FARMINGTON, Utah — When the pairings for the FCS semifinal playoff games were settled, Big Sky Conference commissioner Tom Wistrcill made an easy choice. He would travel to Harrisonburg, Va., to support Weber State against James Madison, while deputy commissioner Dan Satter would make the trip to Fargo, N.D. for Montana State’s game against North Dakota State.
“In my history and background in Minnesota and Wisconsin, I’ve spent much time in Fargo, been there many times. I’ve never been to JMU. Want to see that campus, see what they’ve done there. I know that they’ve invested heavily in their football program, so I want to be able to see what they’ve got. I’ll be cheering on Weber State there,” said Wistrcill, who spent a number of years in Minnesota, first in college at St. Mary’s University in Winona and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and then in his professional career with stops at the University of Minnesota and the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, which is headquartered in St. Paul.
Though North Dakota State plays its home games inside the climate-controlled Fargodome, the forecast still calls for high temperatures in the teens on Friday before creeping into the 20s and low 30s on Saturday. It’s expected to be in the mid-40s in Harrisonburg.
“Having lived up there for many, many years, I’ve been there, done that,” Wistrcill laughed. “It is going to be 43 in Harrisonburg, Va. It was a very well-thought-out plan.”
It’s a good problem for a conference commissioner to have.
Wistrcill has been with the Big Sky just more than a year, and he oversaw a banner fall on the football fields. A record four Big Sky teams received seeds for the FCS playoffs, and two of them are still playing. Weber State was seeded third after winning the Big Sky’s regular-season championship, and Montana State was seeded fifth. Both teams have won two home playoff games to advance to the semifinal round, where both will now hit the road for the first time this postseason.
Sacramento State and Montana were also seeded fourth and sixth, respectively, when the bracket was unveiled.
“I think we proved again that we’re the best conference in the country. And I think top to bottom, there’s no cakewalks there. Just a great year. Fun to see the excitement around the conference about what’s going on with the teams and the coaches, the student-athletes just achieving at such a high level,” Wistrcill said. “It’s been a fun playoff run. Need to pull a couple of upsets off this Saturday, but nonetheless just really proud of what we’ve accomplished and looking forward to the future.”
While the product on the field continues to seemingly get stronger each year, that starts on the sidelines. There were already a number of quality head coaches in the league: Bobby Hauck’s resume speaks for itself at Montana, Jeff Choate has rebuilt the Montana State program, Jay Hill has guided Weber State to the semifinals for the first time in school history, and Sac State’s Troy Taylor was named the 2019 Big Sky coach of the year after leading the Hornets to a program-record nine regular-season wins in his first year.
But two more have already joined this offseason. Cal Poly hired Beau Baldwin, who previously led Eastern Washington to a national championship in 2010, and Northern Colorado made a splash when it hired Ed McCaffrey, who won three Super Bowls during a 13-year NFL career mostly with the Denver Broncos.
“Obviously Beau Baldwin won a lot of games at Eastern, national championship, and to have him come back into the league at Cal Poly and for them to make the investment to bring him back into the league, that’s great to see. Then to get a name like Ed McCaffrey in the league. What he’s meant to the state of Colorado and football there is just really exciting. They’ve been near the bottom many years, so to see that, it’s exciting for their new president and the athletic director there to have somebody like Ed McCaffrey, and his name carries a lot of weight,” Wistrcill said, adding that Jon Kasper, the league’s senior associate commissioner of championships who has been around the Big Sky since the early 2000s, said “far and away this is the strongest group of coaches the conference has ever had heading into next year.”
With two teams in the semifinals — though both are road underdogs — the Big Sky is positioned to further chase another national championship. The road goes through Fargo, though, as the Bison have built a perennial juggernaut. NDSU has won 35 consecutive games, including the past two national titles and seven of the past eight.
The Bison have shown they have staying power, too. The program hasn’t missed a beat despite now being on its third head coach during the duration of dominance. Craig Bohl first led the charge and is now the head coach at Wyoming, Chris Klieman was the head man for five seasons before leaving for the head job at Kansas State last offseason, and now Matt Entz has NDSU 14-0 in his first season with a freshman quarterback, Trey Lance, who has yet to throw an interception this season.
“There’s always a big brother on the block in just about every sport you can think of. They’ve got that at the FBS level, as well, with Alabama and Clemson and Ohio State seem to kind of consistently be there almost every year. We’ve got that with North Dakota State,” Wistrcill said.
The Bobcats have experience in trying to topple NDSU’s dynasty. They’ve lost twice to the Bison in the playoffs, including a 52-10 beatdown in the second round last year.
But this year’s Bobcats are playing with a different confidence, while chinks in the NDSU armor are seemingly starting to appear. How real those perceived flaws actually are will be tested on Saturday when MSU brings its seventh-ranked rush offense against NDSU’s 30th-ranked rush defense. The past seven teams to play the Bison have each rushed for more than 160 yards. Of course, all seven lost, as NDSU averaged more than 474 total yards of offense per game, rushing for 250 or more yards in five of those seven games.
“More credit to (North Dakota State) — they’ve done a great job, they’ve had a great run of coaches come through there with great players,” Wistrcill said. “They support that program very well. It’s a tough place to go win at, so Montana State’s got their work cut out for them. We have great respect for what they’re doing up there and look forward to a great game on Saturday, but we’ve got to find a way to knock them off.”
Montana State (11-3) and North Dakota State (14-0) will kick off at noon (MST) Saturday inside the Fargodome. The winner punches a ticket to the national championship game scheduled for Jan. 11 in Frisco, Texas.