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Idaho has chance to earn bye in FCS playoffs with win against rival Idaho State

Idaho linebacker Xe’ree Alexander sacks Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott in the second half on Oct. 28 at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho.  (Geoff Crimmins/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – The Idaho Vandals dropped out of the Big Sky Conference title race, but their hopes are still alive for a top-eight seed in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

The Vandals (7-3, 5-2 Big Sky) were eliminated from Big Sky championship contention last weekend. They stumbled to a 31-29 road loss to Weber State while Montana and Montana State both won to break a three-way tie for first place in the conference standings.

“We gotta get better,” Vandals coach Jason Eck said. “We gotta coach better and we gotta play better.

“We’re close, but right now, our championship behavior is not yet quite ‘championship’ enough to be a conference champion. Credit to Montana and Montana State, who are playing for the conference championship this week, but we still have a ton to play for.”

The Grizzlies and Bobcats are the only teams in the Big Sky with one conference loss each. The conference champion will be decided Saturday, when the Montana schools meet in the Brawl of the Wild rivalry game.

Saturday’s rivalry game at the Kibbie Dome is also significant in the FCS playoff picture. The Vandals, ranked No. 6 in the STATS Perform FCS poll, will look to lock up a first-round bye when they face Idaho State (3-7, 3-4) for a 4 p.m. kickoff.

“We have a great opportunity,” Eck said. “If we can play really well and win this week, (we can be) one of the top-eight seeds in the country.”

Idaho’s resume is probably good enough to guarantee the Vandals a spot in the 24-team playoff bracket. Idaho has key wins over top-10 teams Montana State and Sacramento State, plus a victory over then-No. 19 Eastern Washington and a win over Football Bowl Subdivision program Nevada.

A win over the Bengals would presumably give Idaho one of the coveted playoff seeds – a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the second round. If the Vandals were to lose this weekend, there’s some risk, Eck noted. But it seems unlikely that Idaho would be knocked out of the playoff field. The Vandals, however, would be forced to play a first-round game.

“We gotta finish the deal,” Eck said. “I think it would be a lot better of a feeling going into selection Sunday (Nov. 19) getting that eighth win. I don’t want to be ‘on the bubble.’ I don’t want to be sitting there hoping our name pops up, like last year.

“I think our team will respond and bounce back, and have a great week of preparation.”

With a win, the Vandals would claim second place in the Big Sky standings.

Last year, Idaho tied for third in the conference and received an at-large bid to the playoffs. The Vandals lost 45-42 on the road to Southeastern Louisiana in the first round.