Weber State football had eyes on FCS national title, but instead has to pick up the pieces from lost fall

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State football Head Coach Jay Hill during a practice at Stewart Stadium Wednesday, October 4, 2017.

The Weber State athletic department began the process of bringing student-athletes back to Ogden for voluntary workouts on June 1.

Screening for issues related to COVID-19 commenced, followed by athletes being allowed back into campus facilities on June 8. From there, Wildcats football coach Jay Hill acted accordingly.

A former University of Utah cornerback in the late-1990s and a Utes assistant from 2001-13, Hill began steering his players’ focus toward their Sept. 5 season opener against the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Hill, though, knew what could happen in the end.

On Aug. 7, the Big Sky Conference presidents voted to postpone fall football to the spring of 2021, while noting that nonconference play was still pending further review. Five days later, Big Sky presidents voted to postpone all fall sports competitions to the spring, eliminating any hope of football being played in the fall.

“I was heartbroken for our kids,” Hill told The Salt Lake Tribune. “All along, I think we all knew there was a real chance of this happening. We were working and preparing for Wyoming, so there’s really nothing you can say that will comfort them after something like this.”

Weber State is not alone here. There will be no FCS football this fall, and four of 10 FBS conferences, including the Pac-12 and Big Ten, have postponed to the spring. The Wildcats now have the same questions as everyone else. How do they pick up the pieces of a lost fall and how do they move forward?

A new contender in the arena

The COVID-19 pandemic and the Big Sky’s decision to postpone football are doubly tough for Weber State. Not only do the Wildcats not get to play football, but they do not get to compete for a national championship.

Make no mistake. Weber State was the state of Utah’s best chance to be playing college football into January this season.

“There is a certain level of disappointment that is natural for players and programs in general, but I think that gets taken a step further here with having aspirations of being a national champion,” Weber State athletic director Tim Crompton told The Tribune. “Their day will come. They’ll get through this, we’ll all get to the other side and they’ll be ready for it.”

A Lehi native, Hill left the University of Utah in 2013 to take over a Weber State program devoid of national recognition, devoid of even regularly competing in the Big Sky, long considered one of the elite conferences at the FCS level.

It took Hill until just his third season in 2016 to get Weber State to the FCS playoffs. Over the last three seasons, the Wildcats are 32-9, have won a share of three Big Sky regular-season titles, and have advanced to at least the FCS quarterfinals in each season.

In 2019, Weber State went 11-3 and advanced to the FCS semifinals, where it fell at perennial contender James Madison. The Wildcats finished as the consensus No. 3 team in the country, one of four Big Sky teams ranked in the top nine.

(Photo courtesy of Weber State) Running back Josh Davis stiff arms a Montana defender during Weber State's Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal game against Montana on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, at Stewart Stadium in Ogden. Davis, who got injured in the second quarter, came in for one play in the third quarter and scored the Wildcats' only offensive touchdown.

That type of rapid progression had led to the belief Weber State could take another step forward this fall. The Wildcats were selected to win the Big Sky this fall in both the preseason coaches and media polls, and likely would have begun the season in the top five or six in both the STATS FCS Top 25 and FCS Coaches Poll.

“On paper, this is one of the best teams we’ve ever had,” Hill said. “A lot goes into that, but on paper, this was a good team. It still can be, but it still hurts not to do battle at the normal time when we’re supposed to?”

How feasible is a spring season?

College football programs at the FBS and FCS levels are not necessarily dealing with the same set of circumstances, but to some extent, the two are dealing with the same set of questions.

One burning question as the fallout over football postponements has begun is how possible is it to play in the spring. At the FCS level, that would ideally include contesting its playoffs in some form, even if they include fewer teams than the normally-prescribed 24.

Regardless of FBS or FCS, another question becomes, if you play in the spring, can you do so in a manner that will allow you to begin the 2021 season on time? Early takes around the college football world indicate no, because from the perspective of student-athlete welfare, it would seem difficult to play in the spring, then turn around and play a full 12-game slate on time in the fall.

“I think there are so many unanswered questions that I don’t know if it’s possible,” Hill said. “I would like to see this issue not disrupt fall 2021, it’s not worth it. We already lost one season, I don’t want to interrupt two. The players want to play, but I’d rather not have their eligibility screwed up on some bogus season not viewed as meaningful.”

In regards to Hill’s latter point about eligibility, the NCAA Division I Council stepped in Wednesday, recommending that fall sport student-athletes can compete in any amount of competitions this year and it will not count as a season of eligibility. Under NCAA rules, four or more football games played counts as a season of eligibility.

The Division I Council’s recommendation was approved by the college sports governing body’s Board of Governors on Friday afternoon.

As for what would qualify as a “meaningful” spring season, if Hill wants to get turned around for a normal fall 2021, there is no chance of nonconference games in the spring. Meanwhile, the 13-team Big Sky plays eight conference games under normal conditions. Hill tossed out eight games plus the FCS playoffs, potentially with an early February start, as preferable.

“We would need to see things change in terms of the virus and the medical community moving forward, but we’ll model a spring schedule and discuss things,” Crompton said. “There is a lot to be worked out. I think we’d all like to start on time in the fall of 2021. We’re going to work towards that, but nobody knows.”

The financial ramifications of no football

Crompton’s normal fiscal operating budget is somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million. He is not dealing with eight figures worth of media rights, nor is he dealing with potential losses in the range of $50-60 million like the University of Utah.

The prospect of no football, though, even at the upper reaches of the FCS, is enough to give an athletic director a headache.

For starters, the Wildcats drew an average of 7,438 fans to Stewart Stadium across eight home dates, including two FCS playoff games. No football means its five 2020 home games don’t get played, which means no ticket sales, which equates to less revenue.

Weber State was due a six-figure guarantee check for visiting Wyoming Sept. 5. The Wildcats were going to travel to another FCS contender, Northern Iowa, on Sept. 19 for the start of a home-and-home, so that needs to be dealt with, as does the start of a 2-for-1 series with in-state first-year FCS independent Dixie State.

Yes, these are small headaches, but they’re still headaches.

“There’s going to be financial headaches on everybody’s campus,” Hill said. “If we don’t have the money games it hurts us, just like it hurts Group of Five schools. If the Power Five schools don’t get the TV money and the butts in the stands, it’s a problem. This whole thing is generated by the ability to keep it going.”

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