MISSOULA — Montana severely hurt its hopes of winning its first Big Sky title since 2009 when it suffered a shocking loss to Sacramento State on Oct. 16.
The ninth-ranked Griz still have an outside shot at a conference crown with two weeks left in the regular season. But, instead of controlling their own destiny, they’ll need help from multiple other league teams.
If the Griz (4-2) can capture the crown, it would have to be with a five-way tie of teams that go 6-2 in league games. They need to win both of their remaining games, have Montana State (6-0) and Sacramento State (6-0) lose each of their two games left, and have UC Davis (5-1) lose this weekend.
In order, here’s what would have to happen for Montana to win a share of the crown:
First, Montana will have to win at Northern Arizona at 1 p.m. Saturday. That’s because the Griz are 4-2 in Big Sky games and can finish 6-2 at best, and there are two 6-0 teams that can finish with two losses at most. There’s also a one-loss team that would have to drop one game.
Second, Montana State will have to lose to Idaho (2-4) this Saturday. That game also starts at 1 p.m., so the order of finish between UM and MSU’s game isn’t certain. If the Cats win, then the most loses they can finish with is 1, making it impossible for UM to force a shared title.
Third, UC Davis will need to drop its home game against Eastern Washington (4-2) at 6 p.m. MT Saturday. The Aggies need to lose one of their final two games to finish with two league losses, and they can’t lose next week because they play Sacramento State. The Hornets need to lose both of their remaining games to finish with two conference defeats.
Fourth, Sacramento State must lose its home game against Portland State (4-2) at 7 p.m. MT Saturday. Perhaps there’s a shot after the Vikings just upset then-No. 24 Weber State last week.
Fifth, Montana will need to beat Montana State at noon Nov. 20. The Griz and Cats would then both finish at 6-2 if MSU had lost to the Vandals the week before.
Sixth, UC Davis will need to beat Sacramento State at 2 p.m. Nov. 20. That would give them both two losses if they each lost the week before. Even if everything else before this game transpires as needed, the Griz would have to sit around for about two hours after the Brawl of the Wild finishes to see if they can capture a share of the crown.
If all that happens, Montana would win a share of the crown even if Eastern Washington wins out. The Eagles are 4-2 with home games remaining against UC Davis and Portland State.
Portland State could also finish 6-2 if it beats Sacramento State this week and EWU next week.
So, there’s the potential for a five-way tie between UM, MSU, UC Davis, Sacramento State and the winner of the EWU/PSU game, all at 6-2. EWU and PSU both can’t finish 6-2 because they’re 4-2 and play each other.
The Big Sky's website states that "if teams tie for the Conference title, they will be named co-champions." There is a tiebreaker, but "the tiebreaker is in place solely to determine which team will receive the Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Championship."
The tiebreakers are: first, head-to-head competition; second, record against common conference opponents in descending order; third, record against common non-conference opponents; fourth, Sagarin rating; and fifth, coin flip.
The last time there was an outright Big Sky champ in a fall season was 2015, when Southern Utah won. The last time the champ had two or more losses was 2005, when UM, MSU and EWU all went 5-2.
The FCS is being hit hard by realignment as three big-time FCS programs will be leaving for the FBS in the coming years.
James Madison, the 2016 FCS national champion, will be joining the Sun Belt on July 1, 2023. The Dukes are departing the Colonial Athletic Association, leaving just two remaining charter members in the league, which was founded in 1979.
Sam Houston, the spring 2021 FCS national champ, will be going to Conference USA on July 1, 2023. The Bearkats just joined the relaunched Western Athletic Conference this season after spending 34 seasons in the Southland Conference.
Jacksonville State, the 2015 FCS national runner-up, will also be leaving for Conference USA on July 1, 2023. The Gamecocks just moved to the Atlantic Sun Conference this season after being in the Ohio Valley Conference for 18 years.
Montana coach Bobby Hauck isn’t going to fault any of them for their moves.
“I think anybody that has a chance to better their outlook and their position should look at doing that,” he said. “So, good for them.”
The Sun Belt will become a conference of former FCS heavyweights. Along with JMU will be Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Marshall and Louisiana-Monroe.
The Big Sky will be going down from 13 to 12 football members next fall when Southern Utah leaves for the WAC. Asked if the Big Sky is still the right conference for UM, Hauck said: “I don’t know. I’d have to think on that. That’s probably an offseason discussion, not an NAU week discussion. But like I said, anybody that can improve their positioning, they should do it.”