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EWU-Montana football rivalry preserved

Despite the decision of the Big Sky Conference to expand to 13 football-playing schools and a radically unbalanced league schedule in 2012, the Eastern Washington-Montana rivalry will continue on an annual basis.

League officials made that clear Thursday afternoon when they released BSC football schedules for the 2012-2015 seasons.

Under the new format, each Big Sky team will play eight conference games – four at home, and four on the road – each fall, with the assurance of facing each of the other 12 members at least twice over a four-year span.

Each team will play two of those teams, designated by league officials as “rivals,” each year. And in EWU’s case those annual rivals will be perennial national power Montana and Portland State.

Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves expressed satisfaction in the new format, which will all but assure the Eagles a near-sellout home crowd when Montana comes to Cheney every other year.

“I really thought how the league office approached it in leading the discussion was pretty good,” said Chaves, who explained that the “rivals” concept was developed by basically drawing a circle around the locations of the 13 schools and then designating the schools to the immediate right and left of each particular school as its rivals.

“Obviously, 13 teams can be difficult from a scheduling standpoint. But, starting with the perspective of playing the two teams to the left and right of you every year, everybody pretty much said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ ”

Because of the logic of such a decision, Chaves never had to lobby to keep Montana on Eastern’s schedule. And he has no qualms about having to deal with the Big Sky’s premier program each year.

“They’ve raised the bar, and everyone in the conference realizes that,” Chaves said of the Grizzlies. “We’re just in a unique position, because we’re only three hours from Missoula. I think their fans actually enjoy coming over here, and we’re one of their better home games, as well, every other year.

“So, from their perspective, I don’t think they wanted to lose the game, either.”

Under the new eight-game Big Sky format, teams will have the options of scheduling league members in nonconference games if they wish.

Chaves expects to have discussions with Montana State about such a scenario on the years when the Bobcats and Eagles are not scheduled to meet in a league game.

He also said Big Sky officials have not yet come up with a method for determining the league’s automatic berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.