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Big Sky Conference tabs Northern Arizona over Montana

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Big Sky Conference media release

The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks last shared a Big Sky football title in 2003, when they qualified for the FCS playoffs with a record of 5-2 in league play.

However, both the Big Sky football coaches, and the Big Sky football media, believe the Lumberjacks are primed to fly at the top of the Big Sky, again, in 2016, as both groups voted Northern Arizona first in the Big Sky Preseason Football Polls.

The Lumberjacks earned eight first-place votes from both the coaches and the media, after finishing 5-3 in Big Sky games in 2015. This is the first time Northern Arizona has ever been voted first in both of the Big Sky’s preseason polls.

Northern Arizona last qualified for the FCS postseason in 2013, when the Lumberjacks finished as the league’s runner-up.

One of the players expected to lead the Lumberjacks in 2016 will be sophomore quarterback Case Cookus, the reigning STATS FCS Freshman of the Year. Cookus threw for 3,117 yards in 2015, while throwing 37 touchdowns. The sophomore is also a preseason All-Big Sky selection at quarterback, after being named a first-team All-Big Sky quarterback in 2015.

One of Cookus’s primary weapons is junior receiver Emmanuel Butler, who caught 64 passes for 1,208 yards in 2015. Butler caught 15 touchdown passes last season, and joins his quarterback on the preseason All-Big Sky team.

The Lumberjacks’ other representatives on the preseason all-conference team are offensive tackle Jacob Julian and center Blake Porter.

The coaches’ poll has Portland State in the league’s second spot, after the Vikings claimed an FCS playoff berth in 2015. Portland State returns three preseason all-conference players, and quarterback Alex Kuresa, who earned the 2016 Big Sky Newcomer of the Year award. The Vikings were selected fifth in the media poll.

The media picked perennial Big Sky power Montana to finish in second place, as the Grizzlies earned seven first-place votes. Montana’s Caleb Kidder earned the Big Sky Preseason Defensive Player of the Year award, as voted on by a select group of media. The Grizzlies were tied in points with Portland State in the coaches’ poll, but did not receive any first place votes.

Eastern Washington received first-place votes in both polls, and the Eagles return wide receiver Cooper Kupp, the reigning STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year, and a two-time Big Sky Preseason Offensive Player of the Year selection. The Eagles were selected fourth in the coaches’ poll, while finishing in third place in the media poll.

North Dakota, who finished 2015 with a 7-4 record, and an FBS win over Wyoming, was selected fourth in the media poll, finishing with a pair of first-place votes. The Fighting Hawks were selected to finish fifth in the coaches’ poll, and UND returns running back John Santiago, who was the 2015 Big Sky Co-Freshman of the Year.

The Weber State Wildcats were selected to finish sixth in both polls, marking their highest preseason ranks in the conference since the 2012 season.

Defending Big Sky champion Southern Utah was selected to finish seventh in both polls. The Thunderbirds begin a new chapter under head coach Demario Warren. Southern Utah opens its season at in-state rival Utah, on Sept. 1.

A year after being selected first in the preseason coaches’ poll, the Montana State Bobcats were selected to finish in eighth place by both the coaches and media. The Bobcats will begin their first season under coach Jeff Choate on Sept. 1, when Montana State travels to play the University of Idaho.

The media poll selected Cal Poly ninth, followed by Northern Colorado, Idaho State, UC Davis and Sacramento State.

The coaches’ poll selected Cal Poly ninth, followed by Northern Colorado, Sacramento State, Idaho State and UC Davis.

The coaches were not allowed to vote for their own teams. The voters in the media poll are composed of the league’s radio announcers, beat writers, television reporters and sports information directors.

The 2016 Big Sky football season will kick off on Thursday, Sept. 1, with four games opening non-conference play. The Big Sky regular season will kick off on Saturday, Sept. 24.

Every team in the league will play eight league games, with the final weekend of the regular season falling on Nov. 19. The FCS playoff field will be announced on Nov. 20.

2016 Big Sky Conference Preseason Coaches’ Poll

1. Northern Arizona (8) 132 

t2. Portland State (2) 121 

t2. Montana 121 

4. Eastern Washington (2) 112 

5. North Dakota (1) 105 

6. Weber State 83 

t7. Southern Utah 73 

t7. Montana State 73 

9. Cal Poly 66 

10. Northern Colorado 43 

11. Sacramento State 30 

12. Idaho State 24 

13. UC Davis 23 

2016 Big Sky Conference Preseason Media Poll

1. Northern Arizona (8) 287 

2. Montana (7) 283 

3. Eastern Washington (5) 269 

4. North Dakota 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

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