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Big Sky’s big footprint: Weber State, UC Davis talk top teams, conference size

By Brett Hein - | Sep 22, 2021

MATT HERP, Standard-Examiner file photo

Weber State's Rashid Shaheed (8) runs the ball during in a game against UC Davis on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, at Stewart Stadium in Ogden.

The Big Sky Conference took some disparagement for how its teams performed in the spring postseason — Weber State, which squeaked by four teams for a 5-0 record, lost at home to Southern Illinois in the first round, and Eastern Washington couldn’t keep up with a less-dominant (but still very good) North Dakota State team.

Things feel a little different right now in the early-going of the fall 2021 season.

The Big Sky has five teams ranked in the top 14 of the STATS FCS Top 25 and has claimed four wins over FBS teams: Montana over Washington, Northern Arizona over Arizona, Eastern Washington over UNLV, and UC Davis over Tulsa — with Montana State nearly clipping Wyoming until the final moments.

“I would say the Big Sky this year is the best conference in the FCS, I think for sure,” Weber State junior receiver Ty MacPherson said this week. “Looking at the first couple weeks with FBS wins, good FCS wins, offenses are stacked in the Big Sky, and the defenses are really good. I would say for sure us and Davis are right there, E-Wash, Montana, Montana State with their new quarterback, they look really good. It’s hard to say anybody is outright right now.”

The task for Weber State? Focus on the next game, which happens to be a UC Davis team with said FBS win, a 53-7 demolition of a down San Diego team, and a 60-27 romp over Dixie State (a team Weber beat 41-3).

“It’s really easy to look across the conference and just be like, ‘oh this team’s good, this team’s good, when do we play them?'” MacPherson said. “But we just have to take one week at a time — for example, this week is Davis, who we consider one of the best teams in the conference. They are one of the best teams in the conference.

“So it’s just every single day, watching a little bit more film, taking a couple reps after practice, doing whatever we can in the weight room to get a little bit stronger just so we can come to this game completely, over-the-top ready, mentally and physically.”

BIG FOOTPRINT

It’s a poorly kept secret that folks around the Big Sky don’t love the current 13-team lineup that prohibits teams from playing a round-robin schedule and crowning a true champion, and causes all kinds of schedule oddities that might keep higher-profile matchups away from your own stadium.

WSU head coach Jay Hill somewhat sidestepped a question Tuesday about if the Big Sky is too big, but still talked about some of the frustrations it causes.

“The easiest way for me to answer that is not answer it. My opinions really don’t matter. We get to play who we play,” Hill said, continuing: “I do wish that we would have certain teams — I hate missing Montana and I hate missing certain teams.”

Examples of the oddities: Hill has been head coach at Weber State for eight seasons and the Wildcats have only hosted Montana and Eastern Washington once each for regular-season games in Ogden during his tenure.

MATT HERP, Standard-Examiner file photo In this Oct. 28, 2017, photo, Weber State receiver TyJuan Prince (5) runs with the football as a Montana defender pursues during a game at Stewart Stadium in Ogden. As of the 2021 season, it’s the only time WSU has hosted Montana in a regular-season game in the last nine years.

This season, WSU is going to EWU for Hill’s third time, and the fourth time of the last five games in the series.

“That’s where it seems a little bit out of whack. How that happens, I have no idea,” Hill said. “I know the conference is doing the best they can, I don’t know what the easy fix is and it’s probably not my place to comment.”

Meanwhile, UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins is feeling similarly: though the balance of the last five games will have been three at WSU, two at UC Davis, Hawkins is coming to Ogden this week for his third time while only one of those matchups in Davis was in his tenure. It probably doesn’t help that WSU has a five-game win streak in the series.

“I should’ve bought a condo there. I don’t think there’s a law that prevents Weber from coming into California but we can go there,” Hawkins said with some dry humor Tuesday. “We’re very used to the hotel and the field and the trip, so we’ll be looking for some real estate in Ogden.”

Both Hill and Hawkins were extremely complimentary of each other’s programs during media availability this week. Hill even went as far to say that he wishes UC Davis was one of Weber State’s official rivals in the league.

In the current 13-team schedule rotation, every team has two opponents considered “protected rivals,” which are teams you play every season no matter the rest of the rotation. For Weber State, that’s been Idaho State and Southern Utah.

With Southern Utah leaving for the WAC after this season, that leaves WSU needing a different second rival. The league appears to have landed on Northern Arizona; in conference schedules published for 2022-24, the only teams WSU plays in all three seasons are ISU and NAU.

But Hill said with the league shrinking to 12 teams upon SUU’s exit and the schedule rotation needing to be adjusted, he told the Big Sky he wanted UC Davis as a protected rival.

“I wish we had it every year,” Hill said. “I like the Davis rivalry, one, because I know Coach Hawkins is going to do a phenomenal job every year. And for us, it’s a good trip; it’s an easy catch a flight, fly right into Sacramento. I don’t want to say it’s an easy trip, but it’s a good travel trip that I do like. It’s a great location.

“And again, I like the competition because I know Coach Hawkins every year is going to field a really good team.”

In that upcoming three-year schedule, Weber State does travel to Davis in 2022, the Aggies return to Ogden in 2023, and the two teams do not play each other in 2024.

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