BIG SKY FOOTBALL KICKOFF NOTES: Don’t sleep on the Vandals

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MARK NELKE/Press Idaho football coach Paul Petrino, left, and his youngest daughter Ava laugh as Ava is asked a question by a media member at the Big Sky Football Kickoff on Monday in Spokane.

SPOKANE — Last season, UC Davis and Idaho State were two of the surprise teams of the Big Sky Conference in football.

UC Davis was picked to finish ninth in the Big Sky by both the media and coaches last year. But the Aggies instead finished 10-3, in a three-way tie for first in the Big Sky, and advanced to the FCS playoffs.

Idaho State was picked to finish 12th by the coaches and 10th by the media. But the Bengals were in contention for a postseason bid up until the final week of the regular season before finishing 6-5, 5-3 in the conference.

Eastern Washington, which reached the FCS title game last year, is the prohibitive favorite this season.

But who are the sleeper teams?

“When I was voting on that thing, you could have blew on dice and rolled them against the wall,” UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins said. “Two years ago Sac State should have gone to the playoffs, Southern Utah was dang good. And then all of a sudden they’re at the bottom. Just when you think Cal Poly’s up for dead last year, they come roaring back (5-6, 4-4, tied for sixth). Idaho State, I was looking at them for awhile, ‘These guys are going to be in the playoffs.’ It’s too good a league.”

“Southern Utah (1-10, 1-7) had a lot of injuries last year … watch out for them,” Idaho State coach Rob Phenicie said. “Sac State, with Kevin Thompson, and their new offensive system, they could be good. They had a lot of injuries last year, too. That plays a big role, too. You get guys banged up, it makes it tough to win in this league.”

Montana State coach Jeff Choate, the former St. Maries High star and ex-Post Falls football coach and athletic director, said the unbalanced conference schedule (each team plays 8 of a possible 12 league foes) can impact who finishes where — for better or for worse.

“Cal Poly … Case Cookus coming back at NAU … Portland State,” Choate said. “The Vandals, they return a good amount of guys. And they’re not getting a lot of respect right now, but that might be a team to keep an eye on as well.”

Shhh ...

The Vandals finished tied for ninth in the Big Sky last year, after being picked to finish fourth by the coaches and fifth by the media.

This year, Idaho is picked to finish eighth in the 13-team league by both the coaches and the media.

Which is fine with Idaho coach Paul Petrino.

“Even though we have one of the hardest schedules, I think the sleeper team is going to be Idaho,” Petrino said.

n I love the ’90s?: Part of the “car wash” treatment the players went through over the weekend at the Big Sky Football Kickoff included a contest where players were blindfolded, given ice cream to eat and asked to name the flavor.

“Luckily I got vanilla, so I got that right,” Idaho senior offensive guard Noah Johnson said.

“I got butter pecan, and I got that right on my second try,” Vandals senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower said.

Also, there was a game where the players were handed a picture of something from the 1990s, and asked to explain to the cameras what it was.”

“And I think I got one or two right,” Hightower said.

“I got one. Out of like 10,” Johnson said.

“He got pager wrong,” Hightower said. “I know what a pager is.”

“I got Urkel (from Family Matters) right; that was the only one I got right. I didn’t know who the Spice Girls were, I didn’t know what Vanilla Ice looked like. I was struggling.”

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