The Big Sky Conference kicked off its annual two-day online media day conference Thursday with coaches camped out in their own football offices. There was one pressing theme.
Will there be a fall season?
Will it be a reduced schedule?
Will the coronavirus pandemic that has cast an ominous shadow over athletics and much of society lead to a spring football season or none at all?
There are still no concrete answers, though Big Sky football commissioner Tom Wistrcill said a decision will be made by the end of the month.
“What a handful,” Portland State coach Bruce Barnum said of the issues at hand. “We don’t have answers.”
Uncertainty and concern dominate the football landscape on the eve of what would normally be the start to on-field drills much more than plotting, scheming, conditioning and bonding.
“The biggest challenge is building a culture last year and then not seeing your guys for three or four months (with the pandemic),” Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor said. “It feels very uneasy, a strange feeling about it. It just feels odd. That’s the biggest challenge right now.”
Urgency at hand
“We need to get a plan,” Montana State coach Jeff Choate said. “People are going to get sick (with the virus). We need to mitigate this. We need to make a decision if we’re going to do this or not. … It’s the craziest thing.”
Said UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins to The Bee this week, “Nobody knows (what’s going to happen) but the Big Sky will figure it out and then we’ll adjust. You have to have a variety of plans and stay flexible. I’ve said this before: if you can’t test and test regularly (for the virus), you’re not going to play.”
Hawkins was one of the few Big Sky coaches to have a full schedule of spring drills before the pandemic hit by mid March. He added Thursday, “None of us have been around our guys for a long time. It just magnifies (the challenges of leadership). We’re finding more ways that no one imagined before.”
Wistrcill, the Big Sky football commissioner, speaks regularly with Big Sky athletic directors. He said earlier this month that he anticipated football playing this fall was a “50-50” probability, adding, “The rest of the country will discuss what’s going on and make decisions.”
Big Sky losses already sting
Big Sky teams have already suffered a loss before the season even started when the Pac-12 announced that its teams would only play conference games.
That means Sac State’s game at Washington in September was scrapped, including a payout of some $600,000. Portland State had September games at Arizona and Oregon State canceled, a financial hit of nearly $1 million. Larger-level football programs have played lower-level ones for decades, hosting those games in meetings they are expected to win. The smaller programs are presented an opportunity to gauge themselves by playing up, and take home a hefty check.
Replacing those games likely won’t happen, particularly if it means out-of-state travel.
Sacramento State was picked to finish fifth this season in separate voting polls of conference head coaches and media and UC Davis sixth.
Sac State is coming off its first Big Sky championship; UCD entered last season as the defending co-champions.
Sac State received 389 points from the media poll and 99 from the coaching poll, including one first-place vote. UCD received 324 votes and one first-place nod from the media poll and 83 total from the coaches.
Then again, preseason voting doesn’t mean a whole lot. In 2018, UCD was projected to finish ninth in both preseason polls and then won the Big Sky for the first time. The Aggies went 5-7 during an injury-ravaged 2019 season. Hawkins earned national Coach of the Year honors in 2018.
Last season, Sac State was tabbed to finish 11th by the coaches and 12th by the media before its historic march under Taylor, its first-year coach with deep regional roots. Taylor won national Coach of the Year accolades in 2019.
Sac State is without 2019 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year Kevin Thomson after the quarterback transferred to Washington in his home state, but the Hornets don’t lack in talent or depth.
“Kevin is a great player and person but we have a great team besides that,” Taylor said. “We have a lot of guys returning. We have some momentum and confidence. We feel we have a lot to prove and we’re confident with the group we have.”
Weber State is the preseason 2020 champion in the coaching and media polls.
The Wildcats received 28 first-place votes from the media and seven first-place votes from head coaches. They have won at least a share of the conference title in each of the past three seasons and finished ranked No. 3 in the final FCS polls last season.
“We have had big expectations in our program the last few years and I think our players have handled that very well,” Weber State coach Jay Hill said. “Now we have another step and find a way to raise those expectations even higher.”
Montana was voted to finish second in both polls, Montana State third and Eastern Washington fourth.
Hill of Weber State said the conference is, “a blood bath. People play with no fear and they let it rip.”
He added of the coronavirus theme, “If we don’t get to coach, we’re not ourselves. There’s a mental toll, too. Players not on the field, psychologically, that’s hard on them. They need to play to be themselves. We hope we can do it this year. We’re taking a big chunk out of who these kids are and we have to find a way to be safe.”
Big Sky Conference Preseason Coaches’ Poll
With last year’s record:
1. Weber State (11-4)
2. Montana (10-3)
3. Montana State (11-4)
4. Eastern Washington (7-5)
5. Sacramento State (9-4)
6. UC Davis (5-7)
7. Northern Arizona (4-8)
8. Portland State (5-7)
9. Idaho (5-7)
10. Cal Poly (3-8)
11. Idaho State (3-9)
12. Southern Utah (3-9)
13. Northern Colorado (2-10)