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What's ahead for Big Sky?
It seems every place you look when scanning the landscape of college football has one thing in common: change is in the air.
As the NCAA sorts out the fiascos at Ohio State and Miami and the six Bowl Championship Series conferences try to become super, change is a common theme at the Football Championship Subdivision level as well.
Already, Utah left the Mountain West for the Pac-12. BYU is being lured by the Big 12. Hawaii, Boise State and Nevada will all leave the Western Athletic Conference next season. A few years ago, it looked as if Montana State University and the University of Montana were certain to someday transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision and join the WAC, filling the voids left by the departed.
Now, with the seemingly inevitable realignment of the FBS into six super-conferences, the Big Sky Conference could become a destination landing spot for mid-major football programs in the Western United States.
“The FBS level is splitting right in two right now,” said Big Sky Conference commissioner Doug Fullerton in a telephone interview last week. “If that happens, the people who are in the bottom quartile of the FBS need to be together.”
Fullerton said that soon, schools like the University of Idaho and Fresno State and Utah State and San Diego State will soon be left out to dry. He said the “idea that we put some people back together in the West” is becoming more realistic by the day.
“In the summer, I invited Utah State and Idaho to join (the Big Sky). It was half tongue in cheek because I was tired of their people always asking our people to join the WAC,” Fullterton said. “But, there’s a certain truth to it there too. What I was trying to relate to them was that we are a stable, financially sustainable level of play. In the future, I don’t know what is going to happen in the FBS, but I don’t think it’s good for the people in the bottom two quartiles.”
For the past half-dozen years, Boise State has essentially been the cash cow of the WAC. The team has won two BCS bowl games since 2006, netting tens of millions of dollars that is shared throughout the league. With the Broncos and two of the league’s other flagship programs jumping ship, it seems more financially feasible for a team like Idaho to return to its Big Sky roots.
The travel budget would decrease with geographic rivals like Eastern Washington, Idaho State and Montana once again becoming conference opponents. The scholarship budget would be reduced, as programs that moved down would offer 63 scholarships rather than 85. Most importantly, a move down would provide teams like Utah State and Idaho a chance to compete on a national stage for a national title in a division with a national playoff. Once the super conferences are fully formed, it’s highly unlikely a team from a non-BCS league will ever get a BCS bowl bid again.
The Big Sky is set to expand from nine to 13 teams next fall with the addition of UC Davis, Cal Poly, North Dakota and Southern Utah. With the Pac-12 on the rise - rumors are swirling that it will soon be the Pac-16 - and other leagues like the MWC and the WAC seemingly splitting at the seams, the Big Sky has an opportunity to become a power conference of its own.
“What we want to do is develop a prominent football league in the west that doesn’t involve going to the FBS,” Fullterton said. “All going to FBS is a recipe to spend a lot of money and not get much return. Look at the way we can compete at the top of the FCS because our kids play with an awful lot of confidence. We build these programs with success, with wins. We have big fan bases now. There is absolutely nothing at that next level that you should covet.”
The draw of the big money associated with the BCS is alluring. But for schools of non-BCS conferences, that allure is also an illusion. If the Pac-12 comes knocking, by all means a school should take an invitation. But there’s no reason to spend more money to experience less success by jumping to a non-BCS league in the FBS.
Fullerton said in the next five years, he wants to build the Big Sky’s reputation to the point that it is at least the third- if not second-most prestigious league west of the Mississippi behind the Pac-12. While the dropping down of schools currently competing in the FBS is still an unlikely pipe dream, it’s almost guaranteed that the Big Sky will be a 16-member league very soon in one fashion or another.
Regardless of how everything across the college football landscape plays out, change is on the horizon.
“It’s going to be fascinating to watch how this all plays out,” Fullterton said. “It’s one of those things that we play up in our minds, wondering how it’s supposed to be and we aren’t creative enough in our thinking. The presidents of the Big Sky Conference see all of this. They see what’s in our future. That’s why they want to position the league the way they do so we are strong and ready for anything that comes.”
Colter Nuanez, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle