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Big Sky picks: Eastern Washington, Southern Utah should have success in season openers

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 30, 2018, 6:39 p.m.

Eastern Washington wide receiver Nsimba Webster  hauls in a long reception from Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud  during  on Nov. 4, 2017, in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington wide receiver Nsimba Webster hauls in a long reception from Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud during on Nov. 4, 2017, in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Here are my Week 1 predictions for Big Sky Conference football teams.

Tonight

Weber State at Utah: Utah offensive coordinator Troy Taylor – the former EWU offensive guru – has one of the Pac-12’s most electric players in QB Tyler Huntley, whose team is picked to challenge USC for the Pac-12 South title. A tall task for an ascending FCS program breaking in a new QB and filling a few other holes from last season’s Big Sky Conference co-championship season

Pick: Utah 40, Weber State 17.

Western Illinois at Montana State: Former Post Falls High coach Jeff Choate (a St. Maries product) leads a Bobcats team that returns the bulk of its offensive and defensive lines and appears to have added some nice Pac-12 transfers to its defense. Losing hard-running QB Chris Murray (academic reasons) was a tough loss for one of the top rushing offenses in the country. Sophomore Troy Andersen – who rushed for over 500 yards as a true freshman and also played linebacker – returns to the QB position, where he led Dillon High to a Montana Class A title in 2016. Oregon transfer Travis Jonsen may also be taking the snaps. The Leathernecks, picked seventh in the MVC preseason poll, were a playoff team last season, but lost some weapons, and most of their offensive line. Year three of the Choate regime gets off on the right foot in Bozeman in a slugfest.

Pick: Montana State 28, WIU 21.

UC Davis at San Jose State: San Jose State was a bad, two-win FBS program last season, but found silver lining in a win against a rising Wyoming program. The Spartans return their QB Montel Aaron while the Aggies have perhaps the best FCS receiver in the country in Keelan Doss and a solid QB in Jake Maier. Neither defense is expected to be good, though. UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins beat SJSU plenty in the early 2000s as Boise State’s coach, but the Spartans edge the Aggies in a shootout.

Pick: SJSU 52, UC Davis 45.

Friday

Portland State at Nevada: After getting smacked by Idaho State in Reno last season, the Wolfpack, who also needed overtime to beat Cal Poly in 2016, finally breeze by a Big Sky Conference opponent.

Pick: Nevada 44, Portland State 21

Western State at Idaho State: The NCAA Division II Mountaineers, picked to finish 10th in their 11-team Rocky Mountain Conference, will have their hands full in Pocatello with brothers Tanner and Mitch Gueller, a quarterback-receiver combo I expect to have a field day.

Pick: Idaho State 45, Western State 14.

Saturday

Cal Poly at North Dakota State: Tough comeback-from-injury game for Cal Poly star running back Joe Protheroe. He’ll probably still rush for over 100 yards, but it’s not going to matter much against the top-ranked Bison, winners of six of the last seven national titles.

Pick: NDSU 34, Cal Poly 17.

Northern Arizona at UTEP: UTEP was one of the worst FBS team in the country last season, and oddsmakers have Northern Arizona favored in El Paso. With the return of 19 starters, one of the best best FBS QBs in the country in Case Cookus, an NFL-level receiver and Emmanuel Butler and an improved defense, you can see why.

Pick: NAU: 31, UTEP 24.

McNeese State at Northern Colorado: The Cowboys, No. 17 in the STATS FCS preseason poll, bring a boatload of talent to Greeley. The game will feature a pair of decorated quarterbacks in MSU’s James Tabary and UNC’s Jacob Knipp, who, despite an injury-riddled career, has garnered interest from NFL scouts. The Louisiana school has too much talent and experience for the Bears to keep up with, though.

Pick: MSU 38, UNC 24.

Northern Iowa at Montana: The return of head coach Bobby Hauck is a boon for the Griz, but don’t expect major results this early. UNI, another Top 25 program, returns an experienced offense against a Griz team still rife with question marks, including the health of its best player, preseason Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year Josh Buss. Player for player, UNI is currently the more proven bunch, but will have its hands full in Missoula. I see Hauck’s Griz winning 7-8 games. This won’t be one of them.

Pick: UNI 34, Montana 28.

Idaho at Fresno State: The Vandals had little success against Fresno State when they shared the ol’ Western Athletic Conference. That won’t change Saturday when now-FCS Idaho makes the trek to California to face the defending West Division champion of the Mountain West.

Pick: Fresno 38, Idaho 14.

North Alabama at Southern Utah: North Alabama makes the jump from NCAA Division II to FCS this season. Defending Big Sky co-champion Southern Utah will pick up where it left off against the Division I newbies.

Pick: SUU 48, UNA 18.

Saint Francis (Ill.) at Sacramento State: An average NAIA program making a trip across the country to face a dynamic Sac. State team that earned preseason Top 25 respect by some pundits? Sounds like a rout to me.

Pick: Sacramento State 55, SFU 14.

Central Washington at Eastern Washington: Roos Field will be littered with Washington products on Saturday when the NCAA Division II Wildcats visit Cheney. Eastern Washington, the Big Sky Conference favorite, returns one of its most experienced teams in recent history. CWU, the GNAC preseason favorite, doesn’t return the heap of experience EWU does, but has talent in former EWU QB and leader Reilly Hennessey, offensive and defensive lines dotted with all-conference players, and a stable of running backs. Central has the toughness, firepower and chip on its shoulder to play with EWU for a couple of quarters, but will eventually get worn down by the Eagles’ deep offensive and defensive lines. If EWU can hit the throttle early, though, it won’t be close. I expect the former.

Pick: EWU 45, CWU 28

Collingwood’s season record: 0-0


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