The playoff picture and the Big Sky Conference title chase gained more clarity last weekend with the top 10 teams in terms of the league standings in action.
Eastern Washington and Southern Utah each won for the sixth straight week and remain the only undefeated teams in Big Sky Conference play. Portland State notched a landmark win over Montana to stay alive in the league title chase.
With three weeks left to play, six of the Big Sky’s 13 teams remain alive in the race for a bid to the FCS postseason. Preseason league favorite Montana State is not one of them after Saturday’s 44-38 loss at North Dakota.
Each Tuesday 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 and each team’s future in regards to momentum, health, and upcoming match-ups.
1. No. 10 Portland State (4-1 in Big Sky play, 7-1 overall) — The Vikings are the first No. 1 other than Eastern Washington in the Skyline power rankings and it’s because Portland State has the most quality wins of anyone in the league and perhaps anyone in the FCS.
Portland State’s 35-16 win over Montana affirmed the Vikings atop the league. Portland State has now swept the Montana schools for the first time since joining the Big Sky after beating the Griz for the first time since 2004.
Portland State is the first FCS team to defeat two FCS teams in one season since 2007. The Vikings were five-score underdogs before springing a 24-17 upset win over Pac 12 Washington State. Since that win, Wazzu has won five of seven, including a double-overtime win over Oregon and a win on a last-second field goal over preseason top 25 Arizona. WSU’s two losses came at Cal 34-28 and a 30-28 home loss to No. 9 Stanford last week as the Cougars missed a last second field goal for the win. Portland State’s other win was a 66-7 decimation of North Texas. The game served as the record setter for most points and largest margin of victory by an FCS over an FBS.
PSU beat a ranked Idaho State team and a ranked Montana State team. The Vikings rode a bus for multiple days to earn a win on a last-second field goal over Cal Poly.
The Vikings’ lone loss? A 19-17 defeat in a slugfest to North Dakota on a high school field. PSU’s response? Scoring 125 points against an FBS team and the preseason Big Sky favorites Montana State back to back.
This week, Portland State earned a No. 10 national ranking and even earned one of the 159 votes in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll. We think they are a top five team in the FCS. If PSU can get past Northern Colorado on the road, the Vikings will get a chance to prove it with games against Southern Utah and at Eastern Washington still on the schedule.
2. No. 5 Eastern Washington (5-0 in Big Sky play, 6-2 overall) — The Eagles appear vulnerable each week out but somehow, the three-time defending Big Sky champions find a way to claim victory nonetheless.
Last week’s 14-13 win over Weber State will actually likely serve as a confidence builder for EWU. For the first time, the Eagles’ defense came to the rescue; keeping Weber off the scoreboard for the final 21 minutes of the game and making Cooper Kupp’s second touchdown catch stand up.
EWU slips from the top of the rankings simply because the Eagles have needed magical performances late to beat Sacramento State, Cal Poly, Northern Colorado and Weber State. But Eastern has proven that knowing how to win is a very real thing. The Eagles will get another chance on Saturday with Northern Arizona in town. A victory could bring EWU one-step closer to the Big Sky crown and eliminate NAU from the playoff race in the process.
3. No. 20 Southern Utah (5-0 in Big Sky play, 6-2 overall) — Southern Utah has a chance to earn some major respect on Saturday afternoon.
The Thunderbirds have won six straight games, including five Big Sky contests. This season, nine of the league’s 13 teams have made an appearance in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll. Four of Southern Utah’s five league victories have come over the four teams that have not broken into the poll. Northern Colorado, Weber State, Sacramento State, UC Davis and Cal Poly (SUU’s five league wins) have combined for an 11-26 record against Division I opponents this season.
Still, Southern Utah has taken full advantage of its schedule and set itself up for a three-game stretch that could result in an outright Big Sky title. SUU is beating Big Sky opponents by an average score of 41-9. This week, the Thunderbirds play in Bozeman. Although Montana State is reeling and likely out of the FCS playoff picture, the Bobcats are 4-0 at home this season and would love nothing more than to play the role of spoiler. A Southern Utah win would put the Thunderbirds in control of their own destiny with a trip to Portland State and a season-finale at home against suddenly surging NAU remaining.
4. Northern Arizona (3-2 in Big Sky play, 5-3 overall) — Sure, Northern Arizona lost to Montana. But that was in Missoula on homecoming more than a month ago. Since then, NAU has found its stride.
Since the Montana loss, the Lumberjacks have won three of four, including a win over then-No. 11 Montana State and decisive wins over Weber State and Northern Colorado at home. The one misstep came at UC Davis as NAU handed the Aggies their lone win this season. The week leading up to the game, there was a shooting on the Northern Arizona campus, something that NAU head coach Jerome Souers and freshman quarterback Case Cookus said played into the psyche of the team entering the road loss.
Behind the stellar play of Cookus, NAU scored 42 points in the first half each of the last two weeks to bring up a must-win game on Saturday when the Lumberjacks play at Eastern Washington. A win would do wonders for the ‘Jacks’ playoff resume. A loss would likely eliminate NAU from playoff contention. NAU is averaging nearly 52 points per game at home this season but 21 points per game on the road. NAU is 4-0 in Flagstaff, 1-3 away from Walkup Skydome.
NAU could affirm itself as a top four Big Sky team with a win on Saturday. Or its playoff hopes could disappear in Cheney.
5. Montana (3-2 in Big Sky play, 4-4 overall) — A week after third-string quarterback Makena Simis tied a UM school record with six touchdown passes in a 42-16 win over North Dakota, the Montana offense came back to earth, which is to say the Griz continue to struggle to manufacture points. With Saturday’s 35-16 loss at Portland State, now the Grizzlies’ backs are pressed against the wall.
The quarterback situation in Missoula remains murky — starter Brady Gustafson has not played a conference game but returned to practice last week — and the offensive results have been equally inconsistent. Aside from Montana’s 42-point outburst against North Dakota two week ago, Montana is averaging less than 22 points per game during conference play.
The Grizzlies will get a slight reprieve in Idaho State’s ailing defense this week in Pocatello. If the Griz can produce a victory, the November 14 home date against Eastern Washington and a trip to Bozeman to face the rival Bobcats will determine if Montana qualifies for the FCS playoffs for the 21st time since 1993 or is left out in Bob Stitt’s first season at the helm.
6. North Dakota (3-3 in Big Sky play, 5-4 overall) — As has been the case for most of the season, playing against Montana State’s defense was just what North Dakota needed.
UND rushed for 426 yards, including 397 yards from true freshmen John Santiago and Brady Oliveira. Santiago rushed for a career-high 230 yards, including touchdowns of 45 and 75 yards and the game-winning score with 1:41 to play in UND’s 44-38 win. The victory ensured UND’s playoff hopes, as slight as they may be, are alive for at least two more weeks. North Dakota will remain in the top six next week because UND has a bye.
Out of the bye, UND hosts Northern Colorado and plays at Cal Poly. A 7-4 record with a win over FBS Wyoming and a win over Portland State could get UND on to the playoff bubble.
7. Weber State (3-3 in Big Sky play, 4-5 overall) —For a moment, Weber was one of the league’s hottest teams.
Last week, WSU lost for a second straight week in a 14-13 heartbreaker at Eastern Washington on a windy afternoon that saw the Wildcats’ playoff hopes go up in smoke.
Weber still has plenty to play for. WSU won six games combined over the last three seasons. Now, with wins in their final two games, Weber can secure its first above .500 record this decade. Weber has two winnable games remaining, beginning this week with UC Davis coming to Ogden. WSU takes a late bye following the Davis game before wrapping up its season at home against rival Idaho State.
8. Montana State (2-3 in Big Sky play, 4-4 overall) — Montana State’s preseason expectations were sky high. Now the Bobcats likely just have pride left to play for.
After a sixth straight road loss at UND, Montana State now cannot reach seven Division I wins. A 7-4 Bobcat squad might be on the playoff bubble but a low strength of schedule hindered by wins over Division II Fort Lewis and FCS independent East Tennessee State will likely keep the Bobcats home.
MSU has been a different team at home and the Bobcats could still play a role in the Big Sky title race and the playoff picture. MSU still has to host Southern Utah and Montana with a road trip to Idaho State in between.
9. Cal Poly (1-4 in Big Sky play, 2-6 overall) — Cal Poly rolled up 508 rushing yards, averaged 6.0 yards per carry, notched 35 first downs and put four players over 100 yards rushing against the Big Sky’s best statistical defense…and lost for a sixth time in eight outings.
The Mustangs have been the hard-luck team of the Big Sky this season. Again, turnovers doomed Cal Poly. The ‘Stangs fumbled the ball seven times and Southern Utah recovered five of them. SUU added an interception in taking the ball away and the Thunderbirds returned three of the fumbles for touchdowns in a 54-37 win.
Cal Poly scored five touchdowns against SUU, the first five TDs Southern Utah has allowed this season. But morale victories won’t get you into the playoffs. Even if CP ends the season on a three-game winning streak over Sac State, UC Davis and UND, Cal Poly will not make the playoffs.
10. Sacramento State (1-4 in Big Sky play, 2-6 overall) — The Hornets had a bye week, which in a strange way is why they moved up a spot in the power rankings.
Entering the bye, Sac true freshman quarterback Nate Ketteringham threw for 286 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-16 win over Idaho State, Sac’s first Division I victory of the season. The bye likely provided the young quarterback an extra week to get more comfortable as Sac tries to salvage a once-nightmarish season that now seems to have at least a silver lining giving Ketteringham’s emergence as the quarterback of the future.
11. Northern Colorado (2-4 in Big Sky play, 4-4 overall) — The Bears of old made a Halloween appearance in Flagstaff on Saturday. Northern Colorado gave up 42 points in the first half and 63 by the end of the third quarter as Northern Arizona true freshman quarterback Case Cookus threw seven touchdowns.
Northern Colorado got off to a 2-2 start in league play and a 4-2 start overall. But an easy early strength of schedule might catch up with UNC. The Bears play at Portland State this week and at North Dakota on November 14, meaning this year’s league record might look identical to last season’s 2-6 mark.
12. Idaho State (1-4 in Big Sky play, 2-6 overall) — ISU head coach Mike Kramer has consistently talked about his team’s inconsistency under center this season. With junior quarterback Michael Sanders on the shelved with an ankle injury for an undetermined amount of time, ISU isn’t likely to see a boost in performance at quarterback any time soon.
But Kramer’s teams have traditionally embraced the role of spoiler. And the Bengals can spoil several seasons in the next three weeks. Idaho State hosts Montana and Montana State before playing at Weber to wrap up a season that began with high expectations.
13. UC Davis (1-4 in Big Sky play, 1-7 overall) — It’s been written and harped on all but the fact of the matter is Davis’ West Coast pro-style offense is not affective if the run game cannot gain traction. So far this season, Davis is averaging just three yards per rush and the Aggies are scoring just 21 points per game.
It’s not likely to get any easier as Davis still has to play Weber State and North Dakota, two of the league’s stoutest defenses, over the next three weeks.
LAST WEEK – WEEK 10
Saturday, October 31
*Cal Poly at Southern Utah
*Northern Colorado at Northern Arizona
*Weber State at Eastern Washington
*Montana at Portland State
*Montana State at North Dakota — L
Skyline Sports Week: 4-1 Overall: 54-15
THIS WEEK — WEEK 11
Saturday, November 7
*UC Davis at Weber State
*Sacramento State at Cal Poly
*Portland State at Northern Colorado
*Northern Arizona at Eastern Washington
*Southern Utah at Montana State
*Montana at Idaho State
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