GRAND FORKS-The University of North Dakota, who joined the Big Sky Conference in 2012 and will officially leave the league after the 2017-18 season, are looking to exit the western U.S. conference in a big way.
On Tuesday, league coaches and media covering the league picked UND to win the 2017 Big Sky football championship.
UND was the surprise story of the Big Sky last season, winning a share of the league title with Eastern Washington and advancing to the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history.
The expectations at Memorial Stadium this season are higher, as UND is ranked No. 5 in the country in one preseason FCS national poll.
"This type of recognition is great for our program as one of our goals is to excite our fan base, alumni and loyal supporters," said UND coach Bubba Schweigert. "When we arrived in 2014, our goal was to fill the Alerus tailgate lot, the Alerus Center and play big games in front of our home crowd. Our players and coaches need to be able to handle these expectations and preseason buzz that come with the success we had last year.
"These external expectations do not change our internal expectations, which remain the same and that is for each individual to do their job to the best of their ability."
UND received 15 first-place votes in the media poll and six first-place votes from league coaches. Also, the top eight teams were identical in both polls.
Eastern Washington, which shared the league title with UND last season, was picked to finish second. Northern Arizona, Cal Poly and Weber State rounded out the top five.
UND, which lost to Richmond in the first round of last season's FCS playoffs, returns several key players, including safety Cole Reyes and running back John Santiago.
Reyes is the Big Sky reigning Defensive Player of the Year and was selected as the Big Sky Preseason Defensive Player of the Year on Monday.
Santiago, an all-conference running back as a freshman and sophomore, joined offensive guard Damon Taylor, cornerback Deion Harris and running back Brady Oliveira on the Big Sky preseason team.
The Fighting Hawks also return the Big Sky Coach of the Year, as Schweigert-now in his fourth season-earned that honor last season.
UND opens its season Aug. 31 at Utah.