... So for me, there's absolutely no disappointment. I think you'd have to be a pretty young player in our program with a high level of ignorance about the Big Sky to be offended by being picked sixth. —Ed Lamb
PARK CITY — Southern Utah University has only been a member of the Big Sky Conference for a couple of years, but the Thunderbirds already seem to have earned the league's respect.
Weber State, meanwhile, has been a charter member of the Big Sky ever since its infancy. But after back-to-back two-win seasons, and with their fourth head coach in three years, the Wildcats' program will have to prove itself again before it'll regain respect around the league.
At least, that's the impression you'd get from looking at the Big Sky's preseason football polls released at its annual summer kickoff with the media on Tuesday.
SUU, coming off its first-ever appearance in the Football Championship Subdivision's national playoffs, wound up sixth and essentially smack dab in the middle of the Big Sky coaches and media polls, while Weber State was far down the ladder — 11th in the coaches poll and 12th in the media poll.
Defending conference champion Eastern Washington, which has reached the national FCS semifinals the last two seasons, swept the top spot in both polls, followed in order by Montana, Montana State, Cal Poly, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.
Eastern Washington has 11 returning starters off last year's 12-3 team, led by junior quarterback Vernon Adams, the reigning league MVP and Walter Payton Award runner-up in 2013, when he threw for 4,994 yards and 55 touchdowns.
Ed Lamb, who's entering his seventh season as head coach at SUU, didn't have any problem at all with where his team was picked following an 8-5 finish, including a 5-3 Big Sky slate, last season.
"I think that it's obviously an accurate reflection of the way the other programs feel about us," he said. "But realistically, the five teams in front of us are teams that have won and been to playoffs and competed for championships and national championships for a long period of time.
"I think that's what preseason polls are about. It's not just the previous year and whether or not you have a starting quarterback — that's a fairly small percentage in comparison with overall respect of programs that have done it over a period of years.
"The thing I'm going to remind our guys is that we were picked over seven other Big Sky teams, and it's a strong conference. And obviously, we have something to continue to prove. So I think it's probably the sweet spot in terms of preseason polls," he said of the sixth-place poll prediction for the T-Birds, who've had winning seasons in three of the last four years.
"As I look at the schools below us, there are just so many that have won games and been to playoffs and have tremendous coaches and have tremendous talent on their teams," Lamb said of schools such at Portland State, UC Davis, Sacramento State, North Dakota, Weber State, Idaho State and Northern Colorado. " ... So for me, there's absolutely no disappointment. I think you'd have to be a pretty young player in our program with a high level of ignorance about the Big Sky to be offended by being picked sixth."
Jay Hill, meanwhile, had a chance to attend his inaugural Big Sky preseason media gathering as Weber State's first-year head coach. He said the Wildcats' lowly standing in the polls might serve as a measuring stick, but realizes that such prognostications mean pretty much nothing other than to give fans something to banter about.
"Where it matters is motivation, to get your team and your school up to where it should be," he said. "Will I mention it to 'em? Absolutely. Am I gonna play this up? Not too much, just because we've got a system and a process in place, and where we rank in preseason polls is not part of that process.
"Like I said, it's a process and we've got to continue to get great players in here, and we've got to get them to buy into the discipline that it's gonna take to be great — and they're buying in. So the process is well on its way to getting us where we want it to be.
"... We're just continuing to grind through and stick to our guns on what we believe," said Hill, who was hired in December to try and turn around a WSU program that went 2-10 last year and has had three straight losing seasons. "It's been seven months of saying this is what we've got to do and this is where we want to get and all that stuff, and we still haven't done anything yet. So we're absolutely looking forward to it."
Hill points at recruiting as the main ingredient in getting the Wildcats' football fortunes headed back in the right direction again.
"Do we want to get better players? Do we want to get better talent? Absolutely, everybody does," he said. "Do I think we can win with the players we currently have? Absolutely. ... Part of that process is continuing to recruit the way we did last season. ... We ended up getting great players in that recruiting class, and if we can continue to do that over the next three or four years, I think we're going to be really, really good.
"But again, I don't want to discount the players that we currently have because those are the ones we've got to win with and they're the ones that have got to buy into this system, because we can win a lot of games with them."
And if they do indeed do that, then maybe the Wildcats will start to earn some league-wide respect again.
Coach Lamb certainly has his sights set on building upon the great success the Thunderbirds enjoyed last season.
"Preseason polls are just not an accurate representation of postseason polls, either," he said. "The way that our team has worked throughout the offseason, the effort that the coaches have put in, the energy that the program puts in, the way that our administration is behind us, there's no other acceptable outcome other than to win."
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