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UC Davis, Sac State football: Could Causeway Classic determine playoff berth in 2019?

Watch UC Davis beat Sac State in the Causeway Classic

The Aggies beat the Hornets in this year's Causeway Classic, Saturday, November 17, 2018, played in Reno due to Sacramento's poor air quality from the Camp Fire in Butte County.
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The Aggies beat the Hornets in this year's Causeway Classic, Saturday, November 17, 2018, played in Reno due to Sacramento's poor air quality from the Camp Fire in Butte County.

One is on a fast-track ascent, rolling momentum in blue and gold, encased in a helmet, shoulder pads and cleats.

The other is in a program reboot, led by a new and ambitious coaching staff dripping of optimism, pedigree and promise.

Football season cannot come soon enough for UC Davis, fresh off its finest season in the 100-year history of the program, or Sacramento State, a program sure to be yanked out of decline by the sheer will of first-year coaches and fifth-year seniors.

The activities started Monday with Big Sky Conference Media Day in Spokane, Wash. Fall practice starts next month. The regular season ends with the 66th Causeway Classic on Nov. 23 between the rivals, and wouldn’t it be grand if a playoff berth was riding on that contest?

It seemed to be in 2017 when Sac State defeated the Aggies, only to have a seven-win season flicker away when the Hornets were passed over for a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth.

Last fall, the Causeway was contested in Nevada, well away from the wildfire smoke that clogged Northern California. UCD celebrated an emphatic 56-13 conquest that crowned the Aggies tri-champions of the Big Sky Conference with Eastern Washington and Weber State.

UCD finished 10-3, its best FCS showing, each victory washing away the grime of six successive losing seasons. The Aggies are projected to finish second this season by Big Sky coaches and media in preseason polling, behind Eastern Washington, which defeated the Aggies twice last season, including the playoffs.

Leading the charge, like he once did as the lead fullback for the Aggies in 1982, is Dan Hawkins.

Last season’s Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year winner operates outside the box. You can talk to the man for two hours without blocking and tackling coming up. World travel, engineering students and the Rolling Stones might, however.

Hawkins disdains dull discussions specific to X’s and O’s. The third-year Aggies boss is a big-time, big-picture thinker and talker. His players soak it up.

“Coach changed the culture at UCD,” said Jake Maier, UCD’s next great passer and the Big Sky Conference preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

UCD receiver Jared Harrell also made the preseason Big Sky team. He will be the lead target after Keelan Doss headed to the NFL.

Said fourth-year starting linebacker Nas Anesi, “I saw the change in culture. A lot of players before didn’t buy in and weren’t on the same page. We are now.”

UCD opens the season at Cal on Aug. 31, a year after giving Stanford a competitive game. This is no gimme for the Bears in Berkeley.

Sac State started the 2018 campaign 2-1 and then spun out with a seven-game losing streak. The wheels fell off amid mounting injuries and sagging morale, marking the end of the Jody Sears coaching era after five mixed seasons.

In came Troy Taylor, the shrewd, brilliant and affable coach whose offenses at Folsom High School, Eastern Washington and Utah gassed and buckled defenses at a dizzying record pace.

Sac State nabbed Taylor from Utah of the Pac-12, where he was the offensive coordinator. The move sent a jolt through the Big Sky. He was signed to an unheard of seven-year contract, which speaks of the commitment of both sides to get this thing up and running again.

Taylor brought in longstanding Folsom coaches and friends Kris Richardson, Bobby Fresques, Sam Cole and Chris Parry for the ride. Folsom has won four state championships this decade under a lot of those coaches.

But this is no pal party reunion. Taylor is as demanding as he is appreciative.

“The tenets, values and principles are all the same,” Taylor said of leading any program at any level of play. “We’ll build this program like we did at Folsom.”

That means superb conditioning, getting athletes the ball in open space and attacking the end zone with all manner of fury.

The Hornets are a preseason pick by coaches to finish 11th out of 13 teams in the Big Sky. If Sac State players bristle at the slight, and they do, they can do something about it — win.

The challenge is to get the Hornets back on the radar, to recruit the heck out of Sacramento and return to the postseason for the first time since 1988, when the program was in Division II with UCD.

If spring drills were an indicator, the Hornets figure to be fast-forward fun. Drills were spirited, and players soaked in instruction. New blood translates to new hopes and dreams.

“I’m really excited about this season and working with coach Taylor,” said Sac State senior quarterback Kevin Thomson, a third-year starter. “He’s had success wherever he’s been. We want to push the tempo, go fast, run a lot of plays, score a lot of points.”

And rush for some touchdowns, too.

That means more of Elijah Dotson, a preseason All-Big Sky running back out of Antelope High who rushed for 1,154 yards and nine touchdowns last fall as a sophomore.

Taylor believes in the forward pass, but he also appreciates a powerhouse back. Last season, Dotson rushed for 234 yards against Montana and 183 against Portland State.

The Hornets open at home Aug. 31 against Southern Oregon, a must-win out of the gate against a smaller program. And then, it heats up with games at Arizona State on Sept. 6 and at Fresno State on Sept. 21.

2019 Big Sky Conference Coaches Preseason Football Poll

(With first-place votes and total points)

1. Eastern Washington (10) 140

2. UC Davis (2) 127

3. Weber State 124

4. Montana (1) 104

5. Montana State 100

6. Northern Arizona 88

7. Idaho State 72

8. Idaho 65

9. Cal Poly 56

10. Portland State 42

11. Sacramento State 40

12. Southern Utah 38

13. Northern Colorado 19

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