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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Big Sky notebook: Montana favorite to win conference, Kupp up next for HOF, and a close miss to hosting Gameday

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Montana was pegged by coaches and media as the favorite to win the Big Sky Conference this football season, but it was hardly a landslide when the polls were released Monday.

In the media poll, the Grizzlies received 14 of the 32 first-place votes, one more than last year’s national runner-up Montana State. Sacramento State got four first-place votes and UC Davis picked up one.

In the coaches’ poll, though, Montana actually received fewer votes (three) than second-place Sacramento State (four) and third-place Montana State (five).

Eastern Washington landed sixth in each poll with the Idaho Vandals eighth in the coaches’ and ninth in the media.

“When you have four teams garnering first-place votes, whether it’s media or coaches, to me that’s a cool thing because there’s no clear-cut favorite,” Eagles coach Aaron Best said.

Last year the league sent five teams to the 24-team FCS playoff bracket, including Sacramento State, which won the league last year with an 8-0 record. Montana State (7-1), Eastern Washington (6-2), Montana (6-2) and UC Davis (5-3) also reached the playoffs a season ago.

Weber State is fourth in both preseason polls. UC Davis and Eastern follow, with Northern Arizona seventh. Idaho and Portland State make up the eighth- and ninth-places, followed by Cal Poly in 10th. Northern Colorado and Idaho State tied for 11th in the coaches’ poll; the Bears finished ahead of the Bengals in the media.

Two Eagles earn preseason recognition

Sophomore wide receiver Efton Chism III and junior defensive tackle Joshua Jerome represent Eastern on the Big Sky preseason all-conference teams, also released Monday.

Both were third-team all-league selections at the end of last season. Chism caught 57 passes for 735 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman. Jerome ranked fourth on the team in tackles (61) and led the Eagles with seven sacks.

Idaho inside linebacker Fa’Avae Fa’Avae also was listed on the preseason team.

UC Davis senior running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. was named the preseason Offensive MVP after rushing for 898 yards and six touchdowns last season.

Montana senior linebacker Patrick O’Connell was named the defensive MVP. He led the conference with 14 sacks last season.

A GameDay miss

Last November, the Big Sky tried to lure ESPN’s College GameDay to one of its campuses on multiple occasions, and on Monday commissioner Tom Wistrcill said the effort very nearly succeeded late in the fall, according to conversations he’s had with representatives from ESPN – which holds television rights for Big Sky athletic events.

“The three or four times I’ve seen the ESPN executives in meetings since then, every one of them say, ‘oh we were so close to coming to Montana last year,’ ” Wistrcill said, referring to the Montana-Montana State game played in Missoula on Nov. 20, 2021.

At the time, the Bobcats were 9-1 and the Grizzlies were 8-2. But instead of heading to Missoula, the ESPN crew broadcast from Columbus, Ohio, before the Michigan State-Ohio State game, a matchup of top-10 teams.

That game proved to be rather undramatic, with the home Buckeyes taking a 49-0 lead in the first half. Montana led its rival the entire way in Missoula but won by a decidedly smaller margin, 29-10.

“They do want to come to a Big Sky school for GameDay,” Wistrcill said. “They’ve continually said that. … We’ll continue to push them and talk to them about opportunities to come to the Big Sky.”

GameDay has yet to come to a Big Sky site, though it has been to four other FCS campuses: James Madison, North Dakota State, Harvard and Florida A&M.

More members to join Big Sky Hall of Fame

After the Big Sky recognized its inaugural class of 14 Hall of Fame members during a banquet Saturday night, Wistrcill said Monday he expects to grow the group next year and praised Spokane as a fine host city for such an event.

“We talked (Sunday) with our administrators about doing this again here, which is a good place for it and it worked out really well,” the commissioner said. “Obviously we have a tremendous history of success, and we’ll continue it.”

The format and size of the group hasn’t been determined, Wistrcill said. The initial group did not include any Eastern Washington alumni, but in his opening remarks Monday, Wistrcill mentioned the recognition brought to the conference by performances on the national stage – specifically that of receiver Cooper Kupp, the former Eagles player who caught the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl in February.

The Big Sky’s Hall of Fame criteria for athletes requires that athletes must be five years removed from their collegiate careers and that they participated in two full seasons of competition and “should have made outstanding contributions or offered extraordinary service to athletics at the institutional, conference and national level.”

Kupp, who left Eastern in 2016, holds a number of FCS records, including career receptions (428) and receiving yards (6,464). He is also the reigning Super Bowl MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.

Asked about Kupp’s candidacy, Wistrcill deadpanned a response that drew laughs from the media.

“We’ll have to see,” Wistrcill said. “First we have to see if he’s deserving. He might be.”