PARK CITY — If you're to believe this year's Big Sky Conference preseason polls, then don't expect too much from the Weber State and Southern Utah University football programs this year.
After all, the Wildcats — who thrust Jody Sears into the difficult role of interim head coach in late-April after John L. Smith abruptly left to take the high-profile (and much higher paying)
Arkansas job — find themselves picked to finish sixth and seventh in the league's respective coaches' and media preseason prognostications.
And you could forgive Southern Utah, one of four new football-playing members of the Big Sky, for feeling "just glad to be here" after belonging to several other highly forgettable leagues (or
playing as an independent) over the last five decades. The Thunderbirds, who were often looked upon as Big Sky wannabes who were forever on the outside looking in, wound up eighth in both polls announced Tuesday at the league's Summer Kickoff held here.
But while WSU and SUU are buried in the middle of the pack of those preseason polls, both teams' coaches realize that such predictions — though providing fuel for fans and boosters and possible "Whadda ya mean we're only picked eighth?" motivation for players and coaches — are about as valuable as spam jelly when it comes time to strap on the helmets.
"I'm a glass-half-full guy and I'm trying to control the things we can control," said Sears, shrugging off the Wildcats' low-expectations placement in the polls. "These things, they're good for the excitement with the season coming, the fans and the community and what have you, but we've got to control the things we can control. We can't control those things, but it's kind of what I expected."
Montana State, which shared last year's conference crown with Montana, finished atop both Big Sky preseason polls. The Bobcats, Big Sky co-champions in each of the last two seasons, return seven offensive starters — led by junior quarterback DeNarius McGhee, the 2010 Big Sky offensive MVP — and nine more on defense this year.
The top five teams were identical in each poll of the newly expanded conference, which added four new members in all and now features 13 football-playing schools. All Big Sky schools will play eight league games this season.
In the coaches' poll, Montana State received seven of the 13 available first-place votes, and the Bobcats got 30 of a possible 40 first-place votes in the media poll. MSU was followed in order by
Eastern Washington, Montana, Portland State and Big Sky newcomer Cal Poly to round out the top five in both polls.
Weber State, which went 5-3 in the Big Sky and 5-6 overall last season, received one first-place vote from the media.
That prompting Coach Sears to quip, "Those media guys don't know what they're doing anyway, right?"
SUU coach Ed Lamb, whose team went 3-0 against Big Sky schools and 6-5 overall last year, knows that life in the Big Sky might be more challenging than it was in the Great West Conference, where the T-Birds only played four league games.
"Weber State players will be a little more anticipatory in their approach and motivation with their game with us now that it's a conference game," Lamb said. "I know that when you're in the Big Sky and you have an automatic playoff berth on the line in every conference game, the magnitude of it and the excitement of it becomes bigger for the players and fans. So we're excited about that, it'll be a new challenge for us. We'll have to rise to that challenge.
"The biggest challenge for us will be the environment that we play in, week in and week out. That's a challenge that our players are going to need to rise to the occasion to meet. Every team in the Big Sky expects to be nationally relevant, and that hasn't been the case with our schedules in the past.
"So it's an upgraded schedule and, long-term for us, it means that our fans are going to be able to get more involved in supporting our teams, not just throughout the football season but throughout the sporting seasons," said Lamb, whose team received one first-place vote in the coaches' poll. "To play the same opponents in football that we do in basketball and volleyball and soccer, that's going to be tremendous for our fan base and to build up our fan base because we've never had that before."
Southern Utah quarterback Brad Sorensen, voted the Big Sky's preseason offensive most valuable player, sees the T-Birds soaring into the Big Sky as a great opportunity for the SUU program.
"We've got eight Big Sky opponents this year, and every week we're playing the best competition in the Big Sky," he said. "So it's going to be a little bit tougher this year and it's going to be different. It's a great opportunity for us to take a big step forward as a program."
Along with Southern Utah and Cal Poly, the league's other two newcomers are North Dakota and UC Davis which, like Cal Poly, is a first-year football affiliate member in the Big Sky this year after playing in the Great West Conference last season.
Big sky football 2012 preseason polls
1. Montana State(30) 502
2. Eastern Washington (3) 453
3. Montana (5) 442
4. Portland State 334
5. Cal Poly (1) 323
6. North Dakota? 295
7. Weber State (1) 284
8. Southern Utah 258
9. Northern Arizona 242
10. Sacramento State 191
11. UC Davis 135
12. Idaho State 115
13. Northern Colorado 63
1. Montana State (7) 136
2. Eastern Washington (4) 131
3. Montana (1) 126
4. Portland State 90
5. Cal Poly 86
6. Weber State 81
7. Northern Arizona 75
8. Southern Utah (1) 74
9. Sacramento State 71
10. North Dakota 68
11. Idaho State 31
12. UC Davis 30
13. Northern Colorado 14
(*First-place votes in parentheses)