Montana State is picked to defend its Big Sky title, but Eastern isn’t far behind
It feels good now, but a Big Sky Conference title in November will feel better.
Despite coming off a 6-5 season, the Eastern Washington University football team has been picked to finish second in the Big Sky Conference, the league announced Tuesday (July 17) at the Summer Kickoff in Park City, Utah.
Two-time defending Big Sky Conference football co-champion Montana State has been selected first by the media and the coaches in the polls. A year ago, the Eagles were picked to win the league title after they had won the 2010 Big Sky championship and went on to win the NCAA Division I title. But an 0-4 start and a rash of injuries led to a 6-5 finish overall and 5-3 mark in the Big Sky in 2011
“It feels good to be respected by the media and your peers, but preseason rankings are a reflection of things you’ve done in the past,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin. “We’re proud of our past, and our players have done a good job over the years to get us to this position. But when all is said and done, it all has to do with what we accomplish in the fall.”
Montana State, which has finished 7-1 in the conference in each of the past two seasons and advanced to the playoffs, earned seven first-place votes in the coaches poll and a total of 136 points. In the media poll, the Bobcats received 30 of 40 first-place votes and 502 total points.
Eastern garnered four first-place votes and 131 total points from the coaches. In the media poll, the Eagles earned three first-place votes and 453 total points.
“We’re veteran enough to give us a chance,” said Baldwin, whose team returns 15 starters and 48 total letterwinners. “But in this league there is such a fine line to be at .500 and to make a run at the playoffs. There is not a team in the Big Sky that can’t get into the playoffs if the right things happen. It’s a tough conference week-in, week-out. The preseason picks are great and all, but it means very little.”
Eastern senior wide receiver Nicholas Edwards, who is also in Park City with Baldwin, knows there is a fine line between finishing 6-5 and making the FCS Playoffs again. But he thinks he knows the difference.
“We know, moving forward, we have to be more disciplined in the way we start games and finish them off,” Edwards said. “Our whole mindset right now is to start fast and finish strong, and that’s the mentality we have heading into the year.”
Perennial FCS power Montana was tabbed third, and EWU plays both UM and MSU early in the season. Eastern plays the Grizzlies on Sept. 29 in EWU’s home opener at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash., and plays at Montana State on Oct. 13 in Bozeman.
Portland State was selected fourth, while league newcomer Cal Poly was selected fifth. The Eagles won six of their last seven games in 2011, with the lone loss to PSU. Eastern ends the regular season at PSU on Nov. 17, and hosts Cal Poly on Nov. 3 in a non-conference game. A year ago, Eastern beat the Mustangs 53-51 in triple-overtime.
The polls featured 13 teams for the first time. Southern Utah and North Dakota joined the league as full members on July 1. Cal Poly and UC Davis joined as football affiliate members. All four teams played in the Great West Conference in 2011.
North Dakota, EWU’s opponent on Oct. 10 at Roos Field, was selected sixth by the media and 10th by coaches. Weber State, which is coached by former Eastern assistant Jody Sears, was tabbed sixth by the coaches and seventh by the media. Eastern plays at Weber State in EWU’s league opener on Sept. 22.
Northern Arizona was selected seventh by the coaches and ninth by the media and Southern Utah was eighth in both. Eastern doesn’t play NAU and plays at SUU on Oct. 27 in Cedar City.
Sacramento State, Eastern’s Homecoming opponent on Oct. 20 in Cheney, was voted ninth by the coaches and 10th by the media. Idaho State, led by former EWU head coach Mike Kramer, was selected 11th by the coaches and 12th by the media. Eastern doesn’t play the Bengals this season.
Eastern’s Nov. 10 opponent at Roos Field, UC Davis, was tabbed 11th by the media and 12th by the coaches. Northern Colorado, which is a third team EWU doesn’t play, rounded out both polls.
Montana State is slated to return seven starters on offense and nine on defense. The Bobcat offense will be led by junior quarterback DeNarius McGhee, the 2010 Big Sky Offensive MVP, and junior running back Cody Kirk. MSU’s defense features returning All-American linebacker Jody Owens and All-American senior defensive tackle Zach Minter.
Montana State is gunning for a third straight trip to the postseason The Bobcats beat New Hampshire in a second-round game last season before falling to Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals.
Eastern Washington is led by Edwards, a consensus All-American in 2011 for EWU. The Eagles return eight starters on offense, and should be bolstered by SMU transfer quarterback Kyle Padron. EWU’s defense, which returns seven starters, is led by All-Conference cornerback T.J. Lee III and senior linebacker Zach Johnson.
Montana shared the conference title with Montana State in 2011, the Grizzlies’ 16th conference title in the last 19 seasons. Montana finished 11-3, falling to Sam Houston State in the semifinals of the playoffs.
Portland State enjoyed a seven-win season in 2011 after winning just two games in Nigel Burton’s first season, and he has the Vikings moving toward a playoff bid in 2012. PSU returns seven starters on offense and four on defense.
Cal Poly finished 6-5 in 2011 under veteran coach Tim Walsh, a former Portland State head man. The Mustangs are led by electrifying quarterback Andre Broadous and linebacker Kennith Jackson.
The 2012 season begins on Thursday, Aug. 30 when Eastern plays at Idaho. The first conference games are on Saturday, Sept. 22.
All Big Sky teams will play eight conference teams. A new tiebreaker formula has been developed to break ties for the automatic bid to the Division I playoffs.
2012 Preseason Football Polls
1. Montana State (30) – 502
2. Eastern Washington (3) – 453
3. Montana (5) – 442
4. Portland State – 334
5. Cal Poly (1) – 323
6. North Dakota – 295
7. Weber State (1) – 284
8. Southern Utah – 258
9. Northern Arizona – 242
10. Sacramento State – 191
11. UC Davis – 135
12. Idaho State – 115
13. Northern Colorado - 63
1. Montana State (7) – 136
2. Eastern Washington (4) – 131
3. Montana (1) - 126
4. Portland State – 90
5. Cal Poly – 86
6. Weber State – 81
7. Northern Arizona – 75
8. Southern Utah (1) – 74
9. Sacramento State – 71
10. North Dakota – 68
11. Idaho State – 31
12. UC Davis – 30
13. Northern Colorado - 14