Southern Utah was supposed to be a football patsy when it joined the Big Sky Conference in 2012. The program had bounced around four different conferences in four decades prior to joining the league, and few thought a team that had never been to the FCS postseason would find success in new terrain.
However, the Thunderbirds have done pretty well since joining their current conference. They have made the postseason twice and even won the Big Sky Championship in 2015.
Southern Utah backslid a little bit in 2016, going just 6-5, but it was Demario Warren’s first season in control. Can Warren have better success in his second season in Cedar City?
2016 Southern Utah Football Season In Review
Southern Utah entered the season with a lot of fresh faces on both sides of the ball, so it wasn’t a surprise to see some struggles. It didn’t help that two of the three non-conference opponents on the Thunderbirds’ schedule were FBS teams.
The Thunderbirds faced the two in-state powerhouses, BYU and Utah, and lost by a combined total of 61-7. They were a very different team on the road than they were away from home, too. Southern Utah was 4-1 in front of its home spectators, with the lone loss being by one point to Weber State, but it went 2-4 on the road.
Patrick Tyler was overshadowed by some of the higher-profile quarterbacks in the conference, but he was more than competent in 2016. He threw for 230 yards per game and tallied a 23-to-6 touchdown to interception ratio. His favorite target was Mike Sharp, who caught 75 passes for 898 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The running game was very productive, as Malik Brown averaged 5.6 yards per carry and tore up the opposition in the team’s wins. He was unable to get going in the squad’s losses, though. In the five defeats, Brown managed just 60 yards per game.
Despite Warren’s background as a defensive coordinator, Southern Utah really struggled on that side of the ball in 2017. The Thunderbirds gave up 455 yards per game, and the secondary was terrible. Southern Utah was just one of two pass defenses to allow over 300 yards per game in the FCS last season.
2017 Southern Utah Football Season Preview
Tyler is back and will be even better with a full offseason under his belt with the Thunderbirds. He joined the team in Summer 2016 and only had a little bit of time to learn offensive coordinator Justin Walterscheid’s system. Walterscheid has noted that he is able to open up the playbook now that Tyler is more seasoned, which should make this passing attack better.
The Thunderbirds will be without their top weapon from 2016, though. Sharp has moved on to the NFL, so another option will need to emerge. Ty Rutledge was hampered by a foot injury last season and will likely be the No. 1 receiver. He will also see some action running the Wildcat.
Unlike 2016, the strength of the team should be the defense this year. Linebacker Mike Needham and defensive tackle Robert Torgerson were named preseason first-team All-Big Sky by the media and will be the leaders of this group. Needham was the team’s leading tackler last year, and Torgerson picked up 12 tackles for loss and five sacks. The unit will also boast three starters who earned All-Big Sky accolades in the past.
It’s hard to criticize kickers too much at the FCS level, but Keita Calhoun has been shaky during his three seasons with the team. He has hit less than 60 percent of his field goals and is just 3-of-9 from 40 yards or longer in his college career. Missed kicks can often lose close games.
2017 Southern Utah Football Schedule
September 2: Southern Utah at Oregon
September 9: Southern Utah at Stephen F. Austin
September 16: Southern Utah vs. Northern Iowa
September 23: Southern Utah at Sacramento State
October 7: Southern Utah vs. Cal Poly
October 14: Southern Utah at Weber State
October 21: Southern Utah vs. Eastern Washington
October 28: Southern Utah at Northern Colorado
November 4: Southern Utah vs. North Dakota
November 11: Southern Utah at UC Davis
November 18: Southern Utah vs. Northern Arizona
FCS Pick ‘Em Games To Watch
The Thunderbirds might have a better team than last season, but they could very well end up with a worse record. Southern Utah could easily lose all three non-conference games, and it misses the weaker Big Sky opponents.
The squad’s matchup against Cal Poly on October 7 could be the pivotal moment of the season. The team has a bye the week before and will have to play the two best squads in the conference back-to-back following this game. The Thunderbirds need this one badly. With an extra week to prepare, back them in your FCS Pick ‘Em Contests.