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EWU is media’s pick to win Big Sky

Coaches pick Montana State; teams meet Sept. 19

UPDATED: Tue., July 21, 2015

Eastern Washington football coach Beau Baldwin has never felt the burden of high expectations, and he isn’t about to start.

Despite losing several key performers from last year’s team, Baldwin’s Eagles were picked to finish first by the media and second by the coaches in the Big Sky Conference preseason polls announced Tuesday.

“I know they (the preseason polls) don’t mean anything going forward, buy they do mean something in terms of the respect others have for your program,” said Baldwin, who’s led the Eagles to three straight conference titles.

“A lot of guys have worked hard for that respect,” Baldwin said.

But if the pollsters are correct, this year’s race figures to go down to the wire between and Eastern and Montana State. The Eagles won the media poll, while the Bobcats got the nod from the coaches by one point.

That didn’t surprise Baldwin, who said he has a lot of respect for MSU coach Rob Ash, whose club has reached the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs three of the last five years and returns nine offensive starters.

“They’re going to be a great team,” Baldwin said of the Bobcats, who reached the postseason last year.

MSU and EWU each received six first-place votes in the coaches’ poll, but the Bobcats had the edge in total points with 134 to the Eagles’ 133. The teams also tied in first-place media votes with 17 apiece. Eastern earned total 553 points in the media poll and MSU had 541.

In others words, the margin was as razor-thin as last year’s meeting in Bozeman, which the Eagles won 52-51 on a touchdown and two-point conversion with 27 seconds left. That game didn’t count in the conference standings – just like this year’s matchup set for Sept. 19 in Cheney.

Montana was tabbed third in both polls, receiving one coach’s first-place vote and five on the media side. In the coaches’ poll, Cal Poly, Northern Arizona and Idaho State followed UM. ISU tied for third with Montana in the media poll with five first-place votes and was followed by Cal Poly and NAU with one vote each.

In addition to the MSU game, Eastern will have home-field advantage against Cal Poly and NAU, but must travel to ISU and Montana.

“It’s definitely an advantage to have those games at home,” said Baldwin, whose team hasn’t lost a conference game at home since 2011, a string of 16 straight.

The Eagles finished the 2014 season 11-3 overall and garnered their 17th winning season in the last 19 years, including playoff berths in eight of the last 11 seasons. The 34 victories in the last three seasons represent the best three-year stretch of success in the school’s football history, and fourth-best in the Big Sky.

Eastern returns 13 starters.

Big Sky Conference play will begin on Saturday, Sept. 12. All conference teams will play eight league games.

Eastern opens the season Sept. 5 at Oregon.

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