Dixie State is not a member of the Big Sky Conference, but the Trailblazers’ now-failed hopes of playing football this fall were directly tied to the intermountain-based league.
A first-year FCS independent transitioning up from Division II, the Trailblazers put together an 11-game 2020 schedule, composed entirely of FCS and Division II programs. Games against Division IIs Western New Mexico, Azusa Pacific and Western Colorado, plus another transitioning FCS independent, Tarleton State, were called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sitting at seven games, Dixie State watched on Aug. 7 as the Big Sky announced it was postponing fall conference competition until the spring. That essentially eliminated Dixie State’s four football games against Big Sky opponents Southern Utah, Montana State, Sacramento State and Weber State.
The fact the league did not completely postpone fall athletics initially left some room for those games to still be played.
“We knew if they canceled, it would make it very difficult to play a season,” Dixie State athletic director Jason Boothe told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Several ADs reached out and told me not to assume that we’re off yet.”
In the days following the Big Sky’s Aug. 7 announcement, there were a lot of ifs. The potential of Dixie State cobbling together a four-game schedule against Big Sky teams was floated. It was not ideal, but it would have provided some semblance of a season, while not wasting a year of player eligibility.
Boothe says very preliminary talks about scheduling BYU were had, but never progressed beyond an exchange of text messages. One key problem there would have been, as a first-year Division I program, a win over the Trailblazers would not have counted towards the Cougars’ bowl qualification.
For an FBS win over an FCS program to count towards bowl qualification, the FCS program has to have awarded at least 90% of the maximum 63 scholarships allowed over a two-year period. Boothe says Dixie State is meeting the 90% threshold, but it obviously has not been an FCS program for two years. The Trailblazers’ first-ever FBS opponent will be BYU on Nov. 19, 2022, at which time, a Cougars win will count towards bowl qualification.
On Aug. 12, with FCS leagues continuing to cancel and with the writing on the wall for the Big Sky, Dixie State postponed its football season to the spring. The Big Sky, among the nation’s elite FCS leagues, did the same thing the next day.
“We were just trying to squeeze every possible scenario together for our fans,” Boothe said. “Even if we had gotten four games, it was very possible all four would have been on the road. In the end, between what we were thinking, student-athlete reaction, people being scared of coronavirus, this was the only course of action.”
What comes next for Dixie State is likely to be a mixed bag.
While a Power Five program like the University of Utah, with tens of millions of dollars in media rights in play, is looking at a $50-60 million loss because of no football, Dixie State has no such headaches. Under normal, non-pandemic conditions, Boothe’s fiscal operating budget is ballparked at around $9 million.
No football is not good news, but between that and Dixie’s new non-football home, the WAC, canceling fall sports, Boothe is going to save a lot of money on traveling within the nine-member league, which stretches across three time zones.
If college football gets played in the spring, the bad news is Dixie State is an independent, which means it will not have guaranteed conference games and will again have to venture out and create its own schedule. The flip side of that is, as an independent, Dixie State will not be forced into a spring football season if it doesn’t want to play because of COVID-19 concerns. The other concern across college football is, if you do play in the spring, would you then have to turn right around and play the 2021 season on a normal fall calendar?
“At this point, I would say a spring season happening would be 50/50,” Boothe said. “There could still be some concern healthwise. Is that what we’re hoping for? No, but we’ll see what happens. If there is spring football and we decide to try and get a schedule together, we will figure it out.”
As of late last week, Boothe said he has not yet fully dived into college basketball matters, even as some of the decision-making focus shifts to hoops, specifically whether or not the season can begin on time on Nov. 10.
Under longtime head coach and Salt Lake City native Jon Judkins, Dixie State won at least 18 games in each of its last nine seasons at the Division II level, with much of that time spent as a threat to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
The Trailblazers’ nonconference schedule is not complete, but games at Southern Utah (Nov. 18) and Utah State (Dec. 15) are public.