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New Utah State football coach John L. Smith has never been predicted to finish so low.

"I kinda like it," Smith chuckled Thursday as he looked at the results of the preseason media and coaches' polls that forecast his Aggies to be fifth and seventh, respectively, in the 10-team Big West Conference.The polls were conducted during the annual Big West Media Day Thursday at the MGM Grand Hotel, which will also serve as the league's headquarters for December's Las Vegas Bowl IV that pits the BWC champion vs. the winner of the Mid-America Conference.

"Maybe people are going to say, `Hey, they're not very good,"' said Smith, liking the chance to perhaps sneak up on opponents - something he never had in six seasons at Idaho, where his record was 53-21 and his teams made five post-season I-AA appearances. "We just hope at the end of the season they're saying, `They're awful good.' "

Smith is the only coach in the Big West to have changed schools since last season. He was hired in January to replace Charlie Weatherbie, who went to Navy after three years in Logan.

Media and coaches overwhelmingly chose Nevada, the 1992/'94 Big West champion, led by 1994 NCAA total-offense leader Mike Maxwell at quarterback in his senior year, to be the '95 league champion.

Nevada is a unanimous choice among the eight national periodicals that conduct Big West preseason polls, too.

And that's just what long-time Nevada coach Chris Ault says he told his team during spring training to expect. Maxwell and much of the Wolf Pack are more experienced than last year when they went 9-2, 5-1.

Media and coaches were also united in selecting Southwestern Louisiana and Northern Illinois as the second- and third-place teams on the poll.

Nevada, Southwestern Louisiana and UNLV are defending BWC tri-champions.

If the polls are right, the BWC title could be decided in the first game, Sept. 2, when Southwestern Louisiana travels to Nevada.

This is Southwestern Louisiana's last chance to win a conference title, since the Big West Consortium dissolves after three seasons in December, and it is also the Ragin' Cajuns' last season as Southwestern Louisiana. The school becomes University of Louisiana in January.

Most preseason publications chose USL as runner-up to Nevada, though NIU took second on the "Athlon" poll and UNLV, winner of Las Vegas Bowl III, was picked second by "Football Digest."

Most coaches, including USU's Smith, however, seem to think Nevada-USL-NIU are the to-beat triumverate. "Probably those three would be more physical than the rest of us," Smith says.

Most coaches also say several teams could surprise everyone. Ault listed New Mexico State as someone "to come out of the woodwork."

"It's the history of the league," adds Smith, "for someone to come out of nowhere to win it."

The Aggies open Sept. 2 at unanimous last-place pick Arkansas State.

USU freshmen report to fall practice Tuesday, and veterans join camp next Thursday. Two-a-days start Aug. 12.

Smith says his team's task this summer was to add muscle and bulk because size will be a glaring problem. He said that, of the 45 who stayed in Logan this summer, most worked dilligently and gained size. But Smith says that his first Aggie team will probably be "light years" away from the 1993 Aggie BWC co-champs.



Big West preseason football polls

Media poll

1. Nevada (28) 355

2. SW Louisiana (5) 322

3. N. Illinois (4) 261

4. UNLV 246

5. Utah State 206

6. New Mexico St. 191

7. Pacific 171

8. Louisiana Tech 124

9. San Jose St. 108

10. Arkansas St. 51

Coaches' poll

1. Nevada (8) 97

2. SW Louisiana (2) 89

3. N. Illinois 78

4. New Mexico St. 62

5. UNLV 52

6. Pacific 47

7. Utah State 45

8. Louisiana Tech 34

9. San Jose St. 32

10. Arkansas St. 14

First-place votes in parentheses.