While the Eastern Washington football team was hard at work Friday morning, the Eagles were getting a quite a payoff.
Minutes apart, the Eagle program got two big pieces of news: a No.1 ranking in the FCS preseason media poll and the announcement of a home-and-home series with three-time national champion North Dakota State.
They’ll have to prove it on the field, but the top ranking in The Sports Network poll was the most tangible news for an Eastern program that’s reached the FCS semifinals the past two seasons.
Said coach Beau Baldwin: “It means nothing in terms of our 2014 record, but it does mean something as far where our program is at.”
“So many people have been such a big part of that, and I’m appreciative to the players, coaches and everyone else who’s been a part of that,” Baldwin said.
This is Eastern’s fourth No. 1 ranking in five seasons; the Eagles finished the 2010 season No. 1 and as national champions, and was ranked No. 1 during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
North Dakota State was ranked No. 2 in the medial poll, while four Eagle opponents are in the top 25. Sam Houston State, Eastern’s season-opening opponent on Aug. 23, is ranked 17th.
Three Big Sky Conference foes are also ranked: Montana is No. 5, Montana State 18th and Northern Arizona 23rd.
EWU’s three playoff opponents from a year ago are all ranked in the top 13 – Jacksonville State (No. 6), South Dakota State (No. 10) and Towson (No. 13).
The No. 1 ranking completes a near-sweep of the top spot as selected by the national media. Three publications – Lindy’s, Sporting News and Athlon – have Eastern as No. 1, while in the coaches poll released Aug. 4, the Eagles were second behind NDSU.
The Eagles also are picked to repeat as Big Sky Conference champions after last year’s perfect 8-0 season.
Eagles, Bison to meet in 2016, 2017: For four years, a dream FCS matchup has been just that, but Friday’s announcement guarantees at least two meetings between the top teams in recent history.
Eastern and NDSU – the only FCS teams to win a national title since 2009 – will play a home-and-home series beginning in two years. The Bison and Eagles will play in Fargo on Sept. 10, 2016, then face off in Cheney on Sept. 16, 2017.
Eastern won the 2010 title, including an overtime victory over the Bison in the quarterfinals, but NDSU has won every playoff game since en route to titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Although the Eagles have advanced to the semifinals of the playoffs the last two seasons, they’ve fallen short of facing the Bison in the title game.
Said EWU athletic director Bill Chaves: “We have such tremendous respect for what the Bison have accomplished over the past several seasons. By playing a series like this, we hope that it can help to continue to elevate the FCS brand throughout the country.”
North Dakota State’s last playoff loss came in 2010 at the hands of the Eagles, 38-31 in overtime. Eastern needed a late scoring drive to extend the game, scored to open OT, then forced a fumble to clinch the win.
The Eagles finished the 2013 season 12-3 and a perfect 8-0 in the Big Sky Conference for the first time in school history. Eastern opened the season with a 49-46 victory over 25th-ranked Oregon State, and went on to advance to the FCS semifinals for the third time in four years.