The Cal Poly football team faces another uphill battle this season — if the Big Sky Conference preseason poll is anything to believe.
The Mustangs were selected to finish ninth out of 13 teams in both the media and coaches polls. Last season, Cal Poly was picked to finished 10th by coaches and 11th by the media before ultimately finishing in a tie for sixth with Montana. The Mustangs won three of their last four to finish 5-6 on the year.
Eastern Washington earned 25 of 43 first-place votes, followed by UC Davis with 13. Weber State had four first-place votes.
The Eagles went 12-3 last season and set Big Sky records in points (647) and touchdowns (86).
Cal Poly is two years removed from one of the worst seasons in school history, when the team went 1-10. It was the worst season since the 1964 team went 0-10.
Three in running for QB job
Notably, no players from Cal Poly were selected for the preseason team, on which UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier and Montana linebacker Dante Olson were tabbed as the offensive and defensive MVPs, respectively.
Cal Poly will have a lot of offense to make up, as two of the top scoring leaders from last year’s team — fullback Joe Protheroe and quarterback Khaleel Jenkins — both graduated. The two combined for 21 touchdowns. The team also lost kicker Alex Vega, who recorded 72 points in his final collegiate season.
The team will return wide receivers J.J. Koski, who had seven scores last season, and Quentin Harrison, who had three more.
But who exactly will be throwing to Koski and Harrison has yet to be decided. Three players are in the running for the starting job: redshirt freshman Jalen Hamler, sophomore Kyle Reid and junior Jake Jeffery.
Jeffery is the most experienced of the bunch. He filled in for an injured Jenkins for six games in 2017 and also played in eight games last year. Reid and Hamler are more athletic than Jeffery and both excite head coach Tim Walsh.
Whoever ends up behind center should be comforted by the fact that two seniors (Paul Trujillo-Langdon and Tyler Whisenhunt) with 11 starts last season will return to anchor the offensive line. Trujillo-Langdon will slide over to center from right guard, and Whisenhunt will play right tackle.
The defense returns nine starters. Linebacker Matt Shotwell was third in the Big Sky with 90 total tackles as a sophomore, and Nik Navarro had a team-leading five sacks and 83 total tackles.
The only true unknowns will be at corner after the loss of Dominic Frasch and Jerek Rosales. Frasch led the nation with 1.9 passes defended per game and had a team-leading three interceptions.
Last year, the Mustangs started the season 1-4 and lost 15 fumbles over the first nine games — the most in the FCS. It was an unforgiving schedule with five teams ranked in the preseason top-25 polls during the first six weeks of the season.
The front seven were forced to learn on the fly. The inexperience was apparent in the season opener against No. 1-ranked North Dakota State. The Bison had 458 yards on the ground, including a 86-yard score.
This year, the schedule will be just as difficult, with five playoff teams from 2018 and Pac-12 road game, the first time that Cal Poly has played a Pac-12 school since 2015. Cal Poly last had a winning record in 2016, when the team went 7-5.
The season begins Aug. 31 when Cal Poly plays host to the University of San Diego. After the opener, Cal Poly will have two games on the road — Weber State and Pac-12 opponent Oregon State — before a bye.