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Entering final stretch of season, Idaho positioned well in Big Sky title race

Idaho linebacker Xe’ree Alexander sacks Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott on Saturday at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – For Idaho’s football team, the path to a Big Sky title is clear.

With three more wins, the Vandals will claim at least a share of the conference crown.

By all indications, Idaho should be able to win out and make its long-awaited return to the top of the Big Sky.

Idaho (6-2, 4-1 Big Sky), having already faced the conference’s strongest teams, will be a healthy favorite in each of its last three games – all against underachieving Big Sky programs. Coming off a crucial victory over FCS power Montana State, the Vandals are stocked with momentum and positioned well in the Big Sky race as they head into the final stretch of their season.

Next up, Idaho meets the Big Sky’s bottom team. The Vandals, ranked No. 3 in the latest STATS Perform Football Championship Subdivision poll, visit Northern Colorado (0-8, 0-5) for a noon kickoff Saturday.

“We can’t sleep on anybody,” Vandals coach Jason Eck said Monday. “We gotta do a great job as coaches of keeping (the team) in the moment and getting better. … We just can’t get ahead of ourselves.”

Still, it’s hard not to look ahead. After all, it’s been a long time since Idaho was this close to a conference title.

The Vandals haven’t captured a conference championship since 1998, when they won the Big West. Their most recent Big Sky title was in 1992.

In recent history, winning the Big Sky felt like a faraway dream. The Vandals moved back to the conference in 2018 and spent four seasons in the depths of Big Sky mediocrity before Eck arrived in 2022, and quickly turned the team around.

Idaho tied for third in the Big Sky standings last season, then became a legitimate contender this year.

Now, winning the Big Sky feels like a probable reality for the Vandals, who will close out their season with a softer part of the schedule. Idaho has topped two conference heavyweights (No. 6 Montana State and No. 7 Sacramento State).

The toughest test remaining on Idaho’s slate is a Nov. 11 game at Weber State (3-5, 1-4). The Wildcats are usually Big Sky contenders, but they’re having a down year. After that game, the Vandals will cap the regular season Nov. 18 against Idaho State (3-5, 3-2). The Bengals have been more competitive than in years past, but they’ll still be major underdogs on the road against their rivals from the north.

As it stands, Idaho sits in a tie atop the Big Sky with Montana and Montana State. The Vandals lost to Montana 23-21 on Oct. 14 in the Kibbie Dome, then bounced back in a big way last weekend. Idaho secured one of its most significant home wins in recent memory and upended the Big Sky favorites, defeating then-No. 2 Montana State 24-21.

There are no head-to-head tiebreakers to decide the Big Sky champion. If the Vandals win out, they will presumably share the conference title with one of the Montana schools. Assuming the Bobcats and Grizzlies both win their next two games, the “Brawl of the Wild” rivalry game between the schools on Nov. 18 would break up the tie and decide a co-champion.

It should be noted that Montana still has another difficult game remaining on its schedule, at home against seventh-ranked Sacramento State on Saturday.