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Eastern picked to win third straight Big Sky title

EWU coach Beau Baldwin doesn't seem to mind the target on his top-ranked football team. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
EWU coach Beau Baldwin doesn't seem to mind the target on his top-ranked football team. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Perfection yields high expectations.

A year after going an unblemished 8-0 in the Big Sky Conference for the first time in school history, the Eastern Washington University football team has been selected by both the media and coaches to win a third-straight title. The league announced the picks Tuesday at the Summer Kickoff in Park City, Utah.

“I don’t shy away from the fact that we appreciate being picked so high,” said Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, who enters his seventh season at EWU. “That means you’ve done good things in the past and it’s nice to see that recognized.”

The defending champions earned 34 of the 36 first-place votes in the media poll, and 11 of 12 in the coaches poll. Montana received a first-place vote in both polls, and Montana was picked first by one media pollster. Eastern’s 464 total votes in the media poll easily outdistanced No. 2 Montana (416) and No. 3 Montana State (364), and the same was true in the coaches poll with voting totals of 144, 130 and 111, respectively.

The Eagles host Montana on Nov. 8, and play at Montana State on Sept. 20. The game versus the Bobcats is a non-conference game, but could come be considered in tiebreakers to determine the Big Sky’s automatic berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivison Playoffs.

Eastern will be trying for a third-straight Big Sky title, which is unprecedented in school history. The Eagles won back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005, and again in 2012 and 2013. In each of the last two years, Eastern has been selected to finish second after earning the top spot following the school’s NCAA Division I title in 2010.

In 2011, a 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. In 2012, the Eagles finished 11-3 overall and advanced to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs, then finished 12-3 overall a year ago and again advanced to the semifinals.

“I also understand what the predictions said in 2011, when we had a close call against Washington, had some injuries and started 0-4,” said Baldwin. “It’s a fine line between winning and losing, especially with the difficult non-conference schedules all of us play, followed by a tough league schedule.”

Six starters are back on offense and another five on defense, plus the team’s punter and long snapper. The 45 returning letterwinners include 22 on offense, 21 on defense and two on special teams. The Eagles return 12 players who earned All-Big Sky Conference honors, including a trio of returning All-Americans.

After summer conditioning, Eastern will begin practices for the 2014 season on July 31 in preparation for the team’s season-opener on Aug. 23 versus Sam Houston State at Roos Field in Cheney. Eastern also plays at home the following week against Montana Western on Aug. 30.