(STATS) - Last year's best conference title race in the FCS might be anyone's guess again this year.
The Big Sky is so deep with talented teams that Northern Arizona was installed Tuesday as the preseason favorite even though it hasn't won the conference title in 13 years, and Southern Utah, last year's champ, managed only seventh place.
The 13-team Big Sky - the largest FCS conference - has two preseason polls, and the head coaches and media agreed Northern Arizona should hold the top spot. Portland State and Montana tied for second place in the coaches poll, while Montana was second and Eastern Washington third in the media poll.
"It's humbling and it's an honor at the same," said Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers, now in his 19th season with the Lumberjacks. "To be considered among the elite of this conference … I have that much respect for our conferences and the coaches that are in it, the teams and the players. If one team has to wear it, maybe it's our turn. But it's always going to be defined in the outcome of competition through the fall."
Over half the Big Sky teams were in contention for the conference title or an FCS playoff bid heading into the final weekend of the regular season last November. Northern Arizona's playoff bid was derailed by a 49-41 loss to Southern Utah, which captured its first Big Sky title after being picked eighth in the preseason poll.
NAU, which finished 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the conference, returns four offensive players on the Big Sky preseason team. Sophomore quarterback Case Cookus, who was the STATS FCS Freshman Player of the Year after throwing 37 touchdowns, will have to manage the expectations after being a surprise on the national scene last year.
"It's execute - that's the bottom line," he said, looking ahead to the season. Conference play begins Sept. 24. "We watched the film, we watched all those games where we lost. It comes down to a few plays each game.
"I made a few mistakes in each of those games where it could have swayed the game each way. If we can cut down on those mistakes, we're right there in playoff contention."
And title contention. The Lumberjacks last tied for the Big Sky title in 2003, and although they have had four straight winning seasons, only their 2013 squad has advanced to the playoffs in the last 12 seasons.
Portland State (9-3, 6-2), also a surprise last season, and Montana (8-6, 6-2) represented the parity-filled Big Sky in the playoffs along with Southern Utah (8-4, 7-1), the automatic qualifier.
Perhaps there is another team that people don't see coming. But the same six teams precede Southern Utah in the two polls - NAU, Portland State, Montana, Eastern Washington, North Dakota and Weber State. Each returns its starting quarterback, while SUU is replacing its starter, Ammon Olsen, as well as key players on defense.
"Big games, we want 'em," Montana second-year coach Bob Stitt said of his perennial power. "It's the team chemistry and really caring about each other that's going to get us to the top."
Said Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin, whose team fizzled last season after winning three straight titles: "It probably shook out in the end a little bit different than people thought it would. But you have to be ready knowing each week in this league is going to be a battle, and embrace the fact you are in a tough conference. We face a challenge each and every week."
BIG SKY FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLLS=
Head Coaches Poll
1. Northern Arizona (8 first-place votes), 132 points
2. (tie) Portland State (2), 121
2. (tie) Montana, 121
4. Eastern Washington (2), 112
5. North Dakota (2), 105
6. Weber State, 83
7. (tie) Southern Utah, 73
7. (tie) Montana State, 73
9. Cal Poly, 66
10. Northern Colorado, 43
11. Sacramento State, 30
12. Idaho State, 24
13. UC Davis, 23
1. Northern Arizona (8), 287
2. Montana (7), 283
3. Eastern Washington (5), 269
4. North Dakota (2), 262
5. Portland State (3), 252
6. Weber State, 174
7. Southern Utah, 162
8. Montana State, 157
9. Cal Poly, 153
10. Northern Colorado, 111
11. Idaho State, 58
12. UC Davis, 56
13. Sacramento State, 50
BIG SKY CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=
Offensive Player of the Year - Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington
Defensive Player of the Year - Caleb Kidder, DE, Montana
QB - Case Cookus, Northern Arizona
RB - *John Santiago, North Dakota
RB - Chad Newell, Montana State
FB - *Joe Protheroe, Cal Poly
TE - Steven Wroblewski, Southern Utah
OG - Cameron Young, Weber State
OG - J.P. Flynn, Montana State
C - Blake Porter, Northern Arizona
OT - Jacob Julian, Northern Arizona
OT - Calvin Steyn, Weber State
WR - *Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington
WR - Mike Sharp, Southern Utah
WR - Emmanuel Butler, Northern Arizona
DE - Caleb Kidder, Montana
DE - Davond Dade, Portland State
DT - Chance Bearnson, Southern Utah
DT - Chuntony Johnson, Northern Colorado
OLB - Mike Needham, Southern Utah
OLB - Mac Bignell, Montana State
ILB - Emmett Tela, Weber State
ILB - Manoah Pearson, Sacramento State
CB - Xavier Coleman, Portland State
CB - Taron Johnson, Weber State
S - Cole Reyes, North Dakota
S - Yamen Sanders, Montana
PK - Jonathan Gonzales, Portland State
P - Tate Lewis, Southern Utah
RS - Ellis Onic II, Northern Colorado
ST - Hakeem Diggs, Northern Colorado
* - unanimous selection