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Andrea Williams

New Big Sky Conference commissioner Andrea Williams, seen here outside the Big Ten offices, will took over for Doug Fullerton on July 1.

PARK CITY, Utah -- The bad news: The Big Sky Conference has a seemingly endless pile of fine print that must be sorted through before Idaho football returns to the league.

The good news: The Big Sky and its new commissioner Andrea Williams have two years to iron out the details.

Idaho's impending addition in the fall of 2018 was the most discussed topic as Williams made her debut Sunday at the start of the Big Sky Kickoff media days. And how could it not be? The reunion causes an almost endless cascade of dominoes.

Chief among them is how a 14th football member will affect future scheduling. Williams said the Big Sky, which housed Idaho for 30 years before the Vandals split for the brighter lights of the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1996, will consider both an additional conference game during the regular season and a split into two divisions.

The Big Sky currently utilizes an eight-game conference slate, meaning four of the other 12 schools are already left off Montana's and Montana State's unbalanced schedules each year. And adding a ninth game would cut down on a program's out-of-conference opportunities, which many schools use to make their budgets by traveling to play FBS institutions.

Williams does have experience in a conference with divisions. The Big Ten, where she was associate commissioner until taking over for the retired Doug Fullerton at the start of July, first implemented a split in 2013. The benefits are clear in the FBS -- a championship game between divisions strengthens the winner's case for the College Football Playoff -- but murkier in the Football Championship Subdivision.

An even number of schools will be certainly easier on scheduling there, Williams said, but deciding where a potential split would land is less so.

"Are your divisions set competitively or is it regional?" she said. "Some of it could be travel. What impact does it have on student-athlete welfare if you're busing versus flying?

"... Once we make a decision, then what is going to be the domino effect of things we need to make sure we're still considering as it impacts each school differently?"


There is consensus on one thing, though. The league will be stronger with Idaho's addition as a full-time member (the school's other sports came back in 2014, two years after the Big Sky swelled to 13 football schools with the addition of North Dakota and Southern Utah, as well as Cal Poly and UC Davis as football-only programs).

"That's very exciting and I think it's going to put a little bit of pressure on schools to be competitive and really perform on the field, which is a great thing for a league," Williams said.

Williams added that, though she's a Texas native and firm believer that bigger is better, further expansion is not being discussed at the moment. The decision on member numbers will come down to what's best for the Big Sky and as a collaborative effort with its current administrators spread across nine western states.

So far she's found strong administrative support for a common good, which is promising. Consensuses can be tricky with a bulking 14 member institutions after all.

"If (an action) is good for 11 of the 14 but not the others, from a position standpoint they want to support the group as a whole," she said, "because at the end of the day we want to make sure the Big Sky is the most successful conference in the FCS."


Along with Idaho's impact, Williams addressed a pair of other current scheduling issues facing the FCS landscaping.

In June, the Southland and Ohio Valley conferences submitted a joint proposal to the NCAA calling for a permanent 12th game be added to the FCS schedule. Currently FCS play features up to 11 regular season games with a 12th every five years when the calendar rotation slides an extra Saturday into the fall term. That most recently occurred in 2014.

But a 12-game schedule has not gained much support nationwide yet. There's only so many weeks in the school year too, she added, but the effect on student-athlete welfare is the biggest concern.

"With the FCS model you've got the championship (playoffs) and how many games will you be playing in a year?" she said.

Williams also weighed in on autonomous Power Five FBS conferences -- most notably her recent employer, the Big Ten -- who have determined they will no longer schedule FCS competition.

"If they believe that the value is not in scheduling FCS, that is their prerogative and that is their right to do it," she said. "What's great is that has not deterred the ability to schedule those other conferences that will play us."

The 13 Big Sky programs have a combined 15 FBS games on their slates this fall. Montana does not play an FBS school in 2016, though the Griz will travel to Washington in 2017.

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