Idaho dropped from FBS to FCS. Then what happened? I asked their beat writer

If I'm going to advocate for teams dropping to FCS, I should at least check up on the team that actually did that, right?

Good morning! Thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

This is another big week of the college football season. Georgia and Auburn are going to play. There is a ton of hollerin’ about the current college football playoff standings. Multiple teams with numbers in front of their names will play each other.

So of course, in the last Extra Points of the week…let’s start our story with UMass. And buckle up, because we’re gonna get weirder from there.

Things are not looking good for the Minutemen

UMass football is not good this year. Depending on which advanced stats system you use, they’re either the worst team in the country, or almost the worst team in the country. They’ve given up at least 50 points in six different losses this season, and haven’t come within two touchdowns in any of their nine losses this season. With Northwestern and BYU still to play, an 1-11 season is probable.

The Minutemen lost last week to an underachieving Army squad, 63-7. After getting demolished by a team that doesn’t really demolish anybody, it might be reasonable to ask…how long is UMass gonna keep doing this whole FBS thing?

Their athletic director, Ryan Bamford, was pretty adamant, telling the Boston Herald they intend to stick around for the long haul. Via the Herald:

UMass Athletic Director Ryan Bamford isn’t about to holler “abandon ship.” Bamford maintains the Minutemen will be competitive in FBS and has no designs in dropping down to FCS or worse.

“No discussion. We’re 100-percent committed to staying in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). We’ve proven we can win games at this level. We’ve just had to take a step back in order to take a step forward. It all comes down to a depleted roster,” Bamford said Sunday.

No disrespect intended here, but I don’t think UMass has really proven that. The Minutemen are a woeful 19-75 since jumping up to FBS, and they’ve never qualified for a bowl game, despite playing most of their schedules against non-power opponents.

But to be fair, UMass does have a very good reason for being terrible this season. Thanks to injuries, transfers and other attrition, this isn’t even close to being an FBS roster. Again, via the Herald:

According to Bamford, when first year coach Walt Bell took over, the Minutemen were below the allowable 85-scholarship player total. Through injuries, transfers, graduation, and players leaving the program, that total number has dwindled. Bamford estimates there were between 40 and 50 “healthy scholarship” players available against Army.

“You need depth. We’re not going to get back to 85 scholarship players overnight. It’s going to take a couple of years. We’ve had to hit the reset button but I think you’ll see some incremental improvements. It’s going to take time,” he said.

It doesn’t matter where your school is located or how good your coach is, if you have 45 healthy scholarship players and you’re playing an FBS schedule, you’re going to suck. And it’s true, because UMass can only take (roughly) 25 kids a recruiting class, it will take years for them to get back to the full 85 scholarship limit. Even if everything goes great, this will be a long rebuild.

But what really struck me as interesting were the comments UMass president Marty Meehan gave to the Boston Globe later in the week.

“Obviously, long term, there are a lot of decisions that are going to have to be made,” he said. “I watched the Army game from the sideline, specifically to get a feel for what was happening on the field. And we were just totally outmatched, physically.

“Financially, the program does better because you go to Georgia and you get that money. You go to Notre Dame and you get $1.2 million. But I don’t think you decide to play in a football conference because of what you get for away games.

So eliminating football is on the table?

“We have a football team at Amherst and they’re playing at some very prestigious places around the country and I want to be as supportive as I can,’’ said Meehan. “We have a very good athletic director at UMass-Amherst. I think the athletic director does a good job and I think all colleges and universities are evaluating their programs and I think there will continue to be an evaluation.

“It’s never a good situation to lose by the margins that we are losing by. It’s never a good situation to be 40-point underdogs.

The gist of what Meehan is saying here, in the full interview, makes sense to me. He wants to be supportive of his athletic director, he understands this isn’t going to be an overnight turnaround, and that the program faces challenges. He also knows that whatever marketing and engagement benefits UMass gets from being in FBS, they don’t really get them if they’re getting murdered by 45 points by FIU every week.

What he didn’t say was an unequivocal defense of FBS football at UMass, like his AD did. I think most university presidents would do that. I don’t think UMass is about to jump ship or anything…but that is certainly something.

We can delve into the nitty gritty specifics another week, but I have not been shy about advocating for a smaller FBS, one that eventually would not include UMass, or a few schools like it. But while dropping down a level might make sense on my spreadsheet or in the W-L column, it’s something very, very, very few administrators ever come out and advocate for. It’s not exactly the most politically popular thing to do, after all.

One school did decide to drop a level, Idaho. That move was celebrated by some sportswriters, loathed by many fans…and then sort of forgotten about a bit, in my estimation.

How is Idaho football doing now? Has their experience helped make the case for more schools to follow them, weakened it, or made no impact?

I have to confess. I don’t watch Big Sky football every single week. So I figured I should talk to somebody who does, Lewiston Tribune writer Colton Clark.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length. We ended up talking for a pretty long time.

Matt Brown: Idaho is currently 4-6, and eliminated from FCS playoff contention. How good was Idaho expected to be this season? Was this a team that fans thought could compete for a playoff spot?

Colton Clark: I think more people expected six or seven wins. I think there was a bit of a misconception that when Idaho went from the Sun Belt to the Big Sky that everyone just thought they would compete, because really, the die hard Idaho fans thought they’d be around .500, maybe a game or two above it. I don’t think many fans thought there was a massive talent gap between the Sun Belt and the Big Sky, which is a top FCS conference.

I think the main thing is that Idaho has the talent to compete everywhere, at every position, except quarterback. It’s just a really undisciplined team. I don’t know what it is about (Idaho head coach) Paul Petrino…things just get in this team’s head. They commit an average of ten penalties a game, and they have the coach’s son playing quarterback, which a lot of people hate.

He (QB Mason Petrino) has 15 total turnovers, and doesn’t really have D1 caliber height or size, and wasn’t a big time recruit out of high school. It seems like since Mason got on the roster, Idaho has basically chosen to stop recruiting QBs who could come in and play right away. Idaho has a bunch of JUCO recruits, one of the best FCS recruiting classes…but for some reason, none of them were quarterbacks, even though even last year, that was a glaring issue.

MB: Idaho hasn’t really had FCS success at all since they dropped back down. What are some other reasons for that?

CC: It’s also not just the QB. When Idaho came down from the Sun Belt, one of my theories was that the Sun Belt and Big Sky were opposites, as far as schemes go. The Sun Belt was all box heavy, force on force kind of ball, and in the Big Sky, you have teams throwing 45+ passes a game. The Big Sky guys were smaller and faster, and Idaho got there, and they had all these Sun Belt players, and they were like “we’re going to crush these guys”, we have all these Big Boy football, and they just got roasted. They got blown out in every single league game that mattered.

MB: From my kinda ignorant standpoint, it seems like the quality of play in the Big Sky has improved a lot recently too. Do you think that’s played a role?

CC: Absolutely. And it changes a lot by year too. Three years ago, Southern Utah was Big Sky champion. Everybody can recruit about the same caliber of kid. Northern Arizona used to be great, Eastern is always good, Weber is always good, the Montana schools are always good, and so Idaho comes in, and it’s already kind of a stacked conference. In FCS, they call it a Power Three conference (along with the MVC and the CAA). The gap between the Big Sky and the Sun Belt just isn’t that great, I don’t think people appreciate that. There’s not that much separation, outside of like, Appalachian State.

MB: Let’s talk about that transition a little more. When you drop a level, you go from 85 scholarships to what, 66? 67? Did people stick around and start paying tuition? What did that look like in practice?

CC: I think that a couple players left, but most of the guys who left were the reserves that people we you know, you don't really pay attention to them on the sideline, and it was kind of hard to discern any any kind of difference in practice.

MB: If you have a lousy coach, and you're starting a non D1 quarterback, you're going to have problems, do you think there's anything else structural that would keep Idaho from potentially being able to compete in this league? You said they’re recruiting pretty well. (by this metric, Idaho signed the 4th ranked 2019 recruiting class in the Big Sky, 37th in FCS)

CC: There’s kind of a geographical disadvantage…there's no major airport, and most of the other big guys are located near one, and you know, you’re two hours away from being in the middle of the rural wilderness. But their facilities are near the very top of the league.

MB: Could somebody else jump from FBS to FCS in your opinion and be successful in FCS? Or has the Idaho experience made you think it is going to be messy no matter what.

CC: Yeah, I think (another school) could definitely be successful, I think. Just about everybody who moves to a different conference is going to face an adjustment period, just because you haven’t faced these other teams, you don’t know how they’re going to attack you

MB: So, this is kind of unrelated question, but I know. But I know that that Dixie State is joining FCS and Tarleton State just officially said that they're moving up to FCS and both of them are going to compete as independents. Do you think it's possible that the next decade for a couple of teams from the Big Sky decide to maybe join them and compete in the WAC, or that there could be some other western realignment?

CC: I can see that for sure. You know, I go to media day, every single coach is just like, man, the size of this conference is ridiculous. Like, like, Idaho State was angry that they don’t get to play Idaho every year now, because they have to play Cal Poly, and Sac State and frickin UC Davis. Folks want to play the close teams. So I can totally see that in the future.

***

Should UMass or anybody else follow this path? That’s for another Extra Points. But at least in the eyes of one expert, any struggles for Idaho on the field aren’t necessarily the result of structural impossibilities. Without strong QB play, discipline, scouting and roster development, it’s hard to win at any level in football. No matter what league you used to play in.

Thanks again for your support of Extra Points. Your subscriptions make interviews, deeper dives, and all of the fun things we do here possible, and the more subscribers we get, the more things we can try. Please send all questions, comments, concerns, and FCS realignment proposals to Matt.Brown@SBNation.com, or @MattSBN on Twitter dot com.