(STATS) - After ranking the teams in the Big Sky title race, you inevitably look back and question why you have a team or two so far down in the pecking order.
Such is reality with the largest conference in the FCS. There are too many quality programs among the lucky/unlucky 13 to avoid having it.
In 2018, the Big Sky appears even stronger with founding member Idaho returning after 22 seasons on the FBS level, basically replacing North Dakota.
It's also a strong year for quarterbacks, with three - Case Cookus of Northern Arizona, Gage Gubrud of Eastern Washington and Jake Maier of UC Davis - entering the season on the STATS FCS Walter Payton Award Watch List.
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2018 Big Sky race and STATS' predicted order of finish:
THREE KEY LOSSES: Nic Sblendorio, WR; Albert Havili, DE; Jordan Dascalo, P
OUTLOOK: An FCS semifinalist in 2016, the Eagles weren't pleased when they were denied an at-large playoff bid last season. Their senior-laden lineup is the Big Sky favorite and a Top 10 team to start the season. QB Gubrud threw for an FCS-record 5,160 yards in 2016, but took a step backward last season (although with 3,342 yards). He won't have to carry offense, however, because Best, a former offensive line coach, will seek to run the ball often with the Custer-McPherson tandem. The often-maligned defense returns its top six tacklers plus All-Big Sky DT Tiuli returns off a medical redshirt. Overall, 32 players have starting experience.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Stefan Cantwell, QB; Andrew Vollert, TE; Taron Johnson, CB
OUTLOOK: Coming off their best season ever, including a co-Big Sky title and a near-upset of James Madison in the FCS quarterfinals, the Wildcats remain a top-tier team. It's vital that they replace the production of Cantwell under center, but it helps to be strong on the offensive line, which will open up the play for RB Garrett and WRs Denby and Shaheed. Despite some losses, Hill also likes what he has on the defensive line. His defense's 17.6 points allowed per game were by far the conference-best.
3. MONTANA GRIZZLIES=
LOCATION: Missoula, Montana
STADIUM: Washington-Grizzly Stadium
HEAD COACH: Bobby Hauck (80-17, seven seasons; 95-67 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/6th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (5 offense/ 6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Dalton Sneed, QB, R-Jr. (Fort Scott CC transfer); Jeremy Calhoun, RB, Sr.; Keenan Curran, WR, Sr.; Jerry Louie-McGee, WR, R-Jr.; David Shaw, DT, Sr.; Jesse Sims, DE, R-Jr.; Josh Buss, LB, R-Sr.; Dante Olson, LB, R-Jr.; Reid Miller, S, R-Sr. (Arkansas transfer); Gavin Robertson, S, R-So. (Arizona transfer); Josh Sandry, S, R-Jr.; Brandon Purdy, PK/P, R-Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: David Reese, OT; James Banks, LB; Justin Strong, S
OUTLOOK: The Griz have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1991-92, so their rabid fan base is generally energized by Hauck's return. He led the Griz to Big Sky titles in each of his seven seasons from 2003-09, with three national runner-up finishes. But Hauck bringing in former UNLV QB Sneed led to Gresch Jensen, a standout as a freshman, to transfer out of the program. Considering the offense returns most of its skills position players, Sneed should blend in well. LB Buss is the conference's preseason defensive player of the year, but there have been health concerns this summer. The Griz surrendered too many points (29 per game) last season.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Matt Linehan, QB; Aikeem Coleman, DE; Tony Lashley, LB
OUTLOOK: This is one of the more intriguing teams in the FCS. After 22 seasons on the FBS level, the Vandals are back in the Big Sky, where they competed as a founding member and won nine conference titles from 1963-95. They should factor into the title race with a roster that includes plenty of FBS-level talent. They're still trying to figure out how they can replace Linehan, a four-year starting quarterback. RB Saunders and WR Ungerer are the top offensive weapons. Despite losing Lashley on a transfer to Boise State, the Vandals boast a standout linebacker in Elliss.
5. NORTHERN ARIZONA LUMBERJACKS=
LOCATION: Flagstaff, Arizona
STADIUM: Walkup Skydome
HEAD COACH: Jerome Souers (119-108, 20 seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 7-5, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/3rd)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (7 offense/9 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Case Cookus, QB, Jr.; Cory Young, RB, Sr.; Joe Logan, RB, Jr.; Emmanuel Butler, WR, Sr.; Chancellor Brewington, WR, So.; Jonathan Baldwin, TE, Sr.; Tristen Vance, LB, Jr.; Taylor Powell, LB, Jr.; Kam'ron Johnson, FS, Sr.; Maurice Davison, CB, Sr.; Wes Sutton, SS, Sr.; Khalil Dorsey, CB, Jr.
OUTLOOK: NAU faces only three of the teams with winning conference marks last season, so the Big Sky schedule is quite helpful. The offense features one of the top FCS quarterbacks in Cookus (72 career TD passes), a solid run game, and the return of Butler (NAU's only two-time 1,000-yard receiver) from injury offsets the loss of Marks. The defense boasts a dynamite secondary, led by Sutton, and the pass rush will be solid. Souers is on a one-year contract extension after, unfairly, being a lame duck for much of last season.
6. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS=
LOCATION: Cedar City, Utah
STADIUM: Eccles Coliseum
HEAD COACH: Demario Warren (15-8, two seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 9-3, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Aaron Zwahlen, QB, Jr.; James Felila, RB, Jr.; Jay Green Jr., RB, Jr.; Ty Rutledge, WR, Sr.; Landen Measom, WR, So.; Logan Parker, TE, Sr.; Zach Larsen, OL, Jr.; Taylor Nelson, LB, Sr.; Chinedu Ahanonu, LB, Sr.; Jalen Russell, CB, So.; Alex Sims, S, Jr.; Kyle Hannemann, S, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Patrick Tyler, QB; Robert Torgerson, DL; Mike Needham, LB
OUTLOOK: SUU always seems to outperform its Big Sky preseason prediction, and last season the Thunderbirds earned a share of its second Big Sky title in four years and reached the playoffs for the third time in five seasons. Senior losses and a difficult conference schedule are going to make it hard to stay at the same level. The defense is especially retooling, although standout LB Ahanonu returns from injury. Zwahlen, last year's backup QB, takes over a veteran offense that has a number of returning weapons in RBs Felila, WR Measom and TE Parker.
HEAD COACH: Jody Sears (18-27, four seasons; 22-46 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 7-4, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/3rd)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Kevin Thomson, QB, Sr.; Andre Lindsey, WR, Sr.; Jaelin Ratliff, WR, Sr.; Wyatt Ming, OL, Sr.; Dariyn Choates, DL, Jr.; George Obinna, DE, Sr.; Immanuel Anderson, OLB, Sr.; Marcus Bruce, OLB, Sr.; Manoah Pearson, ILB, Sr.; Mister Harriel, S, Sr.; Dre Terrell, CB, Sr.; Devon Medeiros, PK, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Jonathan Bade, LT; Lake Aiono, LG; Ben Sorensen, DE
OUTLOOK: An experienced lineup will chase the Hornets' first-ever playoff bid. Dual-threat QB Thomson is back at the controls after leading a stunning turnaround, when the offense went from tying for last in scoring in the Big Sky in 2016 to averaging 37.6 points (No. 5 in the nation) a year ago. Thomson, who missed the last three games because of injury, set the school record with a 171.80 passing efficiency rating while totaling 26 touchdowns with only three turnovers. The defense is coming off a 43-sack season and has plenty of talent with DE Obinna, S Harriel and CB Terrell.
8. MONTANA STATE BOBCATS=
LOCATION: Bozeman, Montana
STADIUM: Bobcat Stadium
HEAD COACH: Jeff Choate (9-13, two seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 5-6, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/6th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Travis Jonsen, QB, Jr. (Riverside College transfer); Troy Andersen, RB, So.; Mitch Brott, OT, Jr.; Lewis Kidd, OT, So.; Alex Neale, C, Sr.; Tyrone Fa'anono, DE/DT, Sr.; Dante Sparaco, DE, So. (Colorado transfer); Bryce Sterk, DE, Jr. (Washington transfer); Zach Wright, DT, Sr.; Derek Marks, DT, Jr.; Tucker Yates, NT, Sr.; Brayden Konkol, LB, Jr.; Jahque Alleyne, CB/S, Jr. (Virginia Tech transfer); Brayden Konkol, S, Jr.; Jered Padmos, P, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Chris Murray, QB; Nick LaSane, RB; Mac Bignell, LB
OUTLOOK: The Bobcats have lost QB Murray to a season-long academic suspension, which severely hampers their bid for title contention. Their potential was evident in last year's close losses to South Dakota State, Weber State and Kennesaw State, which all reached at least the FCS quarterfinals. Jonsen should take over QB duties, although the versatile Anderson, the 2017 Big Sky freshman of the year as a two-way player, will get a look there as well. Choate expects to get impact from a handful of FBS transfers.
9. UC DAVIS AGGIES=
LOCATION: Davis, California
STADIUM: Aggie Stadium
HEAD COACH: Dan Hawkins (5-6, one season; 117-67-1 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 5-6, 3-5 Big Sky (8th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Jake Maier, QB, Jr.; Tehran Thomas, RB, So.; Keelan Doss, WR, Sr.; Jared Harrell, WR, So.; Wesley Preece, TE, Jr.; Nas Anesi, LB, Jr.; Mason Moe, LB, Sr.; Anthony Baumgart, LB Sr.; Isiah Olave, DB, Sr.; Vincent White, DB, Sr.; Ryan Parenteau, DB, Sr.; Max O'Rourke, PK, Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Derek Baljeu, TE; Ryan Bua, LB; Keleen Culberson, DB
OUTLOOK: Hawkins' first season at UC Davis was encouraging last year. In WR Doss, the Aggies boast the top FCS prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft, but are there enough pieces surrounding him to contend in the deep Big Sky race? With QB Maier breaking through, Doss caught 115 passes for 1,499 yards as a junior. Preece takes pressure off Doss as one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the FCS. While the defense has to improve against the run, returning LB Anesi ranked second on the team in tackles last season.
10. CAL POLY MUSTANGS=
LOCATION: San Luis Obispo, California
STADIUM: Alex G. Spanos Stadium
HEAD COACH: Tim Walsh (51-52, nine seasons; 168-134 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 1-10, 1-7 Big Sky (12th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (7 offense/4 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Khaleel Jenkins, QB, Sr.; Joe Protheroe, FB, Sr.; Broc Mortensen, SB, So.; J.J. Koski, WR, Jr.; Harry Whitson, C, Sr.; Tyler Whisenhunt, RG, Jr.; Apefai Taifane, OL, Jr. (West Hills College transfer); Jayson Lee, LB, Jr.; Kitu Humphrey, S, Jr.; Dominic Frasch, CB, Sr.; Mark "Sharky" Reza, CB, Jr.; Casey Sublette, PK, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Jared Mohamed, FB; Joey Kuperman, OL; Mason Montgomery, LB
OUTLOOK: In its 100th season, Cal Poly seeks to rebound from an injured-riddled campaign, when eight starters missed playing time and the Cowboys plunged from seven wins and an FCS playoff berth in 2016. Health is paramount with FB Protheroe, a 2016 first-team All-American (2,461 career yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground), and QB Jenkins, who missed the final six games a year ago. An experienced offensive line will help fuel the triple option offense. The Cowboys may be involved in a number of high-scoring games considering the defense suffered heavy losses. Their season opener is at FCS champ North Dakota State on Sept. 1.
11. NORTHERN COLORADO BEARS=
LOCATION: Greeley, Colorado
STADIUM: Nottingham Field
HEAD COACH: Earnest Collins Jr. (24-53, six seasons; 32-65 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 3-7, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Jacob Knipp, QB, Sr.; Trae Reik, RB, Sr.; Alex Wesley, WR, Sr.; Sam Flowers, WR, Jr. (Ventura JC transfer); Theron Verna, TE, Sr.; Zach Wilkinson, OL, Sr.; Keifer Morris, DL, Sr.; Brent Gilliland, DL, Jr. (Wyoming transfer); Luke Nelson, LB, Jr.; Henry Stelzner, LB, Sr.; Marshaun Cameron, CB, Jr.; Isaiah Swopes, DB, Sr.; Michael Walker, DB, Jr.; Sherand Boyd, Jr., S, Jr.
OUTLOOK: A shoulder injury limited QB Knipp to only 4� games last season and OL Wilkinson missed all of the campaign. Their return gives hope to the Bears returning to their 2015 and '16 levels, when they had a 6-5 record each year. Standout RB Riek and WR Wesley (55 receptions, 1,010 yards) help keep the team senior-led. The leadership is key because the schedule is tough. The Bears' defense ranked 12th in the conference against the run, so improvement is needed. Boyd and Cameron keep them strong on the back end.
12. IDAHO STATE BENGALS=
LOCATION: Pocatello, Idaho
STADIUM: Holt Arena
HEAD COACH: Rob Phenicie (4-7, one season)
2017 RECORDS: 4-7, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Tanner Gueller, QB, Sr.; James Madison, RB, Sr.; Ty Flanagan, RB, Jr.; Mitch Gueller, WR, Jr.; Michael Dean, WR, Jr.; Brian Fineanganofo, OL, Sr.; Rasheed Williams, DL, Jr.; Trevon Aloi, DL, Sr.; Joe Martin, LB, Sr.; Paea Moala, LB, Sr.; Kody Graves, LB, Jr.; Christian McFarland, DB, Jr.; Adkin Aguirre, DB, R-Jr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Skyler Phillips, OL; JonRhyeem Peoples, DL; Mario Jenkins, LB
OUTLOOK: Phenicie, who wasn't hired until late March before his first season, saw his struggling program's potential in an FBS upset of Nevada. New offensive coordinator Mike Ferriter must love the talent in the skills positions, led by QB Gueller, RB Madison and WR Gueller. More pressure is on new defensive coordinator Roger Cooper, whose unit lost its All-American, Jenkins, and needs considerable improvement. The Bengals have one of the more favorable Big Sky schedules because Eastern Washington, Montana, Sacramento State and Southern Utah aren't on it.
13. PORTLAND STATE VIKINGS=
LOCATION: Portland, Oregon
STADIUM: Providence Park
HEAD COACH: Bruce Barnum (12-22, three seasons)
2017 RECORDS: 0-11, 0-8 Big Sky (13th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 10 (3 offense/7 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Davis Alexander, QB, So.; Jalani Eason, QB, So.; Jason Talley, RB, So.; Quinton Baker, RB, Jr. (Western Kentucky transfer); Darian Green, RB, Sr. (Ball State transfer); Isaiah Woods, WR, Jr. (Washington transfer); Charlie Taumoepeau, TE, Jr.; Korbin Sorenson, OL, So.; Josh Brown, OL, Sr.; Kenton Bartlett, DT, Jr.; Anthony Del Toro, DT, Jr.; Kasun Jackett, LB, Sr.; Nicolas Ah Sam, LB, So.; Braxton Winterton, S, Sr.; Artuz Manning, S, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Josh Kraght, WR/QB; Darnell Adams, WR; Randin Crecelius, OL
OUTLOOK: The Vikings and Barnum - the darlings of the Big Sky in 2015 - seek to rebound from a winless campaign, and they have to survive a difficult first half of the schedule. The youth in the offensive backfield will begin to pay off, although former Ball State RB Green will force his way into playing time. The top offensive talent is All-America TE Taumoepeau. The defense was awful last season, but leading tackler Jackett returns at linebacker.
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NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING HAWKS=
LOCATION: Grand Forks, North Dakota
STADIUM: Alerus Center
HEAD COACH: Kyle "Bubba" Schweigert (24-22, four seasons; 46-43 overall)
2017 RECORDS: 3-8, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)
KEY PLAYERS: Nate Ketteringham, QB, Jr. (Sacramento State transfer); John Santiago, RB/KR, Sr.; Brady Oliveira, RB, Sr.; Travis Toivonen, WR, Jr.; Noah Wanzek, WR, Jr.; Alex Cloyd, TE, Jr.; C Patric Rooney, Jr.Mason Bennett, DE, Jr.; Tank Harris, DT, Sr.; Tanner Palmborg, OLB, Sr.; Donnell Rodgers, ILB, Jr.; Everett Williams, ILB, Sr. (Minnesota transfer); Deion Harris, CB, Sr.
THREE KEY LOSSES: Keaton Studsrud, QB; De'mun Mercer, WR; Cole Reyes, S
OUTLOOK: To accommodate pre-existing contracts, UND's games will count in the Big Sky standings for the opponents while the independent Fighting Hawks move toward joining the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020. The Fighting Hawks, who won a share of the Big Sky title in 2016, seek to bounce back from an injury-plagued season, which included the loss of CB Harris. Transfer QB Ketteringham knows the Big Sky from his 16 career starts at Sac State, and all-purpose threat Santiago will terrorize Big Sky opponents for one more season. UND can only make the playoffs with an at-large bid, and the road portion of the schedule is daunting, including trips to Washington and Sam Houston State.