Miller: Fighting Hawks football expecting program’s highest preseason ranking
GRAND FORKS -- It's only July but the Big Sky Conference football media days are just around the corner.The annual event, held in Park City, Utah, at the beginning of next week hasn't had a ton of excitement for North Dakota fans in the past if y...
GRAND FORKS -- It’s only July but the Big Sky Conference football media days are just around the corner.
The annual event, held in Park City, Utah, at the beginning of next week hasn’t had a ton of excitement for North Dakota fans in the past if you’re looking for hoopla.
The Big Sky releases preseason all-conference teams and polls during the event, and the Fighting Hawks never got a lot of love, and deservedly so for the most part.
The usual Park City hype is piled on Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington - the three teams who previously have dominated the league.
UND has never been higher than sixth in the league preseason poll and even that was in 2012 when the media didn’t know what to think of UND in its first season in the league. That same preseason, the coaches pegged UND 10th.
But this year will be different when the polls come out later this month. UND will most likely be in the top three in the league.
The Fighting Hawks have gone from 3-8 in Chris Mussman’s final season in 2013 to 5-7 in Bubba Schweigert’s first season in 2014 to 2015’s 7-4 mark and an FCS playoff snub.
In 2015, UND was pegged ninth in both the media and coaches preseason polls. The Fighting Hawks were one of three teams not to have a single preseason all-conference selection.
That will all change this year.
In 2016, UND will be faced with proving the preseason pollsters justified rather than hoping to prove them wrong.
The high expectations for the Fighting Hawks are two-fold.
First, UND returns several key pieces from 2015’s seven-win season. Sophomore running back John Santiago will be in the backfield after an All-American freshman season. Junior Keaton Studsrud will be at quarterback after his first full season under center. Junior Cole Reyes returns at safety and is a likely candidate for preseason all-conference honors.
Secondly, UND has a favorable conference schedule. Due to playing in a 13-team league, conference members don’t play every team each season.
The swing of the schedule in 2016 means UND won’t play Eastern Washington and Montana. The Grizzlies will probably be preseason No. 1 in the league, while the Eagles are expected to bounce back after a disappointing finish to the 2015 season.
Those two factors mean UND will be saddled with some expectations for the first time in the Big Sky era.
Then, UND will have to wait until Sept. 1 at Stony Brook to try to start living up to the hype.