Jax St. strengthens hold on No. 1, but Big Sky depth fills FCS Top 25
(STATS) - When Top 25 staples Montana and Montana State have .500 records in November, it says a lot about the depth of the Big Sky.
There are few breaks - and no time for pity - in the FCS' largest conference.
Southern Utah entered the STATS FCS Top 25 on Monday, becoming the ninth different Big Sky team out of 13 to be in the rankings this season. Eastern Washington and Portland State are in the Top 10 and Montana held on to a spot, but Montana State saw its streak of 82 consecutive appearances - the national high - end.
Jacksonville State (7-1) remained No. 1 in the national media poll for the eighth straight week, with Illinois State (7-1) moving up one spot to No. 2 after Coastal Carolina tumbled six places following its first loss.
The Big Sky boasted three-time defending champion Eastern Washington (6-2) at No. 4, Portland State (7-1) at No. 10, Southern Utah (6-2) at No. 20 and Montana (4-4) at No. 22. Southern Utah, which shares first place with Eastern Washington, earned its first ranking since the final poll of the 2013 season.
"The team has been playing very determined," said eighth-year coach Ed Lamb, whose Thunderbirds have won six straight games - including 54-37 over Cal Poly this past weekend.
"Our first two opponents (Southern Utah and South Dakota State) humbled us and made us better," he added. "We are taking it one game at a time through the conference. Montana State (Saturday's opponent) has been unbeatable at home."
There have been as many as six Big Sky teams in the poll at the same time this season. Eastern Washington, the 2010 FCS national champion, has been the standard throughout the decade, and it won yet another tight game against its conference competition on Saturday, 14-13 over Weber State. Quarterback Jordan West and wide receiver Cooper Kupp connected on another two touchdowns in the victory in a season filled with them.
But Portland State and Southern Utah have helped turn the conference upside down after both schools finished 3-9 one year ago. Portland State has posted its turnaround under Bruce Barnum, who started the season as the Vikings' interim coach only to earn a five-year contract because of his team's success.
Montana, like the trio of Montana State, Northern Arizona and North Dakota, which all received votes in the poll, hopes to play well enough in November to earn a bid to the upcoming FCS playoffs.
That's where the likes of Jacksonville State and Illinois State will be found. Jacksonville State pounded Eastern Kentucky 34-0 on Saturday in a first-place showdown in the Ohio Valley Conference, and then strengthened its hold on No. 1 Monday by gaining 139 of the 159 first-place votes (87.4 percent) and 3,953 points.
Coach John Grass' Gamecocks easily outgained Illinois State, the Missouri Valley Conference leader, which had 18 first-place votes and 3,825 points after its latest win, a 27-24 rally past Indiana State.
Chattanooga (7-1), whose only loss is to Jacksonville State, followed at No. 3 - its highest FCS ranking ever. Then it was Eastern Washington, Richmond (7-1), North Dakota State (6-2), Sam Houston State (6-2), Coastal Carolina (7-1), McNeese State (8-0) and Portland State. McNeese State and Portland State received one first-place vote each.
South Dakota State (6-2) was ranked 11th, followed by William & Mary (6-2); Harvard (7-0); James Madison (7-2); Charleston Southern (7-1), which beat Coastal Carolina 33-25; Fordham (7-2); Northern Iowa (4-4); Eastern Kentucky (5-3); North Carolina A&T (7-1); and Southern Utah.
Rounding out the Top 25 were Youngstown State (4-4), Montana, Indiana State (4-4), Dartmouth (6-1) and The Citadel (6-2), whose ranking was its first since Oct. 1, 2012.
In addition to Montana State, Western Illinois from the Missouri Valley fell from the Top 25, but the leading FCS conference still had the most representatives with six. North Dakota State, the four-time defending national champion from the Missouri Valley, took over the longest active run of Top 25 appearances at 73.
A national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries select the STATS FCS Top 25. In the voting, a first-place vote is worth 25 points, a second-place vote 24 points, all the way down to one point for a 25th-place vote.
The Top 25 is released every Monday afternoon during the regular season, except for Sunday morning, Nov. 22, prior to the selection of the 24-team FCS playoff field. A final Top 25 will follow the FCS championship game, which will be held Jan. 9 in Frisco, Texas.