Big Sky Conference

Northern Arizona tops Big Sky preseason polls

on

PARK CITY, Utah — Jerome Souers is flattered to garner the respect of his peers, but he knows preseason polls are nothing more than a nod of the cap and a rough prediction of the future.

Northern Arizona’s 19th-year head coach was the man of the morning on Tuesday at the Big Sky Conference Kickoff media conference here after his Lumberjacks garnered the top spot in the preseason media and coaches polls. It is the first time NAU has swept both preseason polls.

“It’s humbling and it’s an honor to be recognized among the elite in this conference,” said Souers, who last led the Lumberjacks to the Big Sky title in 2003. “I love this conference and I have a great deal of respect for the coaches and the programs in the Big Sky. Will that help us win a game? No. Will that help galvanize our fan base, our alumni, the people who follow us? I hope so. If we do it right, we will use it for those reasons. But our football team has to maintain the hunger and the focus that we have demanded since the end of last year to improve to the level we have to be at.”

A season after posting a 7-4 record that included a season-ending loss to Southern Utah that likely denied the ‘Jacks a playoff berth, NAU received eight of a possible 25 first-place votes in the media poll to earn 287 points, four more points than Montana. The Griz received seven first-place in the media poll to finish with 283 points. NAU earned eight of 13 first-place votes in the coaches’ poll for 132 points. Montana and Portland State tied for second in the coaches’ poll with 121 points, although the Vikings received two first-place votes while Montana was not picked to win the league by any of the Big Sky coaches.

“To me, the polls are what you’ve done in the past and there are no carry overs in football,” said Montana second-year head coach Bob Stitt, who led his team to an 8-5 record that included a first-round playoff win over South Dakota State in his first season in Missoula. “It’s nice that people respect your program, what you did the year before, what you have coming back but you’ve got to get the job done in the season and in the end, hopefully, you are sitting where you want to be.”

Montana has won at least a share of 16 Big Sky championships since 1993 and 19 league titles overall. The Grizzlies won or shared all but three league titles between 1993 and 2011 but have not earned any sort of hardware in half a decade.

“It might sound cocky and full of ourselves to say it, but at Montana, winning the Big Sky title is the goal every single year,” Montana senior quarterback Brady Gustafson said on Monday. “That’s the fans’ expectations and that’s our expectations. And the flipside of that is if we aren’t expecting that out of ourselves, what are we trying to do here? Every team’s goal should be to win a Big Sky title and a national title so all of those things are the baseline at Montana.”

Eastern Washington picked up five first-place votes in the media poll and two in the coaches’ poll to come in at third and fourth, respectively. The Eagles claimed shares of Big Sky titles in 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014 and are the last team Big Sky team to win an FCS national title (2010).

“It shows the true top to bottom greatness in this conference,” said EWU ninth-year head coach Beau Baldwin, the three-time Big Sky Coach of the Year. “Seldom are the preseason polls an accurate reflection of the postseason standings. Over the last number of years it’s been that way and that’s because it’s hard to predict week in and week out what is going to happen because this league is so strong.”

North Dakota — a team that was left out of the playoffs despite an FBS win, a 7-4 record and three straight victories to end the season — was picked to finish fourth by the media and fifth by the coaches. The Fighting Hawks picked up two first-place votes from the media and one from the coaches.

“That’s definitely higher than we were picked to finish in either of my first two seasons at North Dakota so I guess that means we are earning a little more respect around the league,” said UND third-year head coach Bubba Schweigert as his team enters its fifth season in the league.

Weber State posted five league wins in Jay Hill’s second season last fall, a three-win improvement from Hill’s first at the helm in Ogden. His Wildcats used the top-ranked total defense in the Big Sky to finish 6-5 overall. Weber finished sixth in each poll, garnering no first-place votes in either poll.

“That’s probably where we should be based on our progress from last year and our improvement from two years ago and having 17 returning starters,” Hill said. “We have to continue to win football games if we are going to continue to move up that poll.”

A season ago, Portland State was picked to finish 12th in the league in both polls while Southern Utah was picked to finish eighth by each the media and the coaches. The Thunderbirds went on to win their first Big Sky title in program history while the Vikings posted nine wins, including a pair over FBS schools and five more against ranked FCS opponents en route to earning the only playoff seed given to a Big Sky school a season ago.

In the most recent polls, the Vikings garnered respect from the coaches with a second-place prediction that included two first-place votes. The media ranked Portland State fifth, although PSU did receive the remaining three first-place nods.

“If I’d have read these polls last year, I would be calling you up to ask if there is anything I can do? Anything so you don’t vote us up that high? An interview?” said PSU head coach Bruce Barnum, last season’s FCS National Coach of the Year. “It’s cool for the kids but now I have to make them work even harder. As soon as they read that we weren’t picked in double figures, it’s a new world, another piece to a new puzzle. I’m happy for them because they have earned some respect in the last 12 months.”

Southern Utah qualified for the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history in 2013 only to rank dead last in the FCS in total defense and finish 3-9 in 2014. Last season, the Thunderbirds won seven league games behind the elite production of three NFL players (Big Sky Defensive MVP James Cowser along with draft picks safety Miles Killebrew and LeShaun Sims). With the departure of the trio along with quarterback Ammon Olsen moving on to the Oakland Raiders meant Southern Utah again garnered little respect in the polls. The T-Birds were voted seventh in each.

“It doesn’t change our mindset,” said new head coach DeMario Warren who took over for Ed Lamb in the off-season. “No matter if we were first or 13th, we still have to finish out summer strong, finish fall camp and play Utah on September 1. All that really doesn’t matter.

“We were picked eighth last year and we won the league so maybe we are gaining some respect.”

Montana State, the champions of the Big Sky six times since 2002, suffered its first losing season in 14 years last fall. Despite the presence of All-Americas at quarterback (Dakota Prukop), tight end (Beau Sandland) and left tackle (John Weidenaar) and an offense that led the league by averaging 42 points per game, the Bobcats’ dismal defense resulted in just three league wins. The 5-6 campaign resulted in the firing of Rob Ash after nine years at the helm and the transfer of Prukop to Oregon.

The Bobcats came in eighth in the media poll with 157 points, four ahead of Cal Poly. MSU tied with Southern Utah for seventh in the coaches’ poll with 73 points, seven more than Tim Walsh’s Mustangs.

“That’s probably about where I would put us,” first-year Montana State head coach Jeff Choate. “We have a lot of unknowns, a lot of things to prove to ourselves through the next 29 practice opportunities we have starting in August. I would be probably more nervous if they had us in the top two or three.

“When you look at the strength of the league, there are six teams in the preseason Top 25 and we play five of them. It’s a tough schedule, a very competitive league. You have to play well on the road if you want to have any chance because the home teams win so much in this conference. You have to win the games you are supposed to win, win at home and you have to play well enough on the road to steal a couple of wins.”

Media Poll

1. Northern Arizona (8) …………………. 287

2. Montana (7) ………………………………… 283

3. Eastern Washington (5)…………….269

4. North Dakota (2) ……………………….. 262

5. Portland State (3) ……………………… 252

6. Weber State ……………………………….. 174

7. Southern Utah ……………………………..162

8. Montana State …………………………….. 157

9. Cal Poly …………………………………………153

10. Northern Colorado……………………… 111

11. Idaho State …………………………………….58

12. UC Davis ………………………………………..56

13. Sacramento State ………………………. 50

Coaches Poll

1. Northern Arizona (8) ………………….. 132

T2. Portland State (2)……………………… 121

T2. Montana …………………………………….. 121

4. Eastern Washington (2) ……………. 112

5. North Dakota (1) ………………………….105

6. Weber State …………………………………..83

T7. Southern Utah …………………………….73

T7. Montana State …………………………….73

9. Cal Poly ………………………………………… 66

10. Northern Colorado ……………………. 43

11. Sacramento State ………………………. 30

12. Idaho State …………………………………..24

13. UC Davis ……………………………………….23

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

Recommended for you