Football schedule unveiled for NAU in expanded Big Sky

The Big Sky Conference is about to one-up the big boys.

While the Pac-10 has been getting all the ink about expanding to twelve teams, the Big Sky has been quietly laying their own expansion plans and will take a leap in 2012 from nine to 13 member schools.

The Big Sky, the home of the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, just unveiled the football schedule for 2012-2015.  The Jacks  will open the first season of the new expanded conference with an away game against Montana; they will open three of the four years against the Grizzlies.

The invitations to the new members have all been finalized, but the release of the schedule is generally regarded as the first step in the expansion process.

Two full members and two affiliate members in football have been added.  The University of North Dakota and Southern Utah University are the full-time additions and Cal Poly and UC Davis will come on board to fill out the football schedule.

All four of the new schools play their football in the Great West Conference.

Conference officials had hoped to have a field of 14 teams, so that it could have two divisions, but the University of South Dakota turned down an invitation to join.

As the new schedule was prepared, the conference decided each member school would have two designated “rivalry” games.  Northern Arizona’s rivals will be Southern Utah and Northern Colorado.

The Southern Utah rivalry game will be the final game on the regular-season schedule, except for 2012, when they will conclude with a finale against Cal Poly.

“We’ve created an eight-game conference schedule that still allows our institutions non-conference scheduling flexibility.  The format keeps several strong rivalries intact, and will create new rivalries,” explained Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton, when releasing the new schedule.

All of the teams will continue to play eight conference games, with four at home and four on the road, and each team will also have its two “rivalry” games each year.  Over the course of the initial four-year schedule, the teams will play each other a minimum of two times.

A significant benefit that comes with adding the two California schools is the increased exposure in that state, which is important to Northern Arizona since the Jacks recruit the state heavily and a good portion of the student population at the Flagstaff campus hails from that area.

But there is also a downside to adding four more teams, not just for NAU, but for the entire field.  There will still be just one guaranteed play-off spot, and now there will be 13 teams competing for it.

The road to the Big Sky championship gets steeper, beginning in 2012.