Jacks crave top spot

Heather Mangan

Heather Mangan

The Great West Football Conference is three years old. The Jackrabbits want to celebrate the anniversary by bringing home the biggest gift of all – SDSU’s first Division I conference title.

But a rough schedule, an unproven defense and the public’s doubt could make the road to the title a long one.

“We got a chance to win the GWFC and we’ve got a team very capable of winning,” said senior running back Anthony Watson.

SDSU is ranked fourth in the coaches and media GWFC’s pre-season polls, with Southern Utah ranked just below. In order to prove the polls wrong, the Jacks will have to win some major games, and do it mainly on the road.

The Jacks came out of last season with a winning record overall, 6-5, and a GWFC record of 3-2, so a conference title is not completely out of the question.

“We’ve got some pretty good guys going into their positions and they will do what they need to do,” said senior quarterback Andy Kardoes.

Since the 2005 season, Northern Colorado dropped out of the GWFC to join the Big Sky Conference, leaving Cal Poly, UC Davis, North Dakota State, Southern Utah and SDSU in the conference. The Jacks proved victorious over UC Davis and Southern Utah last fall, but got beaten badly by Cal Poly and NDSU.

“It’s not like we’re out of it. We can beat all of those teams,” said junior running back Cory Koenig.

Based on the schedule alone, the Jacks will have their work cut out for them. Ten of the 11 teams had winning records last year, and seven of those teams were ranked in NCAA Division I-AA.

The Jacks face a four-game stint on the road in September in which they will compete back-to-back-to-back against teams that appeared in the Division I-AA playoffs.

“The four-game road trip will show the character this team has,” said senior free safety Jeff Hegge.

Although SDSU has to play much of the season in front of opponents’ fans, having only four home games could help attendance. Last year the Jacks appeared eight times in front of home crowds, but by the end of the season, attendance had dwindled to less than 1,900.

“Whether we have four games or eight games, I want the stadium filled,” Head Coach John Stiegelmeier said.

Although the team prefers not to prioritize games, SDSU’s most publicized game is against rival NDSU. The Bison upset the Jacks, 41-17, in the Fargodome last year, forcing SDSU to hand over the Dakota Marker. Due to scheduling, the Jacks will return to Fargo this year and are determined not to let history repeat itself.

“I’m excited to go to Fargo,” Watson said. “My whole career I haven’t beaten them in the Fargodome and this is my last chance.”

The squad that is determined to get the conference title has its own strengths and weaknesses. Solid special teams and a consistent offense will allow the Jacks to be aggressive. But with only four returning starters, the Jacks will rely on a few key players with experience to guide defensive efforts.

“I think this is the season to set the tone to getting other teams to start looking at us in a defensive manner,” said Hegge, who moved from cornerback to free safety this season.