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FCS Season Preview: Great West

All-America wide receiver Tysson Poots believes Southern Utah will win the title.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - And for our next magic trick ... we're going to pick the winner of the Great West Football Conference.

That's not easy to do with the way the five-team conference in the Football Championship Subdivision has been bunched up in recent seasons.

There's been a different champion in each of the past four seasons, and last year's race was particularly close. No team was better than 6-5, no team worse than 4-7, and UC Davis reigned with a 3-1 conference mark, followed by North Dakota, South Dakota and Southern Utah at 2-2 each and Cal Poly, the 2008 champion, in last place at 1-3.

UC Davis probably would have been a clear favorite to repeat as champion this season had its terrific quarterback, Greg Denham, not decided to forgo his final season to pursue a career in the ministry. Nonetheless, Great West coaches picked the Aggies first in their preseason poll.

Cal Poly has the most returning starters among conference teams, but can it go from worst to first after disappointing in coach Tim Walsh's first season last year?

Southern Utah, behind All-America wide receiver Tysson Poots, believes it will win the title, but that's something the Thunderbirds have never done.

North Dakota probably has a better shot than South Dakota because of its young talent, but who knows what will happen in this back-and-forth conference? Count everybody in ... and nobody out.

History is on the side of UC Davis and Cal Poly, but if Southern Utah is ever going to knock down the door, it's this season. The Thunderbirds are 6-20 in Great West games since conference play began in 2004, with last year's 2-2 mark their best one. Poots says his team has to play better in pivotal conference games.

"Now I think that we know we can play with the teams that we play against," he said. "We know that we're as big as them and sometimes as fast as them. It takes that mental focus to bring you to the top sometimes."

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2010 Great West Football Conference race.

The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:

1. Southern Utah
2. UC Davis
3. Cal Poly
4. North Dakota
5. South Dakota

Offensive Player of the Year: WR Tysson Poots, Southern Utah

Defensive Player of the Year: CB Asa Jackson, Cal Poly

1. SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS (5-6 overall; 2-2 Great West)

COACH: Ed Lamb (9-13 in two seasons at Southern Utah)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Tysson Poots, Sr. (85 receptions, 1,081 yards, 15 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: CB Colin Pretlow, Sr. (82 TT, 4 INTs, 7 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
QB Brad Sorenstam, So. (BYU transfer)
QB J.J. Mayer, R-Fr.
RB Major Gray, Sr. (121 carries, 490 yards, 7 TDs)
RB Austin Minefee, Jr. (99 carries, 544 yards, 1 TD; 23 receptions, 229 yards, 4 TDs)
RB Decker Alexander, Jr. (injured last season)
FB Tui Siliva, Sr. (8 receptions, 51 yards)
WR/PR Fesi Sitake, Sr. (79 receptions, 848 yards, 9 TDs; 14.3-yard punt return average, 1 TD)
WR Jared Ursua, Jr. (26 receptions, 239 yards, 2 TDs)
TE Abbel Aiono, Jr. (13 receptions, 105 yards, 1 TD)
LT Brock Christensen, Jr.
LG Zach Brackus, So.
C Gavin Farr, So.
RG Trevor Schauerhamer, Jr.
RT Brandon Beddes, Jr.
NT Nick Garcia, Sr. (22 TT, 2.5 TFL)
DT Cody Larsen, So. (30 TT, 5.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks)
DE Cody Larsen, So. (27 TT, 2 sacks)
OLB Akeem Aniofowoshe, Sr. (68 TT, 3 PBU, 4 FR, 1 FF, 1 blocked kick)
MLB Troy Bunting, Sr. (54 TT, 3 TFL)
MLB Drew Willard, Jr. (60 TT, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FF)
SS Erron Vonner, Jr. (68 TT, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF)
SS Tyson Turley, Jr. (28 TT, 1 blocked kick)
FS Matt Holley, So. (26 TT, 1 INT, 1 FR)
CB Dion Turner, Jr. (61 TT, 1 INT, 1 FR, 1 FF)
CB Myles Crawford-Harris, Jr. (29 TT, 3 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
PK Brock Miller, R-Fr.

OUTLOOK: The Thunderbirds are working to keep inexperience on the offensive and defensive lines from holding them back. Of course, that's a major concern for any team. The 6-foot-5, strong-armed Sorensen appears ready to replace QB Cade Cooper, who threw for 2,988 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. Sorensen's transition is helped by a wealth of talent at the skill positions. Wide receiver tandems don't get much better than Poots, a nominee for the Walter Payton Award, sponsored by Fathead.com, and Sitake, who's also a standout punt returner. Top RBs Gray and Minefee are back, as is 2008 rushing leader Alexander, who was injured last season. Southern Utah gets into a lot of shootouts, and that's something the defense hopes to change. The Pretlow- led secondary is particularly experienced, allowing Aniofowoshe to move from safety to linebacker. In fact, the Thunderbirds are a deeper team all around, giving them hope of winning their first Great West title. They were the only conference team to beat UC Davis last season, but have to visit their California rival on Oct. 30

2. UC DAVIS AGGIES (6-5 overall; 3-1 Great West)

COACH: Bob Biggs (130-66-1 in 17 seasons at UC Davis)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RT Mark Tos, Sr.

DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Eric Sobotka, Sr. (32 TT, 5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 FF, 1 blocked kick)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
QB Randy Wright, R-Fr.
QB Austin Heyworth, So. (7 of 9 for 82 yards and 2 TDs)
RB Joe Trombetta, Sr. (119 carries, 395 yards, 4 TDs; 30 receptions, 206 yards, 1 TD)
RB Josh Reese, Jr. (68 carries, 375 yards, 2 TDs)
FB Ishman Anderson, Jr.
WR/PR Sean Creadick, Sr. (39 receptions, 466 yards, 5 TDs; 4.7-yard punt return average)
WR Elon Wyatt, So.
TE Dean Rogers, Sr. (29 receptions, 326 yards, 2 TDs)
LT Wesley O'Brien, R-Fr.
LT Sean Davies, So.
LG Jimmy Kunkel, R-Fr.
LG Ivan Perez, So.
RG Al Doiron, R-Fr.
RG Ray Wilburn, So.
DT Jacob Maxson, Jr. (36 TT, 7.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 FR)
DT Andrew Benjamin, Sr. (23 TT, 3.5 TFL)
LB Dozie Amajoyi, Sr. (50 TT, 2 sacks)
LB Marshall Congdon, Sr. (33 TT, 3 TFL, 1 FR)
SS Danny Hart, Sr. (53 TT, 4 QBH, 3 FR)
SS Byron Gruendl, So. (23 TT)
FS Kevyn Lewis, So. (30 TT, 5 TFL, 2 sacks)
CB Marcus North, Sr. (missed last season)
PK Sean Kelley, Jr. (12 of 15 FG, 52 long)
P Colton Schmidt, So. (39.1-yard punt average)

OUTLOOK: The big question is whether the Aggies can replace QB Greg Denham, a two-year starter. Wright has been named the starter for the Sept. 4 opener at Cal. Great West rivals also are well aware of Heyworth. When Denham was injured against Portland State last season, Heyworth stepped in and led a fourth-quarter rally to claim conference offensive player of the week honors. The Aggies lost seven all-conference players in addition to Denham, who made the second team. The versatile Tombretta has led the team in rushing each of the past three seasons and Reese raised his play last season. The loss of WRs Chris Carter and Bakari Grant is significant, with Creadick now the go-to receiver. Tos is perhaps the best offensive lineman in the conference, although the run game struggled last season. The graduation losses included LB Mike Morales, the Great West Defensive Player of the Year. Sobotka hopes to generate a consistent pass rush. Kelley was named the Great West Preseason Special Teams Player of the Year. Four of the Aggies' first five games are on the road.

3. CAL POLY MUSTANGS (4-7 overall; 1-3 Great West)

COACH: Tim Walsh (4-7 in one season at Cal Poly; 121-89 in 19 seasons)

STARTERS RETURNING: 19 (11 offense/8 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Tony Smith, Sr. (112 of 291 for 1,618 yards, 15 TDs and 8 INTs; 113 carries, 230 yards, 5 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: CB/PR Asa Jackson, Jr. (48 TT, 3 TFL, 2 INTs, 6 PBU; 15.5-yard punt return average)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
QB Andre Broadous, So.
FB Jake Romanelli, Jr. (107 carries, 492 yards, 2 TDs)
FB Jordan Yocum, Sr. (115 carries, 459 yards, 1 TD)
Slotback David Mahr, Jr. (16 carries, 48 yards, 1 TD)
WR Dominique Johnson, Sr. (43 receptions, 741 yards, 6 TDs)
WR Eric Gardley, Sr. (11 receptions, 203 yards, 1 TD)
RT Art Munoz, Sr. (injured last season)
RG Will Mitchell, Sr.
C Hal Kelley, Sr.
LG Maurice McClure, Jr.
LT Scott Winnewisser, Jr.
DT James Chen, Sr. (27 TT, 2.5 TFL)
DT Sullivan Grosz, R-Fr.
NG Erich Klemme, Jr. (38 TT (5.5 TFL, 2 sacks)
DE Kyle Murphy, Jr. (Santa Rosa transfer)
DE Matt Singletary, Jr. (Baylor transfer)
DE Gavin Cooper, Jr. (29 TT, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 3 PBU)
DE Brandon Roberts, Jr. (25 TT, 2 PBU)
DLB Kenny Jackson, So. (58 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 FR)
LB Marty Mohamed, Sr. (93 TT, 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 PBU)
LB Johnny Millard, R-Fr.
S Scottie Cordier, Sr. (38 TT, 4 INTs, 2 PBU)
S Greg Francis, Jr. (32 TT, 3 INTs)
CB Bijon Samoodi, So. (44 TT, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
CB Nico Molino, So. (Northern Arizona transfer)
P/PK Chris Pinto, Sr. (8 of 13 FG, 42 long)

OUTLOOK: The way Walsh's first season in San Luis Obispo ended must have been particularly damaging to the Mustangs' psyche. Or has it been motivation all offseason? After six straight seasons of at least seven wins, the Mustangs ended 2009 with a four-game losing streak, and they allowed 97 points over the final two games. The defense should bounce back with a better front seven, getting linebacker-turned-defensive-end Cooper back from an injury, Murphy and Singletary transferring into the program, and Jackson and Mohamed returning as a solid combination at linebacker. Jackson is a shutdown cornerback and just might win a game as a punt returner. The spread triple-option offense troubles opponents because it relies heavily on fullbacks, and bruisers Romanelli and Yocum combined for 951 yards rushing a year ago. Mobile QB Smith, who's been pushed by Broadous, gets back a big-play threat in Johnson (17.2 yards per catch). After going 0-6 on the road last season, the Mustangs could be decimated by a five-week road swing to Texas State (Sept. 18), McNeese State (Sept. 25), Fresno State (Oct. 2), Old Dominion (Oct. 9) and Southern Utah (Oct. 16), which is their first Great West game.

4. NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING SIOUX (6-5 overall; 2-2 Great West)

COACH: Chris Mussman (12-9 in two seasons at North Dakota)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: TB Mitch Sutton, So. (149 carries, 689 yards, 6 TDs; 27 receptions, 280 yards, 1 TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: CB/KR Dominique Hawkins, Jr. (61 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 1 blocked kick; 17.7-yard KO return average)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
QB Jake Landry, Sr. (178 of 301 for 1,968 yards, 12 TDs and 9 INTs; 85 carries, 217 yards, 2 TDs)
FB Catlin Solum, Jr.
RB Jake Miller, Fr.
WR Ryan Dressler, Sr. (23 receptions, 150 yards, 1 TD)
WR Chris Anderson, Jr. (17 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD)
WR Greg Hardin, R-Fr.
LT Creighton Schroyer, Sr.
LG Keith Queoff, Sr.
C/LG Ian McGurran, So.
RG Emmett Lynch, So.
RT Joe Kleason, R-Fr.
RT Connor McKendry, Jr. (injured last season)
WR Chris Anderson, Jr. (17 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD)
DE Broc Bellmore, Jr. (15 TT, 4 QBH, 4 blocked kicks)
DE Ross Brenneman, So. (25 TT 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PBU)
NG Ty Boyle, Sr. (19 TT, 2 FF, 2 blocked kicks)
ILB Curtis Dublanko, Sr. (59 TT, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FC)
ILB Paul German, Sr. (32 TT, 2 TFL, 1 FR)
OLB Ryan Kasowski, Sr. (35 TT, 7.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks)
OLB Ross Cochran, Sr. (33 TT, 4.5 TFL, 3 QBH, 1 FR)
FS Kris Ankenbauer, Sr. (56 TT, 3 PBU, 2 FR)
SS Joel Schwenzfeier, Sr. (59 TT, 8 TFL, 5 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FF)
CB Mitch Kudrna, Jr. (32 TT, 3 PBU)
P Brett Cameron, So. (44.9-yard punt average)

OUTLOOK: The Fighting Sioux responded well against a tougher schedule last season and were competitive within Great West play. QB Landry was solid in replacing Danny Freund and Sutton was named Great West Newcomer of the Year with a superb freshman season. Both will operate behind a veteran offensive line, although Landry has to develop chemistry with some new starting receivers. The defense is a veteran group and Mussman is stressing more of an aggressive approach out of the 3-4. Kasowski is a leader at linebacker and Hawkins is one of the Great West's top defensive backs. The kicking game will change after Brandon Hellevang earned second-team all-conference honors as both a place-kicker and punter last season. If the offense takes the next step, the Fighting Sioux should be a title factor.

5. SOUTH DAKOTA COYOTES (5-5 overall; 2-2 MVFC)

COACH: Ed Meierkort (44-23 in six seasons at South Dakota; 99-78 in 15 seasons overall)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)

OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Chris Ganious, Jr. (148 yards, 828 yards, 4 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: ILB Adam Broders, Jr. (78 TT, 4 TFL, 1 PBU)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS:
QB Dante Warren, Jr. (12 of 15 for 127 yards)
QB Brandon Gorsuch, Jr. (Arizona Western transfer)
FB Erik Helland, Jr.
WR Tom Flanagan, So. (45 receptions, 530 yards, 4 TDs)
WR Dustin Nowotny, Jr. (31 receptions, 337 yards, 2 TDs)
WR Will Powell, So. (14 receptions, 200 yards, 4 TDs)
WR Matt Kerswill, R-Fr.
TE London Landry, Sr. (24 receptions, 248 yards, 3 TDs)
LT Tom Compton, Jr.
RG Brent Johnson, Jr.
C Tim Ross, So.
RT R.J. Polley, Jr.
DT Jesse Weisbrod, Jr.
DE Sidney Bazemore, Jr.
ILB Shea Williams, Jr. (67 TT, 1 PBU)
OLB Andrew Meier, Jr. (13 TT)
SS Shane Potter, Jr. (67 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 PBU)
FS Jim Thompson, Jr. (59 TT, 2 INTs, 5 PBU)
CB Marquis Butler, Jr. (Utah State transfer)
CB Dametrius Turner, R-Fr.
DB Dion Price, Jr. (20 TT, 3 PBU)
PK Kevin Robb, Fr.
P Cole Zwiefelhofer, So. (41.4-yard punt average)

OUTLOOK: After the defense dropped off last season, Meierkort has brought in a new defensive coordinator, Chuck Morrell, who had success on the NAIA level. The Coyotes used the spring to get adjusted to Morrell's style and now are ready to build on 2009, which ended with wins over Southern Utah and Cal Poly. The defensive line has all new starters and will be vulnerable. The defensive leaders are at linebacker (Broders and Williams) and in the secondary (Potter and Thompson). The Coyotes are young all around, with a lot of influential juniors. They include Ganious, the Great West rushing champion last season. He will have to carry the offense while either Warren or Gorsuch settles in at quarterback. The Coyotes had a 4-1 home record in each of the past three seasons. Their road schedule is difficult, including season-opening visits to UCF (Sept. 4) and Minnesota (Sept. 11).

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director


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