Saying the first game of a football season is a must-win is a little too dramatic, and I'm not one for hot takes. But there's no denying the stakes are high when Montana visits South Dakota on Saturday. Whether it's the two individual teams positioning themselves for the FCS playoffs or the two power conferences setting themselves up for more at-large bids than the other, this is a game us and our best friends on the playoff committee will look back on in November.
The Big Sky-MVFC Challenge Series is a wonderful thing. Figuring out the strength of conferences and who deserves more at-large bids would be easier if the CAA-SoCon and the Southland-OVC did something like this. (Although the Big Sky did get one more playoff team than the Valley last year despite the MVFC having a 5-3 advantage in the Challenge Series.)
But the point is games like Montana-USD gives us the best "data point" when it comes to filling the 24-team playoff bracket: head-to-head wins.
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Take North Dakota State and UC Davis for example. The two teams are likely going to be jockeying for a high playoff seed in November. Well, guess what? They play each other in September and we don't have to wonder which team is stronger if they're both 11-1 or 10-2. USD and Montana aren't quite on that level, but we believe the 'Yotes and the Griz are 7-to-8-win teams. And in a 12-game season where the playoff bubble is going to be more packed than Scruffy Duffies on an early January weekend (if you know, you know), a team better be able to pull some quality wins out of their back pocket to show the playoff committee.
The Grizzlies know all about a lack of quality wins after being left out of the 2017 playoffs at 7-4.
Montana is looking good this year and it won't be long until the Grizzlies are a consistent playoff team. But the team is still young overall despite being led by dual-threat senior quarterback Dalton Sneed. The Griz play at Oregon in two weeks and next week's home game against North Alabama isn't a gimme. A loss at USD likely means a 1-2 start with all of their toughest FCS opponents still in front of them.
TEAM PREVIEWS: Montana | South Dakota
USD made the playoffs two years ago and went a disappointing 4-7 last season. A good chunk of that team is back, including the most underrated quarterback in the FCS Austin Simmons. Like Montana, the Coyotes absolutely need to improve on defensive and the offensive line. Us Average Joe sportswriters have been harping on that all offseason, so one would think the coaches who get paid the big bucks have made that an emphasis.
If the 'Yotes can strengthen the offensive line and knock their points allowed per game down by 10 points, this is a playoff team. But a loss Saturday followed by a likely loss (that's putting it kindly) at Oklahoma next week has them staring at an 0-2 record.
On the surface, this might not be the sexiest of games for casual FCS fans. USD isn't preseason ranked. Montana has gotten some preseason love here and there in the mid-20s of preseason polls. But both programs have playoff expectations.
The loser of this game isn't eliminated from the postseason. So let's not toss around the term "must-win" loosely. But starting the season 0-1 makes for a huge uphill climb, especially when looking at what's ahead on the schedule for Montana and USD.
The stakes are high. And this is a helluva game to be played in Week 1.
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