Idaho's addition to the Big Sky Conference football landscape is expected to shift the Big Sky to a nine-game conference scheduling format, league commissioner Andrea Williams confirmed this weekend.
The Big Sky will feature 14 teams when Idaho drops from the FBS and Sun Belt Conference to its longtime FCS home in 2018. A move from eight conference games to nine, already agreed upon by Big Sky athletic directors at a meeting in September, would go into effect by the 2020 season with the anticipated approval by the schools' presidents.
"It's not official yet. We realize there has been discussion and talk out there, but hopefully we'll have an announcement here in the future," Williams said Saturday during a visit to the University of Montana, her first since taking over as Big Sky commissioner in July.
League presidents are scheduled to meet later this week.
Williams gave three prominent reasons for increasing the Big Sky's conference slate by one contest in each 11-game football schedule, the simplest being an increase in league competition that fans may recognize. Secondly, it alleviates out-of-conference scheduling burdens in a barren western United States FCS landscape. Thirdly, it hopefully reduces the number of lower conference games -- against Division II or NAIA foes -- Big Sky programs are putting on their calendars.
Montana athletic director Kent Haslam added a fourth positive to that list. More in-conference competition could help eliminate ties atop the conference standings that become commonplace in swollen leagues like the Big Sky, which expanded to 13 teams in 2012.
Conference schedules for 2018 and '19 were long ago completed, so the shift to nine games is being delayed until and the next cycle of schedules begins in 2020.
"Because obviously all of our schools have been contracting games out to 2020 and beyond," said Williams, who took over as commissioner for the retiring Doug Fullerton this year. "It was important to be respectful and mindful of the work that's already being done."
UM has two games on the books in each 2020 and '21 already. The Griz visit Missouri State and host Morehead State that first year with Missouri State returning to Missoula in 2021. Montana travels to FBS Washington then as well.
Of course such a transition is not without some negative consequences. For a program like Montana, where scheduling six home games each season is paramount to balancing the department's budget, every other year now will come with distinct challenges.
A nine-game conference schedule means an unbalanced one, with four home Big Sky contests one year and five the next. The seasons in which the Griz play league foes four times at home, they have five road games already built in. Both nonconference bouts must then be in Missoula.
That creates issues the way the 2020 and '21 schedules are currently aligned.
"Our most valuable asset is that football schedule. We have got to diligently protect those six home games," Haslam explained. "In a five-game conference year, it's great and you only have to get one (nonconference game at home). But it's going to take some art to negotiate home-and-homes now when you know you've got to be home in a (four-game) year. ... You can't drop the ball on those years."
Both Montana and Montana State could be saddled with an extra burden should the Brawl of the Wild's rotation label them hosts during a four-game home conference year. Since the rivalry game is always slated for the final weekend of the season, the home team would have just three games in its friendly stadium over the previous eight weeks of conference play.
The Ohio Valley and Southland conferences proposed upping the regular season to a permanent 12-game schedule this summer, a move that could ease a few of the Big Sky's scheduling complications. The FCS is already allowed a 12-game schedule on years in which the natural calendar features 12 Saturdays between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. That last happened in 2014 and the anomaly will appear again in 2019 and 2024, its first occurrence with a nine-game Big Sky package.
Williams said the Big Sky is open to such a change, but she is worried about student-athlete welfare with the extra game. Because of the 24-team FCS playoff bracket, the national championship game could include a school playing for the 17th time that season.
The FCS competing a week early would also leave many teams in the Big Sky right where they are now in terms of searching for opponents, Haslam added.
"On paper it looks great, but if we go to Week 0, like where we played North Dakota State (in 2015), if only FCS schools are playing that week then there's no D-II options and no FBS guarantee game," he said.
The same issues exist should the Big Sky try to incorporate a split conference and championship game, Williams said. There's just not enough weeks in the fall to play a full schedule and have potential intra-conference division winners square off ahead of an already grueling playoff march.
Ideally a nine-game schedule would eliminate the prevalence of shared conference championships, but that isn't always possible, Williams said.
"It's a good recognition of the parity within the conference that sometimes you have ties. That's OK," she said. "Just with the number of weeks that we have to play, we are limited as it relates to having our own football championship game to be able to determine an outright winner."