Monday, November 23, 2015

Big Sky Schools Might Be In Perfect Playoff Position

While many Big Sky Conference fans might have been unhappy about the seedings and/or schools left out of the NCAA Division I FCS Football Playoffs, it really should be viewed as an opportunity for the league to show the rest of the FCS why it deserves more respect in the future.

Looking at the bracket, it appears the Missouri Valley Football Conference remains the “power conference” for the FCS division, qualifying five teams for the upcoming playoffs.  Leading the way is four-time defending national champion North Dakota State University, which the Montana Grizzlies defeated 38-35 to open the 2015 season.  NDSU is the No. 3 seed in the tourney, while the No. 2 seed is Illinois State - another MVFC foe who lost to the Bison 29-27 in last year’s championship game in Frisco, TX.  The two squads did not match up this year, and tied for the conference regular-season title with matching 7-1 records.  Also representing the MVFC are South Dakota State (8-3 - Montana’s first-round opponent Saturday in Washington-Grizzly Stadium), Northern Iowa (7-4) and Western Illinois (6-5).  The Playoff Selection Committee assured there won’t be a repeat of last year’s MVFC title showdown as all five schools from the MVFC are on the same side of the bracket.

Fortunately or unfortunately, two of the Big Sky Conference’s three participants are in the same bracket: Montana and Portland State (9-2).  The Vikings claimed one of the eight “seeds” in the tournament at No. 6, and will host the winner of Northern Iowa (7-4) vs. Eastern Illinois (7-4) of the Ohio Valley.  The winner of the UM-South Dakota State contest will head to Fargo the following week to take on NDSU in Round 2.  Southern Utah (8-3 overall, and at 7-1, the Big Sky regular-season champ) is in the opposite bracket, and plays at Sam Houston State (8-3) on Saturday… with the winner meeting No. 4 seed McNeese State (10-0) on Dec. 5.

All three Big Sky Conference schools have an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the league this weekend. Having compiled a less-than-impressive 7-9 playoff record the past three years, it looks like the Big Sky may be ready for some revenge. Of those seven wins, Eastern Washington has accounted for five – with the only others coming when Montana defeated non-scholarship Pioneer League champion San Diego last year, 52-14, and Montana State slipped past Stoney Brook, 16-10, in 2012. In 2012 and 2014, the Big Sky had three playoff participants, and four in 2013 when the league went 2-4 (both wins by Eastern Washington).

This year’s 24-team playoff includes five teams from the MVFC, four from the Colonial Athletic Association, three from the Big Sky, two each from the Big South, the Ohio Valley, the Patriot, the Southern and the Southland, and one from the Northeast and Pioneer leagues.  The No. 1 seed is Jacksonville State (10-1) of the Ohio Valley. The Gamecocks’ only loss was 27-20 to FBS power Auburn.

… Some fans felt 7-4 North Dakota or 7-4 Northern Arizona should have been included in the playoff field, especially over 6-5 Western Illinois of the MVFC.  There could be an argument for the “Fighting Hawks” of North Dakota, but there was less ammunition for NAU as the Lumberjacks only had six Division I wins and went 0-2 against teams that made the playoffs.  North Dakota, meanwhile, was 1-2 against the three schools who qualified for the playoffs (beating Portland State 19-17, and losing to Montana, 42-16, and North Dakota State, 34-9).  The Fighting Hawks also knocked off FBS Wyoming, 24-13, to open the season.  Still, with the “power” still perceived to be in the MVFC, a 6-5 Western Illinois, fresh off a double-overtime victory over South Dakota State last Saturday, was the committee’s choice to fill one of the final positions in the 24-team bracket.  In fairness, Western Illinois was 3-3 versus playoff teams this year – defeating Eastern Illinois (33-5), Northern Iowa (24-19) and SDSU (30-24), while losing to Coastal Carolina (34-27), Illinois State (48-28) and NDSU (59-7).  Towson and Central Arkansas, both 7-4, were also mentioned as contenders, but both compiled 0-2 records against playoff teams.

… 2001 was the last year the Montana Grizzlies won the national championship.  The head coach at the time was Joe Glenn. This past weekend, Glenn announced his retirement from the coaching profession after 28 years.  Over that time, his teams posted a combined record of 200-134-1… which included two Division II national titles at Northern Colorado (1996-97) along with the I-AA win at UM.  The 66-year-old Glenn was 12-34 in four seasons at South Dakota, including 5-6 this year.  Among his memorable wins at his alma mater was a 24-21 road win at North Dakota State this year.  Along with Montana and Northern Colorado, Joe coached at Doane College and Wyoming.  I wish Joe and his family the best in retirement.  They certainly deserve it.  He will always be one of my favorites – both professionally and as a good friend!

… I would also like to wish the best of luck to Rob Ash, who was relieved of his duties Monday after having served as the head football coach at Montana State the past nine years.  During that time, his teams posted a 70-38 record, won three Big Sky titles and made the FCS playoffs four times (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014).  While he did a lot of positive things for MSU Football, a 4-14 record against rivals Montana (2-7) and Eastern Washington (2-7) appear to be his undoing. On Saturday, the Grizzlies defeated MSU, 54-35, in Bozeman, resulting in the Bobcats’ first losing season under Ash, 64.  The Cats went into the 2015 season expected to content for the Big Sky championship, but finished 6-5 with a disappointing 3-5 league record – and 8th place in the 13-team league. In his 36-year coaching career, Ash’s teams went 247-137-5.  Eighteen of those years were coaching at Drake University.