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Plenty Griz to savor come September
Fresh-cut grass smells different in August.
A little like fall. A lot like football.
Already I find myself daydreaming to Saturdays at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, weaving my way through tailgaters to reach the press box in time for a a pregame rap session. One of my favorites to chat with is Montana athletic director Jim O’Day, who stays closely in tune with college football’s national landscape.
He had extra incentive to do so last year with so many teams jumping from one conference to the next and the Griz considering a move. Montana opted to stay put - for now - but switching by others has added intrigue to the upcoming season.
As an ex-Midwesterner, I’m anxious to see how Nebraska fares in the Big Ten. A lot of Left Coasters are curious about Utah and Colorado in the newly-named Pac-12.
“It’s going to be interesting to watch Boise State and see how well they compete in the Mountain West,” O’Day noted. “I expect they’ll do quite well but they’ve got some really tough teams ahead of them.
“I think people will be surprised with how competitive Colorado and Utah are in the Pac-12. They filled a good void for that conference to be able to get more exposure in the areas of Salt Lake City and Denver.”
The biggest non-moves were Texas and Oklahoma staying in the Big 12. But issues remain for the Longhorns, who will start an ESPN-owned television network in late August. Rivals fear the network will produce an unfair recruiting edge, especially if prep games are allowed to be aired.
It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of NCAA President Mark Emmert’s two-day retreat for school presidents and chancellors Tuesday and Wednesday. They’ll discuss the future of D-I sports, including the pay-for-play issue.
“There’s getting to be such a gap between those who are playing at the BCS level and the rest of us,” said O’Day, who noted that UM President Royce Engstrom was invited to the retreat but has a scheduling conflict. “Unfortunately money is making the difference.
“When you look at athletic departments at the D-I level there’s a disparity in budgets from as low as 3 million a year to the top - Texas I think this year exceeds 150 million. That’s a big gap.”
One area where the competitive gap has closed is Big Sky Conference football. Like a lot of you, I shook my head three weeks ago when it was announced the Griz were picked to finish third in the league. Seems ridiculous considering the Maroon & Silver won 12 straight Big Sky titles prior to 2010.
Some say it’s an indication of how the Griz have faded. Others say they’re lying in the weeds. O’Day has his own take.
“It’s a sign of how much better the Big Sky is getting,” he said. “From top to bottom, this could be the best race for the Big Sky Conference title in league history.
“There’s six or seven schools that can compete for the title. Sac State is my darkhorse pick. They played extremely well against most everybody last year and have most of their leading kids back.”
The Hornets are fourth on Montana’s schedule, behind Tennessee, Cal Poly and defending FCS champion Eastern Washington.
“That first month is going to be extremely challenging,” O’Day said.
If you enjoy blowouts at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, you’re probably not going to like 2011. If you like suspense, you’re gonna love it.
By Bill Speltz, The Missoulian