For the first time in the 56-year history of the Big Sky Conference, four member teams did not play on Thanksgiving weekend while remaining alive in the national championship hunt.
Co-league champions No. 3 Weber State and No. 4 Sacramento State earned first-round byes in the 24-team FCS playoff bracket, as did No. 5 Montana State and No. 6 Montana. All four teams went 9-3 this season. Half of the combined 12 losses came to FBS schools. Five more of the losses coming to each other. Montana State and Weber State did not play this year.
Since the Big Sky expanded from nine to 13 teams in 2012, the league has put at least three teams into the playoff field every season. The conference qualified four teams three times — 2013, 2016 and last season — before this fall. Last year, Big Sky co-champions Weber State, Eastern Washington and UC Davis earned seeds and first-round byes while the Bobcats qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2014.
This year, all four teams earned first-round byes, the first time that has ever happened for any conference.
“I think it’s awesome for our league and we are very excited to be one of the teams that got one of those four seeds from the Big Sky,” Montana State fourth-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “I don’t know if this is a trend where you see more balance in FCS football. Me being somewhat new to this, it seems like forever, there was this upper echelon of teams and for a long time, it was a 16-team tournament.
“You have this group of teams that punched their tickets every single year. And now it seems like there is more parity conference to conference. Certainly in the Big Sky there is but if you look at the CAA, it’s the same thing. Look at the OVC, the Missouri Valley, there are going to be some top tier teams but there is more balance.”
Choate, who spent more than a decade as an assistant coach in the FBS, credits an influx of talented coaches for the depth of the Big Sky. Choate, Weber State sixth-year head coach Jay Hill, Sacramento State first-year head coach Troy Taylor, Montana second-year head coach Bobby Hauck, Northern Arizona first-year head coach Chris Ball and Idaho seventh-year head coach Paul Petrino have all been coordinators in Power 5 conferences in their careers. And that’s not to mention UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins, who led Boise State to great heights before falling flat as the head coach at Colorado.
“The caliber of recruiting, the caliber of coaching, the ability to recruit and mentor young coaches who become superstars in their own right, it’s all here,” said Choate, who coordinated special teams at Boise State, Washington State, Florida and Washington before taking the MSU job in December of 2015. “In the West Coast, where are you going to go? Not every Pac 12 assistant is going to get a Mountain West job. So if you really want to be a head coach, you have to look to the Big Sky Conference. This has become an impressive and challenging place to coach.”
Weber State has risen from the basement of the Big Sky to perennial national contender under Hill. The Wildcats are into the playoffs for the fourth year in a row after qualifying for the postseason just four times in program history before Hill took the job.
WSU posted a 7-1 record in Big Sky Conference play for the third year in a row, sharing the league title for the third consecutive season. Weber won two Big Sky titles (2008, 2009) ever before Hill. The Wildcats are the No. 3 seed in this year’s bracket.
“That’s where we hoped we’d end up,” Hill said in a press conference following the FCS Playoffs selection show. “Nobody was going to overtake James Madison or North Dakota State so we were hoping to get the next seed below them and we did. We got the matchup almost exactly the way we want. We are going to have a very, very good opponent (Kennesaw State) here in the second round. And it’s win and advance time now.”
In 2016, Chattanooga rolled No. 25 Weber State 45-14 in the first round of the FCS playoffs. In 2017, Weber State gutted out a 21-18 win over Western Illinois in the first round of the playoffs for the third postseason victory in program history. The following week, Weber ended in-state Big Sky rival Southern Utah’s season with a 30-13 win. A field goal at the buzzer helped No. 1 James Madison escape with a 31-28 victory over the Wildcats in the quarterfinals.
Last season, Weber State took the No. 2 seed into the playoffs. The Wildcats posted a 48-23 win over Southeast Missouri State in the Round of 16 last seasons before being upset 23-18 by No. 7 Maine in Ogden, Utah.
Saturday, Weber State will face Kennesaw State. The Owls of the Big South started their football program in 2015 and have rapidly accelerated to national relevance. Employing a triple option offensive attack — head coach Brian Bohannon cut his teeth as an assistant under Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech — and an athletic, aggressive defense, the team has won 33 games over the last three seasons.
In 2017, the Owls beat Samford and upset No. 2 Jacksonville State before falling to No. 5 Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals. Last season, just like last week, Kennesaw beat Wofford of the Southern Conference in the playoffs. KSU fell 27-17 to No. 5 South Dakota State in the quarterfinals.
In this season’s first round, Kennesaw stuffed Wofford on the way to a 28-21 win over the Terriers.
When the bracket was unveiled a day after the regular season ended, Weber State’s players cheered when Montana appeared on the same side of the bracket as the Wildcats. Weber had its 13-game Big Sky winning streak snapped in stunning fashion in Missoula just a few weeks ago. Montana raced to a 35-3 third quarter lead on the way to a 35-16 victory that thrust the Griz to No. 3 in the country.
If Weber State can beat Kennesaw and Montana can get past No. 24 Southeastern Louisiana, the Wildcats will get a shot at revenge.
“At this stage, you better be mature about this situation because we are going to get a really good team in here no matter what,” Hill said. “If you look forward to a potential Montana matchup or if they are looking forward to that matchup with us, someone is going to get beat. It’s just not the way to handle business. If it happens, great, that’s what we are looking forward to but we have to take care of business no matter what.”
By all accounts, it’s been a dream season at Sacramento State. In 2017, the Hornets won seven games, tying the school record for wins in a season since moving to Division I in 1996. That campaign included six Big Sky wins, the most ever by a Sac State team in its 21 previous seasons in the league.
Last season, injuries ripped through the team, taking out quarterback Kevin Thomson, defensive end George Obinna and defensive tackle Dariyn Choates among other key starters. The undermanned Hornets went 0-7 in Big Sky play, leading to the dismissal of Jody Sears, the 2017 Big Sky Coach of the Year.
Enter Taylor, the high school legend from just up the road in Folsom. The former Cal and New York Jets quarterback jumped into the college ranks in 2016, serving as Eastern Washington’s offensive coordinator during one of the most prolific seasons in college football history. The past two seasons, Taylor coordinated offenses at Utah. Now, in his first college head coaching job, Taylor is the favorite for the Eddie Robinson as the FCS National Coach of the Year.
“I’m happiest for our seniors,” the Big Sky Coach of the Year said after his team’s 27-17 win over rival UC Davis. “When you come in and take over a program, sometimes those guys don’t buy in. (Our seniors) never blinked, they were awesome so I’m really happy they are champions.”
With one more win, this team will tie the Sac State record for victories in a season. The 1988 Hornets went 10-3, advancing to the Division II playoffs, the last postseason berth for the program until this week. Those seniors have been key components. A total of 15 Hornets landed on the Big Sky’s all-conference teams, including seven on the first teams.
Thomson, a sixth-year junior with one of the most unusual stories in college football, earned Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year honors. Senior center Wyatt Ming earned first-team All-Big Sky honors. Obinna led the league with 13.5 sacks, pushing for Defensive Player of the Year while earning a first-team nod. Choates led the league with 17 tackles for loss during his first-team all-league senior season.
“I feel blessed,” Choates said following the UC Davis win. “I’ve been through it all. We still have a lot more to do because our goal is higher than a Big Sky championship but I’m happy to see the fruits of our labor.”
Sacramento State will face an Austin Peay team coming off the first playoff win in the first FCS playoff game in program history. The Governors of Clarksville, Tennessee destroyed Furman 42-6 to advance.
Labor has paid off for both the Bobcats and Grizzlies. The Treasure State’s storied programs are into the playoffs for the first time together since 2014 and have simultaneous first-round byes for the first since 2011.
Montana State is 8-1 in November the last two seasons, the lone loss coming to No. 1 North Dakota State 52-10 in Fargo. MSU takes a four-game winning streak into the Round of 16 for the second consecutive season. Last fall, MSU fell 24-17 at Idaho State to fall to 4-4. Montana State won three in a row, including rallying from a 22-0 deficit fro an epic 29-25 victory over Montana. MSU won its first playoff game since 2012 with a 35-14 win over Incarnate Word.
This season, Montana State looked out of sorts in a 16-12 loss to North Dakota. That loss marked the only time this season the best in the Big Sky lost to anyone other than each other, although UND did make the FCS playoffs thanks in large part to its win over MSU. That loss in Grand Forks dropped the Bobcats to 5-3, including 2-2 in league.
“As much as we regret some of those mistakes, that helped us to refocus on things we needed to do to get better,” Choate said.
The Bobcats have not lost since, thrashing Southern Utah (42-7) and Northern Colorado (45-14) before outlasting Davis 27-17 in California. Then came one of the most eye-opening results of the season: the Bobcats destroyed a Griz team riding high off the Weber State win. Montana State rushed for 382 yards, the 11th-most in program history, in a resounding 48-14 win over the Grizzlies.
“Don’t back a Bobcat into the corner,” Choate said. “We will focus, do what we have to do, block the outside noise out and realize all we can control is right now in terms of our preparation, our energy, our effort and don’t get consumed with ‘what if’.
“All these projection, what if this happens, what if this happens…it doesn’t matter. If you don’t win this rep, none of that is going to take place. Stay in the moment, live in the now, go get it done.
“Our staff has done a great job of getting the message through to young me because that message is not easy for an 18 to 22-year-old young man to do. They are always thinking about what’s next. For them to stay committed to their jobs and to one another is a huge part of that success.”
That success will be tested Saturday by an Albany team that exploded for 35 second-half points in a 42-14 win over No. 17 Central Connecticut State in the first round of the playoffs. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Undercuffler tied an FCS playoffs single-game record with six touchdown passes, including four in the third quarter alone.
Montana State is making its 11th playoff appearance in school history, including marking the third time MSU has made the postseason in consecutive seasons. The Bobcats have not won multiple playoff games in the same campaign since their run to the 1984 Division I-AA national title.
Montana is making its 24th appearance in the tournament, the most ever. And this year’s postseason bid snaps a three-year playoff drought for one of the proudest programs in the country.
Under Hauck, the Griz have a renewed expectation of excellence accompanied by the return of the relentless, aggressive playing style that trademarked Hauck’s teams during his first tenure (2003-2009) at UM. Montana looked at its best while overwhelming Weber State, stuffing the Wildcat run game and swarming WSU quarterback Jake Constantine.
The following week against the Bobcats, Montana did not look like the intimidator. Instead, the Grizzlies looked intimidated.
“I feel bad that we had a bad performance and ultimately, that goes on me,” Hauck said following one of the most lopsided rivalry losses in Griz history. “I failed getting our team ready to go today. I’ve coached in this game, I’ve been around it a long time. If I knew the answer to why, certainly we wouldn’t have had that kind of performance. I have to do a better job.”
The second-year head coach will get a chance to do a better job when he leads the Griz into his 19th FCS playoff game under Hauck. Montana lost its first playoff game under Hauck in 2003, falling 43-40 to Western Illinois in double overtime. Montana is 11-7 under its current head coach in the playoffs, including runs of three straight postseason wins in each 2004, 2008 and 2009 to reach the FCS championship game each year.
The Griz will take on No. 24 Southeastern Louisiana, an at-large team out of the Southland Conference who outlasted No. 8 Villanova 45-44 in the first round. SELA is making its third playoff appearance. The Lions won a second-round game against Sam Houston State before losing in the quarterfinals in 2013. They lost in the first round of the 2014 playoffs as well.
Montana’s last playoff appearance ended with a 37-6 loss at North Dakota State in 2015. The Bison won the national title that year, just like they have every year since 2011 except for 2016. Hauck said he wished his team was on the same side of the bracket as NDSU “Because we want to play them.”
The Grizzlies will not play North Dakota State unless the two powers meet in the national title game. Montana will have to get past SELA first to spark any sort of run like the ones Hauck’s teams consistently made last decade.
“It’s nice to be seeded sixth,” Hauck said following the announcement of the bracket. “I’m not sure, you know, when I took the job that I thought we’d be in that position this soon. So, I’m excited about it. We’ve had a great year, a great season. I’m glad for our team.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.