Eastern Washington believes it has the means to compete for a Big Sky Conference title.
The league’s head coaches and media members agree.
The Eagles were picked first in both the preseason Big Sky Conference coaches and media polls released Monday. It’s the first time the program was first in both polls since 2014.
Defending co-champion Weber State and Northern Arizona were picked second and third in both polls, respectively.
Idaho, making its return to the Big Sky Conference after 22 years at the FBS level, was voted fourth by coaches and fifth by the media.
Second-year EWU head coach Aaron Best, said he appreciates the preseason respect, but believes over the half of the conference’s teams can challenge for Big Sky crown.
Eight teams earned first-place votes in the media poll.
“At this point a year ago, (defending co-champion) Southern Utah was picked sixth.” Best said.” Polls are great. They’re a conversation piece, but at the end of the day each game in this highly competitive league is what determines the outcome.”
A year after a 7-4 season and an FCS playoff snub, EWU, which finished No. 22 a season ago, welcomes back 17 starters and 28 seniors.
Idaho finished 4-8 last year in its final year in the Sun Belt Conference. Sixth-year head coach Paul Petrino said the Vandals are aiming a Big Sky title and a playoff berth.
The Vandals return 11 starters.
“Early on, the (polls) don’t really matter,” Petrino said. “We’re going to try and win the league, that’s our goal, and do everything we can to get into the playoffs. That’s what it’s all about and what’s what we want to make sure happens.”
UC Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss and Montana linebacker Josh Boss were named the conference’s preseason offensive and defensive players of the year. Davis Doss, the 2017 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, tallied 1,499 receiving yards last season.
EWU landed three players on the Big Sky’s preseason teams, including quarterback Gage Gubrud, defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli and running back Antoine Custer.
Gubrud, the 2016 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, has 9,441 yards of total offense, 8,568 passing yards and is 17-6 as a starter. Tiuli was a third-team All-American in 2016 before missing the 2017 due to injury.
Custer, a dual threat out of the backfield, is also a dangerous returner with 2,154 all-purpose yards.
“It’s an honor to be recognized by the coaches and everyone, and I don’t it puts more pressure on us,” Gubrud said about his team’s preseason ranking. “We’ve had those expectations since the beginning and have been working hard.”
Idaho also had three players voted to the preseason team, including linebacker Kaden Ellis, offensive lineman Noah Johnson and punter Cade Coffee, a Lakeland High graduate.
EWU opens its season at home Sept. 1 against Central Washington. Idaho opens its season on the same date at Fresno State.
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