(Editor’s note: Big Sky Conference media release)
PARK CITY, Utah – The North Dakota Fighting Hawks were the Big Sky Conference’s surprise story in 2016, going 8-0 and sharing the league title with Eastern Washington.
The Fighting Hawks are expected to surprise no one in the 2017 season, as the league’s coaches and media selected North Dakota to repeat as Big Sky champions in their final year in the league. The Fighting Hawks received six first-place votes by the Big Sky football coaches, and earned 15-of-24 first-place votes from media.
North Dakota returns several key contributors from the 2016 season, including safety Cole Reyes and running back John Santiago. Reyes is the Big Sky’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year and was selected as the Big Sky’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Monday. The Fighting Hawks also return the Big Sky’s Coach of the Year, as Bubba Schweigert returns for his fourth season in Grand Forks.
The Big Sky’s other 2016 co-champion, Eastern Washington, finished second in both the coaches’ and media poll. EWU received first-place votes in both polls but will have to prove itself in a rebuilding year with first-year coach Aaron Best. However, the Eagles still return several impressive contributors, including quarterback Gage Gubrud. Gubrud was the Big Sky’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, breaking several offensive records in the 2016 season. The junior quarterback was also named the league’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Monday.
A season after being selected first in the preseason polls, Northern Arizona was selected third in both polls, earning first-place votes from the league’s coaches and media. The Lumberjacks were deeply affected in 2016 by an injury to all-conference quarterback Case Cookus, finishing with a 4-4 record in conference play. NAU returns several offensive playmakers for the 2017 season, including Cookus and receiver Emmanuel Butler. Butler was a consensus pick as a Preseason All-Conference receiver.
Two of the Big Sky’s other FCS contenders came in fourth and fifth places, respectively, in the preseason polls, as Cal Poly placed fourth and Weber State placed fifth. Both the Mustangs and Wildcats earned first-place votes in the coaches’ poll, as both return multiple all-conference performers. Weber State’s Andrew Vollert was a consensus selection at tight end for the preseason all-conference honors, and is the league’s reigning Newcomer of the Year.
The Montana Grizzlies were selected sixth in both polls, earning first-place votes in both polls. The Griz finished the 2016 season just outside of the FCS playoffs, and have multiple preseason all-conference players. Jerry Louie-McGee, a sophomore receiver, and linebacker Josh Buss highlight the Griz returners.
2015 Big Sky champion Southern Utah placed seventh in both polls, as the Thunderbirds come off consecutive winning seasons. Southern Utah finished at 6-5 overall and 5-3 in Big Sky play in 2016.
Montana State came in at eighth place in both polls, as the Bobcats finished the 2016 season at 4-7 and 2-6 in the Big Sky. Bobcats quarterback Chris Murray was the league’s Freshman of the Year selection in 2016.
Portland State and Northern Colorado flip-flopped the ninth and tenth spots in the polls, with the Vikings finishing at ninth in the coaches’ poll. Both teams had preseason all-conference selections. The Vikings are two seasons away from a 2015 FCS playoff appearance, while the Bears are coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in the program’s Division-I history.
UC Davis, in the first year under alumnus Dan Hawkins, was selected to finish 11th place. Rival Sacramento State was picked 12th in both polls. Idaho State, under first-year coach Rob Phenicie, was selected to finish last in both preseason polls.
The Big Sky Coaches’ Poll was voted on by the league’s head football coaches. The coaches were not allowed to vote for their own teams. The Media Poll was voted on by the league’s television, radio and print media, along with the league’s sports information directors.
The Big Sky football season kicks off on Aug. 26, as Portland State plays at BYU in a nationally-televised game on ESPN. Cal Poly will also host Colgate in nationally-televised game on ESPNU on Aug. 26.
#BigSkyFB Preseason Polls
North Dakota 298 (15)
Eastern Washington 271 (5)
Northern Arizona 236 (3)
Cal Poly 224
Weber State 209
Montana 204 (1)
Southern Utah 175
Montana State 156
Northern Colorado 135
Portland State 104
UC Davis 62
Sacramento State 61
Idaho State 44
North Dakota 130 (6)
Eastern Washington 124 (2)
Northern Arizona 119 (2)
Cal Poly 108 (1)
Weber State 103 (1)
Montana 83 (1)
Southern Utah 80
Montana State 69
Portland State 62
Northern Colorado 60
UC Davis 35
Sacramento State 26
Idaho State 15