Montana vs Idaho Football 06.JPG

Montana's Samuel Akem, left, is tackled by Idaho defenders during a 2019 game.

MISSOULA — Montana had a tough regular-season schedule in 2019 but still exceeded expectations. The 2020 schedule appears easier, and that should suit a Griz team that has to replace five starters on offense, four on defense and three on special teams.

Montana’s 11 opponents in 2020 went a combined 55-74 (.426) in 2019. By comparison, its 12 regular-season opponents in 2019 finished 87-66 (.569). The Grizzlies’ eight Big Sky opponents in 2020 went 42-53 (.442) overall in 2019 and 30-34 (.469) in conference games.

However, there's been a Big Sky team that comes out of nowhere to finish near the top of the league in recent years. That team in 2019 was Sacramento State, which appeared to be an easy victory for the Griz prior to the season, but Montana ended up losing, 49-22.

The Hornets made the postseason and were one of four playoff teams Montana faced. The Griz went 2-2 against those teams. In 2020, they face only two 2019 playoff teams — Sac State and Montana State — and could potentially be 10-0 heading into the Brawl of the Wild.

The best-case scenario for the Griz in 2020 is an 11-0 regular-season record, their first official Big Sky title since 2009 and a national seed in the playoffs. That's if they answer key questions, their new crop of starters comes together, they avoid major injuries and they don't overlook inferior teams while finding motivation even when it may be hard to find.

The worst-case scenario should be a 7-4 record with just six Division I wins, resulting in Montana missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

Here’s a way-too-early look at Montana’s 2020 schedule.

Vs. Central Washington

The Division II Wildcats finished 7-4 overall. They graduate just 12 seniors, eight of which are on defense. Central Washington returns its starting quarterback and running back and all of its receivers. Unfortunately, a Div. II win won’t count for the Griz toward playoff qualification.

This game is the season opener for both teams and is the first of two consecutive road games for CWU. Montana is 2-0 all-time against the Wildcats.

UM win probability: Heavy favorite

At Missouri State

The Bears graduate 19 seniors from a team that went 1-10 overall. They lose their lone All-American, a long snapper. All six of their All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honorees were seniors, including their starting quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive end.

Missouri State hosts the Griz for its home opener one week after kicking off its season at FBS Oklahoma, which made the College Football Playoff in 2019.

UM win probability: Heavy favorite

Vs. Morehead State

The Golden Eagles posted a 5-7 overall record playing in the non-scholarship Pioneer League. They had nine all-conference honorees, and six of them return, including their leading receiver and top defensive lineman. They also bring back their starting quarterback and running back.

Morehead State’s full schedule for 2020 hasn’t been released yet.

UM win probability: Heavy favorite

Vs. Cal Poly

The Mustangs hired Beau Baldwin, who led EWU to the 2010 national title, after the retirement of 11-year skipper Tim Walsh. He’ll take over a triple-option team that went 3-8, and he could need time to get in the players needed for his air attack. Cal Poly loses four all-league players and returns three in fullback Duy Tran-Sampson, LB Matt Shotwell and DE Myles Cecil.

Cal Poly’s game against Montana will be its third road game in four weeks to open the season. The Mustangs begin with FBS games at Louisiana-Monroe and California before hosting Pioneer League champ San Diego the week prior to Montana and could potentially come to Missoula with a record of 0-3.

UM win probability: Heavy favorite

At Eastern Washington

The Eagles went 7-5 overall, 6-2 in the Big Sky but missed the playoffs after a national runner-up finish in 2018. QB Eric Barriere is their lone returning All-American. EWU graduates 21 seniors and 13 starters, including its entire O-line. The Eagles also lose 10 of their 13 all-league selections, including four-year RB Antoine Custer. They return all-league WR Andrew Boston.

Eastern Washington could be 3-1 heading into the game against Montana, having faced FBS Florida and expected-to-struggle FCS teams in Western Illinois, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. UM backup QB Cam Humphrey handled the Eagles in 2019, but EWU gets a leg up with this game at home.

UM win probability: Slight favorite/toss-up

Bye week

Montana’s bye week comes between two of its projected top-three toughest Big Sky games, after EWU and before Sac State. The other top-three contest will be hosting Montana State. UM will have six regular-season games after the bye, split evenly between home and road.

Vs. Sacramento State

The Hornets lost in the second round of the playoffs after earning the No. 4 seed and a share of the Big Sky title in coach Troy Taylor’s first year. All-American QB Kevin Thomson and RB Elijah Dotson return, as do nine of their 15 all-conference picks. Their loses are mainly in the trenches with two on each line, highlighted by All-American DE George Obinna.

Sacramento State could be riding a three-game win streak coming into the game after playing Idaho State, Dixie State and Southern Utah following a season-opening start against FBS teams San Diego State and Washington. Unlike 2019, Montana gets this game in Missoula.

UM win probability: Slight favorite/toss-up

At Idaho

The Vandals finished 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Sky in their second season back from the FBS. They lose four all-league picks, including WR Jeff Cotton and QB Mason Petrino. Idaho returns five all-conference players — three special teamers and two linebackers, highlighted by Christian Elliss.

Idaho plays at rival Eastern Washington the week before hosting Montana and could end up pouring too much of their energy into that game. The Eagles should be out for revenge against the Vandals after getting upset in 2019, potentially leaving Idaho beaten down and disheartened coming into this game. But the Vandals could still be pumped for another shot at Montana after embarrassing losses the past two seasons.

UM win probability: Favorite

Vs. Southern Utah

The Thunderbirds went 3-9 overall and 2-6 in the Big Sky. They lose quarterback Chris Helbig, their lone All-American in O-lineman Zach Larsen, and will have new offensive and defensive coordinators. Their six returning all-conference picks were either on the third team or were honorable mentions.

Southern Utah could be worn out from being on the road. The Thunderbirds play away from home four out of five weeks in the middle of league play. This game will be the third such road game during that stretch.

UM win probability: Heavy favorite

At Northern Colorado

The Bears have some excitement with the hiring of former NFL star Ed McCaffrey. The question is how long will it take him to right the ship left by Earnest Collins, whose Bears went 2-10. They lose six of their seven all-conference selections, including QB Jacob Knipp and RB Milo Hall.

Northern Colorado hosts Sacramento State the week before hosting Montana and could come into this game banged up and dejected in a long season of struggles. The Bears could also be looking too far ahead to their bye week after this game and come out flat. Montana, too, needs to find motivation in this middle game of three against conference bottom dwellers.

UM win probability: Heavy favorite

At Northern Arizona

The Lumberjacks went 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the Big Sky under first-year coach Chris Ball. They lose longtime QB Case Cookus and four of their seven all-league picks. Returning kicker Luis Aguilar and punter DJ Arnson are both All-Americans, while returning WR Brandon Porter is the other returning all-conference selection.

Northern Arizona hosts Montana one week after hosting UC Davis in its lone stretch of back-to-back home games. The atmosphere of the Walkup Skydome will be unique for Montana but shouldn’t allow the Lumberjacks to overcome their obvious deficiencies.

UM win probability: Heavy favorite

Vs. Montana State

The Cats advanced to the FCS semifinals, finishing 11-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Sky. They return All-American athlete Troy Andersen and five all-league picks. But MSU loses three All-Americans in OL Mitch Brott, DL Bryce Sterk and safety Brayden Konkol. The eight all-conference players lost include offensive weapons Travis Jonsen and Kevin Kassis.

Montana State has two of its bigger league games in the four weeks leading up to Cat-Griz, playing at Weber State and Eastern Washington. The Cats have home games against Idaho State and Idaho after each of those. This game could have conference-title implications for the second season in a row. Montana has lost four consecutive games in the series.

UM win probability: Slight underdog/toss-up

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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