They’ll have to prove it on the field, but for now, the Eastern Washington University football team is No. 1 in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
The Eagles, led by a trio of national awards candidates, have been selected No. 1 by The Sports Network in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision preseason poll of sportswriters, broadcasters and sports information directors announced on Friday.
This is fourth time in five seasons Eastern has earned a No. 1 ranking by The Sports Network. Eastern finished the 2010 season No. 1 and as NCAA Division I champion. Eastern also was ranked No. 1 during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Three-time defending champion North Dakota State was ranked No. 2, while four Eagle opponents in 2014 are ranked in the top 25. Sam Houston State, Eastern’s season-opening opponent on Aug. 23, is ranked 17th.
A trio of Big Sky Conference foes are also ranked – Montana is No. 5, Montana State is 18th and Northern Arizona is 23rd. EWU’s three playoff opponents from a year ago are all ranked in the top 13 – Jacksonville State (No. 6), South Dakota State (No. 10), Towson (No. 13). Northern Iowa, a team Eastern will face in 2015 and 2016, is ranked ninth.
Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin, entering his seventh season at the helm and 11th overall at EWU, has a team picked by three national publications as the preseason No. 1 team in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision – Lindy’s, Sporting News and Athlon. In the coaches poll released Aug. 4, the Eagles were second behind NDSU. Also, the Eagles were picked to repeat as Big Sky Conference Champions after last year’s perfect 8-0 campaign.
Junior quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. and sophomore wide receiver Cooper Kupp have been selected as preseason first team All-America selections, and both are candidates for the Walter Payton Award given to the top player in FCS. Senior linebacker Ronnie Hamlin is a second team preseason All-American and is on the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award given to the top defensive player.
Also earning preseason All-America honors are senior running back Quincy Forte (third team) and junior offensive tackle Clay DeBord (third team).
The Eagles finished the 2013 season 12-3 and a perfect 8-0 in the Big Sky Conference for the first time in school history. Eastern opened the season with a 49-46 victory over 25th-ranked Oregon State, and went on to advance to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs for the third time in four years.
Adams, the 2013 runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, was one of 33 All-Americans from 2013 to be selected to the preseason team. He passed for 4,994 yards and 55 touchdowns -- which both rank third all-time in an FCS season -- and rushed for 605 yards and four touchdowns for the Eagles. Formerly from Pasadena, Calif., his 5,559 yards of offense were the second-most in FCS history.
Kupp was the lone sophomore selected among the 31 first team selections, and was one of just five sophomores overall. He accounted for numerous school, conference and FCS records in 2013 with a sensational debut season of 93 catches for 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns. The 2012 graduate of Davis High School in Yakima, Wash., was selected as the recipient of the Jerry Rice Award given by The Sports Network to the top freshman in FCS, and was first team selection on all nine FCS All-America teams.
Hamlin was also an All-American last season and is a candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award given by TSN to the top defensive player in FCS. The 2009 graduate of Timberline High School in Lacey, Wash., received his sixth year because of two previous seasons wiped out because of injuries, and finished the 2013 season with 140 tackles to rank fourth in school history. He enters the 2014 season with 361 career tackles, just 71 from the school record of 432 set by 2010 Buchanan Award winner J.C. Sherritt (2007-10).
Forte, who is from Fairfield, Calif., earned third team All-Big Sky honors as a sophomore in 2013 on a team deep at the running back position. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry in finishing with 1,208 yards and 11 touchdowns, including performances of 202 and 190 yards in the FCS Playoffs.
DeBord, a 2011 graduate of Asotin (Wash.) High School, earned second team All-Big Sky honors a year ago after starting 14 games at left offensive tackle. He helped Eastern set Big Sky and school records with 592 points, 83 touchdowns and 8,002 yards of offense in the 2013 season. As a team, EWU led FCS in passing efficiency (school record 182.6), and fourth in total offense (533.5 per game), fourth in passing (349.8), 41st in rushing (183.7) and seventh in scoring (39.5).