As if the Big Sky Conference didn’t have enough contenders, another one was added to the list over the weekend.
That’s because Idaho entered the picture with a 30-23 win at Montana.
Last week, HERO Sports FCS analyst Sam Herder had Montana ranked No. 3, while Idaho was unranked in his ballot for the weekly Stats Perform FCS Top 25 media poll.
This week, it’s a different story.
Idaho is now No. 8.
For those keeping score, there are five Big Sky teams on Herder’s ballot this week, all in the top 11. They are No. 2 Weber State, No. 4 Sacramento State, No. 5 Montana State, No. 8 Idaho, and No. 11 Montana.
This is pretty good evidence that the Big Sky has been the best in FCS to this point, or at least the deepest.
Fans of the Missouri Valley Football Conference still may have an argument for the best, with Herder’s new No. 1 South Dakota State, followed by No. 3 North Dakota State (after losing to SDSU), No. 16 Southern Illinois, and No. 19 North Dakota.
Either way, the Big Sky is big-time. And now Idaho joins the party.
The Vandals are 4-2 with both losses to FBS teams — 24-17 in the opener at Washington State and 35-22 in the second game at Indiana.
That’s a tough way to start the season, but the Vandals surely benefited from playing up a subdivision. Beating Montana in any venue is difficult, but doing so at sold-out Washington-Grizzly Stadium, which included 23,314 frenzied fans, is even more impressive.
In addition, Idaho got to bring the Little Brown Stein back home for the first time since 1999. That’s the oldest traveling trophy in the Big Sky. The Vandals also snapped a seven-game losing streak to Montana.
So there was a lot earned with the win, but maybe the most important thing is the respect that yet another contender has emerged in the Big Sky.
There were many impressive stats in the win, but we’ll take time of possession as No. 1. Idaho had the ball for 42:08 compared to just 17:52 for Montana, barely enough time to break a sweat. That’s an eye-popping stat even for an Idaho team that leads the FCS in this category, averaging 37 minutes per game. Needless to say, it was the Vandals’ highest time of possession of the season.
The Vandals are also tied for second nationally in turnover margin. They have caused 12 and committed three for a 1.50 turnover margin. Idaho has yet to lose a fumble this season. So if a team holds possession of the ball and doesn’t turn it over very often, they can be in the game with virtually anybody.
It doesn’t hurt to throw in a big-time performance.
Redshirt sophomore receiver Hayden Hatten had his second straight two-touchdown game. Hatten had touchdown receptions of 24 and 43 yards from redshirt freshman Gevani McCoy. All told, Hatten had nine receptions for 149 yards and the two scores.
The schedule even seems semi-favorable for the Vandals. They have just one remaining game against a ranked league team, visiting Sacramento State on Oct. 29.
First-year coach Jason Eck spent the last six years at South Dakota State, including the previous three as offensive coordinator, and learned a lot about winning when he was there. He inherited an Idaho team that went 4-7 last year, including a 20-point loss to Montana. Eck brought a winning mindset to Idaho, which went 4-7 last year, including a 20-point home loss to Montana.
So the Vandals have improved significantly and it appears that they will be able to contend until the end in the Big Sky, a difficult task, but after last week’s win over Montana, nothing should appear out of reach for the Vandals.