SPOKANE — North Dakota became an FCS Independent school as of July 1, leaving the Big Sky Conference just six years after joining the league in 2012.
But the Fighting Hawks aren't going away any time soon.
The Fighting Hawks remain on the schedule as a league opponent for two more seasons due to a scheduling alliance before they officially make the jump to the Missouri Valley in 2020.
"Because our schedules were already done, and it's very difficult for independents to schedule, we agreed upon a scheduling alliance," outgoing Big Sky Commissioner Andrea Williams told 406mtsports.com.
That means North Dakota's games count as Big Sky games in the standings, but if the Fighting Hawks somehow won the league, they'll be passed over for the league title, the league's automatic playoff berth and all other conference accolades.
That's why North Dakota wasn't ranked in the preseason polls and no Fighting Hawks were named to the preseason All-Big Sky team.
This is not the first time a conference has done a scheduling alliance with an independent school.
The South Atlantic Conference entered an agreement in 2015 with UNC Pembroke to play a conference schedule from 2017 to 2020, despite UNC Pembroke being an NCAA Division II Independent school.
Not all of the same rules apply from the SAC agreement to the Big Sky agreement, but they rest on the same principles.
"North Dakota is an FCS Independent," Williams said. "They don't have a conference affiliation so they don't have access to our automatic qualifier for postseason. They don't have access to our Big Sky Championship. They don't have access to our awards and honors and things like that. They are an independent institution.
"The games in which Big Sky teams are playing independent North Dakota, those still count within our conference in terms of numbers, wins and losses in terms of our results."
But the outcomes of games themselves count. Why?
When North Dakota announced in 2017 that it was leaving the Big Sky, the schedules for 2018 and 2019 had already been configured. Rearranging those could have been a logistical nightmare, and the league office wanted all Big Sky schools to have the same number of games.
North Dakota plays a schedule with Idaho State, Northern Colorado, Montana, Sacramento State, Weber State, Idaho, Portland State and Northern Arizona this season.
"Scheduling's always interesting, trying to find out who and where to play. And then when you start having games in the middle of October, if we were to not play them, then trying to fill that date would be difficult," Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. "I think it's productive for both teams to play that game. It'll be a great game. I've never been there. I'm looking forward to seeing it."
North Dakota's schedule for 2019 features Eastern Washington, UC Davis, Idaho State, Cal Poly, Montana State, Weber State, Northern Colorado and Southern Utah.
Weber State and Northern Colorado are the two schools that have to play North Dakota twice during the scheduling alliance years.