Park City, UT (SportsNetwork.com) - With changes still coming across the NCAA landscape, Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton banks on the fact that he believes his conference is positioned as strong as it's ever been.
One of the ways to make the Big Sky's flagship sport - football - even stronger is for some of the struggling programs to finally become consistent winners - although the likes of perennial powers Eastern Washington, Montana and Montana State will be pushing back.
North Dakota, Sacramento State and Weber State hope to be headed into that direction after changing head coaches in the offseason.
They hope to be the surprise that Southern Utah was a year ago after the release of two preseason polls Tuesday at Big Sky Kickoff festivities. Sacramento State, under interim head coach Jody Sears, was picked to finish seventh in the head coaches poll and ninth in the media poll of the 13-team conference, North Dakota and coach Kyle "Bubba" Schweigert were picked 10th and 11th, and Weber State and Jay Hill were 11th and 12th.
Eastern Washington (12-3, 8-0 last season) was picked as a heavy favorite in both polls to capture a third straight Big Sky title.
Sacramento State, UND and Weber State have floundered in the Big Sky in recent seasons - with some high moments as well - and were in need of jump-starts under the hood. Sacramento State has had success beating FBS competition but not necessarily its Big Sky rivals, finishing 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the conference last year. Weber State was 2-10 and 1-7, and North Dakota 3-8 and 2-6 in just its second season of Big Sky competition.
The scenario involving Sears in the Big Sky is a bit weird. He was named Weber State's defensive coordinator in 2012 only to be elevated to interim head coach a few months later following John L. Smith's departure. But Sears was fired after a 4-19 record over two seasons, only to be selected defensive coordinator at Sacramento State in January. Sure enough, three months later, head coach Marshall Sperbeck resigned and Sears was elevated to interim head coach.
"Yeah, run to Vegas. I have no clue," on the odds, Sears laughs.
With the fresh start, Sears will look to restructure a defense that struggled last season while his staff also relies on the dynamic Garrett Safron-to- DeAndre Carter passing combination and an 18-member senior class.
Said Sears, who also has Big Sky experience at Eastern Washington from 2000-07, including the 2003-07 seasons as defensive coordinator: "We started to identify some principles that you're going to cling to, continue to develop the team culture and let the seniors know that this is their team and we were going to go as they go. So, really, the leadership has been good. We'll see how it plays out in the fall."
Hill is Weber State's fourth head coach since 2011, but he's taking the reins of a program for the first time. The 39-year-old spent the last 13 seasons in different capacities as an assistant at the University of Utah, including on both sides of the ball and as a special teams coordinator.
Having played or coached under the likes of Ron McBride (the former Weber State head coach), Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham, Hill is applying some of the Utah model with Weber State, which returns seven starters on each side of the ball.
"I want a team that's going to go after you and attack the right way, between the whistles, not getting a lot of personal fouls, taking care of the football and just playing the game the way it's supposed to be played," Hill said.
"You can recruit good players here, we're close to an international airport (Salt Lake City), we live in a great city (Ogden) and we can recruit. That's been proven. Like when McBride was here, they were having NFL guys every year. So that's what's exciting to me; I know what it can be."
North Dakota still needs a school nickname after abolishing Fighting Sioux in 2012, but the 51-year-old Schweigert brings a new perspective. He was an assistant coach from 1989-2003 when UND played on the Division II level and was named national assistant coach of the year in 2000. He left to become head coach at Minnesota-Duluth from 2004-07, compiling a 21-20 record in the four seasons, before moving on to Southern Illinois, where he was the defensive coordinator.
While UND is short on returning starters, Schweigert gave his young team a mantra for this offseason.
"We've talked about 'Day by Day'" he said, "focused on getting a little bit better at one thing each and every day. And really that's what we've been talking to our guys throughout the spring. Hey, we've got to focus on us. We aren't talking about our opponents. We're going to study them; we've got to get ready for them. But our team has to focus on what we can do to get better."
BIG SKY FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLLS
Voted on by Head Coaches
1. Eastern Washington (12 first-place votes), 144 points
2. Montana (1), 130
3. Montana State, 111
4. Cal Poly, 108
5. Northern Arizona, 100
6. Southern Utah, 89
7. Sacramento State, 79
8. Portland State, 71
9. UC Davis, 66
10. North Dakota, 34
11. Weber State, 30
12. Idaho State, 28
13. Northern Colorado, 23
Voted on by Media
1. Eastern Washington (34 first-place votes), 464 points
2. Montana (1), 416
3. Montana State (1), 364
4. Cal Poly, 329
5. Northern Arizona, 328
6. Southern Utah, 299
7. UC Davis, 228
8. Portland State, 227
9. Sacramento State, 222
10. Idaho State, 124
11. North Dakota, 121
12. Weber State, 103
13. Northern Colorado, 61