PARK CITY -- Going into the yearlong celebration of the Big Sky Conference's 50th anniversary, only four charter members of the league are currently in the lineup: Idaho State, Montana, Montana State and Weber State.
Two football teams from those schools were predicted by the media and league coaches to be in the top three at the end of 2013, according to polls announced Monday at the Big Sky kickoff meetings; the other two are expected to be in the bottom three.
Montana State is the overwhelming favorite in the coaches and media polls announced Monday at the Big Sky kickoff meetings. The Bobcats earned the nod over Eastern Washington, while the Montana Girzzlies were picked third in each poll.
As for the Wildcats and Bengals, Weber State was predicted to finish 11th out of 13 league teams by the coaches and 12th by the media. Border rival Idaho State was selected last in both polls.
Weber State opens the season at home against Stephen F. Austin on Aug. 31 before two consecutive in-state contests against FBS schools, at Utah and at Utah State.
Montana State quarterback DeNarius McGhee is the preseason offensive player of the year and Montana linebacker Jordan Tripp is the preseason defensive player of the year. Northern Arizona led all schools with six players selected for the preseason all-league team.
Senior linebacker Anthony Morales is Weber State's lone representative on the preseason all-conference team.
Weber State finished 2-9 in 2012 in coach Jody Sears' first season; Sears served as the interim coach after John L. Smith's spring departure but was given a three-year contract in November to continue as the head coach.
"It's just preseason so I'm not going to overreact to (our place in the polls)," Morales said. "We didn't really justify ourselves last season with two wins. It's no big deal to me. We've just got to play our game and we'll be fine.
"Last year we were put in a tough position with John L. leaving and then coach Sears having to step in and fill that role," Morales said. "It's been good now that he has stability as a coach. He's made a couple of coaching adjustments, brought in some juco kids and a lot of talented freshmen so we're going to see a lot different team this season, a lot of new faces. Coach (Robin) Pflugrad's offense is going to work real well for us."
Pflugrad, the former Montana head coach, is WSU's new offensive coordinator; Eric Lewis has been elevated to defensive coordinator, a role Sears filled last year.
As a senior, Morales is hoping the Wildcats can surprise the league in his final season.
"In 2008, (while I was) coming out of high school, they won a (Big Sky) championship. I said I have to get one, so this is my last shot to do that," he said.
The Edmond, Okla., native was glad to receive the nod for the preseason all-conference squad, but "I'll feel better about if it happens after the season as well," Morales said. "It feels good to be recognized, but the wins and losses are going to be more important than any individual awards."
Morales led the conference in tackles and was third in the nation last season.
At the top end of the poll, McGhee, a three-time finalist for the Walter Payton Award and two-time Big Sky offensive player of the year, said he's not worried about preseason honors or rankings either.
"It's a great honor, but the key to what you just said was preseason," McGhee said. "Preseason is an award for the season before, therefore, we don't get caught up in that. We know that we're going to have to improve, improve, improve ourselves, every game, against everybody that we're playing."
Focusing on the little things leads to big accomplishments, McGhee said.
"On the goal boards is, to win the conference outright, to beat the Grizz and then, from that, to go on, get hot and win the national championship," he said. "That's talking the big picture, but the small picture is that we have to put ourselves in position and prepare to win each and every day."
Southern Utah wide receiver Fatu Moala was one of two Thunderbirds to be named to the preseason all-Big Sky team along with South Ogden native Gavin Farr, a Northridge High product.
In its second season in the league, SUU was picked ninth in both polls after losing quarterback Brad Sorensen, who became the first T-Bird ever drafted in the NFL, going to the San Diego Chargers in the seventh round.
Moala said Southern Utah learned from its first season in the Big Sky: "Never take any team lightly," he said. "I felt like we were very prepared for the top teams, the bigger teams, then we felt like the teams that we kind of overlooked, we paid for it."
That includes in-state rival Weber State, which was 0-7 before the Wildcats edged the T-Birds for their first victory of 2012.
"Weber State's a very good team and we definitely paid for that mistake. We weren't clicking as a unit, we weren't making plays that we should have and that Saturday, Weber State was the better team."
This season, SUU and WSU will meet Nov. 9 at Stewart Stadium.
"Every game is very important to us," Moala said, "but there's something about the in-state rivalry that adds that much more pressure to the game and that much more hype to the rivalry."