MISSOULA — It was a season to remember in Missoula as the Montana Grizzlies football team advanced to the FCS national championship game for the first time since 2009.
Now that the season is over with, let's take a look at what's next and some of the storylines heading into this offseason.
It all starts with the head man of the program in Bobby Hauck, who's future has yet to be announced, or determined, as to whether or not he'll be back in 2024.
Hauck's four-year contract he signed back in March of 2020 officially expires on Jan. 31, which, believe it or not, is exactly three weeks away.
Hauck has made statements throughout the season alluding to next season, making one think he wants to return. After all, he led his alma mater back to the biggest game of the year all while winning the Big Sky Conference crown once again, and a decision regarding his future will need to be solved soon as the Grizzlies gear up to run it back next season.
"Yeah, I think we're where we should be," Hauck said after UM's loss to South Dakota State in the championship game. "I mentioned this in the locker room, in 2018, five seasons ago, we didn't look like we do now. Physically or in the ability to perform, you know, this senior class, the guys we've added on, they won a lot of games culminating with this appearance in national championship game. They have an understanding that we expect to win and you know, I think they have passed that on to everybody in the locker room."
Speaking of next season, the schedule in 2024 sure proves favorable for Montana as they aim to make a repeat run.
The Grizzlies will play 12 games next season instead of the typical 11, with seven of them home games.
On paper, UM will be favored in arguably every matchup, with the road game at Montana State on Nov. 23 highlighting the schedule at a point where Montana could be unbeaten and ranked No. 1 or No. 2 should things play out to chalk.
Other games on the schedule to keep an eye on include a road non-conference game at North Dakota on Sept. 7, which made the playoffs this year, plus a road game at Eastern Washington — a place UM has never won since the Eagles installed red turf in 2010 — and a home contest with Weber State, with the Wildcats and Eagles serving as two programs and rivals with UM that the Grizzlies didn't see in 2023.
UM will open with Missouri State on Aug. 31, a team that went 4-7 last season. They'll then see Morehead State (4-7) on Sept. 14 and Western Carolina, which finished 7-4 last season, will visit Missoula on Sept. 21 to round out the four-game non-conference slate.
In Big Sky play, UM opens at EWU and hosts Weber State on Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, respectively, while the Grizzlies will get a rematch against the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks on Oct. 12 in Missoula, as NAU was one of just two teams to beat UM in 2023.
The bye week will be followed by road games at Northern Colorado (0-11) on Oct. 26 and at Cal Poly (3-8) on Nov. 2. UC Davis (7-4) which missed the playoffs this past season will travel to Misssoula on Nov. 9 followed by a home game against Portland State (5-6) on Nov. 16 before the 123rd Brawl of the Wild.
WHO STAYS, WHO GOES?
But for it to play out, the biggest question, is who will be wearing maroon and silver next season?
Offensively, starting quarterback Clifton McDowell announced his transfer on Tuesday, but should the rest stay and no one else leave, UM returns almost every starter and a number of backups on that side of the ball. Aside from McDowell, other starters that won't return include center AJ Forbes and left tackle Chris Walker, two of UM's five team captains this past season who have exhausted their eligibility.
As of Wednesday though, no others have announced they're leaving, as the Grizzlies are set to return freshman standout running back Eli Gillman plus veterans Xavier Harris and Isiah Childs, wide receivers Junior Bergen — UM's return specialist and dynamo — plus Aaron Fontes and Keelan White, starting tight end Evan Shafer along with key offensive linemen in Brandon Casey, Journey Grimsrud, Liam Brown, Cannon Panfiloff and Declan McCabe.
Other key backups like wide receivers Drew Deck, Sawyer Racanelli and Ryan Simpson and tight ends Erik Barker and Jake Olson, not to mention budding quarterback Keali'i Ah Yat, are also slated to return.
Defensively is where it'll be tricky, as the Griz lose seven starters, many of whom were multi-year stalwarts.
That includes the all-Montana trio linebacking core of Levi Janacaro, Braxton Hill and Tyler Flink, Big Sky defensive player of the year in defensive tackle Alex Gubner, cornerback Corbin Walker and safeties Nash Fouch and TraJon Cotton, plus fellow safety Garrett Graves who started a number of games in his career and was a heavy rotational player.
How they replenish all of those minutes lost will be an important note to follow, whether that be through the portal, or the development of Montana's current roster.
But the Grizzlies are set to return a number of important pieces as well, including breakout talents and stars in cornerback Trevin Gradney, safeties Ryder Meyer and Jaxon Lee, and linebacker Riley Wilson, as well as other key rotational starters or backups in linebacker Ryan Tirrell and defensive ends Hayden Harris, Kale Edwards, Henry Nuce and Garrett Hustedt, as well as corners Jace Klucewich and Ronald Jackson Jr.
Plus on the special teams front, UM will be looking to replace kicker Nico Ramos and punter Travis Benham, who both exhaust their eligibility, though Grant Glasgow handled kicking duties for most of the season for the Grizzlies until Ramos took over late in the season.
"Never be satisfied, work hard every day," Hill said about his advice to younger players coming up. "Coach Hauck's gonna demand that and that's why we're here today. You know, never be satisfied, work hard year-round.
"And you're gonna have the time your life without even knowing it each and every day. Just enjoy being a Grizzly. Just embrace all the moments you get with your brothers. Work hard for these coaches, be prideful, represent Montana as best you can across your chest."
So with all of those ingredients, the time starts now, as the Grizzlies march toward their season opener on Aug. 31, and a potential repeat run to Frisco next January.