BILLINGS — If there is indeed a Big Sky Conference football season, the coaches and media that cover the league agree that Montana State deserves a top-three ranking in each preseason poll.
But that question of “if” continues to loom over the Big Sky with time running out before the scheduled start of the 2020 campaign.
The conference’s annual summer media event began Thursday as a two-day affair, with the unveiling of its preseason rankings and the broadcasting of pre-recorded coaches interviews. The Big Sky Kickoff was originally scheduled for this month in Spokane, Washington, but it is instead being shown virtually on PlutoTV as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
MSU received 493 points and six first-place votes in the media poll, three points back of No. 2 Montana, which received eight first-place votes from the media. Reigning co-champion Weber State (546 points, 28 first-place votes) easily topped the media rankings.
The Bobcats had one first-place vote and 121 points in the coaches poll. The Grizzlies were ranked second by the coaches with three first-place votes and 128 points.
Weber State was also ranked No. 1 by the coaches, with seven first-place votes and 135 points.
How any of that plays out on the field, of course, remains to be seen, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the survival of the college football season at all levels. An official announcement on plans for the 2020 season in the Big Sky Conference is still forthcoming.
As such, Montana State coach Jeff Choate took some time to address the need for clarity during his portion of the taped interviews.
“We’ve just got to quit zig-zagging. Whatever it is, stick to it. Get on the railroad track and go,” Choate said. “Quite honestly, nobody, not Dr. (Anthony) Fauci, not our health experts in Gallatin County, nobody has the right answers. And I don’t think anybody’s going to blame them for that. But we need to stick to a plan, and I think that’s been the most difficult thing for our guys in terms of staying mentally engaged.
“I think we all know that this is a real virus, it’s an airborne deal, it’s not going to be contained, people are going to get sick, we’ve got to do what we can to mitigate it, and we’ve got to make a decision if we’re going to do this or not. And if we do then we’ve got to go.”
The Bobcats are coming off an 11-win season in which they went to the national semifinals, where they were beaten soundly by eventual national champion North Dakota State.
Along the way MSU defeated archrival Montana for the fourth-straight year, a streak Choate attributed to his team’s ability to run the ball with great success.
But due to the virus, Choate also acknowledged that this year’s rematch, scheduled for Nov. 21 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, “seems like a thousand miles away. I’m hoping we can get back to working out. That’s what I’m hoping. I know this is going to be the theme that we’re moving forward with, but quite honestly we’ll worry about them when we get to them. I hope we get to them. That’s what I hope.”
It was reported in June that at least one MSU football player had contracted COVID-19. Athletes at MSU began phasing in a return to campus activities last month, but Choate indicated that those activities have been an on-again, off-again routine.
The NCAA recently released guidelines for teams to implement within their fall sports plans, including the need to acquire testing results within 72 hours of competition. That, though, is proving difficult across the country, as wait times for results have gotten longer, not shorter.
Elsewhere in the preseason rankings, Eastern Washington received one first-place vote in the media poll, in which the Eagles are ranked fourth with 438 points. UC Davis, the No. 6-ranked team by the media, received one first-place vote, as well.
Sacramento State, which won a share of its first Big Sky title last season, is ranked fifth in both polls. The Hornets received one first-place nod from the coaches, as did No. 4 Eastern Washington.
Rounding out the media poll are No. 7 Portland State, No. 8 Idaho, No. 9 Northern Arizona, No. 10 Cal Poly, No. 11 Idaho State, No. 12 Southern Utah and No. 13 Northern Colorado.
UC Davis is ranked sixth in the coaches poll, followed by No. 7 NAU, No. 8 Portland State, No. 9 Idaho, No. 10 Cal Poly, No. 11 Idaho State, No. 12 Southern Utah and No. 13 Northern Colorado.
The Big Sky Conference will unveil its preseason all-conference team on Friday, as well as air pre-recorded player interviews on PlutoTV.
Choate said the last few months have been the hardest part of his now five-year stint at MSU, and that keeping the program’s culture intact during the pandemic has been especially trying.
“One of the things that concerns me the most right now — I don’t really think that we were the most physically gifted team over the last couple years, but I do think that we had really good chemistry and we had a toughness about us that allowed us to play a lot of tight games and win a lot of tight games,” he said.
“My concern more than anything is the fact that we’re not training as consistently as we have. We’re just not around our guys. I think that’s kind of the secret ingredient in any great organization is the people. So that’s probably my biggest concern for us taking that next step. How quickly are we going to reestablish our standards and our culture?”
As of now, Montana State is scheduled to open the season Sept. 5 at home against Long Island of the Northeast Conference.