Idaho State’s football game Saturday at Northern Iowa will be a historic occasion — the first time the Bengals play a nonconference matchup against an FCS team since 2008, when they hosted North Dakota, then in the Great West Conference.
As a stat, it’s almost unbelievable, but it’s true. For over a decade, ISU’s nonconference schedule has been made up of FBS opponents — so-called “money games” that bring Idaho State a lot of revenue, in exchange for an almost-guaranteed loss — and Division II teams that allow the Bengals to get a home game on their nonconference schedule.
But according to athletic director Pauline Thiros, those schedules will soon be a thing of the past.
“We are scheduling with the postseason in mind,” Thiros said. “That means going away from Division II games which do not advance the program, and moving toward FCS games which give the (FCS playoff) committee something meaningful to consider when they are making decisions. ... It’s a philosophical shift, I suppose, with the leadership of the department and the university and the football program.”
The changes have already begun showing up on ISU’s schedule. After breaking the streak this year, the Bengals will complete their home-and-home series with Northern Iowa next year, hosting the Panthers on Sept. 12, 2020.
The Bengals also play road games against Fresno State and New Mexico, meaning it will be the first time that Idaho State doesn’t play a team from a lower classification since, again, that 2008 season. If Thiros and head coach Rob Phenicie have their way, though, schedules like that will soon be the norm.
“Frankly, these are the teams we should be playing,” Phenicie said about Northern Iowa. “We should be playing this game, and it’s good to be playing these (FCS) games.”
The reason why is simple math. In a typical year with each team playing 11 games (eight of which are conference games in the Big Sky), seven wins gets you in contention for a playoff spot. But there’s an important qualifier on those seven wins — only wins against Division I teams count.
To bring enough money in every year, the Bengals have to play two money games against FBS teams — games that are near-certain losses.
That leaves nine games to get to seven wins, and scheduling their third nonconference game against a Division II team takes away another chance at a D-I win.
That effectively means that in the past, Idaho State has backed itself into a corner before the season starts, needing to be almost perfect — seven out of eight — in its Big Sky schedule to get to the playoffs.
It’s cost the Bengals the playoffs before. In 2014, a year with a 12-game schedule and thus a four-game nonconference schedule, ISU had two games against FBS teams and two against Division II teams. Under then-head coach Mike Kramer, the Bengals went 8-4, but with only six Division I wins, they missed out on the playoffs.
“The Division II games are easy to schedule,” Thiros said. “I’m not saying we’d never host another one because, frankly, there may be years when we need a home game and that might become the only alternative to get one, if we can’t buy or find a home FCS game. But ... our goal is to make and win playoff games. And in order to do that, you need the extra opportunity for an FCS win.”
Thiros also noted that a nonconference schedule in which all the outcomes are essentially set in stone before the games are played — two losses against FBS teams and a win against a D-II — “hurts attendance and interest, and is certainly not an optimal experience for the student-athletes.”
With that in mind, Thiros and the athletic department have been carefully planning out future schedules.
After the Panthers come to Pocatello for the back half of the home-and-home series in 2020, the Bengals start a home-and-home with North Dakota, hosting the Fighting Hawks in 2021. The return leg of that series is 2024 in Grand Forks.
Idaho State also plays Dixie State, which is moving up to the FCS in 2020, twice in the coming years.
“Who knows what they’re going to be like, but they need games, and they’ve been very motivated to get them,” Thiros said. “So we wanted to get them on our schedule while the getting was good.”
The act of scheduling itself is a difficult dance.
Aside from staying competitive, Thiros needs to stay on budget. FCS teams need bigger payouts than Division II schools do to come to Holt Arena. Right now, Thiros said, Idaho State is still building up the funds to be able to pay FCS teams accordingly.
“It’s not something that we’re going to be able to do every year, but it’s something that we’re planning so that we can snag those games in years when we absolutely need a home game and quite frankly, get those games as often as we can afford,” Thiros said. “But to start, we’ve got to be looking at being able to buy those kinds of games three years from now.”
Playing bigger money games, like this year’s at Pac-12 power Utah, can help — but Thiros also wants to be more competitive there, which will decrease revenue accordingly. Next year, for example, the Bengals don’t play a Pac-12 team, traveling instead to Mountain West Conference schools New Mexico and Fresno State for their money games.
“For all FCS schools, revenue is a factor, however, it cannot be the guiding principle,” Thiros said. “The money games are not going away in the near future, however, we need to carefully select those opponents. In that case, we look first to non-Power 5 schools as good opportunities to be more competitive. We also want to play in locations we recruit in, cities which are home to large numbers of alumni, or places which will give local fans the opportunity to travel easily.”
When reaching out to potential FCS opponents, Thiros has to consider the obvious first — whether that school has an open date on the same week that ISU needs a game. For a home-and-home series, double the necessary schedule synergy.
Only after that can she think about how much a potential opponent would help Idaho State’s playoff resume. Plus, there are travel costs to consider, which rule out a lot of potential opponents.
In Pocatello, like in the rest of the Big Sky, nonconference scheduling is difficult just because of how isolated the schools in the conference are.
Thiros did say that Idaho State wouldn’t be opposed to playing other Big Sky schools in nonconference games, a strategy that Weber State, in particular, has used in recent years.
“I see that as a vital practice in the Big Sky Conference because with the affiliate members (UC Davis and Cal Poly) we do not play all of the conference members each year,” Thiros said. “When our conference schedule is light on the top-performing Big Sky teams, it should be a priority to schedule those teams. As soon as we know how that looks, we’ll be trying to get those games.”
Other than that, Missouri Valley Football Conference teams like Northern Iowa and North Dakota (when UND joins the MVFC in 2020) are the only other natural partners for Big Sky teams, and even playing those teams usually requires some tough travel.
For instance, to get to Cedar Falls, Iowa, where Idaho State plays this week, the Bengals' plan in past years would be to bus more than two hours from Pocatello to Salt Lake City, then fly to Des Moines, then board a bus for two more hours to Cedar Falls. This year, ISU chartered a flight directly from Pocatello to Cedar Falls.
It’s a long trip, but Idaho State has finally realized that having yet another do-nothing Division II home game is a worse alternative.
“Our goal is to craft a schedule that will contribute to our budget, but will balance that need with the goal of a competitive schedule which helps our team make and win playoff games,” Thiros said. “Football scheduling is tough, but it’s also fascinating and it’s an important vehicle to utilize in building a program. We’re going to be strategic.”