PARK CITY -- It's the perfect setup for a feel-good made-for-TV movie.
Now it's up to the Weber State football team to finish the script.
The Big Sky Conference announced its preseason polls here Tuesday at its summer kickoff event, with league coaches predicting a sixth-place finish for the Wildcats in the expanded 13-team conference. The media picked Weber State seventh, a middle of the road team coming off a middle of the pack finish a year ago.
Montana State is the overwhelming favorite to be the Big Sky champion, followed by Eastern Washington and Montana.
Weber State made national news earlier this year when coach John L. Smith left them for a high-profile gig at Arkansas after just a few months on the job, but Wildcats quarterback Mike Hoke sees the potential for another story to be told.
"When we first got back in our player meetings, everyone is talking about (how) instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, it's an opportunity," he said. "So many more people know about Weber State through the whole John L. thing with Arkansas, if we do everything we need to do, it's a story that's like it's in a movie -- losing your coach, all that kind of stuff. We kind of use that as a motivation, that all this adversity is going to kind of make for such a good story at the end of it."
At least one person believes in the Wildcats' potential to make magic from the drama: WSU received one first-place vote in the media poll.
With an eight-game rotating conference schedule, the Wildcats will not face Montana State this year, but they will see contenders Eastern Washington and Montana at home at Stewart Stadium. The Grizzlies, defending co-champions with Montana State, reached the semifinals in the FCS playoffs last year, while Eastern Washington is two years removed from a national title.
Jody Sears, who was promoted to interim head coach after Smith's hiring and departure, said he was not surprised with Weber State's standing in the preseason polls, given the circumstances. The Wildcats went 5-6 (5-3 Big Sky) in coach Ron McBride's final season.
"I've never been one to read too much into the polls, especially preseason polls, because there's a lot of work to be done and the focus needs to be elsewhere," Sears said.
Weber State opens the season with two Football Bowl Subdivision opponents: Fresno State on Sept. 1 and in-state foe BYU on Sept. 8. To rewrite the expectations others have for Weber State's upcoming season, the Wildcats will have to maintain their concentration on leadership and on the day-to-day work instead of the final product, Sears said.
"If we focus on the process instead of the outcomes of what's going to happen, I think it would be favorable for us," he said. "Try to control the things we can control, try not to get too caught up in the things we can't: the outcomes, the 'what's going to happen,' the unknowns."
And after an offseason unlike any other in Weber State history, Sears is willing to use that as motivation for his players.
"That's life. That's real-life stuff. You're going to have change, you're going to have turnover, you're going to have transition. You're going to have to get up and move," Sears said. "I'm going to use those opportunities as teachable moments, as life lessons, and take advantage of them. What better opportunity to teach young people, student-athletes, even your children, how you deal with change in adverse situations."
With four new teams this season, including Southern Utah and North Dakota as full members and UC Davis and Cal Poly as football-only affiliates, the Big Sky is bigger than ever before.
Idaho State coach Mike Kramer's Bengals were picked 11th by the coaches and 12th by the media.
Kramer, a former head coach at Montana State, doesn't know what to say about polls whether his teams are picked high or low, he said, but it will take some time to get to know the new-look league.
"This is going to be a wildcard deal for everybody," he said. "Scheduling is important. Home field is important. I don't think the smoke will clear until the very end."
North Dakota coach Chris Mussman saw his UND squad picked as high as sixth by the meida and as low as 10th by the coaches. Going around the league will be a new experience, he said.
"For me, we've seen enough film on these guys in the summer, but until you actually play the game, you're in the environment in the stadiums ... Same thing for them. They've got to come to Grand Forks (N.D.), so that's going to be a unique trip, it's not an easy place to get to," Mussman said.
Montana State coach Rob Ash said his team has high expectations for itself after being overwhelmingly picked in first place in both polls.
"We have a group of guys that want to take another step," Ash said. "We got into the playoffs and won a game last year and we'd like to keep on moving forward. If you're playing in a division that has a playoff and a national champion, your goal needs to be to try to be the national champion. We know it's a tough conference and it's going to be difficult getting there, but luckily, even though we got a nice compliment here by the polls, we've got a group of guys that understands that hard work is the only way to make that come true."