There will be plenty of intrigue involved with the first three games in the head coaching career of Aaron Best.
Best and the Eastern Washington University football team open the 2017 season at fellow national passing champion Texas Tech as EWU's schedule for the upcoming season was officially announced. The 11-game schedule is still considered tentative and changes are possible, and game times will be announced this summer.
Best's head coaching debut will come against the same team former head coach Beau Baldwin made his EWU head coaching debut against back on Aug. 30, 2008, in a 49-24 Red Raider victory. Interestingly, Best is a 1996 graduate of Curtis High School in Tacoma, Wash., and Baldwin graduated from the same school six years earlier. Best was making his debut as Baldwin's offensive line coach in that 2008 game.
This year's game will be a match-up of the nation's two NCAA Division I passing champions in 2016. The Red Raiders averaged 463.0 yards per game to win the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision passing title by nearly 100 yards (Louisiana Tech averaged 363.4 and Washington State averaged 362.5). Texas Tech finished 5-7 overall and 3-6 in the Big 12 Conference, and was also first in total offense (564.5) and fifth in scoring offense (43.7).
Eastern averaged 401.0 passing yards per game to lead the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision for the second-straight season. The Eagles were also second in FCS in total offense (529.6) and third in scoring (42.4).
The Eagles then host five-time NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Champion North Dakota State on Sept. 9 at Roos Field in the second game of a home-and-home series against the Bison. Eastern, which won the national title in 2010 prior to NDSU's incredible run of five-straight, lost 50-44 in overtime on Sept. 10, 2016, in Fargo. Eastern knocked off NDSU 38-31 in overtime in the only previous meeting with the Bison on Dec. 11, 2010, in the FCS Playoffs in Cheney.
The Bison had won 22-consecutive postseason games before top-seeded NDSU was defeated at home by fourth-seeded James Madison 27-17 in the semifinals of the 2016 FCS Playoffs. James Madison went on to beat YSU 28-14 in the NCAA Division I Championship Game on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas. Youngstown State beat Eastern 40-38 in the semifinals.
A trip to New York City follows for the Eagles against a Fordham team which closed the 2016 season with an 8-3 record, and finished as the Patriot League runner-up with a 5-1 record. This will be the first-ever meeting for EWU against the Rams, a collegiate football power in the 1930's known for the "Seven Blocks of Granite" featuring the famous Vince Lombardi.
Fordham was defeated by Lehigh 58-37 late in the 2016 season, costing the Rams their fourth-straight trip to the FCS Playoffs. Fordham has been in the playoffs five times overall (2002-07-13-14-15) and are 3-5 all-time. Eastern hasn't played any current member of the Patriot League.
Eastern's three non-conference foes in 2017 combined to win 68 percent of their games overall last season (25-12), 65 percent in league play (15-8) and 67 percent in the postseason (2-1). By contrast, Eastern's non-conference opponents in 2016 were 31-11 overall the year before for 74 percent, 18-7 in league play (72 percent) and 7-1 in the postseason (88 percent).
After finishing a perfect 8-0 in league play a year ago, Eastern's eight Big Sky Conference foes this coming season combined for a 40-50 record overall and 30-34 league mark in 2016. Two of the opponents – North Dakota and Weber State – advanced to the FCS Playoffs and were a collective 16-8 on the season and 14-2 in the Big Sky.
Eastern opens Big Sky Conference play on the road at Montana (6-5/3-5) on Sept. 23 before playing its home opener on Sept. 30 versus Sacramento State (2-9/2-6) on Hall of Fame Day at EWU. Eastern plays at UC Davis (3-8/2-6) on Oct. 7, then hosts rival Montana State (4-7/2-6) on Oct. 14.
An Oct. 21 game at Southern Utah (6-5/5-3) is the first of three-straight games against teams with winning records overall and in league play in 2016. After a bye week on Oct. 28, Eastern hosts Weber State (7-5/6-2) on Nov. 4 and plays at fellow defending Big Sky champion North Dakota (9-3/8-0) on Nov. 11. The regular season closes with Senior Day at Roos Field on Nov. 18 versus Portland State, with the FCS Playoffs beginning the following weekend on Nov. 25.
The game at Fordham will be just the eighth time all-time that EWU has played east of the Mississippi River, The last time came in 2013 in Ohio when Eastern fell at Toledo 33-21. That was only EWU's fourth game ever in the Eastern time zone.
Eastern is 2-5 in games played East of the Mississippi River, including in 2007 when the Eagles played at Appalachian State (Boone, N.C.) in the FCS Playoffs (L, 35-38). Eastern's other games in the East were West Virginia in 2006 (L, 3-52), Southern Illinois (Carbondale) in the FCS Playoffs in 2004 (W, 35-31), Connecticut in 2001 (W, 35-17), Eastern Illinois (Charleston) in 1991 (L, 12-30) and Fairmont State in Morgantown, W.Va., in the NAIA Championship Game in 1967 (L, 21-28).
Eastern has also played three games very close to the Mississippi River in Louisiana –McNeese State (Lake Charles) in 2007, Nicholls State (Thibodaux) in 2004 and Northeast Louisiana (Monroe) in 1992 -- and six times at Northern Iowa (Cedar City) in 2015, 2005, 1994, 1992, 1989 and 1985.
In 2018, Eastern is scheduled to play at Washington State (9/15/18) in a rematch of EWU's 45-42 win to open the 2016 season. The Eagles will play in 2019 at Washington (8/31/19), a team EWU narrowly lost to 59-52 in 2014 and 30-27 in 2011. The Eagles are also scheduled to play on Sept. 5, 2020, at Florida, whose head coach is former EWU player and assistant coach Jim McElwain.
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