The battle for the 2015 Big Sky Conference football championship figures to be led by a two-horse race between Montana State and Eastern Washington, as the coaches and media were split between the two as slight favorites in the preseason polls.
The Bobcats narrowly topped the coaches’ poll, while defending champion EWU ranked first in the media poll. The polls were released Tuesday at the Big Sky Summer Kickoff. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own team.
MSU and EWU each received six first-place votes in the coaches poll, but the Bobcats had the edge in point totals with 134 to the Eagles’ 133. The teams also tied in first-place media votes with 17 apiece. Eastern tallied 553 points in the media poll and MSU had 541.
Montana was tabbed third in both polls, receiving one coaches 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.
Eastern Washington has claimed at least a share of the conference title the last three seasons, including the past two as outright champions under head coach Beau Baldwin. They have at least reached the national quarterfinals in three consecutive seasons.
Montana State and Montana each joined EWU as 2014 FCS playoff participants. The Grizzlies topped San Diego before being eliminated by EWU in the second round. MSU was knocked off by South Dakota State in the first round. The Eagles fell in the quarterfinals to Illinois State, the national runner-up.
Quarterback Jordan West takes over Eastern Washington’s offense, which led the nation in scoring with two-time Big Sky MVP Vernon Adams Jr. under center. Eastern’s perennial offense is headed by All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who as a junior needs just three receptions to reach 200 for his career. EWU will look for balance this season as it shook up its defensive coaching staff following the 2014 season.
Eastern opens up the season on Sept.. 5 at Oregon, where Adams transferred to pending his graduation from EWU. The Eagles will look to make their sixth trip to the playoffs in the past seven seasons.
Head Coach Rob Ash and the Bobcats are eying a second-straight playoff appearance and additionally look to end a two-year hiatus as Big Sky Champions. Dual-threat quarterback Dakota Prukop turned in a productive first season as a starter for MSU in replacing former two-time Big Sky MVP DeNarius McGhee. Prukop led the conference in passing efficiency and ranked fourth in the league in rushing yard average. Prukop is one of nine starters returning to an offense that averaged 38.2 points per game.
The Bobcat defense finished ninth in scoring defense and 12th in total defense last season. Former Bobcat great Kane Ioane was elevated to co-defensive coordinator during the offseason and will continue to coach linebackers. Jamie Marshall will also serve as co-defensive coordinator and coach safeties.
Montana enters its first season with Bob Stitt at the helm and looks to earn a third-straight playoff bid. Stitt, who took over for the retired Mick Delaney, has become widely known for a fast-paced, fly-sweep offense. Montana will be tested in its opener as they host four-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State in the first college football game of the season on Aug. 29 on ESPN.
Defense was the strength of the Grizzlies last season as it advanced to the playoffs for the second straight season. Ty Gregorak remained on staff as the defensive coordinator. His unit will be led by senior DE Tyrone Holmes, and senior linebackers Kendrick Van Ackeren, Herbert Gamboa and Jeremiah Kose.
Cal Poly, Idaho State and Northern Arizona also figure to be in the mix this season, as the coaches and media each slotted those teams amongst spots 4-6.
Cal Poly is slated to return nine starters on offense and seven on defense from a team that finished 7-5 in 2014. Senior QB Chris Brown returns to lead the Mustangs’ triple-option offense. Brown rushed for 1,265 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior. He also threw 12 TD passes and just three interceptions. With Brown leading the offense, Cal Poly has led the FCS in rushing offense each of the past two seasons.
Idaho State is coming off a breakout season under head coach Mike Kramer despite being left out of the playoff field. The Bengals finished 8-4 overall and 6-2 in conference, the program’s best season in more than a decade. The Bengals return nine offensive and seven defensive starters. ISU lost All-American QB Justin Arias to graduation, but return two key first-team all-conference playmakers on offense in running back Xavier Finney and receiver Madison Mangum. Finney led the league in rushing last season with 1,495 yards.
Northern Arizona is eying a fourth-straight winning season and a second postseason bid in the past three years. The Lumberjacks return seven offensive starters and six defensively. Marcus Alford, a first-team selection at cornerback last year, heads a defense that was second in scoring and first in pass defense.
Sacramento State was selected seventh in the coaches’ poll, followed by Southern Utah, Portland State, North Dakota, Weber State, UC Davis and Northern Colorado. The media also tabbed Sac State seventh, followed by Southern Utah, North Dakota, Weber State, UC Davis, Portland State and Northern Colorado.
Big Sky Conference play will begin on Saturday, Sept. 12. All conference teams will play eight league games.
The 24-team FCS playoff field will be announced on Sunday, Nov. 22. The national championship game is slated for Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas.
2015 Preseason Football Polls
1. Montana State (6), 134 points
2. Eastern Washington (6), 133
3. Montana (1), 121
4. Cal Poly, 111
5. Northern Arizona, 95
6. Idaho State, 90
7. Sacramento State, 66
8. Southern Utah, 64
9. Portland State, 51
9. North Dakota, 51
11. Weber State, 43
12. UC Davis, 33
13. Northern Colorado, 22
1. Eastern Washington (17), 553 points
2. Montana State (17), 541
3. Montana (5), 492
3. Idaho State (5), 446
5. Cal Poly (1), 433
6. Northern Arizona (1), 399
7. Sacramento State, 278
8. Southern Utah, 255
9. North Dakota, 226
10. Weber State, 160
11. UC Davis, 145
12. Portland State, 133
13. Northern Colorado, 127