CHENEY, Wash. -- Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell passed Eastern Washington to its first Football Championship Subdivision national title last season, and he is the leader of a team with so much returning talent that the Eagles are predicted to repeat.
Eastern Washington was the overwhelming choice to win a second consecutive title in preseason polls, largely because Mitchell is back to try to improve on last season's passing totals of 3,496 yards and his school-record 37 touchdown passes.
"He's made tons of progress," coach Beau Baldwin said of Mitchell, a former starter at SMU who played his first season for Eastern last year. "At this time last year he had been here only five or six months."
"Now, having played 15 games as a starter and coming back after a full off-season, he's just in a different place," Baldwin said.
Mitchell is one of 15 returning starters for the Eagles, who open the season on Sept. 3 at Washington in the first meeting ever between the two schools, which are 250 miles apart.
Eastern Washington won its final 11 games to finish 13-2 and came back from a 19-0 deficit to beat Delaware in the national title game.
The Eagles, who installed distinctive red artificial turf on their home field prior to last season, won all eight games last year on the surface dubbed "The Inferno."
Their big loss was 1,000-yard running back Taiwan Jones, who left a year early and is trying to win a spot with the NFL's Oakland Raiders. But Eastern has reloaded with sophomore Mario Brown, senior Darriell Beaumonte and Washington transfer Demitrius Bronson. The Eagles also have promising freshmen running backs Quincy Forte and Jordan Talley.
In fact, with 50 returning lettermen, the battles for playing time are fierce.
"There are a lot of players who are capable of playing some football, but the sad thing is that not everybody is going to be able to travel to every game," Baldwin said.
In particular, players are competing for cornerback positions, and there are also battles for starting spots along the defensive line, at linebacker and safety, as well as punter.
This year, the Eagles figure to face challenges from Big Sky Conference rivals Montana and Montana State, as well as Sacramento State.
While some coaches might chaff at being big favorites to repeat, Baldwin likes the view from the top.
"Next year at this time I would like to see us up near the top again," Baldwin said. "It means you've done good things the year before."