FCS football takes center stage: Weber State, Southern Utah and Dixie State set to open their seasons — in February

The Wildcats and Thunderbirds play in the Big Sky, while the Trailblazers will make their Division I debut as an FCS independent

Weber State football coach Jay Hill oversees the first practice of the season, Jan. 29 in Ogden. (Photo courtesy: Weber State University)

In one sense, the football programs at Weber State, Southern Utah and Dixie State are operating under normal conditions.

All three are putting the finishing touches on training camp, all three are readying to open their respective seasons later this week. Film is being consumed, game plans are being installed, anticipation is building for the start of something new.

In another sense, nothing is normal right now. Training camp started in January, not August, and all three programs are going to open truncated, heavily delayed seasons on Feb. 27, not during Labor Day Weekend or thereabouts. Big Sky favorite and FCS title contender Weber State will travel to Idaho State, Southern Utah will travel to Northern Arizona, and independent Dixie State will make its Division I debut at another future member of the WAC, Tarleton State.

“It’s definitely been a little bit different,” second-year Dixie State coach Paul Peterson told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Normally in camp, you have all day, but we’re in school now, so there’s been adjustments. We don’t care at this point, we’re just excited to play some opponents.”

Added Weber State coach Jay Hill: “We just sat around for too long. These players want to get back out on the field and I can’t tell you how excited they are. There was a big layoff, a big break, but when you get back into it, they were very excited.”

On Sept. 22, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a plan to hold fall championships in the spring. A plan specific to holding the FCS playoffs from April 24-May 16 was created by the Division I Football Oversight Committee, of which Utah athletic director Mark Harlan is a member, in conjunction with the FCS committee.

Approving a spring FCS playoffs format, which will include 16 teams instead of the normal 24, set the stage for a winter/spring season. McNeese State opened the FCS season by playing Tarleton State last weekend, with fuller slates on the books each Saturday through the end of the regular season on April 17.

Eight of the Big Sky’s 13 football-playing members opted in for a spring season, so on Jan. 25, the Farmington-headquartered league released a six-game schedule, which will be contested over eight weeks, meaning everyone gets two open weeks. The Big Sky is one of 10 conferences whose champion receives an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. The remaining six spots will be at-large selections to complete the 16-team field.

As one of three FCS independents, Dixie State had to cobble together a 12-game 2020 schedule before the pandemic hit, and had to do so again if it wanted to play in the winter/spring. Doing so did not prove difficult. The Trailblazers will play two games against Tarleton State, which are wrapped around a trip to New Mexico State, which is playing a three-game spring schedule as an FBS independent.

A trip to Big South favorite Kennesaw State and a visit from former Division II Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference rival Fort Lewis will close the five-game slate. Dixie State had a sixth game scheduled against another former RMAC foe, New Mexico Highlands, but that has since been canceled. An athletic department spokesperson told The Tribune that they are actively looking to fill that April 3 hole.

“It’s definitely been tough, but mentally, it’s different going into your senior year,” Dixie State tight end Chase Hess told The Tribune. “No matter what, you have to keep working, every week is important, the game week we have coming up is important, and I don’t think our attitude and effort really changed. Adversity popped up, so we had to fight.”

With the FCS opting for a winter/spring season, one could argue there is a significant big-picture issue to consider in terms of player safety and student-athlete welfare.

Dixie State is going to play at least 16 games during this calendar year, five this winter/spring and 11 during the normally prescribed fall season. Sixteen is actually not a difficult number to stomach, given the two seasons will have a five-month gap. SUU is in a comparable position, with six games this spring, plus 11 scheduled in the fall for a total of 17, but Weber State is likely to play even more than that before 2021 ends.

The Wildcats have six regular-season games, but could play as many as 10 if they advance all the way to the FCS championship game. Their 2021 fall season has 11 games, including the Sept. 2 opener at the University of Utah, where Hill spent 15 seasons as a player and coach. If you toss in potential FCS playoff games at the end of the fall season, it is not unreasonable to estimate Weber State will eclipse 20 games during this calendar year.

The NCAA has not announced what the offseason calendar may look for FCS teams that have opted to play in the spring, but Hill’s belief is that the college sports governing body will institute a mandatory three-week break once a season ends.

How such a move would affect Weber State depends on when its season ends, but either way, Hill sounds like he has given this some thought.

“I’ll be intelligent with them,” Hill said. “If we play 10 games this spring, we’re not going to need to start camp on the very first day we’re allowed to in August. We won’t need to do some of the things we normally do. We’ll need to rest the players, get them back healthy, and get them lifting and running so we can stay healthy through the season.

“If we get to play into the middle of May, that would be a lot of preparation we get from now until then.”