Football season will be here in less than 30 days, and the University of Northern Colorado has a lot to prove this year.
Five games will be played at home and five will be played on the road, seven of which will be Big Sky contests. The Bears have a lighter load this year than last — they face Montana State, UC Davis, Sacramento State, Eastern Washington, Montana and Weber State — but it still won’t be easy.
Northern Colorado was ranked 11th in the Big Sky by members of the media and tied for last by the coaches.
Here are the teams the Bears will face this fall.
Houston Baptist (September 3, Greeley)
UNC will open the season at home against Houston Baptist, a team it visited last year. The Bears outshot the Huskies 45-13, but faced some pressure late in the first half.
HBU went 0-11 last season, so will look to start the season on the right note. Five Husky players were named to preseason All-Southland teams, including linebacker Rodney Dansby and punter Brady Buell.
Dansby returns to the Huskies for his sophomore season after being named to the HERO Sports Freshman All-America team last season. He was a Jerry Rice Award finalist and a second-team All-Conference selection.
Buell, now a senior, was a semifinalist for FCS Player of the Year and was recently named to the 2022 FCS Player of the Year watch list. Buell was also named to the All-Southern Conference first team.
Vic Sealy returns as head coach for the Huskies and hopes to see the team take a step forward. He said at Southland Conference Media Day that the 2021 squad is young, relatively inexperienced and dealing with multiple injuries. Although he was picked to finish last in the Southland, he believes the team will return to its high-powered offense this season.
Wyoming (September 10, Laramie)
It will be the Cowboys’ third straight game after games against UNC, Illinois and Tulsa. Wyoming is coming off a 7-6 season in 2021, including two Mountain West wins. Despite the struggles in conference play, the Cowboys defeated FCS runner-up and UNC rival Montana State by three points.
In the offseason, Chad Muma was taken by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2022 NFL Draft and four others signed free agent contracts. Wyoming’s staff also changed a bit on both ends with several assistant coaching hires and promotions.
The team is relatively young and has lost some starters to the transfer portal. However, some added their own transfers from programs like Alabama and USC.
Running back Titus Swen was named to the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the best RB in college football, and the watch list for the Paul Hornung Award, given to the most versatile player.
Swen was named to the All-Mountain West second team following the 2021 season after rushing for 785 yards and seven touchdowns. He was a member of the special teams squad and also returned 12 punts for 231 yards.
Lamar (September 17, Beaumont)
UNC looks to avenge the 2021 overtime loss at Lamar in a rematch this season. After an embarrassing performance that featured an 80-yard loss on nine penalties, the Bears fell to the Cardinals 17-10. Nearly half of the penalty kicks came within just minutes of each other.
Ed McCaffrey, UNC’s head coach at the time, called the loss “heartbreaking” because of the team’s own problems on the field.
Lamar did not have a great 2021 season and did not win after sweeping the Bears. It has since returned to the Southland Conference and finished second from last.
He has a young team with 41 total returners and 12 starters. Things aren’t looking good on the Bears’ roster. After losing more than three to transfers and graduation, UNC has 45 freshmen — true and redshirt — and 35 seniors.
Idaho State (September 24, Greeley)
Northern Colorado will host Idaho State for homecoming this year. Unlike the women’s basketball team, which is considered the standard in the conference, the Bengals football team was picked to finish last in the preseason poll. They tied with UNC for last in the coaches poll.
The Bengals had a busy offseason hiring Charlie Ragley, formerly an assistant coach at California, and his staff. Ragle announced last week that he has added two assistants. The team has also attracted several new players to the list.
ISU comes in with a 1-10 record, including a 27-17 home win over UC Davis. In the past decade, the program went 6-5 in 2018 and 8-4 in 2014.
The two teams have played only twice since 2014. The last time was in 2019 when UNC won 26-20 in Pocatello. In 2017, the Bears had a one-point win at Greeley.
With the hiring of Ragle, the Bengals hope to right the ship and look to beat UNC for the first time in eight years.
Idaho (October 1, Moscow)
UNC will travel to the University of Idaho this year, marking the first meeting between the two teams since 2019.
The Vandals were picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference, finishing 8th in the coaches poll and 9th in the media poll. They finished 4-7 overall and 3-5 in Big Sky play last season.
Idaho comes into the season with a new head coach and several new assistants. The program has added new players to the roster, but also returns a number of starters. One player to watch is Fa’Avae Fa’Avae, a preseason All-Big Sky selection at linebacker.
Northern Colorado hasn’t played Idaho since 2019, when the Bears won by three points in Greeley. It was the only time the two teams met. Idaho previously participated in the Sun Belt Conference and joined the Big Sky in 2018.
Sacramento State (Oct. 8, Sacramento)
The Bears will play the Big Sky regular season champion Hornets on the road this year. Last season, UNC fell to Sac State in a nail-biter 27-24 at home.
Sacramento State went undefeated in conference play in 2021 and advanced to the FCS Playoffs. Picked to finish No. 2 (coaches) and No. 3 (media) in preseason polls.
Additionally, five players were named to the preseason All-Big Sky team, including quarterback Asher O’Hara, wide receiver Pierre Williams and tight end Marshall Martin. All three earned first-team honors last year, and Martin was an All-America selection.
Sac State leads the all-time series against UNC, 13-1, with the Bears’ only win against the Hornets coming in 2015.
Montana State (Oct. 15, Greeley)
Northern Colorado will host the FCS national runner-up in Greeley this year. Montana State is expected to be one of the best teams in the league again. Despite being a relatively young team, it was picked to finish No. 3 (coaches) and No. 2 (media).
Last time out, the Bobcats beat UNC 40-7 in Bozeman. It was a frustrating game for the Bears and a big win for Montana State, overshadowed by offensive coordinator Max McCaffrey’s incident when he threw a broken clipboard into the stands.
Seven MSU players were named preseason All-Conference selections, including star running back Isiah Ifanse, QB Tommy Mellott and quarterback RJ Fitzgerald. Ifanse and Mellott were selected as All-America honorees and Walter Payton Award watch list players. However, the RB is still recovering from knee surgery and is “month-to-month,” according to 406 Sports.
UC Davis (Oct. 22, Greeley)
The Bears will face another top team in the league halfway through the season when UC Davis comes to Greeley.
The Aggies were picked as the No. 5 finalist in both preseason polls. They are coming off an 8-4 season, including a trip to the FCS Playoffs. UC Davis fell to South Dakota State in the first round and finished 5th in the league.
UNC visited UC Davis last season and lost 32-3 in one of its offensive performances of the season. The Bears had eight total penalties for a loss of 62 yards and never got into a rhythm against the Aggies’ top defense.
UC Davis is expected to have a talented team again this season, with many returners named preseason All-Americans.
Running back Ulonzo Gilliam in particular is expected to have a bigger season. He was named All-Big Sky Preseason Offensive MVP, Walter Payton Award Athlete of the Year and a two-time preseason All-American.
Portland State (November 5, Portland)
UNC will travel to Portland in November to face the Vics again for the first time since 2019. The Bears will look to win their first game against PSU since 2016, a 56-49 overtime win in Greeley.
Northern Colorado is 3-2 against PSU in the last decade, and the last two games were losses for the Bears. Last time out, Portland State won 38-30.
Portland State is also picked to finish near the bottom of the league. The Vics were No. 8 (media) and No. 9 (coaches).
Three players were named to the All-Big Sky prep team, two on defense.
Northern Arizona (November 12, Greeley)
UNC will face NAU in Greeley for the second year in a row, hoping to win two in a row for the first time in series history.
The Bears beat Northern Arizona 17-10 in overtime last year, which led to a touchdown by wide receiver Jaren Mitchell — even though the throw was intended for Dylan Thomas. It was the second of three wins in 2021.
NAU was ranked No. 7 last year after going 5-6 overall and 4-4 in conference play. Picked to finish in the same spot this year, but hopes to surprise the conference. The Lumberjacks landed Phil Steele’s All-Big Sky seven, and he returns 15 starters.
Running back Kevin Daniels returns for his sophomore season in 2021 after earning conference second-team and freshman All-America honors. Daniels rushed for 1,146 yards and was third in the FCS with 114.6 rushing yards per game.
The Lumberjacks lead the series against UNC, 6-15 and 5-4 since 2012.
Eastern Washington (Nov. 19, Cheney)
Finally, the Bears will face one of the most prolific offenses in the 2021 season. Eastern Washington defeated UNC 63-17 at home.
UNC heads into enemy territory to face a team with 13 starters and 47 total wins despite being ranked sixth by the coaches and media polls this year.
Last year, the Eagles finished third in the Big Sky, going 10-3 overall and 6-2. It also made its 15th FCS Playoff appearance in program history.
Long snapper Cody Clements was a third-team All-America on Phil Steele’s preseason teams. He was joined by eight others in the Big Sky special training team.
Eastern Washington has also enjoyed success, winning five conference titles over the past decade.
UNC will open its season on Sept. 3 against Houston Baptist at 2 p.m.