One of the biggest talking points of the 2023 FCS season is Montana and if it should be ranked.
The Grizzlies just seem to get under the skin of other fan bases, likely due to their own fan base that exudes passion and loyalty with a hint of irrationality (which frankly we wish more FCS fan bases had).
Another reason may be because the Grizzlies arguably receive plenty of benefit of the doubt in national polls. A 4-1 Montana team just automatically hits differently than a 4-1 Western Carolina team for some.
Whether the Griz are a Top 25 team has been hotly debated for multiple weeks now. And each side has its fair points.
Montana did make the playoffs last year and returns a good number of starters, which sets a base-level knowledge of the team and its talent. And even though the wins haven’t been pretty, the Griz still are 4-1.
On the other side of the argument, the Griz may have the least impressive 4-1 start in recent memory. A 35-20 win over non-scholarship Butler (Massey No. 115) saw a one-possession game for most of the matchup. They then beat Utah Tech (Massey No. 70) 43-13. That was followed by a 17-10 win over D2 No. 1 Ferris State. Montana then lost 28-14 at Northern Arizona (Massey No. 46), who has turned out to be playing much better these last two weeks, but it was still an ugly performance by Montana. And last week, the Griz beat Idaho State (Massey No. 62) 28-20 in another tight battle.
Montana has juggled around its starting quarterback situation between Sam Vidlak and Clifton McDowell. Its o-line hasn’t played up to its hype. And the defense has played pretty good with its biggest concern being the depth on the d-line.
Statistically, Montana is 45th in FCS scoring offense (27.4 PPG), 51st in rushing offense (156.2 YPG), and 84th in passing offense (176.8 YPG). Its scoring defense ranks No. 14 (18.2 PPG).
This is against a strength of schedule so far that Massey ranks 85th in the FCS.
Is Montana a Top 25 team?
Well, we’ll finally find our best answer to this point when it goes on the road and plays No. 20 UC Davis. If the Griz win, then they are firmly a Top 25 team in a majority of the ballots, if not all. If they lose, well actually they will probably still be in the Top 25 in both the media and coaches polls. But more voters will be leaving Montana off of their ballot.
The team they play also has something to prove.
UC Davis spent four weeks in the Top 25 media poll last year, including the final three polls, but did not make the playoffs. The Aggies have been in the rankings all season this fall.
But how good are they?
Again, you could argue either way.
They are 3-2 overall and 3-1 vs. the FCS with the loss a 27-24 result vs. Eastern Washington. You could argue that if RB Lan Larison doesn’t hurt his knee in the third quarter after already rushing for 255 yards, the Aggies win that game. Larison is questionable on Saturday. EWU just nearly beat Top 5 Idaho. The Aggies have the talent and the record to be ranked.
On the other side of the argument, besides nearly beating a hot EWU team, what have the Aggies done? Beating Texas A&M-Commerce 48-10, Southern Utah 23-21, and Cal Poly 31-13 doesn’t set the FCS world on fire.
So again, Saturday will give us a good gauge of where UC Davis is at, similar to gauging where Montana is at in the national landscape.
For transparency, this author ranks UC Davis No. 18 and does not have Montana ranked.
Saturday is also key in playoff positioning.
Both teams have three D1 wins right now (the playoff committee does not count D2 wins). Hitting seven D1 wins in the Big Sky typically gets you into the playoff bracket. It’s not automatic, but the odds are favorable.
Whoever loses this game will have work to do to hit at least seven D1 wins.
If Montana loses, it would have to win four of its final five games to reach seven D1 wins (eight total). That includes road trips to No. 3 Idaho and Portland State and home games vs. Northern Colorado, No. 4 Sac State, and No. 2 Montana State.
UC Davis, if it loses Saturday, would also need to win four of its final five games to reach seven D1 wins. Games to come are at No. 13 Weber State, at NAU, vs. Portland State, at Idaho State, and vs. No. 4 Sac State.
It’s a huge game both in the short term and in the bigger picture. No matter the result, there will be plenty of “I told you so” posts on social media.