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Analysis: Idaho can contend for Big Sky Conference championship as league play begins; Eastern Washington renews hope after home win

Eastern Washington RB Justice Jackson, (22) restrained by multiple defenders, muscles the ball across the goal line late in the game against Southeastern Louisiana Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023 at Roos Field at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington, where the Eagles won 40-29.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Three weeks of the college football season are done, and by the Big Sky Conference’s neat design all 12 of its teams are done with their nonconference schedules.

That leaves nothing but eight conference games – and more playoff games for a handful of them, most likely – to determine the standings.

Eastern Washington, after a win over Southeastern Louisiana and an overtime loss at Fresno State, finds itself back in the discussion as a potential playoff team after last year’s listless 3-8 record.

Here’s a look at the conference three games in, newly listed in order of predicted finish. Keep in mind that not everyone plays everyone else, and where games are played – at whose stadium – can matter quite a bit, especially as the schedule gets closer to its end on Nov. 18.

Teams have also been assigned a general status of “as advertised,” “better than expected” or “worse than expected” based upon preseason polls and other prognostications.

Predicted No. 1: Sacramento State (3-0)

Better than expected

The Hornets, ranked fourth in this week’s FCS Stats Perform Top 25 and defending Big Sky champions, are coming off a 30-23 win at Stanford against former Sacramento State head coach Troy Taylor. They again have a dual-threat quarterback, this year in junior Kaiden Bennett, and senior Marcus Fulcher leads a talented group of running backs. The Hornets don’t have to play Weber State or Eastern Washington, and this year they have Montana State at home. Saturday’s game at the Kibbie Dome against the Vandals could end up deciding a tiebreaker at the end of the season – if the Big Sky actually did that sort of thing to decide conference champions.

No. 2: Idaho (2-1)

Better than expected

That the seventh-ranked Vandals started their season as they have isn’t entirely unexpected from a win-loss standpoint, but winning at Nevada by 27 points exceeded expectations. So, perhaps, did Idaho’s first-half lead at California the week after. The Vandals rank 10th nationally in total offense at 449 yards per game and also in total defense (274.7), the side of the ball that had the most questions. Idaho has one of the tougher schedules left, with games at Eastern Washington on Sept. 30 and at Weber State on Nov. 11. That’s in addition to Saturday’s game against the Hornets and home dates with Montana and Montana State in October.

No. 3: Montana State (2-1)

As advertised

The third-ranked Bobcats won their two home games handily against Utah Tech and Stetson and lost to top-ranked South Dakota State 20-16 in Brookings. MSU was a replay review from winning that game on the final play. But beating the defending champions would have been quite the feat. The Bobcats have used not two but three quarterbacks, with Jordan Reed joining the expected top duo of Sean Chambers and Tommy Mellott. They also have six players with 100-plus rushing yards, contributing to the nation’s top rushing attack at 317.7 yards per game. But their schedule is tough, with road games at Weber State ( Saturday), Sacramento State, Idaho and Montana.

No. 4: Weber State (2-1)

As advertised

Sitting at No. 10 nationally, the Wildcats picked up a solid 34-17 win at perennial FCS playoff program Northern Iowa and also beat D-II Central Washington 35-10. Last week, they lost at Utah by 24 and had just 127 yards of offense, a letdown that balances out the slightly surprising outcome at UNI. Saturday’s home game against Montana State will say a lot about the state of the Wildcats, who are led by first-year head coach Mickey Mental. They don’t have to play Sacramento State or Montana, giving them one of the easier remaining schedules.

No. 5: Montana (3-0)

As advertised

The Grizzlies, who fell a spot to 13th in this week’s poll, took care of business during the first three weeks. Their most signature win, though, might just be their most recent: a 17-10 win over defending D-II champion Ferris State. It’s hard to get a great read on the Grizzlies given their other wins came over Butler (0-3) and Utah Tech (1-2), but mid-October games at UC Davis and Idaho will say a lot about how good the Grizzlies are this season.

No. 6: Eastern Washington (1-2)Better than expected

After nearly beating the reigning Mountain West champions and then getting a win over a ranked FCS team last week, the Eagles head into Big Sky play with some momentum – and also some difficult opponents to wrap up September. But a win over UC Davis, which is 0-8 all time against Eastern, would validate the work the Eagles have done to bounce back after last year and would send them into a big home game Sept. 30 against Idaho with momentum and even more confidence.

No. 7: UC Davis (2-1)

Worse than expected

While the Aggies have a couple of wins, they haven’t been that impressive. Texas A&M University-Commerce is in its second year as an FCS school (Davis won that game 48-10), Oregon State pounded the Aggies 55-7, and UC Davis sneaked by Southern Utah 23-21 last weekend. The Aggies, ranked 15th this week, may well be just fine. But their most recent win wasn’t as resounding as expected for a team that was second in the preseason Big Sky coaches poll.

No. 8: Portland State (1-2)

As advertised

Through three games, the Vikings have outscored their opponents 115-112, but the way they got there is unorthodox to say the least. They lost 81-7 at Oregon, fell to Wyoming 31-17 … and then beat NAIA North American 91-0 last week. The two-touchdown loss is perhaps most instructive – the Vikings were only outgained by 27 yards, 371 to 344 – but all of the outcomes were predictable. They open conference play at home Saturday against Cal Poly.

No. 9: Cal Poly (2-1)

Better than expected

A win over San Diego – a fellow FCS program – is the most telling of the Mustangs’ results. They’ve matched their win total from each of the past two seasons. They come to Cheney to play the Eagles on Nov. 4 in Paul Wulff’s first game there as a visiting head coach.

No. 10: Idaho State (0-3)

As advertised

An eight-point loss at San Diego State should instill some hope in the Bengals, but there’s still plenty of work for Cody Hawkins to do in his first year as head coach. They’ll host the Eagles on Oct. 14 after the Eagles’ bye week.

No. 11: Northern Colorado (0-3)

As advertised

Outside the program, the Bears aren’t expected to win much in Ed Lamb’s first year. A schedule that has included three teams that finished last year with winning records hasn’t made getting win No. 1 any easier. Saturday’s game at Idaho State might be one of their best shots at getting it.

No. 12: Northern Arizona

Worse than expected

Losses at Arizona and North Dakota were understandable enough, but losing by two touchdowns at home to Utah Tech – which led by as many as 35 points – was not a good omen heading into conference play.