4 questions as Utah’s 3 FCS schools open the spring football season Saturday
OGDEN – It’s football season and it’s game day.
For the first time since the Football Bowl subdivision wrapped up the shortened, coronavirus-altered 2020 season with Alabama’s victory over the state of Ohio in the national championship, football will return to the Utah college campus starting Saturday.
Weber State, Southern Utah and the newly promoted Dixie State will be competing in the Football Championship Subdivision’s spring season that kicks off this weekend when the Wildcats travel to Idaho State, the Thunderbirds on the road against Grand Canyon rivals North Compete in Arizona and the Trailblazers the Division I era in Stephenville, Texas against Tarleton State # 22.
“We pinch ourselves every day that it’s really here,” said Weber State coach Jay Hill. “We’re just trying like crazy to make sure nothing bothers you (the season). Everything we do every day is critical.”
Here are four questions Utah teams will face over the next six weeks, including high expectations for the Wildcats.
Can the Weber State meet national expectations?
In six seasons under Hill, the Wildcats have set a record of 47-30, including 34-14 in the Big Sky game and three direct conference championships.
Hill’s success is undeniable, and he’s been amply rewarded for this, including a two-year contract extension that guarantees him a place in Ogden through the 2025 season.
In 2021, however, the weaver state is expected to take a big step forward – even a national step.
The Wildcats were included in the top 25 of most national FCS polls for 36 consecutive weeks. This is the fifth longest active streak in the nation. They’ll finish in the top five in multiple polls in 2021, including No. 4 by STATS and No. 2 by HERO Sports.
In other words, Weber State is no longer just expected to compete with the best of the big sky to beat teams like Eastern Washington or Montana (who pulled out of the spring season). The Wildcats are instead on par with the undisputed state of North Dakota, James Madison, and the state of South Dakota to name a few.
Can you live up to the hype?
“I would much rather have hype than not,” said Hill. “At least people think you’re going to be pretty good, and I’ve been on the other side. It’s not very fun.
“But we’re just trying to get better every day. That’s what every team preaches. Whether you’re good or not, the message is the same. I don’t have a feeling that it’s going to be this team’s heads.”
Photo: Courtesy of SUU Athletics
What will the domestic audience look like?
Home games look different due to COVID-19, but Weber State received permission to host up to 5,000 people for its three home games at Stewart Stadium this year. That means at least 5,000 fans on the stand, including family and close friends of players.
One of the players who could benefit the most from this is Josh Davis, the 2018 Jerry Rice Award winner and two-time All-American, who is returning just 140 yards from Weber State’s fourth place all-time for his third season .
The two-time All-American from Alta High wants to appreciate any home fan he can bring to Ogden as well.
“It’s a big deal when they’re up here to watch me do what I love,” said Davis. “It’s great to have fans there and everything they bring to the football game. It’s great to have your loved ones support you.”
Is SUU ready to recover?
The Thunderbirds were only 3-9 in 2019, including a 2-6 mark in the Big Sky game in their last full football season. And that was an improvement over 2019, when SUU finished just 1:10 with its only win over Sacramento State in Cedar City.
Head coach Demario Warren upgraded in the extended off-season and brought in new offensive coordinator Matt Wade from the University of Pacific, where he led the boxers to a school record of 454.9 meters and 34.7 points per game. He also promoted defensive coach Robert Bala to defensive coordinator, the first full-time coordinator of the former SUU linebacker in Division I.
“They had a year to get ready, so it was a long process,” said Warren of the two new coordinators. “The players were thrilled to actually play the games instead of seeing them on Zoom. So it was good. We don’t have as many drills as most of the teams so we really put in a lot of extra work in December and January.” To make sure we’re ready now I think it’s showing and the guys are starting to take possession of the new plans. ”
Will the changes – plus a squad that returns five starters each on attack and defense – be enough to improve a team with only four wins since winning the second Big Sky championship in 2017?
Can the pioneers compete in Division I?
Dixie State makes its long-awaited debut in the FCS, starting with a season deal with Tarleton State and a trip to the Football Bowl subdivision enemy New Mexico State.
The Texans (1-1) were ahead of their newcomers to the Western Athletic Conference (excluding soccer), including last week’s 43-17 win over New Mexico State in El Paso, Texas.
But the trailblazers are ready after the fall season was canceled and their leap out of Division II was postponed prematurely.
“This jump will not be easy,” said coach Paul Peterson. “But we will swing and compete. We look forward to these opportunities.”
The Trailblazers are expected to play two home games, including the home game against Tarleton on March 13th at 7pm. Saturday’s game will be broadcast live on ESPN +.