Weber State, Southern Utah seek to confound the experts
Big Sky football • Montana State picked to win championship.
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Park City • Jody Sears had a simple answer to Monday's Big Sky Conference poll, which, depending on the coaches or media, had Weber State finishing 12th or 11th, respectively, among the 13-team league.

"I always think of the 1998 Washington State team. They were picked last [in the Pac-10] and they went to the Rose Bowl," Sears said Tuesday of his alma mater. "OK, I'll never look at a preseason poll again."

Yet Sears, as well as Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb, whose team was picked in both polls to finish ninth, understands the rough terrain ahead. Both teams finished with losing records in 2012.

Montana State was the favorite in both polls to win the league championship.

In 2012, Weber State stumbled out of the gate and finished 2-9. WSU, which lost seven straight to open the season, didn't win a home game.

Meanwhile, SUU was a picture of inconsistency. The Thunderbirds were good enough to hand eventual champion Eastern Washington its only loss, before dropping a home game to Weber State.

"It's not enough to just show up and get a close win four or five times a year, but to do it seven or eight times," Lamb said. "That's the next step for us. We don't necessarily need to be any better in terms of talent or the way we're coaching our schemes or players."

Southern Utah, which finished 5-4 in 2012, has the defense and depth to compete for a Big Sky title. Lamb will have to find a replacement for quarterback Brad Sorensen, who passed for 3,139 yards and 23 touchdowns.

"Last year we kind of overlooked teams," SUU senior receiver Fatu Moala said. "We definitely paid for it. It was a learning experience. I know we're capable."

The job is larger for Sears, who also has to replace a quarterback as well as find a way to overcome a lack of depth in both lines. Close for three quarters, his Wildcats could not finish, losing four games by eight points or less.

"Our biggest weakness from last season was our physical strength and our mental toughness," he said. "It was about 75 percent. We didn't have enough oomph to get us over the top. That's going to be a huge key and a huge measuring stick early on to see how far we've come."

Weber State's schedule is brutal. The Wildcats open at home against Stephen F. Austin, then travel to Utah, Utah State and McNeese State. Then, after the conference opener in Ogden, WSU is at Eastern Washington and Cal Poly.

"The biggest thing for us, we need to stay healthy," said WSU linebacker Anthony Morales. "We're thin at spots, but we have a lot of young guys coming up and a couple [junior college] players to fill spots. The main thing for me this season is to win a Big Sky championship."

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Big Sky Conference

Preseason poll (1st-place votes in parentheses):

Media

1. Montana State (31)

2. Eastern Washington (12)

3. Montana (3)

4. Cal Poly (1)

5. Northern Arizona

6. Sacramento State (1)

7. North Dakota

8. Northern Colorado

9. Southern Utah

10. Portland State

11. UC Davis

12. Weber State

13. Idaho State

Coaches

1. Montana State (8)

2. Eastern Washington (3)

3. Montana (2)

4. Cal Poly

5. Northern Arizona

6. Sacramento State

7. North Dakota

8. Northern Colorado

9. Southern Utah

10. Portland State

11. Weber State

12. UC Davis

13. Idaho State