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Spring football never works? Try telling that to Jay Hill and Weber State Wildcats

Team will host Southern Illinois in an FCS first-round playoff game Saturday at Stewart Stadium in Ogden

Weber State coach Jay Hill rallies his team prior to kickoff against Nevada in Reno. Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. On Wednesday, April 20, 2021, Hill was named the AFCA Region Coach of the Year.
Lance Iversen, Associated Press

You probably didn’t know this, but the football season is here.

Not spring football. Real football. With fans and games and everything.

Weber State has played five games and is headed to the FCS playoffs. Talk about a well-kept secret (well, other than the 4,500 fans the Wildcats have been drawing to their three home games).

If you woke up from a nap one Saturday and saw them playing on TV — which they did three times — you might have been confused. Honey, how long have I been asleep?

Remember all those universities that canceled their football seasons in the fall because of the pandemic and then vowed to play instead into the spring? Well, Weber State and most of the 126 schools in the FCS — Football Championship Subdivision — actually went through with it. Where other pro spring leagues have failed, they have succeeded to a great extent.

Not only are the Wildcats playing football this spring, they’re playing well. They’re 5-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country behind James Madison and South Dakota State. This qualified them for the 16-team FCS postseason playoffs (side commentary: unlike the big boys in the FBS, the FCS has played a full-scale postseason tournament for decades, despite FBS claims that it is impossible to have more than four teams in a playoff; who knew?).

The Wildcats will meet 5-3 Southern Illinois on Saturday afternoon in Ogden in the first round of the playoffs. SIU beat No. 6-ranked North Dakota State 38-14 early in the season.

It hasn’t been easy to hold a football season in the era of COVID-19 and social distancing (try doing that while making a tackle). The players are tested for the COVID-19 virus three times a week and don’t attend classes (so it’s not all bad); they take their classes online.

The Big Sky created a six-game spring schedule. Four schools opted out before the season started and another school opted out during the season, which forced a five-game schedule. Some conferences (the Mid-Eastern) opted out altogether, but nearly 90 schools have played a truncated schedule.

Technically these are the 2020 playoffs. FCS schools will start all over again in the fall. As Weber State coach Jay Hill noted, if the Wildcats advance to every round of the spring and fall playoffs, they would play 26 games this year — which averages to one game every other week for an entire year.

The Wildcats aren’t exactly blowing away their opponents. Four of their five wins were settled by five points or less and one of them was decided on a Hail Mary pass from midfield with no time remaining. Anyway, the Wildcats won their fourth consecutive Big Sky championship and their first-ever outright title.

Before the recent hot streak, the last time the Wildcats won a share of the conference title was 2008 and, before that, 1968 and 1965, so these are heady times at Weber State. Hill, the former Utah special teams coach, has transformed the Wildcats. He was 2-10 in his first season, then 6-5, 7-5, 11-3, 10-3 and 11-3.

This is the fifth straight year his team has qualified for the playoffs. The Wildcats reached the quarterfinals in 2017 and 2018 and the semifinals in 2019, coming within a game of advancing to the finals.

The Wildcats have been ranked No. 2 or 3 all season, so there was some dismay in Ogden when they were not given one of the top four tournament seeds. The selection committee made South Dakota State No. 1, Sam Houston State No. 2, James Madison No. 3 and Jacksonville State No. 4. If the Wildcats win their first-round game, they would likely meet No. 1 South Dakota State in the next round.

“I thought we would’ve got one of the top four seeds, and I think the players felt the same way,” said Hill. “The reality is, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to win. You’ve got to advance.”

North Dakota State — not to be confused with North Dakota and South Dakota, which are also in the playoffs — is the three-time defending champ but slipped to No. 6 in the polls. The Bison are the Alabama Crimson Tide of the FCS, and then some, having won the national title in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019. This is the school that produced NFL quarterback Carson Wentz and future NFL quarterback Trey Lance, who is expected to be picked early in this month’s draft.

It all adds up to quality college football in the spring. Consider it a makeup gift from the pandemic.