SPOKANE — Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill is like many of the other conference commissioners around the country: he’s keeping an eye on conference realignment.
The potential realignment of conferences has been the biggest story in college football this week as Texas and Oklahoma have accepted offers to join the Southeastern Conference in 2025 amid accusations from the Big 12 that ESPN is trying to “destabilize” its league.
“Any shift always changes some things because people are thinking about different things,” Wistrcill said Monday at the Big Sky Football Kickoff. “What Texas and Oklahoma do, that’s totally their decision. It probably doesn’t have any direct impact on the Big Sky right now.”
Those moves are a world away from the Big Sky, but the trickle-down effects could reach the FCS. Realignment is nothing new, with the latest round, from 2010-14, having pulled FCS powers like Appalachian State and Georgia Southern to the FBS level.
The more pressing issue for Wistrcill is the conference realignment within the FCS and how the increase in automatic bids for new leagues would limit at-large bids for Big Sky teams. The relaunched Western Athletic Conference and Atlantic Sun Conference have a scheduling alliance allowing for a new automatic bid into the playoffs this year. When they become separate leagues in 2022, they should each get an automatic bid, taking away two AQ spots from the last full season in 2019.
“What I’m concerned about there is we’re one of the power conferences, we want at-large bids, so any time there’s an extra AQ, that takes away at-large bids for a conference like ours that might get four or five schools in,” Wistrcill said. “We’re monitoring that. We’re talking a lot about it. I think, to me, that’s the direct impact on us as a league because I want as many at-large opportunities as possible.”
Wistrcill wants to keep member schools happy, so he’ll be having conversations about increasing the playoff field with Missouri Valley Football Conference commissioner Patty Viverito and Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Joe D’Antonio. In the last full season, there were 10 automatic bids and 14 at-large bids in the 24-team field; that could drop to 12 and 12 by 2022.
“It’s not an easy discussion,” Wistrcill said. “I think there’s limited ways you can do it. We’re not going to expand the weeks, so what you end up doing is kind of eliminating those byes on that first week. But I think with the number of opportunities for at-large bids dwindling, I think there needs to be discussion about that.”
One byproduct of realignment in the FBS is how it could affect the size of the College Football Playoff, and a larger field could potentially lead to an increase in revenue. In 2019, the CFP distributed $2.63 million to the FCS.
“They’ve been generous enough to give us a nice slice of that pie as a division, FCS, so that could increase, so that’s great,” Wistrcill said.
Wistrcill and the Big Sky are also tracking Montana House Bill 112, an anti-transgender law that could potentially impact UM and MSU’s ability to host FCS playoff games in the state.
The FCS playoffs are an NCAA championship event, and the NCAA said in April it’ll hold its championship events only in locations that are “free of discrimination.” HB 112, the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” bans transgender women from participating in women’s sports.
“I’m very concerned about the impact,” Wistrcill said, noting the Big Sky has been in contact with the Montana state government and university relations at UM and MSU.
The NCAA statement came before sites for the spring 2021 baseball playoffs were announced, but states with anti-transgender laws were allowed to host games because of the need for sites that fit COVID protocols. In 2016, the NCAA pulled postseason basketball games from North Carolina because of the "bathroom bill," which required transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex by which they were identified at birth.
Wistrcill is looking for updates from the NCAA about its policy.
“The way it stands right now, we haven’t heard anything different from them,” he said, “so I’m very concerned about the state of Montana’s ability to host any NCAA playoff game right now.”
HB 112 isn’t in effect because it’s tied up in the courts, meaning it might not impact UM and MSU’s ability to host NCAA championship events, Wistrcill said. There’s a stay on a similar bill in Idaho, which allows the Big Sky to host its basketball tournament in Boise, he noted.
“How that same thing would translate to Montana, I don’t know,” he said. “But we’re going to ask. We need some answers from them. I think that would have a tremendous impact on what happens in Montana at Montana and Montana State about FCS playoffs.
“As we all know, those schools make it, we want them to host. It’s in everyone’s best interest. So, we’ll have to wait and see on that. We’re not getting a lot of direction from the NCAA on that right now, and we’ll continue to press into that.”
Wistrcill said there’s been “zero discussion at the FCS commissioners level” about moving FCS football permanently to the spring.
The Big Sky and other conferences played an abbreviated spring season in 2021 after postponing the fall 2020 season because of the pandemic. The NCAA sponsored a playoff to determine an FCS champion, which was crowned in May.
“Football is a fall sport,” Wistrcill said. “It’s a tremendous thing at our universities. Fall football on our campuses is really special. We don’t want to change that. And we’re proud to keep football in the fall. Anybody that says that that was a discussion point, they weren’t in the right discussions.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.