-AA teams are measured. Last season when the Mustangs beat the Grizzlies for the first time in 11 tries it removed the monkey from the Mustangs back, and picked up the school's first ever playoff win in one swoop. Montana is I-AA football and any team aspiring to win a national championship has to go through the Griz. Cal Poly has those aspirations so they need to prove last year's result wasn't a fluke.

2. UC DAVIS - The Aggies had a Jekyll and Hyde season of sorts, losing games they should have won yet winning tough games against Cal Poly, at North Dakota State and Stanford. UCD was still able to preserve their winning streak, which now stands at 36 years. Another tough schedule awaits, but with almost the entire offense returning and key components of the defense also back, the Aggies are my pick to finish 2nd in the Great West.

Offense - Over the years the Aggies have been known for their offense and this year appears to be one of those years where this Aggie fans should be very excited about the prospects of a huge 2006 season. After all, the UC Davis returns nine starters on offense including their quarterback, top receiver, and running back. The quarterback, Jon Grant, is back for his senior season and his experience in the offense will be a huge benefit. He leads an offense that averaged nearly 270 yards passing a game last season, good enough for 17th nationally. Grant has shown signs of brilliance and an ability to win the big game over the course of his first two seasons at quarterback so expect those numbers to shoot even higher in 2006. That's especially true because Grant is surrounded by big talent, specifically his All-American wide receiver Tony Kays. Both Grant and Kays were profiled in part I of the preview and that will be the first of many, many times these two will be talked about together. Grant will look to his star receiver more often as Kays touchdowns numbers improve this season as the most experienced receiver on the team. While Kays is one of the top wide receivers in the nation, the receivers behind him are young. Brandon Rice started every game a season ago, but only managed 10 grabs with one score. He came in with big expectations and as only a sophomore this year it will be the year the Aggies need him to contribute more. Expect Rice to clear 40 catches this season as he could easily be the breakout player of the year this season with his ability. Other receivers Chris Miller, Chris Carter, and Kale Turner will all make contributions, with Carter grabbing the third starter spot. Carter could be one of the conference's big surprises in 2006. His combination of strength and speed should open up the vertical game for the Aggies, something that hasn't been available in a couple seasons. This starting receiving core could be as good as the Ags have had in a few years, which says something considering the positions history. Grant should have the time to throw the deep ball more often as well thanks to a line that returns all five starters. Across the line (left to right) Kyle Skierski, Jonathan Compas, Tim Keane, Greg Belasis, and Eliot Vallejo are all back in 2006. Sophomore Mario Gonzales, who filled in at guard when Compas went down with injury last season, provides experienced depth. The leader of the unit is Eliot Vallejo, who is making a lot of noise with scouts heading into the season. The UCLA transfer struggled two seasons ago with a bad hand injury which he gutted out and played through. He came back to dominate last season and is now projected as the highest Great West player to be drafted in next seasons NFL Draft. Josh Buchanan, small school scout for the Magnolia Gridiron Classic and Las Vegas All American Classic, says Vallejo grades as a 5th-7th round pick next April. Currently, Buchanan ranks Vallejo as the best non I-A tackle. The final piece of the offense is the running game, something which continues to dog the Aggies. Last season UCD averaged an anemic 99.5 yards per game 113th (out of 121) among I-AA leaders. Despite the lack of running success, the Aggies do return their top four runners in Nelson Doris, Demario Warren, Alex Garfio, and Marcus Nolan. The Aggies will attempt to red-shirt Garfio, who will only be pressed into duty if injuries once again stack up. That means it comes down to Doris, Nolan, and Warren to spark the rush attack, and in that order. Doris will start and see the most carries with Nolan and Warren to follow. The newly installed fullback in the Davis offense will be used occasionally with Grant Ayvazan, Justin Bonetto, and Bryan Harrison in the mix. This offense is loaded with talent but it will all come down to the Aggies ability to effectively run the ball that will be the difference in this team hanging some eye-popping numbers on the board as well as surviving a brutal opening month on the road.

Defense - It will be hard to repeat the successes of last season's defense which posted some astounding numbers. Last year's unit finished 7th in the nation in yards allowed per game (282) as well as 2nd nationally against the run allowing a meager 87.5 a contest. Considering the competition that's pretty impressive! The defense has a solid core of talent coming back but the questions remain at linebacker where the Aggies lost all three starters to graduation. To boot, Josh Edwards, who started a few games at backer last season, transferred. The good news is the Aggies are loaded with terrific athletes at linebacker, but surely they'll be some growing pains as inexperience is at all three positions. Slated to start at Sam, Middle, and Will are Jesse Kailahi, Dave Heckman, and Chris Buck, respectively. These three have combined for just 16 tackles in the short collegiate careers. Chris Carter, Tyler Pringle, and spring transfer Alex Cook will provide depth at the each position but experience is a major the concern at linebacker. These guys will have to mature quickly considering the teams second game is against a powerful Texas Christian rushing attack. Along the line the Aggies are in great shape, despite losing Thomas Blake (5.5 sacks) who transferred to UCLA. Back is Mike Ng (8 tfl, 3 sacks) as well as James Amos (11 tfl, 6.0 sacks) holding down the end spots. The interior also has both starters back with Naveen Daftari and John Faletoese both returning. Faletoese had a big impact last season as a freshman 11 tackles for loss and four sacks. His natural physical ability and impact on the line last season has some around the program mentioning he could be one of the best ever at his position by the time he leaves Davis. While the starting four pack tremendous talent fans won't know much about the 2nd group. Andy Rice (DE, RS Fr.), Mason Thomas (DE, RS Fr.), Pat Michelier (DT/DE, RS Fr.) and spring transfer Travis Dulli (DT, Jr.) all should figure prominently in the rotation. The depth along the line is untested but the starting four is as good as any in the conference. The secondary is also an area of strength as the three starters return along with another player who saw a lot of time last season. They rank as the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th tacklers on the team. The cornerbacks are led by Nevan Bergan, who picked off seven passed and had 10 breakups last season. Heading into the 2006 season he's ranked as the 8th best at his position by The Sports Network. The other starter will be Adam Cook, who didn't start last season but played significant minutes with strong contributions. (4 picks, 7 breakups) The depth at corner will come from junior Brandon Brown, who will be the top backup to both Bergan and Cook. Brown, whom the coaches think can be very good and a significant contributor this season will also be the starting nickelback. Kenny Brown, a sophomore, will also see some time at the position. The safeties will be led by Jonathan Barsi and Luis Amaral. Amaral was in on 44 stops last season from his strong safety spot, while Barsi had 38 tackles at free. These two are a solid duo whose experience will make the defensive backfield a major strength in 2006. Providing the depth at Free Safety will be Nero Evero, younger brother to former Aggie star Ejiro. Brady McClendon, a juco transfer who sat our last season with a red-shirt, will spell Amaral. The Aggie defense returns a significant core of talented individuals, but the difference in an 8-3 or 5-6 season could very well lie in maturity of the new faces at linebackers.

Schedule - The Aggies will certainty rack up the miles over the first five weeks of the season as they begin with five road games. And none of the games are gimme's either as UCD opens with their "easiest" game in Northern Colorado. That statement right there should tell you how tough the next four are - D1-A Texas Christian, Montana State, Youngstown State, and Cal Poly. All four of those teams will start the season ranked in their respective polls. The back half of the schedule lets up a bit considering five of six are at home with games against Southern Utah, Sacramento State and San Diego.

Key Game - @ Cal Poly 10/7. Two years in a row and the most important game on the Aggies schedule has not been Sacramento State. The Aggies will continue to hate their rivals up highway 80, but until the Hornets prove they can stay within 20 points the Cal Poly game is far and away the key game on the schedule. Four of the last five years the game has been decided by seven points or less and that is likely to continue this season. Plus the Mustangs are the biggest competition to the Aggies winning the conference championship. The only shame is that the game is being played in early October instead of late November.

The Bottom Line -- 2006 Season Preview Part Two /page 2

Columnist Chris Kelly provides an inside look on the upcoming Great West Football Conference season

3. NORTH DAKOTA STATE - The Bison finished last season 7-4, with three of their four losses coming to teams that finished the season ranked in the top 25. North Dakota State also spent 10 of 12 weeks ranked among the top 25. This season NDSU is still loaded with talent at key spots on the field, especially on offense. In fact, the Bison could easily rank as 1C in the Great West, which explains just how close these top three teams are in terms of talent. However, due to a couple key questions on defense and a brutal schedule they're my #3 in 2006.

Defense - The Cal Poly defense brought home the Buck Buchanan winner and boasts a ton of individuals who are prospects at the next level. The UC Davis defense was dominant against the run all season. But the little known fact - North Dakota State had the best defense, at least statistically, in the Great West last season. The Bison finished 7th overall nationally allowing just 272 yards per contest. The area the Bison dominated most was their pass defense which ranked 7th allowing just 150 through the air per game. Half of the secondary that made the Bison so strong last season is back as both safeties, Craig Dahl and Nick Schommer, return. Dahl a mainstay in the Bison secondary at free safety finished second on the team in tackles last season with 72 tackles and added an interception. Schommer (3 picks) returns at strong safety and Barry Quickstad, who played in 10 games adds depth to the area. The corners are where some questions remain as Bobby Babich and Scott Walter are gone. Richard Bowman (Soph.) and David Earl (Jr.) are the two expected to replace them, whom between them have zero starts and 14 tackles. The Bison don't face team that is really a threat to throw the ball a lot until they meet Ball State in their third game which allows for a couple games for this defensive backfield to gel. One area that won't need anytime is at linebacker where the Bison return a load of talent. The group is led by Joe Mays who came into last season with great expectations on his shoulders and did not disappoint. The junior led the team in tackles with 83, including finishing tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (10.5) and interceptions (3). He also led the team in sacks - from his line backing position. Mays possesses great speed and brings the hat to every tackle. This season his numbers will only increase as he is now one of the veteran leaders of this group. Don't be surprised if he has a huge season that puts him in All-American and Buck Buchanan consideration by November. Because of Kyle Shotwell, Mays is still kind of flying under the radar as the conference's premier middle backer, but that won't be for much longer. At the will spot Mike Maresh is back along with his 50 tackles and two sacks. Brett Itterman (21 tackles, 2 sacks) will back Maresh and see plenty of time which only adds to the quality of depth and experience at linebacker. Ramon Huber, who played in every game but one last season, will start at the Sam linebacker position. Just like the corners were hit hard, so was the defensive line, which lost three big names. But if you're going to return one player, it might as well be someone whose is as big a force as Justin Frick. The 6'2 nearly 300 pound tackle is another one of a solid list of prospects who we may see playing at the next level one day. In fact, listed Frick as one of 25 players "worth the price of admission" in I-AA. Last season Frick ended up fourth on the team in tackles with 54, including 10.5 for loss. His massive size and ability to clog holes will likely draw many double teams, which should allow for some of his other line mates to excel. Those new faces at defensive end will be Joe Lardinois and Brian Dahl. Lardinois has the most experience but both will need time to get into a nice comfort level at their positions. The final starting spot will go to either red-shirt freshman Michael Fairbairn or JC transfer Thomas Campbell. Two other transfers, Christon Dallas and Michael Brown will be expected to provide the depth along the line. This defense still has major stars in Dahl, Mays, and Frick but inexperience at corner and lack of proven depth along defensive line could translate into some early growing pains. Don't be fooled though, this Bison defense can still flat out bring it and will likely be among the statistical leader once again in 2006.

Offense - The Bison offense has a chance to be very good this season if only for the talent they return at the skill positions. But add a very good offensive line and this group has explosive capabilities. All that skill starts with Kyle Steffes, a name Great West fans have become accustomed to hearing throughout the fall. Steffes returns after rushing for 2100 yards and 27 touchdowns over the past two seasons and should be expected to surpass 1000 yards once again on his way to another big season. With backup Cinque Chapman academically ineligible, and Mark Moore gone it really leaves Steffes as the most experienced tailback. If there's one person though that can carry the weight of the offense on their shoulders it's Steffes, who is sure to thrive even up against a tough schedule. The concern is the depth behind Steffes - Junior Symeon Cabell (13 carries in '05) lacks experience and Shamen Washington, although extremely quick and dangerous, would likely not hold up as an every down back. Washington, however, when given the ball in space is extremely dangerous so look for the Bison to find way to get their special teams star the rock in any number of different ways. The good news is that bruiser Tyler Roehl returns to pave the way for the backs as a lead blocker, as well as eat up a few carries. He may not carry the ball a ton but the change of pace Roehl provides could gouge defenses for some big gains. He has All-American potential as a fullback. His injury last season allowed Tyler Jangula some great experience which leaves the Bison loaded at fullback. NDSU is also loaded at receiver where both starters return, kinda. Back is Kole Heckendorf, who last season led the team in catches and netted nearly 500 yards. After a year of maturing as a freshman, this season could be the year fans start to see Heckendorf put up some big numbers. That's especially true in that no defense can focus on the young receiver especially with the return of speedster Travis White, who led the Bison in receiving two seasons ago. Neither of these receivers are quite the caliber of a Tony Kays or Ramses Barden but because of the lack of proven experience behind those guys, White and Heckendorf form the top receiving duo in the league. Nick Jackson, who started two games last season, as well as Alex Belquist and John Majeski will provide depth at the position. In order to capitalize on their talents though quarterback Steve Walker has to return to form. Walker could do no wrong when he came on his freshman year and was nearly perfect in everything he did that year. While Walker was still solid last season, he did prove he was human, with some less than stellar performances. Those sub-par showings towards the end of the year coupled with an ACL knee injury (that required off-season surgery) has Bison fans wondering what to expect from Walker in 2006. Now to step back for a second let's remember that Walker completed over 55% of his passes, had an efficiency of 130 last season, and a touchdown to interception ratio of 2 to 1. Walker brings a lot to the table and is absolutely the leader of this offense. The biggest concern is how he'll return from this injury. All signs thus far are positive and Walker is on track to lead the Bison offense to big things once again. Aside from a couple tough outings, this kid can play and with the tools around him should be as dangerous as ever. Certainly his line will be big part of this group's success, and that unit returns three starters. Nate Safe is the leader of the group and the Bison's most talented lineman. His 6'4 314 lb pound imposing frame will allow him to be a rock at left tackle, which the Bison will gladly run the ball behind. He's joined by returning starters (started 27 games at right guard) and Adam Tadisch, who moves from left guard to right tackle this season. That spot is more of a natural position for Tadisch and should only benefit this line which averages over 300 lbs per man. The open spots are slated to be filled by Jake Erickson and Zach Harrington. Harrington is the new kid to keep an eye on - Bison coaches have been impressed with his play and have high expectations for the sophomore. The 2006 Bison are loaded with talent and depth in key areas but the health of Steve Walker, defensive line questions, as well as a brutal schedule stand in the way of a conference title. Solve those issues and this team has the nucleus to rise to the top ten.

Schedule - The Bison's schedule was ranked by Matt Dougherty as the 8th toughest in I-AA, highest among Great West teams. And I'm sure a case could be made for them to be even higher because their schedule is tough top to bottom. They open with a relatively easy game against Concordia-St Paul then have a bye before the difficulty starts. Northeastern, Ball State, Stephen F. Austin, and Georgia Southern are the next four games with the latter three all on the road. Trips to Davis and Minnesota as well as a home date against Cal Poly highlight the back half of the season. There are no breaks for the Bison in '06.

Key Game - @ Ball State, 9/23. This game is eerily similar to the situation the Aggies faced when playing I-A Stanford last season. Just like UCD, this is the first game against a major college opponent in years, it's the third game of the season, and the opponent is lower tier I-A. Each team was also two years away from being playoff eligible at the time of the game - thus beyond playing for the conference title, the excitement of a I-A game makes a teams/program/fans season. It's not that far fetched to say the Bison could pull off a similar result as the Aggies, is it?

4. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE - After the first three teams in the Great West it's widely considered by much of the media that there is a drop off when it comes to South Dakota State. And, yes, maybe the Jacks aren't quite at the level of the top three (from a full season's perspective) but they're also not far behind. Last season, SDSU finished 6-5 and outside of a Texas State blowout the Jacks were impressive against some very good teams. They posted 42 against Georgia Southern, beat UC Davis, and lost to Montana and Cal Poly by seven and eight points respectively. The offensive core is back to lead the way this season, but defensive questions heading into the season have the Jacks picked 4th heading into fall.

Offense - Last season the Jacks offense was explosive averaging 33 points a game (18th nationally) and leading the Great West in offense at 386 yards per game. (40th nationally). And those numbers were all driven by a tremendous rushing game, which put up 227 yards per game, which was 16th in the nation. The great news for Jacks fans is both backs which helped to provide that explosiveness are back in Anthony Watson and Cory Koenig. Each guy averaged over 80 yards per games. While James Noble, and Kyle Steffes may get most of the Great West running headlines it's because these guys split carries. Both backs are capable of leading the Great West in rushing, but Jacks head coach John Stiegelemeier's job is to make sure both backs get plenty of touches. Last season Watson returned as the starter having surpassed the 1000 yard mark as a sophomore. After a slow start last season, however, Watson lost his starting job to Koenig. Watson is more of the speed guy, while Koenig offers more hit the hole power and their combination in the backfield makes them one of the best running duo's nationally. While Watson should have regained his starting role come week one, both will see plenty of time and need to put up big numbers for this team to rack up wins. The area that needs to see improvement is the passing game, something which fans have already started debating as to who will start this season at quarterback. Last year's starter Andy Kardoes returns but is coming back from surgery in the off-season. Kardoes (73-158, 851 yards, 6 td's) had a 2005 season he'd like to put behind him. The senior struggled with nagging injuries, completed less than 50% of his passes, and threw more interceptions (8) than touchdowns. Ending the year with surgery was less than ideal as well, but it did give the Jacks the chance to develop some of their youth, namely Ryan Berry. Berry started two games last season and performed well throwing 7 touchdowns in 89 attempts while completing nearly 60% of his passes. Controversy heading into the season? Sure, there is some debate in Brookings who the guy will be under center. But for now, Kardoes, who took some reps in spring, is 100% healthy and ready to lead the Jacks into battle. Without a doubt the mobile, strong armed senior is Coach Stig's guy come September 2nd. Berry will be #2 but has to be ready because if Kardoes continues to struggle with his accuracy, he'll be pressed into duty. This battle will be one closely followed by Jacks fans as the season gets underway. The guys that the quarterbacks will be looking to throw the ball are less experienced than the Jacks have seen in three seasons mainly because of the graduation of Josh Davis and Chris Molitor. This area is fairly untested as the top returning receiver, Dusty Snyder, has 17 career catches. While Snyder will start at one spot, Micah Johnson (13 catches, 117 yds) will grab another. Chris Doblar will grab the third starting spot, but keep an eye on Mike Steffen, and JarRon Harris who will both play significant roles as the Jacks spread the ball around to compensate for big losses from a season ago. Both are extremely athletic and Harris' hands and tremendous speed will be huge assets to this area of the offense. Three tight ends, Chris Wagner, Luke Greving, and Dan Dykehouse, return having all played in 10 games last season and provide solid blocking skills to help boost the line play as well as big targets in the red-zone. As for the rest of the blockers, the question along the line is at the guard spots, which both saw graduations. Center Mark Oeklers and left tackle Preston Crumly return, but the group is led by all-conference performer Mitch Erickson, who will likely play at the next level. He and UCD's Eliot Vallejo are not only two of the best tackles in the Great West but all of college football. Interesting piece is Erickson is likely shifting to guard this fall, a move which should strengthen the line. This way the Jacks can get their five best talents along the line as Scott Gillen will start at Erickson's right tackle spot. The Jacks coaches are awfully high on Gillen and expect big things from him this fall. A final mention needs to be made of the Jacks kicker, Parker Douglass, who with another strong season should be considered for All-American honors. Douglass has a huge leg and can hit from 50+ with consistency. I see Douglass as I-AA's equivalent to Mason Crosby at Colorado - he's that good. The offense is powerful, the special teams are dangerous, but the losses at wide receiver can't be underestimated. Answer those questions early and this offense can put up some seriously aggressive numbers.

Defense - The Jacks lost a number of key contributors on defense last year and return just five full time starters from '05. And considering that South Dakota State gave up nearly 350 yards per game a year ago replacing that many starters is concerning. However, with every downside there is upside. And while some of the kids stepping in will be new and somewhat inexperienced, the defense that steps on the field this season should be much more athletic and quicker than the 2005 version. That group starts with the defensive line. Gabe Koenigsfeld is the biggest loss along the line but the Jacks have enough experience to combat that with returning starters Mitch Pontrelli (NT) and Jason Nobling (DE). Those two combined for 95 tackles and 8.5 for loss and their production should only increase this season with another year under their belts. That's true especially because both were freshman last season. The other end spot will be nabbed by senior Marcus Suhn, who returns after an injury plagued season a year ago. Still, he was able to play in eight games and rack up 14 tackles. Jason Bonwell, a junior college all-American last season, will provide solid depth at end behind Suhn. Eric Schroeder will start at the defensive tackle spot after contributing 34 tackles, including seven for loss. At linebackers, just one starter returns but in terms of experience that's somewhat misleading. Marty Kranz, who will step in mike linebacker for Billy Ray Kirch, has been a major contributor his entire career. He's started 11 games as a freshman and has contributed 152 tackles over the past three seasons. Kranz may not be a returning starter but his experience has to be comforting to the Jacks coaching staff in solidifying the line-backing spots. Along with Kranz, Andre Hoogeveen returns as a starter at outside linebacker. The junior made a great transition from defensive back to linebacker last season in finishing second on the team in tackles with 63 along with two interceptions. The final spot at will linebacker will go to Justin Kubesh, who played in 10 games last season and finished with 29 tackles. I like the Jacks starting group who should gel nicely once Kubesh get a couple starts under his belt, but there are certainly still questions about the depth at backer as the 2nd group is composed entirely of red-shirt freshman. And while the depth at linebacker is a concern, the defensive backfield is the biggest area of worry for the Jacks heading into the season. SDSU lost a lot of talent from that group and looks to guys who don't carry a ton of experience to step in and take over. Gone is lockdown corner Hank McCall, as well Mitch Klein, James Epps, and John Perry who accounted for the majority of playing time at safety. The only starter back is corner Jeff Hegge (54 tackles), who does return as a three year starter but also moves to free safety. But replacing McCall is no easy task, especially considering the two main backups are graduated as well. The guys with the tall task of stepping in are Brock Gentile and Tyler Koch, who combined for 25 tackles last season. Joseph Blackman (RS Fr.) and Justin Horn (Soph.) are also in the mix for playing time at corner. At safety, Scott Breyfogle (strong safety) will join Hegge, and does so with just 20 tackles and one interception under his belt. The depth in secondary will come from two players, Nash Simet (RB, now #2 at Strong) and Brock Campbell (WR, now #2 at Free), who moved over from offense in the spring. Teams will certainly challenge this group early to try to exploit the inexperience and the Jacks can't afford much time for to mature as Montana comes knocking in week two. Just like last season, the Jacks are the X-factor in the Great West - they are boasting impressive talent in key spots on offense but also have more questions than some of the other conference teams. Unless the defense matures (specifically the secondary) with rapid speed and a much stronger passing game develops, they aren't likely to steal the conference title. But this team has enough talent to slide up the conference race into the 2nd or 3rd spot and they'll probably knock one of the top three teams off just like they did last season.

Schedule - The Jacks get one game to work out the kinks against Wisconsin-La Crosse before a brutal four game road stretch. South Dakota State will be tested right away with games at Montana, Northern Iowa, Nicholls State, and McNeese State, whom could all be ranked when they play them. Home games against Central Arkansas and William Penn help balance out the back half of the schedule that includes all four conference games, including a big finale against the Bison.

Key Game - North Dakota State, 11/18. No matter whether this game turns into a bigger rivalry down the road or not, no one likes to be thumped by a neighbor the way the Bison handled the Jacks last season, 41-17. Now the Jacks get the Bison outside the friendly confines of the Fargo Dome and on the last week of the season. You better believe the Jacks have this game circled to return the favor. And ending the season on a high note is important for a team still trying to prove it belongs with the top three of the conference.

5. SOUTHERN UTAH - After a rough stretch of play in the early part of this decade, Southern Utah finished the 2004 season with a record over the .500 mark and was competitive in nearly every game. But that team was a veteran led group that graduated key players all over the field, which led to a major rebuilding project a season ago. The T-Birds, in fact, finished last season with a 1-9 record and a lot of lopsided losses. They enter 2006 still picked to finish in the cellar, but the core of that young group, for the most part, returns, which should translate into a much improved Thunderbird team. And with that a much more competitive team.

Defense - The defense returns less experienced players when compared to the offense but that's a relative terms because the T-Birds return in decent shape alone the line and secondary. Where they will focus their efforts will be at linebacker where the graduation of all-everything Steve Smith leaves a gaping hole. When coupled with the loss the second leading tackler at linebacker (Andrew Taeoalii) and starter Alex Richardson, who left school, and all eyes will be on this group in the early part of the season. The issue is especially magnified considering that the T-Birds were 100th defending the run last season allowing 190 yards per game. Potentially, the T-Birds have someone who could step in have a huge impact in La'Var Porter, who finished last season with 17 tackles. The key is that Porter was a starter last season but suffered a season ending injury in just his third game of the year. Porter is one of the most athletic guys on the defensive side of the ball and extremely quick when healthy, but questions still remain if he is fully recovered. If Porter is fully healthy he will be a great anchor to the linebackers, which will be needed as two sophomores, Robert Taneko and Jim Cheney, step into starting roles. While the linebackers are still looking to answer questions about starting experience and depth, the defensive line will provide stability to the front seven. SUU returns three starters and another who played significant minutes last season, which should be huge in helping improve on just 14 sacks last season (96th nationally). The three starters, Derek Hood, Jimmy Judd, and Levi Erickson, finished with 124 tackles and 30 tackles for loss. Coach Meyer referred to Erickson as the best athlete on the defensive front, while noting that Hood is the quickest of the group. With these three returning along with new starter, Austin Curtis (13 tackles, 1 sack), the line will definitely be the strongest unit on defense. They'll need to improve the efforts against the run especially early as the linebackers gel into their new roles. The final piece of the defense is the secondary, which returns two corners who have logged quite a few starts between the two of them. Brian Kofoed (43 tackles, 9 breakups) and Dave Zelasko (returning from injury) both have starting experience. Perhaps the most exciting players could be JC transfer Derrick Brown, who impressed so much in spring that he is expected to start at one corner opposite Zelasko. Brown, Zelasko, and Kofoed, who will appear mainly in nickel situations, leave the corners in good hands. The safety spot is an area where both starters are departed leaving some experience but not much proven depth. D.J. Senter (played in seven games) and Spencer Meier (23 tackles) are set to step in at strong and free safety, respectively. As was mentioned the depth is a big questions but the T-Birds like what they saw from another JC transfer, Jovan Jackson, during spring and expect him to contribute immediately this fall. The base of the defense is in place to steady this group in 2006 but certainly some bumps in the road are likely to occur. The T-Birds can't afford any key injuries due to the fact that beyond their starting 11 the 2nd group is still fairly inexperienced.

Offense - While the defense will still be working early in the season to develop chemistry, the offense has many pieces in place to be much more potent. And that's a good thing considering this group managed only 13 points per game, which left them 116th out of 120 I-AA teams last season. They also turned the ball over 29 times last season a stat which put them at the bottom of I-AA pack. The offensive opportunity starts at the quarterback spot where Wes Marshall returns, along with transfer Royal Gill. Marshall holds a slight lead heading into fall practice as the returning starter but Gill is right behind the senior. Marshall is better suited to the T-Birds offense as the more elusive running threat and ability to make smart decisions within the option. He is also one of those guys that have an ability to make things happen when a play breaks down. However, as Wes Meyer continues to look for balance in the passing game it can't be forgotten that Gill brings great size, a strong and accurate arm, as well as D-I starting experience, to the position. What he doesn't have though, unlike Marshall, is time in the T-Birds system. Whoever starts, be assured that the stats at that position will be better than the numbers from a year ago. (46.5% completion rate, 18 int's, 8 td's, 90% efficiency) And with expected improvement at quarterback it should allow a pretty talented group of wide receivers to fully excel, namely Joey Lew Hen and Larue Burley. Lew Hen led the Thunderbirds in receiving yards (474), yards per catch (14.8) and yards per game (52.7). His 6'3 size gives him a big frame that allows him to go up and bring down the ball in traffic, which compliments his speed nicely. The T-Birds look to Lew Hen as their big play guy and with more accuracy from the passing game this season, he could push for all-conference honors. Burley (24 catches, 235 yards) is the other guy that SUU wants to have a much bigger role in the offense this season. He doubles at the return specialist and the Thunderbird coaching staff wants to get him the ball more often this season because of his ability to make things happen post catch. This combo at wide receiver has a ton of potential to explode in `06. Bobby Pond and Craig Gritton are the primary names at the slotback position as they combined for 28 catches last season. SUU uses Pond not only as a pass catcher but also loves create opportunities for the sophomore by handing the ball off. Gritton, a sophomore, may not have the size and speeds of a Lew Hen but makes up for it with his precise route running which Coach Meyer believes is the best on the team. Brett Johansen and Ryan Larson are also important members of the receiving crew from their tight end spot. Johansen, who is the bigger receiving threat, finished '05 with 255 yards on 19 receptions. The final piece in terms of skill positions is at running back where the top three rushers are back as well a new face Southern Utah believes can contribute right away. Even though Jamar Lee (228 yds, 1 td, 3.5 per carry) led the team in rushing a year ago he's third on the depth chart heading into fall. That should speak to the depth at running back where sophomore Kyle Coop and transfer Johnny Sanchez are listed as the top two heading into fall camp. Coop missed the early part of last season with an injury but did impress in his limited roll averaging 4.4 yards per carry and chipping in 561 yards (20 per) in kick returns. Coop is a big back at 210 lbs, has great vision, and hits the hole hard, something coaches love about him. He had a great spring and expectations are that he will breakout this season be the guy when it comes to the rushing attack. Finally, the offensive line has some questions having lost a couple starters to graduation and injuries as well some of the returnees shifting positions. The line is anchored by the group's best overall lineman in left tackle Mike Knight, a pre-season first team all conference pick. At the other tackle position is slated to be the versatile Tim Husselbee. The junior has worked out at center, spent most of last season at guard, and now moves over to handle right tackle duties. Husselbee has great feet and is very athletic, a big reason he can play all positions along the line. The other returner, Matt Roan, who spent most of 2005 at tackle, moves to center. The former tight end put on 60 pounds in the off-season and impressed during spring drills. The guard spots will go to a couple of junior college transfer, Ricki Tuuamalo and Brandon Guzman. Southern Utah will see some struggles with a defense still coming together. They also need better play at quarterback to improve their offensive woes. But be sure this team will win more than one game this season and be much more competitive than last year. (avg margin of loss was 20 pts) The T-Birds are still young and even though '06 will still have some rocky points head Coach Wes Meyer is building the foundation with a young, but promising group that should be solid over the next couple seasons.

Schedule - It's conceivable the T-Birds could start out 3-0 but from that point on there are no easy games on the schedule. After Texas State, Southern Utah hits the road for a tough quartet against Cal Poly, McNeese, Florida Atlantic, and UC Davis. The final three games are against the Dakota's with a finale against at Southern Illinois.

Key Game - Texas State, 9/23. The first two games for the Thunderbirds should be wins followed by a toss up at Weber State. Whether SUU comes into the 4th week 3-0 or 2-1 this is an important table setter game. Last year Texas State hammered the T-Birds early and never looked back cruising to a 34-0 win. Now the T-Birds get a Texas State team, which is partly rebuilding, at home with a chance to put an early stamp on their season. A win here would be a huge confidence builder for the Thunderbirds as they head into a difficult stretch.

Top 25 Poll - I turned in my first top 25 ballot this week for the Sports Network's pre-season poll. Here is where I ranked the Great West teams: #2 Cal Poly, #12 UC Davis, #15 North Dakota State. I ranked Appalachian State #1.

The Bottom Line: 2006 stacks up nicely for the Great West to continue to make its mark upon the rest of I-AA. The conference should rank as one of the top two or three in GPI when the season is over as the schedules are stacked with marquee names that will allow the Great West to post significant wins in the I-AA spotlight. And as we've learned the past couple seasons the conference games are some of the most competitive games across the nation, which makes for a great league race and speaks to the always present parity theme. In the end, though, one team will stand above the rest this year: Cal Poly. Last year, it was good enough to make the playoffs, but how far can they actually advance this season? The way I see it to make a run deep into the playoffs a team needs four things: talent, coaching, some luck, and a favorable schedule. The Mustangs, without a doubt, have the first two on their side. As for luck, well two seasons ago the playoff committee snubbed them and last season they lost their leader and quarterback late in the year to injury. So odds would seem to suggest the Mustangs are due a little luck to roll their way. The final piece, the schedule, is where things get a little dicey. Can the Mustangs lose four and get in to the playoffs if two losses are to I-A teams? Does Cal Poly have to beat San Jose State? Can the `Stangs afford two I-AA losses? Forget it, it doesn't matters. The Mustangs won't lose more than three - and they won't lose in the playoffs. One of the best defenses in the nation that now has a flashy offense to compliment will lead the Mustangs to their first ever I-AA national championship.

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