As the regular season enters its final week, nearly half of the 13-team Big Sky Conference remains mathematically alive in the playoff hunt. Showdowns across the league coupled with the generosity or lack thereof of the playoff committee will decide whether the Big Sky is a two, three or four-bid league.
North Dakota secured at least a share of the Big Sky championship with a 38-31 comeback win over Northern Arizona last week. UND is 8-0 and can do no worse than share the league title with Eastern Washington. The No. 3 Eagles will have to get past rival Portland State in the “Battle for the Dam Cup” on Friday night in Portland if they want to share their fifth league title since 2010. EWU and UND will each certainly be a part of the 24-team FCS playoff field.
Weber State and Northern Colorado improved slim playoff hopes with upset wins of Cal Poly and Montana, respectively, pushing both the Mustangs and the Griz farther to the brink in the process. A win by Weber State at Idaho State this week pushes the Wildcats to 7-4 but a weak schedule could keep WSU out of the playoffs. Northern Colorado could certainly eliminate Cal Poly with a win in San Luis Obispo this weekend. The Bears would be 7-4 in that scenario but one win came over NAIA Rocky Mountain.
Montana needs a win over rival Montana State in the 116th edition of the fiercest rivalry in the West. That would push Montana to 7-4 but a schedule that includes four road losses and just four league wins would put UM on the playoff bubble at best.
Each Wednesday, 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. This is the final installment for the 2016 season.
Big Sky Schedule – Saturday, November 19
Eastern Washington at Portland State
Sacramento State at UC Davis
Northern Colorado at Cal Poly
Weber State at Idaho State
Montana State at Montana
Southern Utah at Northern Arizona
1. Eastern Washington (7-0 in Big Sky play, 9-1 overall) — Eastern Washington has a chance to secure its fifth Big Sky title this decade if it can get past Portland State.
Securing a 10-win season would also mark the fifth time in seven years EWU has reached double digit wins. With the return of All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp for his senior year — he could’ve gone to the NFL Draft in the off-season — and the fifth year of eligibility for fellow All-American senior wide receiver Shaq Hill, it seems the stars are aligning for the Eagles. Securing home field advantage for the duration of the playoffs would go a long way to helped Eastern claim the Big Sky’s first national title since 2010, a crown also won by Beau Baldwin’s team.
2. North Dakota (8-0 in Big Sky play, 9-2 overall) — North Dakota’s nine-game winning streak was initially sparked by a resounding comeback win over South Dakota way back in September. In that game, UND scored 20 unanswered fourth quarter points and then won on overtime, 47-44.
North Dakota has not lost since and it took a similar comeback effort to get it done in Grand Forks on Saturday, Trailing 31-10, UND came roaring back to seal at least a share of the conference title. The 38-31 comeback win was capped by Deion Harris’ go-ahead interception return for a touchdown. The Big Sky title and the playoff appearance are each firsts for UND since joining Division I in 2008.
3. Weber State (5-2 in Big Sky play, 6-4 overall) — The 22-15 win over Cal Poly was arguably Weber’s biggest triumph in Jay Hill’s three seasons, ranking right alongside an OT win in Missoula over Montana last season. The victory also helped keep Weber’s postseason hopes alive.
A win over rival Idaho State won’t do much to boost an already suspect strength of schedule. But it would push Weber to 6-2 in league and secure a third-place finish all alone. Of WSU’s seven wins, six would have come against the bottom six teams in these rankings. But the win over the Mustangs might give Weber an argument with the playoff committee.
4. Northern Colorado (4-3 in Big Sky play, 6-4 overall) — The Bears have been all over in these rankings but last week’s landmark win over Montana is arguably the biggest in program history, especially since joining the Big Sky in 2006.
Northern Colorado jumped out to a 14-0 lead and held on for a 28-25 win to secure its second consecutive winning season. A win over Cal Poly would mean back-to-back wins over Top 20 teams and a 7-4 record overall. A resume with wins over Northern Arizona, Montana and Cal Poly could get the Bears to the playoff bubble even with an NAIA win on the schedule.
5. Cal Poly (4-3 in Big Sky play, 6-4 overall) — The Mustangs have played the No. 1 hardest schedule in the FCS. Wins over potential playoff teams San Diego, South Dakota State and Montana give Cal Poly one of the better Big Sky resumes.
But to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Mustangs must win against visiting Northern Colorado on Saturday. A 7-4 Cal Poly team with three quality wins will likely get into the playoffs even if Montana beats Montana State and earns an at-large bid as well. A Mustangs’ loss would certainly end Cal Poly’s season.
The most likely and possibly only scenario the Big Sky receives four playoff bids is if Eastern Washington, Cal Poly and Montana all win, each joining UND in the playoff field.
6. Montana (3-4 in Big Sky play, 6-4 overall) — The roller coaster season for the Griz has basically depended on if Montana is playing in Missoula or away from the friendly confines of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
UM’s loss to Northern Colorado drops Montana to 0-4 on the road against Big Sky teams this fall. Montana is 3-0 at home against conference competition and 5-0 at home overall. Still, a win over rival Montana State would give the Griz seven Division I wins and could help them make the playoffs for the fourth straight season. The previous three playoff berths have come after beating MSU; the Bobcats’ last win in the rivalry game in Missoula in 2012.
7. Northern Arizona (4-3 in Big Sky play, 5-5 overall) — Northern Arizona’s hard charge to rally from its 1-4 start came to a halt last week in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
NAU blew a 31-10 lead, losing 38-31 and officially eliminating itself from the postseason picture. The preseason Big Sky favorites have a chance to secure their fifth straight winning season with Southern Utah coming to town on Saturday.
8. Southern Utah (4-3 in Big Sky play, 5-5 overall) — The defending Big Sky champions stepped out of conference play last week and got blasted 37-7 at BYU.
This week, the Thunderbirds finish the season with a chance for a second straight winning mark as they play at rival NAU.
9. Sacramento State (2-5 in Big Sky play, 2-8 overall) — Sac State breaks into the Top 10 in these rankings for the first time this season after hanging on for a 42-35 win over Portland State last week.
Senior Jordan Robinson earned Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors by rushing for 262 yards and four touchdowns in Sac’s second Division I win this year. The Hornets play in the Causeway Classic at rival UC Davis on Saturday.
10. Montana State (1-6 in Big Sky play, 3-7 overall) — The Bobcats climb out of the cellar of these rankings for the first time since the first week of October after finally posting a Big Sky win.
Chad Newell rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown and MSU did not turn the ball over for the first time in Big Sky play in a 27-13 win over UC Davis. The Bobcats can make it two straight to end 2016 and snap a three-game losing streak to the Griz with a win in Missoula on Saturday.
11. Portland State (2-5 in Big Sky play, 3-7 overall) — The dream season of 2015 has flipped entirely into the nightmare of this fall. The Vikings posted a 51-29 win over UC Davis after a long bus ride two weeks ago but got back on the bus and lost at struggling Sac State last week.
Last year’s No. 6 seed in the FCS playoffs holds no postseason aspirations but PSU could play the role of spoiler nonetheless. The Vikings could keep Eastern Washington from winning the Big Sky title and put a dent in EWU’s seeding with a win in Portland this weekend.
12. Idaho State (1-6 in Big Sky play, 2-8 overall) — Idaho State hung tough for the first half in losses at Montana and Eastern Washington. Mike Kramer’s squad look for their second Division I win of 2016 with rival Weber State in town on Saturday.
13. UC Davis (1-6 in Big Sky play, 2-8 overall) — The Aggies simply don’t have the line play on either side of the ball to compete in the Big Sky. Montana State rushed for 258 yards and held Davis to 312 total yards in earning its first Big Sky win and pushing Davis’ losing streak to three straight entering the Causeway Classic at home against Sac State.
Photo attribution noted. All Rights Reserved.