Idaho State-Northern Iowa football

Northern Iowa’s Deion McShane is tripped up by Idaho State’s Christian McFarland during action at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

Idaho State football has seen its season opener pushed back once already (EDIT: now twice!), and the Bengals’ season still hangs by a thread as the Big Sky Conference has not yet made a decision on whether to move forward with fall sports in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in an uncertain year, the Bengals are scheduled to start fall camp on Friday — a week after the original date — and it’s time, at long, long last, to finally start talking a little bit about football. These are the three biggest games for ISU this season.

Northern Iowa at Idaho State, Sept. 12

If the Northern Iowa Panthers make it to Pocatello (and that will be the last mention of COVID-19 contingencies in this piece), they’ll be the first ranked non-conference FCS team to visit Pocatello since 1985, when Eastern Washington made the trip shortly after jumping up from Division II. After decades of FBS money games and Division II gimmes, this might be the biggest non-conference game in the recent history of ISU football — even if the Bengals will be big underdogs in the battle of big cats. Northern Iowa under Mark Farley is one of the most consistent programs in FCS and has made the playoffs five times in the past six years. This is a marquee Missouri Valley Football Conference team coming to Holt Arena in what will now be both teams’ season opener. Idaho State played UNI close last year in Cedar Falls but lost 13-6. Being that close again would be a good showing for Idaho State. Beating the Panthers would be one of the three biggest wins of Rob Phenicie’s Bengals tenure, along with Nevada in 2017 and Idaho in 2018.

Sacramento State at Idaho State, Sept. 26

Homecoming and the Big Sky Conference opener? It’s a double feature for ISU on Sept. 26. Homecoming will be blunted without a full crowd allowed in Holt Arena, but the Bengals will want to get off to a good start in conference play. The Sac State game is the first of a month-long run of winnable — or losable — games for ISU, as the Bengals travel to Northern Arizona, host Cal Poly and travel to Portland State in the weeks following. Sac State is probably the best of those teams, but the Hornets are also probably a step away from the class of the Big Sky after starting quarterback — and Walter Payton Award finalist — Kevin Thomson transferred to Washington. Troy Taylor brings talent back at almost every position and brought in former Nevada and Boise State QB Kaiden Bennett, but Sac State’s offense might need time to gel without Thomson. If it does, ISU could steal a win and set itself up well for the next three.

Idaho at Idaho State, Nov. 21

Of course the rivalry game always has a case for this list, but what’s surprising is just how much will be on the line in the third edition of ISU-Idaho since the Vandals came back to the Big Sky Conference. Idaho State won a blowout in 2018. Idaho won a blowout in 2019.

Both teams still have a lot to prove against the other, just because of how complete the results of each of those games were. Was the first game a blip, and is Idaho, the FBS dropdown, just taking a little time to establish its dominance? Or maybe ISU has the upper hand — after all, three defensive touchdowns killed any chance the Bengals had last year. Or, in a particularly delicious possibility, maybe the two teams are just really close, and this year’s edition finally results in a game that has some suspense in the fourth quarter. Either way, finishing the year with a loss to their in-state rival is not what either of these teams want.