College football in the state of Utah has a fair bit of prestige, thanks to big-time programs BYU and Utah. However, at the FCS level, the state of Utah doesn't have nearly as much national recognition.
Weber State was a moderately successful program for six years under head coach Ron McBride, but struggled last season, and the near future doesn't appear to be too bright for the Wildcats with head coach John L. Smith leaving in the offseason to become Bobby Petrino's interim replacement at Arkansas.
Southern Utah University (SUU) is hoping to garner some respect at the FCS level, as they enter their first season in the Big Sky conference. After spending a fair bit of time in the FCS purgatory known as the Great West Conference, the Thunderbirds opted for an increase in level of competition and national recognition by moving to the respected Big Sky Conference.
The move to a big-time conference (by FCS standards) makes the outlook for SUU football seem pretty optimistic. However, the big question is whether or not the Thunderbirds will be able to capitalize on the major opportunity that lies in front of them.
There are a few factors working in the Thunderbirds' favor this upcoming season, but there are also a few major obstacles for them to overcome. Let's look at each of those.
The first major obstacle is the increased difficulty of schedule. There's a big difference between playing South Dakota and playing Montana. Top Great West teams like Cal Poly and North Dakota have also moved to the Big Sky, so they aren't losing any any of the more difficult games from past seasons; they are just adding even more difficult games on top of those ones.
The other major obstacle is the loss of several key players for the Thunderbirds this past offseason. Running back Austin Minefee, who served as a jack-of-all-trades while amassing nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns last season, is gone. So is his backup Deckar Alexander. Also gone from the offense are SUU's top two receivers from last season, Brady Measom and Jared Ursua. On the defensive side of the ball, the T-birds lost monster defensive lineman Tyler Osborne, as well as star DB's Erron Vonner and Dion Turner. That's a whole lot of key players who won't be on the field for SUU this upcoming season.
However, the T-birds also have some major contributors returning, and with another year of experience under their belt, they could be quite formidable. Chief amongst those is senior quarterback Brad Sorenson. The transfer from in-state powerhouse BYU has had two terrific seasons for SUU so far and will be looked to as the main weapon and leader for the Thunderbird offense this upcoming season. Expect him to improve on his performance from last season, when he accounted for almost 20 total touchdowns.
Also returning is the team's leading tackler from last season, linebacker Chad Hansen. A second consecutive 100-plus tackle season is likely for him, as he will be the focal point of the SUU defense. Also returning for the T-birds is kicker Colton Cook, arguably one of the best kickers in the nation at the FCS level. He was 14 of 19 on field goal attempts last season, with three of those misses coming from attempts of over 50 yards. He is also a great asset in the kickoff game, totaling nine touchbacks last season.
Coach Ed Lamb has some obstacles in front of him to overcome, but with the positive outlook surrounding the program and some key players returning, SUU has a real shot to make their first season in the Big Sky a successful one.