Eastern Washington lost over two dozen seniors from a team that shared the Big Sky Conference title and advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision national title game.
It also lost defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding to Boise State and offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder to North Texas.
That wasn’t enough for EWU to lose the respect of preseason prognosticators.
Third-year head coach Aaron Best’s squad was picked first in both Big Sky preseason media and coaches polls on Monday.
EWU, which has qualified for the FCS playoffs seven of the last 10 seasons, was picked ahead of UC Davis and Weber State, picked second and third in both polls, respectively.
EWU, UC Davis and two-time defending champion Weber State shared the Big Sky crown last season.
Due to EWU’s inordinate amount of season-ending injuries to senior starters in 2018, the Eagles were able to manufacture more experience and depth for 2019, Best said, by plugging in younger talent.
“A lot of those seniors we lost, we lost during last season, not all of them were lost after the national title game” said Best, the Co-Big Sky Coach of the Year last season. “Fortunately for 2019, we got to see some of the younger guys on display last season.”
Montana State and Montana were picked fourth and fifth, respectively, in the media poll and fifth and fourth in the coaches poll.
Idaho, entering its second season in the Big Sky after 22 years after at the FBS level, was picked eighth in both polls.
EWU returns a wealth of talent and experience, including dual-threat quarterback Eric Barriere, a veteran offensive line and about a dozen defenders who had substantial roles in helping the Eagles lead the Big Sky in fewest points allowed.
UC Davis, led by former Boise State and Colorado head coach Dan Hawkins, also returns a throng of starters, including reigning Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year Jake Maier after throwing for over 3,900 yards and 34 touchdowns.
Maier was named the league’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year on Monday. Montana linebacker Dante Olson – an All-American and Buck Buchanan Award finalist in 2018 – is the preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
Senior offensive tackle Chris Schlichting was the lone EWU player chosen to the preseason All-Big Sky team.
Idaho offensive guard Noah Johnson and punter teammate Cade Coffey were also chosen. Johnson was a consensus selection.
EWU and Idaho open their respective seasons Aug. 31, the Eagles at Washington and the Vandals at Penn State.