PARK CITY, Utah – Three teams have hoarded Big Sky Conference football titles over the last 20 years. In fact only four other programs have finished first outside the Big Three dating back to 1994 – and none won the league outright.
"It's always gonna be the three amigos, I hate to say that, but it's always gonna be Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington," said Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh.
League coaches and media members don't expect that to change in 2015.
Three-time defending champion EWU led the media poll, by the slightest of margins, while MSU topped the coaches' picks, again, by just a sliver, when the preseason polls were released at the Big Sky Conference Football Kickoff in Park City, Utah, on Tuesday.
The Bobcats and Eagles each garnered 17 first-place votes from the media while six of the Big Sky's 13 coaches tabbed each as preseason favorites. MSU got the edge in the coaches' poll with 134 total points to Eastern's 133. The Eags drew 553 total points from the media to the Cats' 541.
Montana sat in third in each poll with 121 and 492 points, respectively, with one coach voting the Griz first and five media members expecting such things for the Missoula men.
"I think that's the perfect word to use: Respect," Montana State coach Rob Ash said. "That's a very, very good sign of respect for our program, especially from our coaches. That's the one that means the most to me – those are your peers and colleagues."
The Bobcats finished 9-5 a year ago with a 6-2 mark in league play. That was good enough for a three-way tie – with UM and Idaho State – for second place behind Eastern (11-3, 7-1).
The Cats last earned a share of the league title in 2012, a three-way split with EWU and Cal Poly. In addition, only Weber State (2008), Northern Arizona (2003) and Idaho State (2002) have broken through for shares of the championship since former Big Sky member Boise State last won it outright in 1994.
Idaho State (8-4, 6-2 in 2014) was picked fourth in the media poll with five first-place votes and sixth by the coaches. Cal Poly (7-5, 5-3) was projected fifth and fourth, respectively, while Northern Arizona is expected sixth and fifth, respectively.
Each drew one media vote for first.
The Griz (9-5, 6-2) got their fair share of the respect that coach Ash spoke of, despite breaking in their own new coach and quarterback under first-year head man Bob Stitt.
"It's fun to see those polls – the fans like 'em, the media likes 'em – but they don't really mean anything because a team can come out of nowhere and win the league," Stitt said. "My previous school (Colorado School of Mines), we won three league championships and not one time were we preseason No. 1."
Montana last won a Big Sky title in 2011 when it shared the crown with Montana State. The Grizzlies earned at least a share of first every season from 1998 to 2009 and have a league-best 18 titles in program history.
Idaho State coach Mike Kramer believes Montana could make it 19 championships with this fall's campaign. He was the only Big Sky coach to vote for a team other than MSU and EWU.
"I picked the Grizzlies first 'cause I like (Brady) Gustafson; I think he can be a great quarterback," Kramer said. "I think Grizzly fans are gonna be excited about how well and how fast it is for them to wrap their arms around what Bob (Stitt) is doing on offense. They're gonna really enjoy it."
Eastern Washington is riding a streak of three straight FCS quarterfinal playoff appearances and was joined by amigos Montana and Montana State in the postseason in 2014. The Griz topped San Diego in the first round before losing to Eastern in the second while the Cats were knocked off by South Dakota State in their opener.
The Eagles fell in the quarters to eventual title-game contender Illinois State. North Dakota State, which visits Montana to open the college football season Aug. 29, claimed its fourth straight FCS national championship with a win over Illinois State in last season's finals.
Big Sky Conference games begin Sept. 12 with each team facing eight league opponents. Montana's first league encounter, a homecoming game against Northern Arizona, is slated for Sept. 26.