For two days, downtown Spokane will be the epicenter of Big Sky Conference football.
Each of the league’s 13 head coaches and two players from each school will be in front of dozens of cameras and reporters at the Davenport Grand Hotel on Sunday and Monday as part of the annual Big Sky Football Kickoff.
Defending Big Sky champion and Football Championship Subdivision runner-up Eastern Washington will be represented by third-year head coach Aaron Best and a pair of senior captains, defensive tackle Dylan Ledbetter and tight end Jayce Gilder.
Idaho, heading into its second FCS season since dropping down from the Football Bowl Subdivision, will be represented by head coach Paul Petrino, All-Big Sky first-team offensive lineman Noah Johnson and defensive back Lloyd Hightower.
The preseason Big Sky media and coaches polls and preseason All-Big Sky teams will be released Monday.
Player and coach interviews will be streamed live Monday at 9 a.m. on Pluto TV, channel 531.
Here are five things to watch at the two-day media event:
Welcome back, Troy
Three years ago, Troy Taylor was a first-year Eastern Washington quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator fresh out of the California high school ranks.
Now he’s the head coach at Sacramento State, trying to turn around one of the conference’s downtrodden programs.
Taylor, who spent the past two seasons in the Pac-12 as the offensive coordinator at Utah, was named the Hornets’ coach in December.
He returns to the Spokane area where, in 2016, his EWU offense led the nation in passing (401 yards per game) and reached the FCS semifinals.
Will EWU be No. 1 in the Big Sky polls again?
The Eagles have almost annually received the preseason No. 1 nod from coaches and media in the 2010s, and with with the return of a wealth of talent and experience – dynamic quarterback Eric Barriere, an ultra-experienced offensive line and hard-hitting linebacker Chris Ojoh to name a few commodities – it will likely happen again.
But rising UC Davis and two-time defending champion Weber State – both programs which shared the crown with EWU in 2018 – aren’t slouches, either, and have the attention of Big Sky and national prognosticators.
Third-year head coach Dan Hawkins returns throngs of starters on both sides of the ball for UC Davis, including the reigning Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Jake Maier.
Weber State head coach Jay Hill has been putting out one of the nastiest defenses in the country, a trend that won’t likely change this fall.
Maier or Barriere will likely be named the preseason Offensive Player of the Year. Montana linebacker Dante Olson – an All-American and Buck Buchanan Award finalist last season – is essentially a lock for preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
Sixth-year quarterbacks aplenty
Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus and EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud were the faces of the 2018 Big Sky Football Kickoff in its first year in Spokane
The FCS All-Americans were entering their respective fifth-year senior campaigns that were ultimately cut short due to injury, a year in which the Big Sky lost roughly half its quarterbacks to season-ending injuries.
Both were granted a sixth year of eligibility earlier this year, along with cannon-armed Northern Colorado quarterback Jacob Knipp.
Gubrud is now a graduate transfer quarterback at Washington State.
Cookus is representing NAU for a second time in Spokane and Knipp – a star when healthy – is representing Northern Colorado.
Idaho’s take on the conference after rough return
Idaho was among the Big Sky football kingpins before making the move to the FBS in 1996.
But when the Vandals dropped back down to the FCS level last season, they posted a 3-5 record in Big Sky play with lopsided losses to EWU (38-14), Idaho State (62-28) and UC Davis (44-21).
Idaho was picked fourth in the Big Sky coaches preseason poll last season and was expected to make a push for a playoff berth. Some pundits went as far as putting the Vandals in their preseason top 25.
Instead, the Vandals finished ninth in Big Sky play.
So what’s Idaho’s attitude and approach after finishing in the bottom half of the league, something it rarely did pre-1996?
And what has Idaho – a program with rich history and relatively ample resources – done to shore up an offense that averaged 23 points in the Big Sky, a conference known for moving the ball and scoring and at a high clip?
Petrino’s son, Pullman High alum Mason Petrino, and Lewiston product Colton Richardson split time at quarterback last season. Both return.
Montana State head coach Jeff Choate has been known to dole out a few zingers in these types of settings.
What funny thing will the St. Maries native say next?
Choate, a former Post Falls head coach and athletic director, enters his fourth season with the Bobcats, who earned a FCS playoff berth last season.
Montana State handled Incarnate Word 35-14 to open the FCS playoffs before being drubbed by eventual national champion North Dakota State 52-10.
Choate seems to have the ball rolling in Bozeman, beating rival Montana in each of his three seasons.
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