Eastern Washington University athletic director Bill Chaves and Eagles head football coach Beau Baldwin both reacted positively to Monday’s announcement that Southern Utah University and the University of North Dakota have accepted invitations to join the Big Sky Conference.
“What continues to occur is that the Big Sky is taking a proactive approach in trying to sustain the long-term viability of the conference,” Chaves said of the BSC’s latest expansion. “And I applaud that thought process.
“But having said that, we’ve still got some things to work out … – certainly in regards to scheduling when it comes to the various sports. But I think the first piece of the puzzle was what to do as a conference as all of this realignment is shaking out.”
Baldwin, whose nationally ranked Eagles have a bye week prior to entertaining Southern Utah at Roos Field in a non-conference game Nov. 13, also praised the Big Sky’s decision.
“I think it’s great, I really do,” he said. “Those are two quality programs that will only strengthen our league.”
The Big Sky announced in September that Cal Poly and UC Davis had agreed to join the league as affiliate members in football. But SSU and UND – both of which will officially join the Big Sky on July 1, 2012 – are the first core institutions to join the conference since Northern Colorado was added in 2006.
Big Sky officials also said that the Football Championship Subdivision league is close to finalizing the addition of the University of South Dakota as a 12th core member, which would bring the conference’s number of football-playing schools to 14.
“The moves we’ve made aren’t about protection,” commissioner Doug Fullerton said in a statement. “If the talk out there is true, that playing at the FBS level of football is unsustainable for many schools, then FCS will play an even bigger role in the future.
“The Big Sky presidents want the Big Sky to be the first major player coming from the FCS ranks.”
North Dakota and South Dakota are both NCAA Division II schools that began transitioning to Division I in 2007, which means both would be eligible to compete for Big Sky and NCAA championships starting with the 2012-13 school year.
According to Fullerton, dividing the Big Sky into seven-team sub-divisions is all but inevitable. And Fullerton said he will begin meeting with conference athletic directors in the near future to figure out what schools will be in what divisions.
“But you could come close (to figuring it out) just by grabbing a map and taking a look at it,” he added.
Bye week bonus
Eastern Washington (7-2 overall, 6-1 Big Sky) could assure itself of at least a Big Sky co-championship this weekend without strapping on a helmet.
The Eagles have a bye Saturday, but could lock up a share of the title if Montana State (7-2, 5-1) loses at home to red-hot Weber State (5-3, 4-2), which has won its last three games.
Eastern, too, is on a roll, having won five in row. But Eagles coach Baldwin still welcomes the bye week.
“Even though we’re on a five-game win streak, I still think the bye comes at a good time,” said Baldwin, who plans to give his team today and Thursday off this week. “It gives us a chance to get people at certain positions a little fresher and healthier.”
Eagles jump to No. 6
EWU, by virtue of Saturday’s 50-17 road romp past Portland State, vaulted from eighth to sixth in both this week’s The Sports Network/Fathead.com Top 25 and FCS Coaches’ Poll.
The Eagles’ TSN ranking is their highest ever during the regular season.
“It’s not easy to get to this point,” Baldwin said of the ranking. “The credit goes to the players – they’ve battle through every situation. We’ve been down in the fourth quarter and they’ve found a way to win.
“Last week I thought we put it all together in a sense, and we’re trying to peak here at the end of the year.”
Eastern’s 1997 team was ranked No. 6 at the end of the regular season after going 10-1 and earned a No. 3 seed into the FCS playoffs, where they advanced to the semifinals before losing to eventual national champ Youngstown State 25-14.
The Eagles finished that season 12-2 and ranked No. 4 in the final TSN poll.
Jones honored again
Eastern junior running back Taiwan Jones and Sacramento State junior quarterback Jeff Fleming are the BSC’s co-offensive players of the week.
The award is the third of the year for Jones, a 6-foot-1, 200-pounder, who rushed for 199 yards and three touchdowns on just 14 carries in the Eagles’ dismantling of Portland State. Jones also caught three passes for 62 yards and finished the game with 261 all-purpose yards.
The Big Sky remained the No. 2 FCS conference in this week’s Sagarin Ratings behind the Colonial Athletic Association. … Despite engineering Weber State’s 30-21 upset win over then-No. 7 Montana last weekend, Wildcats quarterback Cameron Higgins did not throw a touchdown pass and remains tied with EWU’s Matt Nichols and Montana’s Dave Dickenson for first place on the BSC career list with 96. … When Sacramento State dumped No. 25 Northern Arizona 40-10, it marked the first time the Hornets have beaten two FCS ranked teams in the same season.
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