The Big Sky is enjoying one of the most impressive non-conference showings in recent FCS memory. It owns four of the 10 FCS over FBS wins this season, highlighted by Montana beating then-No. 20 Washington. Northern Arizona added a second Power 5 win against Arizona, UC Davis beat Tulsa (who narrowly lost to No. 6 Cincinnatti in the 2020 AAC championship game), and Eastern Washington defeated UNLV.
This, coupled with how the 2019 playoff bracket shook out, has led the Big Sky to jump the CAA in the argument (for most people at least) of which conference is the best in the FCS alongside the MVFC.
Even though the CAA has five ranked teams right now in the Stats Perform poll (No. 3 James Madison, No. 8 Delaware, No. 11 Villanova, No. 21 New Hampshire, and No. 24 Richmond with Rhode Island receiving the 26th most votes), the conference is lacking the number of heavy-hitters nationally compared to the Big Sky and the MVFC.
The Big Sky’s standout performances to open this season has intensified the discussion on whether the conference is now the best in the FCS. One tweeter in my mentions went as far as to say it’s “easily” the best conference. Although that account having five followers leads me to believe they didn’t do much research and is probably a fan of a Big Sky team.
Regardless, saying the Big Sky is better than the MVFC is far from egregious. I could take that side of the argument if I had to in a debate. Saying it’s “easily” the best is a little dramatic, though. Especially if you’re solely pointing at the FBS wins.
I still lean the MVFC as the best league, but the Big Sky is closing the gap.
The MVFC has six teams ranked the Stats Perform Top 25, four of which are in the Top 10: No. 2 South Dakota State, No. 5 North Dakota State, No. 7 Southern Illinois, No. 10 North Dakota, No. 17 Northern Iowa, and No. 18 Missouri State with South Dakota receiving votes.
The Big Sky has five ranked teams, two in the Top 10: No. 4 Montana, No. 6 EWU, No. 12 UC Davis, No. 13 Montana State, and No. 14 Weber State.
But this goes beyond national rankings, and it certainly goes beyond FBS wins.
The four FBS victories are impressive, no doubt. However, you can poke holes in that argument if that’s what the Big Sky wants to hang its hat on in the No. 1 FCS conference debate.
Montana had the best FCS over FBS win in years by beating then-No. 20 Washington. That vaulted the Griz into Tier 1 of legit FCS title contenders. The MVFC already has two teams there, NDSU and SDSU, joined by JMU and Sam Houston.
UC Davis’ win against Tulsa has resulted in the Aggies being a popular “dark horse” team that could threaten the top five. The Valley already has a team like that in SIU, who beat four-time defending Big Sky champs Weber State in Utah during the spring playoffs and also narrowly lost 31-23 to Kansas State earlier this month. K-State is currently No. 25 in the AP poll.
NAU got a huge Power 5 win against Arizona. But that was a week after getting beaten 34-7 at South Dakota. USD is probably in that 5th-8th place range in the MVFC.
EWU beat UNLV. But the Eagles found themselves in a battle last weekend at Western Illinois, holding the Leathernecks off in the second half for a 62-56 win. WIU is 0-3 and will likely be a bottom-three team in the MVFC standings.
Northern Iowa, a team that lost 16-10 to No. 6 Iowa State in Week 1, and Sacramento State had equal preseason expectations as playoff-fringe teams and were voted to finish fifth in their respective conferences. UNI went to Sac State on Sept. 11 and won 34-16.
Idaho State was a name tossed around as a potential sleeper team in the Big Sky. The Bengals hosted UND to start the season and lost 35-14.
The Southland’s Incarnate Word owns an FBS win against Texas State. Guess who beat UIW in Week 1? Youngstown State, who was picked to finish ninth in the MVFC.
You can add Missouri State to this mix. The Bears narrowly lost 23-16 to No. 22 Oklahoma State, then beat FCS No. 16 Central Arkansas 43-34, a team that is viewed as the No. 2 or 3 squad in the AQ7. Mo State was the preseason No. 6 team in the MVFC poll.
Some other numbers to consider:
The MVFC is 17-2 this season against FCS opponents. The Big Sky is 11-7.
The Valley went 4-2 in the Big Sky-MVFC Challenge Series this year and went 5-3 in 2017, 5-3 in 2018, and 6-4 in 2019.
It’s hard to put a ton of stock into computerized rankings this early in a season, but the Valley having all 11 teams ranked in the Top 36 of the Massey Ratings catches one’s eye.
The MVFC is 5-1 against the Big Sky in the last three playoffs, although Montana, Montana State, and Sac State opted out of the 2021 spring season.
Compared to the Big Sky, the MVFC has more national firepower in terms of teams good enough to win a national title and teams good enough to reach the semifinals or quarterfinals. The conference has also displayed more depth.
Six Valley teams are looked at right now as playoff teams (SDSU, NDSU, UND, SIU, UNI, and Mo State). Yet three other teams have proved the Valley isn’t as top-heavy as some may want to believe with winless WIU battling the second-highest ranked Big Sky team EWU, USD dominating NAU a week before the Lumberjacks got a P5 win, and YSU beating one of the 10 FCS teams with an FBS win.
The Big Sky has noticeably improved compared to the mid-2010s with the national reemergences of Montana and Montana State, EWU continuing to be one of the top overall programs in the FCS, the rise of Weber State as a quarterfinal/semifinal team, and UC Davis and Sac State becoming a factor. The fact that the Big Sky was viewed as a soft, finesse style of a conference with all offense and no defense to now being in the discussion as the best FCS league speaks volumes about the strides it has made.
And with the number of new indoor facilities around the conference, the Big Sky and its programs are showing they take football seriously, something not many FCS conferences can say as a whole.
And who knows, I always put the most stock in what happens in the playoff bracket. So if the Big Sky gets four teams in the quarterfinals, two in the semifinals, and a team that hoists the trophy in Frisco, the No. 1 conference argument probably sways in its favor. But what has happened so far this season isn’t enough yet, even with the four FBS wins.
Sam’s coverage of the FCS began in 2012 as the sports editor and eventual editor-in-chief of NDSU’s The Spectrum. After graduating in 2015, he spent three years in the newspaper and magazine industry while starting his work for HERO Sports in the fall of 2016 as a freelancer. In May 2018, he joined the website full time as the Senior FCS Analyst.