Unbalanced scheduling tilts the playing field

(STATS) - Southern Utah and its impressive defense have moved into the Big Sky Conference lead by allowing a mere three points to two programs that have struggled in recent seasons, and another seemingly overmatched opponent awaits this weekend.

Surely the schedule will turn on the Thunderbirds in the near future with much tougher conference opponents.

Yes, it will get harder. Just not as much as it will for some of the Big Sky's other top teams.

In the larger FCS conferences - and the 13-team Big Sky is the biggest - unbalanced scheduling has an impact because not all of the teams play each other. Southern Utah (3-2) has beaten Northern Colorado and Weber State - teams with a combined 8-30 conference record since 2013 - and hosts the Big Sky's only team without a conference win Saturday when it plays 1-5 Sacramento State.

In an eight-game conference schedule, the Thunderbirds won't be playing four Big Sky teams that have been nationally ranked this season - three-time defending champion Eastern Washington, Montana, North Dakota and Idaho State.

"Number one, I don't like the (unbalanced) schedule the way it is - you're only playing eight of the 12 possible opponents," Montana State coach Rob Ash said. "I think there's a lot of inequities and it's tough to determine a true champion with that schedule. ... The base of that statement, though, is this: Whatever that schedule is, we're just going to go play it and we're not going to complain or use it as an excuse."

Ash's Bobcats have to face all four of those teams that Southern Utah avoids as well as Portland State, which hosts Montana State on Saturday in a matchup of ranked Big Sky teams.

"That's for another office to figure out to me, I'm trying to figure out what to do on 3rd-and-1," interim Vikings coach Bruce Barnum said. "It's an issue. An odd amount of teams. This conference because of so few schools out west is loaded from top to bottom on college football Saturday. If you're not ready out here, you're gonna lose."

Six FCS conferences use unbalanced scheduling because of their size, which range from 10 to 13 schools. The Southwestern Athletic Conference is an exception as its 10 teams play everybody through a nine-game conference schedule.

The extreme example of unbalanced scheduling occurred in the 10-team Missouri Valley Football Conference last season. Co-champs North Dakota State and Illinois State didn't face each other in the regular season yet wound up meeting in the FCS championship game. It was well worth the wait, though, as they played a thrilling final, which NDSU won 29-27.

Those two national powers - NDSU is ranked No. 2 and Illinois State No. 4 - aren't playing each other in the regular season again this year. In addition, two other nationally ranked teams in the Valley - Northern Iowa and Youngstown State - aren't meeting.

Last year's Southland Conference co-champs, Sam Houston State and Southeastern Louisiana, get to side-step each other despite the 11-team league shifting to a nine-game conference schedule this season.

New Hampshire, the defending champion in CAA Football, isn't facing front-running James Madison and Villanova, the preseason favorite. Maine, the 2013 CAA champ, misses JMU and William & Mary, which is nationally ranked as well.

In the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Morgan State, which is tied for first place, misses North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State, which were picked 1-2 in the preseason poll.

Defending Pioneer Football League champ San Diego has fallen a half-game off the pace, but it doesn't have to play perennial power Jacksonville - its games count in the league standings despite being ineligible for the title - as well as upstart Morehead State.

Back in the Big Sky, at least powers Eastern Washington and Montana State played each other last month. However, for the second straight year, it was considered a non-conference game that didn't count in the conference standings.

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