The sprint for the league title is officially a two-horse race as the regular season winds down.
As has been the case all fall, No. 3 Eastern Washington and No. 12 North Dakota continued to take care of business last week. EWU posted a 42-21 win over No. 14 Cal Poly to win for the sixth straight time in league play. North Dakota again stuffed its opponent, smothering Northern Colorado in a 23-13 win to move to 7-0 in Big Sky play this fall. A UND win over Northern Arizona will sew up at least a share of the Big Sky title. EWU continues its pursuit of conference perfection against Idaho State this week in its home finale before finishing at Portland State.
Cal Poly and Montana both still harbor playoff hopes but will need to win the last two games of the season each. Eight wins will certainly get both into the postseason. A 7-4 Montana team would mean the Griz would have to incur a loss either Northern Colorado or Montana State and would likely keep UM out of the playoffs. A 7-4 Cal Poly team would have wins over South Dakota State, San Diego and Montana plus losses to EWU and UND but still might not get in.
Weber State, NAU and Southern Utah can still all get to seven wins, but each would be playoff long shots even if they won out.
Each Wednesday for the rest of the season, Skyline Sports will break down the Big Sky Conference race with weekly power rankings. These rankings are based on strength of schedule, quality of wins, most recent performance and each team’s future in regard to momentum, health and upcoming match-ups.
Big Sky Composite schedule
Saturday, November 12
Southern Utah at BYU
Idaho State at Eastern Washington
UC Davis at Montana State
Northern Arizona at North Dakota
Montana at Northern Colorado
Portland State at Sacramento State
Cal Poly at Weber State
1. Eastern Washington (6-0 in Big Sky play, 8-1 overall) — Eastern Washington continues to chase the ultimate goal it proclaimed for itself coming off last season’s three-game losing streak to end the 2015 campaign. The Eagles want a national championship.
The Eagles have played perhaps the toughest schedule in both the Big Sky and the FCS. EWU is two wins away from a 10-win season after last week’s win over Cal Poly. Eastern’s lethal passing attack continued to shred defenses last week as Gage Gubrud threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns. EWU now four wins over Top 25 FCS teams and a Pac 12 win among its eight victories. Wins over Idaho State and at Portland State will assure EWU a top-four seed and at least a share of its fifth Big Sky title since 2010.
2. North Dakota (7-0 in Big Sky play, 8-2 overall) — Many who follow the Big Sky thought UND had a chance to make a run simply because of its favorable schedule. The Fighting Hawks do not play the Griz or EWU this fall. But North Dakota still had to take care of business. The Fighting Hawks have up to this point, extending their winning streak to eight straight.
If not for final-minute losses at Stony Brook and Bowling Green, UND could be undefeated and gunning for a top seed itself. North Dakota still has a chance to make history. A win over NAU in its season finale would assure at least a share of the Big Sky crown pending how EWU finishes. It would also assure North Dakota will qualify for the FCS playoff field after being spurned last season.
Junior quarterback Keaton Studsrud’s status (elbow) is still unknown for the game but last week, UND won without him, rushing for 290 yards and playing lights out defense. A week after holding Weber State to 12 yards rushing, UND stuffed Northern Colorado to the tune of just six rushing yards.
3. Cal Poly (4-2 in Big Sky play, 6-3 overall) — Cal Poly’s playoff status likely would’ve been solidified with a win over Eastern Washington last week. Still, if the Mustangs can win their remaining two games — this week at Weber, next week at home against Northern Colorado — Cal Poly will be a playoff team for the first time since 2012.
Cal Poly has three quality wins over playoff teams — South Dakota State, San Diego, Montana — and the losses are “good” (FBS Nevada, North Dakota, Eastern Washington). The Mustangs also have one of the most potent offenses in the country, rushing for 370 yards and rolling up more than 500 yards and 36.1 points per game with their triple option attack.
4. Montana (3-3 in Big Sky play, 6-3 overall) — The equation seems to be simple for these Griz: when they play at home, they will light up the scoreboard. On the road, the struggles are real.
UM will have a chance to right its road woes this week in Greeley, Colorado against a much-improved Northern Colorado squad. Montana is 15-18 on the road since the beginning of 2011, including 1-3 this season. After Saturday’s outburst, the Griz have scored at latest 41 points in all its home games, including at least 62 in its last three.
Last week, backup Chad Chalich filled in for senior quarterback Brady Gustafson and thrived, throwing a school-record seven touchdowns and rushing for an eighth in UM’s 62-44 win over Idaho State. Montana will have to figure out how to get a win on the road this week at UNC or the playoffs will not be in the cards.
5. Northern Arizona (4-2 in Big Sky play, 5-4 overall) — Internally, Northern Arizona believes wins at UND and against rival Southern Utah can still keep postseason hopes alive.
A 7-4 NAU team would have wins over North Dakota and Montana but just six Division I wins and no other qualify wins would likely keep the Lumberjacks on the outside looking in again. NAU finished 7-4 last season with a D-II win and watched the playoffs from home.
6. Southern Utah (4-3 in Big Sky play, 5-4 overall) — Southern Utah has the longest long shot of any Big Sky team with a chance to get to seven wins. Not only would SUU have to win its regular-season finale at Walkup Skydome but the T-Birds would have to beat BYU first.
The reigning Big Sky champions likely won’t sweep their final two, but a split would mean a winning record, a respectable accomplishment considering SUU lost three of its most successful all-time players to the NFL plus head coach Ed Lamb departed for BYU in the off-season.
7. Weber State (4-2 in Big Sky play, 5-4 overall) — The Wildcats won five straight against the bottom half of the Big Sky. Now that WSU is into the meat of its schedule, the challenges are more profound and mounting.
A win over Cal Poly this week would be Weber’s first quality win this season over a potential playoff team. A win against Idaho State in the season-finale doesn’t do much to boost playoff hopes. But a second straight winning season and a seven-win campaign in Jay Hill’s third season could do wonders for the momentum of the program.
8. Northern Colorado (3-3 in Big Sky play, 5-4 overall) — Northern Colorado has fluctuated through these rankings more than maybe any other team outside Montana this season. The Bears have played meaningful games late in the season for the first time since joining the Big Sky in 2006. Now they are in search of a breakthrough win.
UNC’s win over NAU to kick off conference play was one of the best wins in program history. The other two league victories came against Sac State and Portland State, two teams that have a combine three Big Sky wins. UNC missed a chance for a breakthrough against UND last week. Northern Colorado has two more chances with matchups with UM and Cal Poly remaining. Two wins would be two quality wins and push UNC to 7-4, potentially on the playoff bubble.
9. Portland State (2-4 in Big Sky play, 3-6 overall) — PSU took an eight-hour bus trip to UC Davis and for the first time this season, avoided Bruce Barnum’s “Americana Tour”. Usually on long bus trips, Portland State’s head coach includes sight seeing and zoo adventures. Instead, the Vikings were all business in pounding UC Davis.
This week, PSU gets on a bus again to return to Central California. PSU plays at Sac State. Earning a second straight win before the “Battle for the Dam Cup” with Eastern Washington could make Portland State a danger to knock off the Eagles and ruin EWU’s Big Sky title aspirations.
10. Idaho State (1-5 in Big Sky play, 2-7 overall) — The Bengals keep staying out of the bottom three because of respectable performances against some of the league’s better teams. But that means nothing to a squad on a five-game winning streak with a trip to Eastern Washington upcoming.
11. UC Davis (1-5 in Big Sky play, 2-7 overall) — Davis has been solid at times — like in a win over UNC or a 21-16 loss to Cal Poly — but other times, the Aggies have lacked depth and looked uncompetitive.
The next two weeks, Davis has its two most winnable game of the season. Saturday, the Aggies play at struggling Montana State and next week host Sacramento State as they search for their second Division I win this season.
12. Sacramento State (1-5 in Big Sky play, 1-8 overall) — Sac’s four-game losing streak stood pat last week. The Hornets had a bye. They will be in California for the next two weeks, this week for their home finale against Portland State and next week for the Causeway Classic at rival UC Davis.
13. Montana State (0-6 in Big Sky play, 2-7 overall) — Montana State essentially plays back to back Super Bowls, an interesting situation for a program that has had one of the most profound falls from grace of any Big Sky team in recent memory.
MSU will look to send its 12 seniors out on a winning note in its final home game against UC Davis. The Bobcats will try to keep the Griz out of the playoffs with the 116th Cat-Griz showdown in Missoula November 19.
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