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Eastern Washington soars to top of Big Sky polls

PARK CITY, Utah — Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin recalls 2002 when he was an assistant coach at NCAA Division II Central Washington, which came to the Alerus Center that season and delivered a sobering blowout to defending national champion UND.

“I remember that well,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin’s no longer playing the role of underdog spoiler.

Baldwin’s Eagles were predicted to win the Big Sky Conference in preseason league polls released by the Big Sky on Tuesday at the annual kickoff event.

Even more, some early polls have Eastern Washington as the national favorite over three-time defending national champion North Dakota State.

Baldwin doesn’t shy away from the favorite role.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “People say ‘wouldn’t you rather be a sleeper or an underdog?’, but my problem with that is that means you haven’t been good before then. What (the high rankings) means is that former teams have done well and a tradition has been built.

“Once the season gets going, it means nothing.”

In the Big Sky poll, Eastern Washington received all 12 of the possible first-place votes and 144 total points in the coaches’ poll. The Eagles earned 34 of the 36 first-place votes in the media poll.

Montana was tabbed second in both polls, followed by Montana State, Cal Poly, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.

UND, which finished 3-8 a year ago and parted ways with former head coach Chris Mussman in the offseason, was picked to finish 10th in the coaches poll and 11th in the media poll.

EWU, which won a national title in 2010, has advanced to the national semifinals each of the past two seasons. The Eagles finished 8-0 in conference play in 2013, becoming the first league team other than Montana to go undefeated since 1991.

“This league is a fine line, though,” Baldwin said. “In a conference like this, you’re very close to finishing in the middle of the pack and not making the playoffs.”

EWU returns junior quarterback Vernon Adams, who captained an offense that scored a Big Sky single-season record 83 touchdowns in 2013. Adams was the Big Sky MVP and Walter Payton Award runner-up last season. He threw for 4,994 yards and a Big Sky single-season record 55 touchdowns.

The Eagles open the season Aug. 23 against Sam Houston State of the Southland Conference. It will be the first Division I football game of the season, and will be televised nationally on ESPN.

Baldwin said he doesn’t avoid talk of national championships.

“I try to allow the players to still think big picture,” he said. “We can talk about ‘we’re going after a national title.’

“But we also talk about the steps along the way. I embrace that we’re going after a national title.”