In an effort to reestablish the league as one of the premier conferences in the FCS, the Big Sky engaged in a nine-game crossover with the powerhouse Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Montana and Montana State took on nearly half of the challenge. The Griz opened their second chapter under successful returning head coach Bobby Hauck with a 26-23 win over No. 13 Northern Iowa in Missoula. Two nights earlier, the Bobcats opened Jeff Choate’s third season at the helm with a 26-23 win over 2017 playoff qualifier Western Ilinois under the Bobcat Stadium lights.
Week 2 saw the Bobcats lay an egg in Brookings, losing to No. 3 South Dakota State 45-14 in a game that was over before halftime. Last week, Montana rallied from a 14-0 deficit to build a 27-17 fourth-quarter lead before a pair of explosive Steve McShane touchdowns lifted Western Illinois to its first win, 31-27, handing UM its first loss in the process.
Before the season began, most pundits predicted that 2-1 marks in the non-conference for the Montana schools would set the table for a Big Sky slate in which the ‘Cats or the Griz would need to win five league games to have solid resumes for the FCS playoffs.
It remains to be seen if a 5-3 conference record paired with a 2-1 non-conference finish that included two Missouri Valley schools could be enough to snap what has become a three-year post-season drought for MSU and a two-year absence for the Griz.
But Choate is certain of one thing: the unbalanced nature of scheduling in the 13-team Big Sky makes any sort of prognostication a complete crapshoot.
“The thing that is hard to quantify is the Big Sky because of how that is laid out. This is just the weirdest deal to me,” said Choate, who spent 13 years in the FBS with stops at Utah State, Boise State, Washington State, Florida and Washington before taking the MSU job in December of 2015. “I have no problem being critical of our situation in the Big Sky right now because it’s not what it should be.
“There is probably going to be another year where we have split champions because there are so many teams that don’t play one another. Next year in our conference schedule, we only play three common opponents that we play this year and one of them is Montana. So that’s only two teams that you play back-to-back years.
“It makes it very, very difficult because it’s almost this non-conference scheduling becomes such a roll of the dices because ok let’s say any given year, you could end up playing five of the top preseason schools in the conference and a really competitive non-conference schedule and have a good team and probably play yourself out of an opportunity. And the opposite could happen too. You could have a have a not strong non-conference and luck of the draw, end up with a cushy conference schedule because of the way things fall in a given year and you could end up being a playoff team.
“I think we have to take a long, hard look at what they benefits are of having a large conference in a playoff division. My personal feeling, and I’ll probably get in trouble for saying it, is I don’t think it’s wise.”
Choate has first-hand experience as to what it’s like to be a competitiveteam against a competitive schedule and come out with a losing record. In 2017, Montana State played FBS Top 20 team Washington State (a 31-0 loss in Pullman) to open along with playing non-conference games against FCS No. 4 South Dakota State (a 31-27 loss in Bozeman) and eventual FCS playoffs quarterfinalist Kennesaw State (a 16-14 loss in Bozeman).
MSU won five league games, including blasting defending league champion North Dakota 49-21 in Grand Forks in the Big Sky opener for both teams. MSU also beat Portland State, Northern Colorado, Idaho State and Montana; none but the Griz finished with winning records in league play.
MSU’s three league losses came to eventual league champion Weber State 25-17 in Bozeman; 31-19 at No. 10 Eastern Washington; and 37-36 on a failed two-point conversion that would’ve won the game at No. 24 and eventual playoff qualifier Northern Arizona. For those counting, that means the 2017 Bobcats played eight teams ranked in the Top 25 at the time they played. Against ranked FCS teams, MSU posted a combined record of 2-5, the five losses coming by a total of 26 points.
Choate is not shying away from playing tough competition. He just doesn’t want the playing field to be uneven.
“I probably won’t get into my dream scenario but I think we have to examine what we are doing,” Choate said. “I think we have got to have some honest conversations not about feelings but for what is best for the league as a whole, specifically football and I think a lot of decisions were made to try to get another basketball team in the NCAA Tournament. Do what you’ve gotta do in basketball but let’s not mess football up in the process. I think the athletic directors and the presidents have to listen to the football coaches. This is not personal. This is about what is best for the league as a whole. I think there are some things we need to look at to make it best for our league as a whole.”
Scheduling adjustments aside, the league race is expected to be one of the most wide open in the 55-year history of the league. UC Davis did whatever it wanted offensively in a 44-38 win over FBS San Jose State before pounding San Diego, a Pioneer Football League team that ripped Northern Arizona in the first round of the playoffs last year. Behind the offensive explosiveness of junior quarterback Jake Maier and All-American wide receiver Keelan Doss, the Aggies are establishing themselves as a new playoff contender out of the league in their second season under Dan Hawkins.
Eastern Washington, the preseason league favorites because of the return of senior quarterback Gage Gubrud and 27 of his classmates, posted a pivotal 31-26 win at NAU in a non-conference contest. EWU finishes the non-conference with a 2-1 mark but just 1-1 against Division I competition. Eastern pounded Division II Central Washington 58-13 in its opener.
For most of the decade, Eastern has challenged among the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. Last season, losses at Texas Tech and North Dakota State to open the season put the Eagles behind. Despite seven wins in their final nine games, EWU did not receive a bid to the FCS playoffs. Under second-year head coach Aaron Best, the Eagles are determined to change that.
“I think there is a negative connotation that goes along with parity,” said Best, who’s only two Big Sky losses his first season as the head coach at his alma mater came to co-league champions SUU and Weber. “People assume it’s watered down. To me, it’s the exact opposite. Anybody on any given day can beat anybody. To me, that develops some grit among conference members.”
Weber State flew under the radar during the off-seasondespite winning a program-record 11 game last season, including victories over Western Illinois and Southern Utah in the FCS Playoffs. Entering his fifth season, Jay Hill needed to find replacements for a trio of NFL talent in Big Sky MVP cornerback Taron Johnson (Bills), All-American tight end Andrew Vollert (Cardinals) and first-team All-Big Sky defensive tackle McKay Murphy (Rams). WSU also needed to replace gritty quarterback Stefan Cantwell.
But the Wildcats return two of the league’s best linebackers in All-American inside linebacker LeGrand Toia and All-Big Sky outside linebacker Landon Stice. Jordan Preator and Jawain Harrison Jr. give WSU one of the best and most experienced safety combos in the league. And all-league junior defensive end Jonah Williams is one of the most complete edge players in the conference.
After an embarrassing 41-10 loss at Utah in which WSU only gained 59 yards, the Wildcats have been salty defensively. Weber State allowed 3.4 yards per carry against Cal Poly’s vaunted triple option in a 24-17 non-conference win. The following week, Weber held a South Dakota offense that scored 43 the week before on Northern Colorado to 10 points in a 17-point win.
Despite their loss of standout personnel, the surprising emergence of redshirt freshman running back Josh Davis combined with a complete effort from the defense helps the Wildcats enter conference play 2-1 despite averaging 20 points per game thus far.
“It should be a huge builder of confidence that if we continue to do things the way we have, that we will keep getting better and better,” Hill said. “Last year, finishing fifth in the country was a huge step forward for us to affirm we do belong with those guys.”
Northern Arizona junior All-American quarterback Case Cookus suffered a shoulder injury in the first half of that game and hast not returned to the lineup since. Cookus suffered a similar injury in 2016, the key factor in NAU’s 5-6 finish. The Lumberjacks have been postseason contenders each of the years Cookus has stayed healthy.
Defending co-league champ Southern Utah is off to an 0-3 start and staring down games at Northern Arizona and at Eastern Washington to begin league play.
Sacramento State joined EWU, Weber, Davis, Montana and Montana State with 2-1 non-conference records. The Hornets, a team that won six league games last season but did not play Montana or Montana State, get a shot to prove they belong among the postseason contenders
“I think conference games are bigger,” Hauck said. “No matter who you play in the non-conference schedule, our goal is to win every game but I think conference games are big because we are playing for something in terms of a championship.”
Back in the league for the first time since 1996, Idaho lookslike a mystery after losing 79-13 at Fresno State and routing Division II Western New Mexico 56-10.
Idaho State beat Division II Western State but lost at Pac 12 Cal. Portland State lost 72-19 at Nevada and 62-14 at Oregon before beating College of Idaho of the Frontier Conference 63-14 last week.
“We’ve played a Yin and a Yang as far as competition and speed but the Big Sky, it doesn’t change,” Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum said. “Better bring your cap. I don’t care if it’s the top of the conference, picked first or picked last, these games come down to a handful of plays. You better be clean, you better take care of the football.
Northern Colorado played an all-FCS schedule for the second time in Earnest Collins Jr.’s seven seasons, losing 17-14 to No. 19 McNeese State, 43-28 at No. 22 South Dakota and 28-25 in a non-conference game to Sacramento State.
The Bears are off to a daunting start but still could throw a wrench in the league race.
“The challenge of this league is on any given day, anybody can beat anybody,” Collins said at the Big Sky Kickoff in July. “It’s one of those leagues where you have some really powerful teams. It’s just one of those leagues, man, where it’s a battle every week and sometimes, you get beat up.”
Cal Poly has been one of the league most volatile teams since joining the Big Sky in 2012. The Mustangs shared the league title that first season and have been in and out of playoff contention since. Chris Brown could not last down the stretch in 2013 and 2014 as the Mustangs fell short of the postseason both years.
Dano Graves emerged as the triggerman Cal Poly needed to lead Cal Poly back to the playoffs in 2016. But rain hindered the Mustangs’ triple option attack in a first round playoff loss to San Diego.
That loss lingered into last season, a campaign ravaged by injury and resulted in a 1-10 record. Cal Poly quarterback Khaleel Jenkins, fullback Joe Protheroe and offensive lineman Harry Whitson, all three team captains, suffered season-ending injuries.
It looked like more of the same bad luck in Cal Poly’s opener at No. 1 North Dakota State. Jenkins suffered a knee injury in the first half of what ended as a 49-3 loss. Cal Poly fell just short in the loss to Weber State with Jenkins on the sideline. Behind 43 carries for 228 yards and three touchdowns from Protheroe, Cal Poly beat Brown 44-15 last week to snap their 14-game losing streak.
It’s highly unlikely a Cal Poly team that plays at Eastern Washington, Northern Arizona and Montana State and host Montana, UC Davis and Southern Utah will only muster up one conference win again.
“The margin for error is, I can’t even put it into words in this league,” said Walsh, who coached at Portland State from 1996 until 2006 and took over at Cal Poly in 2009.
“I really do think there could be a lot of 6-5 teams. Who’s getting in, who’s not? Are we still some of the best teams in the country? Probably. The reality of the situation is that the national level evaluators don’t see that. I just don’t think people outside the Big Sky understand how good this league is.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez, Jason Bacaj or contributed. All Rights Reserved.