SPOKANE, Washington — Montana State’s reputation is improving, but the Bobcats aren’t satisfied.

MSU was picked fourth in the Big Sky preseason media poll and fifth in the coaches’ poll, and five Bobcats were selected for the preseason all-conference team announced Monday during the Big Sky’s kickoff event. That’s a jump from last season when they were selected eighth in both polls and only one player was picked for the all-conference preseason list.

While the conference’s coaches and players complimented MSU for its recent ascension and physical style of play, head coach Jeff Choate and the Bobcats have higher goals in mind. They want to become one of the top teams in the country.

Choate continuously brought up last season’s polls as reason for his team to remain motivated. Others didn’t believe they could be successful, but all they needed was self-belief, he said.

The Bobcats used it all as fuel as they beat rival Montana for the third straight season, earned a place in the national rankings, made the FCS playoffs and advanced to the second round before losing to eventual champion North Dakota State.

“They’re definitely a team you have to take seriously every year,” UM linebacker and preseason conference defensive player of the year Dante Olson said.

“They’re a good team,” Grizzlies quarterback Dalton Sneed added pointedly.

Now others predict the Bobcats will be among the best teams in the conference.

“They’ve got great talent,” Southern Utah head coach Demario Warren said. “I think they’re one of the most talented teams in the conference. So I think that stands out to me. And they’re a physical team.

“They’ve brought good players in and developed them. I think they’ll be a team to reckon with in the Big Sky.”

Big Sky coaches shared varying reasons why they believe MSU jumped from a 4-7 record in 2016, Choate’s first year as head coach, to 8-5 with a place in the second round of the playoffs in 2018. UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins believes MSU’s funding has been key. Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh thought Troy Andersen — an all-conference quarterback last season who will play linebacker in 2019 but was picked as a preseason all-conference fullback simply to find a place for him on the list — was pivotal in MSU’s offense.

Northern Colorado linebacker Luke Nelson added MSU’s tendency for discipline poses a unique obstacle. The Bobcats beat the Bears 35-7 as part of their three-game winning streak to end the regular season on their way to securing a playoff berth.

“They’re physical,” UNC quarterback Jacob Knipp added. “They utilized a lot of different athletes in a lot of different ways. It’s a different challenge and one we’re looking forward to facing.”

Cal Poly wide receiver J.J. Koski admitted he’s happy to host the Bobcats this year after they defeated the Mustangs last season at Bobcat Stadium. He said MSU is an athletic squad that’s tough to prepare for because of its deep and talented roster.

“They’re a very formidable opponent. We go in knowing that we have a lot of respect going into that game,” Cal Poly defensive back Kitu Humphrey said. “They’re a good team.”

Some reasons varied, but nearly all of the conference’s coaches highlighted MSU’s coaching as reason for its improvement. Idaho head coach Paul Petrino, who played for Carroll against Choate’s Montana Western when they were in college, praised MSU for recruiting and developing high-level players.

“Coach Choate is a phenomenal coach, for sure one of the best in our league and one of the best in the country,” Weber State head coach Jay Hill said. “It doesn’t surprise me they’re having success, and they’re going to get better and better.”

Still, MSU wide receiver Kevin Kassis said reputation, preseason polls or individual awards aren’t his priority. Momentum on their side, the Bobcats have improved their strength and conditioning during the offseason with a singular focus: a first-round bye in the playoffs.

That’s the next step.

“At the end of the day, those predictions aren’t reality,” Kassis said of the preseason polls. “We hope to be at the top of that list when the season comes to an end.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.