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 Eagles coach Beau Baldwin: “It means nothing in terms of our 2014 record, but it does mean something as far where our program is at.”
This is Eastern’s fourth No. 1 ranking in five seasons; the Eagles finished the 2010 season No. 1 as national champions, and were ranked No. 1 during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
North Dakota State was ranked No. 2 in the medial poll, while four EWU 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.
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 make dates
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 all of its playoff games 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.