UND opens Big Sky play vs. Portland St.After five years of a demanding journey to Division I athletics, UND finally is at the doorstep of its destination — the Big Sky Conference.
By: By Wayne Nelson, Forum Communications, The Jamestown Sun
After five years of a demanding journey to Division I athletics, UND finally is at the doorstep of its destination — the Big Sky Conference.
Tonight at the Alerus Center, UND will play Big Sky member Portland State in the 47th annual Potato Bowl — a game that also serves as a dress rehearsal for the program’s leap into competitive 13-team league regarded as one of the top Football Championship Subdivision conferences in the country.
It’s a nonconference game, as UND first’s official Big Sky contest comes Sept. 22 at Sacramento State. But it’s hard to distinguish that difference as far as UND is concerned. UND views the game as a measuring stick as to how the rest of the season will go.
UND’s first step into the Big Sky will be watched by the league’s commissioner, Doug Fullerton.
It’s been nearly 30 years since UND competed against members of the Big Sky Conference on a regular basis. Fullerton, a Montana native, remembers some of the games UND played against Big Sky schools in the 1970s and 1980s.
“There is a lot of history,” Fullerton said. “And it’s great to see this thing rekindled. I think it’s going to be great for everybody.”
Fullerton watched Montana State beat Chadron State last week in Bozeman. UND’s entrance into the league was a topic of conversation during that game.
“People were talking about the University of North Dakota,” he said Friday while addressing UND boosters. “And you can feel the excitement here about the league. But the excitement is mutual.”
UND played a couple of Big Sky teams during its five-year transition to Division I. How UND fares in the league remains to be seen. The true test for UND, Fullerton said, will be its depth and how the program handles a steady diet of Big Sky play.
“Everybody can play,” Fullerton said of the league. “Everybody has athletes. Every team puts players into the NFL at times. You need to be a lot deeper when you play in this type of a league.”
Idaho football coming?
UND and Southern Utah became full Big Sky members this year, bringing the league to 11 members. Cal Poly and UC Davis became football-only members in the Big Sky, which produced the 13-team league.
The Big Sky may not be done expanding.
With the dismantling of the Western Athletic Conference, the Big Sky is expected to soon add Idaho in all sports — minus football.
But Idaho football could wind up in the Big Sky as early as 2014.
“We’ll get them in football eventually,” Fullerton said.
If Idaho does bring its football program to the Big Sky, it opens the door for two seven-team divisions, which could reduce travel costs and develop stronger rivalries.
For this year and perhaps 2013, Idaho will remain a FBS program. But it’s become clear that FBS options for Idaho are few and far between.
After this year, there will be only two WAC football teams left — Idaho and New Mexico State.
Idaho is a former Big Sky member and a natural fit for the league. New Mexico State is not.