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Great West title race is often, well, great

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The concept that "there is little margin for error" doesn't hold much merit in the five-team Great West football conference.

There's usually no margin for error.

There's been a different champion in each of the past four seasons, and last year's race was about as closely bunched as can be expected. No team was better than 6-5, no team was worse than 4-7, and UC Davis reigned with a 3-1 conference mark, followed by North Dakota, South Dakota and Southern Utah at 2-2 each and Cal Poly, the 2008 champion, in last place at 1-3.

Great West head coaches are expecting another close race this season, and a similar finish. Three of the five coaches installed UC Davis as the favorite in the conference's preseason poll, with Cal Poly second and Southern Utah third, gaining one first-place vote each. South Dakota was picked fourth and North Dakota fifth.

"Because of the smallness of the league, every game has a sense of urgency and it throws in a little bit of chaos," Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said. "In a five-team conference, 4-0 is the mark you have to shoot for."

UC Davis won last year's title despite a three-touchdown loss to Southern Utah. The Aggies return eight starters on offense and six on defense, but are replacing standout quarterback Greg Denham after he decided during the offseason not to return for his senior season. A superb offensive line will make the transition easier for expected signal-caller Austin Heyworth.

Three Key Games
Montana at Cal Poly, Sept. 11 - Before going on a ridiculously tough, five-game road swing to Texas State, McNeese State, Fresno State, Old Dominion and Southern Utah, Cal Poly's veteran team hopes for a monumental upset of Big Sky kingpin Montana, the FCS runner-up in each of the past two seasons.

Southern Utah at UC Davis, Oct. 30 - In the five-team conference, Southern Utah wraps up its Great West schedule with a trip to the defending champion. All-America WR Tyson Poots and the Thunderbirds are planning to wrap up their own title.

UC Davis at Cal Poly, Nov. 13 - The last Great West game of the season could be the biggest. The California rivals shared the 2008 title before UC Davis won an outright crown last season.

"I often base a successful football team by what they do during the offseason and the character. the commitment ... and the work ethic," UC Davis coach Bob Biggs said. "And I think that's where we've really done a great job this year. It's player-driven."

Cal Poly returns 19 starters - the most starters among Great West teams - as they try to overcome last year's first losing season since 2002. Included among the veterans are quarterback Tony Smith, his entire offensive line, linebacker Marty Mohamed and cornerback Asa Jackson.

Southern Utah appears to have its best chance to not only post its first winning record in Great West action (the conference formed for the 2004 season), but also win the title. The Thunderbirds return a dominant pair of wide receivers, Tysson Poots and Fesi Sitake, who combined for 164 receptions and 24 touchdown catches last season.

"Every team is capable of beating every other team," Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb said. "Cal Davis and Cal Poly have set the standard in our conference for program consistency, player talent and confidence. We are hoping to catch up in those races."

South Dakota features running back Chris Ganious, while North Dakota will rely on quarterback Jake Landry and running back Mitch Sutton.

"The common denominator of Great West champions, since I've been in this league, is great quarterback play," South Dakota coach Ed Meierkort said. "That has usually separated it. Two years ago, it was Cal Poly's quarterback (John Dally) that played fantastic and last year it was UC Davis' quarterback (Denham) that played fantastic. We were in the hunt because our quarterback played fantastic. You only get so many opportunities in conference games, so you can't slip. You're quarterback has got to make big-time plays."

The reasons for the closeness of Great West races are varied, and each is important for surviving a race in which teams play a mere two conference games at home and two on the road.

"Probably staying healthy at key positions and I think home-field advantage is a big factor, quite frankly, in the Great West," Biggs said. "I think that it's a tough environment because of the altitude and other issues playing at Southern Utah, I think the indoor arenas favor the home teams in North Dakota and South Dakota, and Cal Poly is not an easy place to get to with the long travel."

"Special teams," North Dakota coach Chris Mussman added. "Take a look at Southern Utah's guy (Sitake) last year, he was a weapon. You look at our game against South Dakota and their field goal kicker missed a couple of opportunities that would have put them right in the game. As balanced as we are, I think special teams makes a big difference."

GREAT WEST PRESEASON POLL
(Head Coaches)

1. UC Davis (3 first-place votes), 23 points
2. Cal Poly (1), 18
3. Southern Utah (1), 14
4. South Dakota, 11
5. North Dakota, 9

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director


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