PARK CITY, Utah — Despite an off-season filled with changes, the favorites in the Big Sky Conference remain the same.
On Tuesday, the Big Sky announced its preseason predictions and the two squads who have won or shared every league title this decade remain the popular choice.
Eastern Washington, Big Sky champions four of the last five years including an FCS national title in 2010, was picked by the media to win the league. The Eagles and Bobcats received 17 first-place votes a piece in the media poll but the Eagles earned the edge in points with 553 to MSU’s 541.
“It’s a compliment to our team as a whole,” said 2012 and 2013 Big Sky Coach of the Year Beau Baldwin. “It’s a testament to what we were able to do when Vernon was out. We were able to be in all four games and win three with Jordan. If we would have gone 1-3 in that stretch, I doubt they’d feel the same way. It’s a compliment to the entire program and what we’ve built. We are humbled by it.
Eastern has won the last two Big Sky titles outright, but much of that had to do with All-America quarterback Vernon Adams. The two-time Walter Payton Award runner-up transferred to Oregon in the off-season, leaving the keys to the Eagles’ prolific offense in the hands of junior Jordan West. West will be aided by the return of EWU’s top three receivers, including All-America Cooper Kupp, the preseason Big Sky Offensive MVP.
“We know this doesn’t get us anything but I’m in the mindset that…some people say this means nothing but this does matter. It means you have earned some respect and done some great things to earn it,” Baldwin said.
The Bobcats, who shared three straight league titles between 2010 and 2012, were selected as the favorites by the league coaches. Each squad got six first-place votes in the coaches’ poll but MSU earned the distinction of pre-season favorite thanks to an edge in points of 134-133.
“The word I’ve been using is respect and this means a ton to me to know that the rest of the coaches do respect our program to that level and voted us to be the top team in the league even though it was a close margin,” said MSU ninth-year head coach Rob Ash. “To just be there is very rewarding to feel that way. Like I always say, it doesn’t help us one bit during the season. We get no points, no head start for this but it really is satisfying, very rewarding.”
Montana State returns almost its entire record-breaking offense from a season ago. All-Big Sky preseason quarterback Dakota Prukop is getting All-America attention and he will operate behind an offensive line that features a pair of All-America candidates in senior left tackle John Weidenaar and junior offensive guard J.P. Flynn. Montana State will see the most change on defense. Ash elevated former Big Sky Defensive MVP Kane Ioane to his defensive coordinator position. The Bobcats brought in seven transfers to aid a defense that gave up 34 points per game last season. Now the Bobcats, who have had a two-year hiatus from hanging banners, are the favorites again.
“I think every team in the league should feel a bull’s eye because in this league, you can win every week or you can lose every week,” Ash said. “But I do think the poll always reinforces your team’s confidence when you are voted to be at the top. And confidence helps you win close games, so that’s one of the greatest positives about the poll.”
The Bobcats and the Eagles face off in Cheney, Washington on Sept. 19 in a non-conference tilt. EWU defeated MSu 52-51 in a thriller in Bozeman last fall.
Montana, a perennial power that has made the playoffs all but three seasons since 1993 and won or shared 13 league titles since 1995, were picked third. The Grizzlies, who begin the Bob Stitt era on Aug. 29 against four-time defending national champion North Dakota State, had their 2011 league title shared with MSU vacated by the NCAA. Montana earned five first-place votes from the media to total 492 points.
Montana should have one of the best defenses in the league despite the loss of 2014 Big Sky Defensive MVP Zack Wagennman to the NFL. Montana returns standout senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes along with a trio of stud senior linebackers in Jeremiah Kose, Herbert Gamboa and Kendrick Van Ackeren. Offensively, UM will need to acclimate to Stitt’s spread up-tempo attack under a new quarterback but the senior wide receiver of Jamaal Jones and Ellis Henderson should ease the process.
“I don’t know how the team is going to take it but we just don’t put too much stock into it,” said Stitt, who spent 15 seasons at Division II Colorado School of Mines before jumping to the Big Sky. “We need to be on top of the final poll, not the preseason poll. What I’ve been telling people today is that we won the league (Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) at Mines three times and we weren’t pick to win it once.”
Cal Poly was picked fourth by the coaches and received the first-place vote of Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer. The Mustangs were fifth in the media poll with 446 points and garnered one first-place vote.
A season ago, Cal Poly defeated Montana and Montana State in consecutive weeks only to lose to Idaho State and UC Davis down the stretch to miss the playoffs for a second straight season. CP returns most of its offensive line along with quarterback Chris Brown, one of the most important and electrifying players in the FCS. Last season, Brown rushed for a Big Sky quarterback record 1,285 yards and 17 touchdowns operating Cal Poly’s triple option.
“In my opinion, 2015 doesn’t matter but from an overall program standpoint, it gives you some perspective with what you are trying to do,” said Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh, who’s led the Mustangs to a 17-7 mark in the Big Sky since joining before the 2012 season. “For the players who know that going in, it probably provides some confidence.”
Last season, Idaho State saw a resurgence after a dormant decade, surging to an 8-4 record. But the Bengals missed the playoffs narrowly and now must look for a replacement for All-America quarterback Justin Arias. ISU was the fourth-place pick by the media and the No. 6 pick in the coaches’ poll.
The Bengals lose Arias, the nation’s leading passer, but they return four of five starters on what Kramer calls his best offensive line ever. ISU also returns senior running back Xavier Finney, the league’s leading rusher, and All-Big Sky receiver Madison Mangum.
“It’s like cave diving: you never know what’s going to be in there because there’s just a lot of darkness,” Kramer said. “At quarterback, we haven’t seen a snap for whoever our starting quarterback is so I wouldn’t pick us first, I wouldn’t pick us last. I wouldn’t pick us anywhere.”
Northern Arizona is 18-6 over the last three seasons in the Big Sky, including a playoff berth in 2013. The Lumberjacks have been knocking on the door of the league’s top tier and are expected to be in a similar position this fall. Jerome Souers’ charges were picked fifth by the coaches and sixth by the media. NAU received the other first-place vote and 399 points in the media poll.
NAU has one of the stoutest defenses in an offensively oriented league. The Lumberjacks are led by Marcus Alford, a two-time All-Big Sky selection that earned preseason All-Big Sky honors on Monday as well.
“I know that the fans and the media people pay attention to those kinds of things because there’s not a lot to think about this time of year,” said Souers, who will enter his 18th season in Flagstaff. “But I hope our players pay attention to it. They’ve been working really hard this off-season and we’ve evolved last fall going into this season with what we want to do. I think we are a lot closer as a team than we were last year. Everything you do, you hope it translates to more consistency and more success.”
Sacramento State, a 7-5 team in Jody Sears’ first season, was picked to finish seventh in both polls. Southern Utah, a playoff team in 2013 before a 3-9 campaign that included the worst statistical defense in the country, was picked eighth in both polls.
Sacramento State loses Garrett Safron, the nation’s leader in total offense, at quarterback and first-team All-America wide receiver DeAndre Carter, now of the Baltimore Ravens. Sac does return Darnetll Sankey, a hulking 260-pound middle linebacker who’s on the FCS Defensive Player of the Year watch list.
“It’s not surprising because that’s where we finished up,” said Sears, who got a contract extension in the off-season and had his interim tag removed. “Losing two really good players, it’s not surprising but at the same time, we feel that’s one of the things we can’t control so we aren’t going to put a lot of stock into it. We can’t control what people are going to write about us or say about us.”
Southern Utah took the handcuffs off the ball control offense that helped it post an 8-5 record two seasons ago in favor of a spread attack that emphasizes quarterback Ammon Olson’s formidable arm. The results were mixed as the open attack averaged 28 points with Olson at the helm but also hindered a defense that finished dead last in the country in yards allowed in part because of extended time on the field. Despite the adversity, defensive end James Cowser broke the Big Sky single-season record for tackles for loss in a season with 28.5. He returns for his senior season and is the Big Sky’s preseason Defensive Most Valuable Player.
“I will tell our players that the poll is a perfect and accurate representation of where the opponents see you, whether it’s media or coaches or if there were a player poll, where it would be the same thing,” said SUU eighth-year head coach Ed Lamb. “It’s not something we will spend discussing as a team, that’s for sure.”
First-place votes in parentheses. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own teams.
2015 Preseason Football Polls
|1.||Montana State (6)||134|
|2.||Eastern Washington (6)||133|
|1.||Eastern Washington (17)||553|
|2.||Montana State (17)||541|
|3.||Idaho State (5)||446|
|5.||Cal Poly (1)||433|
|6.||Northern Arizona (1)||399|