PARK CITY, Utah – The coaches and the media who cover them have picked Eastern Washington to finish second in the Big Sky Conference football race.
Which is nice and nothing more, EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said Tuesday, minutes after the poll was released.
“It feels good to be respected by the media and your peers,” Baldwin said at the Summer Kickoff event in Park City. “But really, all preseason rankings are just things you’ve done in the past.”
Coming off a 6-5 season and fielding a veteran lineup, the Eagles finished second behind two-time defending conference co-champion Montana State in both polls. Montana, the other co-champion and a semifinalist in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, was third in both polls.
In the media poll, MSU easily took the top spot with 30 of 40 first-place votes and 502 points overall. Eastern received three first-place votes and 453 points. Montana picked up five first-place votes but only 442 points.
EWU finished a much closer second among the coaches. While MSU took seven of 13 first-place votes and 136 points, the Eagles were right behind at four and 131, respectively.
Portland State and Cal Poly finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in both polls.
Montana State returns 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.
Baldwin could see the reasons for the voters’ support of Eastern: a national title in 2010, a winning season last year despite a spate of injuries, and a strong group of returning players.
“We’re veteran enough and you can see that,” Baldwin said. “We have chance in this league, but it’s such a fine line between being at or below .500 and making the playoffs.”
Eastern starts fall camp Aug. 8 and opens the season Aug. 30 at Idaho. Conference play will begin Sept. 22 at Weber State, which was picked seventh by the media and sixth by the coaches.
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.
“I think the whole thing is exciting,” Baldwin said of the expanded conference. “Adding the teams that we did puts us on a national level.”
More importantly, Baldwin said, “We can arguably be one of the strongest conferences in the country some years,” which may mean more playoff spots – up to four per year if things fall right.
And even in July, that means a lot more than a preseason poll.