WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY COUGARS
PLAYERS TO WATCH: After head coach and professional coffee cooler Mike Leach and his air-raid offense fled to Mississippi State, running back MAX BORGHI seemed poised for a bigger role last season. But injuries struck and Borghi only played one game in his junior season. A healthy Borghi should command the WSU offense — racking up stats on handoffs, tosses, screen passes and in slot receiver looks, potentially playing his way into the NFL. Speedster TRAVELL HARRIS, entering his senior season, should help extend the offense vertically and make his mark on punt and kick returns.
THE BIG GAME: To start Pac-12 play, the Cougs will take on the preseason-ranked No. 24 USC Trojans at Martin Stadium in a nationally televised game on Sept. 18. An upset win would bring some serious momentum for the Cougs in Rolovich's first full season, with key winnable games at Utah and California immediately following.
BEST ROAD TRIP: The Apple Cup is typically a great game for Coug fans, but given Seattle's weather in late November and the Cougars recent struggles in the matchup — losing each of the last seven years while never eclipsing 17 points — how about a trip down to Tempe? Escape the coming Inland Northwest chill on Oct. 30 for what should be a great game against the preseason-ranked No. 23 Sun Devils.
EASTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY EAGLES
PLAYERS TO WATCH: ERIC BARRIERE is that guy. There is a strong chance Barriere takes home the Walter Payton Award for best FCS player after this season. Despite going off last season, Head Coach Aaron Best sees an improved player this season. "I think the best ball he's ever played for us was in the [first full scrimmage of summer camp]. There's just a legitimate confidence about him now." Outside of Barriere, Eastern has three more preseason All-Big Sky picks. 6-foot-4 redshirt senior wide receiver TALOLO LIMU-JONES got a nod after averaging 108.4 receiving yards per game in the abridged season. Also a redshirt senior, offensive tackle TRISTEN TAYLOR was selected after receiving All-Big Sky honors for the fourth year in a row and giving Barriere ample time in the pocket to lead the offense. The final preseason All-Big Sky pick was defensive end MITCHELL JOHNSON, who threatens constant pressure to opposing quarterbacks.
THE BIG GAME: Homecoming is always a big game for fans and players, but it's rarely a big game on its own. This year, it's different. Eastern will face off against Weber State (Oct. 23), the preseason favorite to win the Big Sky. Not only would an Eastern loss spoil Homecoming, but it would also jeopardize their hopes of reaching the FCS tournament.
BEST ROAD TRIP: For an excuse to go to Vegas, fans planning ahead circled the season opener at UNLV tonight, on Thursday, Sept. 2 — one of the first college football games of the season. Eastern has a legit chance to upset the D-1 Rebels, with Barriere leading their high-octane offense.
UNIVERSITY OF IDAHO VANDALS
PLAYERS TO WATCH: With standout linebacker Christian Elliss signing as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings this past spring, inside linebacker TRE WALKER is poised to be the backbone of the Vandal defense. And Walker's more than qualified: He earned five All-America honors and was unanimously voted to First-Team All-Big Sky, despite playing in just four games in last year's six-game season. Walker also led the Big Sky in tackles per game, with a whopping 13.5 — and was nominated as this year's preseason Big Sky Defensive MVP. Also watch out for WR HAYDEN HATTEN, who averaged over 100 receiving yards per game last season, despite the uncertainties at quarterback. And linebacker CHARLES AKANNO should have a good showing this fall, after racking up two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in six games last season.
THE BIG GAME: The battle on the red turf. Idaho has taken two of the last three matchups against rival Eastern Washington. Winning this Oct. 16 matchup wouldn't only give them bragging rights, it would serve as momentum to finish the season strong — especially with key late-season matchups such as Montana State (Nov. 13) and Idaho State (Nov. 20), both crucial for making it to the FCS tournament.
BEST ROAD TRIP: For fans looking for an intense road trip, the end-of-season "Battle of the Domes" against Idaho State in Pocatello on Nov. 20 could be the game that determines whether the Vandals make or miss the FCS tournament.
WHITWORTH UNIVERSITY PIRATES
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Monroe, Washington native, JAEDYN PREWITT assumed quarterback duties this past season, passing for a whopping 1,074 yards, 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions in just four games. Look for the 6-5 Prewitt to build on that effort for his senior season. His favorite target, ETHAN PELOQUIN, will also seek to build on last year's strong season, where he had seven touchdowns in only four games. On the defensive side, cornerback BRYCE HORNBECK had an impressive three interceptions in four games, including one that went for a touchdown.
THE BIG GAME: As with most years for Whitworth, Linfield College will present the biggest challenge. Whitworth will have to bus to McMinnville, Oregon, for the Oct. 9 matchup against the 2019 Northwest Conference champion wildcats. Linfield took the last matchup against Whitworth back in 2019, winning 38-31 in overtime.
BEST ROAD TRIP: In the last full season Whitworth competed, their smallest margin of victory was against the George Fox Bruins. Located in Newberg, Oregon — with too many vineyards and wineries to count — a trip for the Nov. 13, end-of-season game doesn't have to be just about football.