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What awaits Weber State, Southern Utah and Dixie State in a strange FCS spring season

The 2021 spring season starts Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, for Weber State running back Kevin Smith Jr. and the Wildcats when they face Idaho State on the road.
Weber State athletics

Jay Hill has built a Football Championship Subdivision power in Ogden, and even with a five-month delay in the schedule because of the global pandemic, his Weber State program looks like it will be a contender again during the unprecedented 2021 spring FCS season.

Yes, there are some questions for the Wildcats — like, who will start at quarterback between junior transfer Randall Johnson and freshman Bronson Barron, from American Fork — but when the team kicks off this unusual six-game regular season, Hill sees what could be another standout year.

“In reality, that’s what this team’s going to come down to is if the quarterback play is good, I believe there’s enough weapons around them that we’ve got a chance to be a really good team,” Hill told reporters earlier this week.

The FCS season began with a double-overtime thriller between McNeese State and Tarleton State on Feb. 13, and conference competition kicked off Feb. 19.

Now, the teams in the state of Utah will join the action, as Weber State, Southern Utah and Dixie State start their seasons Saturday.

Weber State chases a title

The Wildcats, ranked No. 4 in the latest FCS Perform Top 25 poll, play at Idaho State in their season opener. Weber State will be seeking a fifth straight appearance in the FCS playoffs after reaching the national semifinals last season.

Weber State, which finished with an 11-4 record last season, is the final one of the top 5 teams in the FCS Perform Top 25 to start its season — defending national champion and No. 1 North Dakota State already has a pair of wins, No. 2 James Madison won its opener easily and No. 3 South Dakota State edged No. 5 Northern Iowa to jump past the Wildcats in the latest poll.

Hill recently agreed to a two-year contract extension through the 2025 season. The next step for his program is reaching the national title game, and the program has a solid group of returning talent to lead the way. This year, the Wildcats have four players who earned preseason All-America honors, including running back Josh Davis, wide receiver/kick returner Rashid Shaheed, defensive lineman Jared Schiess and offensive lineman Ty Whitworth.

Only eight of the 13 schools that play football in the Big Sky Conference will participate in the competition for a conference championship. That includes Cal Poly, Eastern Washington, Idaho, Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Southern Utah and UC Davis. Eastern Washington is the other Big Sky team currently in the rankings, at No. 12 in the FCS Perform poll.

The Bengals will face the Wildcats twice this year — Weber State hosts Idaho State in Ogden on April 10. Idaho State is coming off a 3-9 season.

Even in the unique circumstances, Hill embraces the role the Wildcats enjoy as a title contender.

“I’d much rather have (expectations) than not, because people at least think you have a chance to be pretty good. I’ve been on the flip side when we first took over here and we weren’t very good, and that’s no fun at all,” Hill said.

“... You’ve got to find a way to get better every day. I don’t have any sense that this team is the flip of that, where they’re going to let it go to their heads and stop working, or go give up a game because we weren’t prepared. And I’ll fight like crazy to make sure we don’t do that.”

Wildcats fans in the stands

Weber State announced earlier this week that 5,000 fans will be allowed at home games during the spring season — with social distancing guidelines in place and masks required for those in attendance.

“It’s awesome,” Davis said of having fans in attendance. “My family supports me every step of the way. Having them be (here) watching me do what I love is a big thing.”

Pandemic-related changes

The Wildcats already had to change their schedule due to the pandemic. Weber State’s road game at Cal Poly was originally scheduled for March 6, but it has been postponed to April 17, per Big Sky policy, due to COVID-19 protocols within the Cal Poly program. That leaves the Wildcats with just one more available open date — March 20 — if they need to reschedule another game.

SUU back in action

In January, the WAC announced Southern Utah will be joining the conference beginning with the 2022-23 academic season. That gives the T-Birds two more years, including the spring season, in the Big Sky.

SUU is coming off a 3-9 season, including a 2-6 mark in Big Sky play. The T-Birds, who last made the playoffs in 2017, are coming off back-to-back losing seasons under head coach Demario Warren.

Southern Utah will open its season Saturday at Northern Arizona, and will host the Lumberjacks in the regular-season finale on April 10. SUU edged Northern Arizona 31-30 in the 2019 season.

“This is just a resilient group,” Warren said, per the school’s athletics website. “Through the weather, COVID, and everything else going on these guys have stayed focused. They don’t blink, they don’t flinch, so I’m just proud of the way they’re playing for each other. We’ve had a ton of things that have happened the last couple weeks, so I’m excited that our guys have just stayed focused on the next task, and we’re excited to hopefully play some games this year.”

Dixie State makes its Division I debut

The Trailblazers, who will compete as an independent this spring, will play future WAC opponent Tarleton State twice this year, including the team’s opener on Saturday. The first matchup is in Texas, while Dixie State will host Tarleton on March 13.

“It’s hard to beat a team twice,” Dixie State coach Paul Peterson told The Spectrum. “But, just watching their film and watching our guys, I think it’s going to be a great matchup.”

The Texans, who like Dixie State moved up to the FCS level from Division II this year, are coming off a 43-17 win over FBS independent New Mexico State. Tarleton State, which is 1-1 on the year, is No. 22 in the latest Stats FCS Perform Top 25 poll.

Dixie State has had a winning record in three of its past four seasons, including a program-best 8-3 mark in 2019. The Trailblazers will play five games in the spring, and like Tarleton State, will have the chance to show how they match up against an FBS program when Dixie State plays at New Mexico State on March 7.

How the FCS playoffs will work

This year’s FCS championship 16-team field (down from the usual 24) will be unveiled April 18 and the playoffs will run four consecutive weeks, culminating with the national title game in Frisco, Texas, on May 15. In the 16-team format, 10 teams will automatically qualify by virtue of winning conference championships, while the remaining six will be at-large selections.

Sixteen FCS teams played at least one game in the fall, and the NCAA said it will use those results when considering teams for this year’s FCS playoffs.

“It’s going to be really difficult to determine (at-large selection) because with the unlevel playing field in terms of games being played, we’re going to have to look at the team completely with all the criteria that we do have,” said Kyle Moats, FCS Committee Chair, per NCAA.com.