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Sports >  EWU football

Big Sky notebook: Key games remain for conference contenders

Oct. 27, 2021 Updated Thu., Oct. 28, 2021 at 12:25 p.m.

EWU running back Justice Jackson (37) runs the ball during the first half of a college football game, Sat, Oct. 23, 2021, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
EWU running back Justice Jackson (37) runs the ball during the first half of a college football game, Sat, Oct. 23, 2021, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW) Buy this photo
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Every Big Sky Conference football team has played at least half of its regular season, and three teams that have passed the midpoint – Eastern Washington, Montana State and UC Davis – are on a bye this weekend.

With those ranked teams sitting out Saturday, the conference is without a marquee matchup between ranked teams. 

That’s been a rarity this fall, considering that six of the Big Sky’s 13 teams are listed among the Top 25 in the FCS Stats poll.

But at this point, the conference has separated into three clear tiers in the standings, with the seventh-ranked Eagles (7-1, 4-1 Big Sky) still in that top group despite their loss to Weber State last Saturday.

Here’s a breakdown of each of those tiers and some of the key games remaining on the conference schedule, with overall and conference records listed for each team:

The contenders: No. 6 Montana State (7-1, 5-0), No. 15 Sacramento State (5-2, 4-0), No. 7 EWU (7-1, 4-1), No. 9 UC Davis (7-1, 4-1)

Eastern will play two of these teams in the next two weeks, starting with Montana State on Nov. 6 at Roos Field and at UC Davis on Nov. 13. Eastern certainly has the opportunities to recover from the loss to Weber State.

As the only remaining unbeaten teams in Big Sky play, Montana State and Sacramento State are best positioned to win the conference – a title they could share because they don’t face each other this season.

Sacramento State won at Montana two weeks ago and stomped Northern Arizona 44-0 last weekend. The Hornets face Northern Colorado, Cal Poly and Portland State before closing out the season against UC Davis.

In addition to its game at Eastern, Montana State will host Idaho and visit Montana.

For the Eagles to win the conference, they will almost certainly need to win their final three games and hope that Sacramento State loses at least once.

Still, these four teams have the best shot at reaching the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, and it seems reasonable that the Big Sky would place four teams in the bracket again, just as it did in 2019. But five? That’s something the conference hasn’t done before, though there is no playoff selection rule that eliminates it as a possibility.

The teams at .500 in conference: No. 11 Montana (5-2, 2-2), Northern Arizona (3-4, 2-2), Portland State (3-4, 2-2), No. 23 Weber State (3-4, 2-2)

Montana recovered from its loss to the Hornets by beating Idaho 34-14 last Saturday, getting it back to .500 in conference play. But there are three other teams also at 2-2, including the four-time defending conference champion Wildcats.

Montana won’t play Weber State this season, but it will face Southern Utah and Montana State at home, sandwiched around road trips to Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona. Even if the Grizzlies lose one of those, an 8-3 Montana team – with an FBS victory over Washington – would likely be a playoff team.

After getting shut out by the Hornets, Northern Arizona doesn’t have the resume of the other 2-2 teams, but it does get to play UC Davis and Montana still, both in Flagstaff.

Portland State has perhaps the most difficult remaining schedule in the conference, hosting Cal Poly this weekend before finishing the year with Weber State, Sacramento State and Eastern Washington.

Then there is Weber State, with four remaining opponents are all under .500 overall. Winning the conference again might not be possible, but getting to 7-4 certainly is.

The underdogs: Northern Colorado (3-5, 2-3), Idaho (2-5, 1-3), Idaho State (1-6, 1-4), Cal Poly (1-6, 0-4), Southern Utah (1-5, 0-5)

In the preseason coaches and media polls, these five teams were all picked to land in the bottom half of the conference, and so far they have met those expectations.

Idaho State has what looks like the best win among the quintet with its victory over one-loss UC Davis, but the rest have struggled against the conference’s best teams.

But they will still get opportunities: Northern Colorado finishes with games against Sacramento State, Montana and Weber State. Idaho has a Nov. 13 game at Montana State, and Idaho State hosts Weber this weekend.

Cal Poly, in its second season under Beau Baldwin, plays at Sacramento State on Nov. 6, and Southern Utah – in its final Big Sky season – visits Montana and Idaho before closing out the season at home against Weber State.

Correction: This story was updated to show that Montana State has a bye this Saturday. 

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