Officials at the Big Sky Conference are still scraping the egg off their faces after the University of South Dakota decided late last week it had better options and wouldn’t be joining the conference after all. It was akin to being turned down for a prom date, only to see the girl go out with your kid stepbrother.

Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton last Monday announced the additions of North Dakota and Southern Utah and gave reporters the impression that South Dakota joining the league was a mere formality, needing only approval by the school’s board of regents. Then many of us were caught off guard on Thursday when the Coyotes decided to join South Dakota State in the Missouri Valley Conference.

“They sort of stabbed us in the back,” one conference official said.

While the loss of South Dakota is no great cause for mourning, it does leave the conference in a rather awkward position, having 13 teams committed for the 2012-13 season. Thirteen, of course, isn’t evenly divisible by anything, so expect more wheeling and dealing to come.

The league can take one of two strategies. It can wait to see if any current members bolt for greener pastures, thus reducing the number of teams. Or it can court still another school. Only problem is the number of desirable targets seems to be diminishing by the day.

The lone logical option at this point might be North Dakota State. The Fargo, N.D., school currently competes in the Summit Conference, is ranked 24th this week and owns a win over Kansas of the Big 12 Conference in September. It plays football in the 18,000-seat Fargo Dome, which would give the league three indoor arenas for football (Northern Arizona and Idaho State being the others).

The men’s basketball team made the NCAA men’s basketball tournament as recently as two years ago. NDSU would make a logical travel partner for the Fighting Sioux in basketball and non-revenue sports and could create a nice rivalry with the two Montana schools. It would also allow Fullerton to realize his concept of divisional play.

The one thing that is becoming more clear about this expansion decision is that it certainly didn’t come from the coaches.

“Nobody consults me on who they want to add,” Northern Colorado football coach Scott Downing said last week.

Bobcats deserving of playoffs

Montana State takes its 8-2 overall record and share of the Big Sky Conference lead to Missoula on Nov. 20. Washington-Grizzly Stadium has been a house of horrors for the Bobcats over the past quarter-century, with MSU winning just once in 12 trips since the national title season of 1984.

The feeling here is that regardless of the outcome, MSU has done enough to deserve a bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs when the pairings are announced on Nov. 21. If MSU beats Montana, it will get the Big Sky’s automatic bid regardless of what Eastern Washington does. If the Bobcats lose, they will likely become the league’s number three team after EWU and UM (assuming an EWU win over last-place Idaho State).

Montana, on the other hand, must win its final two games to get to 8-3 and earn a bid for the 18th straight year. If it does, however, expect UM to get a first-round bye and a second-round home game on Dec. 4.

Sacramento State, Weber State and Northern Arizona are all 5-4. Without a marquee win on any of their resumes, it’s tough to see them making a case for a postseason berth.

No place like home

It’s tough to win on the road at any level of football and the Big Sky is no exception. Big Sky teams are a combined 30-11 at home and just 12-31 on the road. Not surprisingly, MSU, UM and EWU are all undefeated at home this fall.

“There’s no dominant team in the league,” Weber State coach Ron McBride said. “You go on the road and your chances are a little less.”

“Teams are good from top to bottom,” MSU coach Rob Ash added. “I think you have a slight edge playing at home when you have home cooking, your own bed to sleep in and your home crowd. Maybe that’s the tiny margin of difference between winning and losing, because the league is so balanced.”

Higgins misses out on record

A knee injury to Weber State senior quarterback Cameron Higgins in the closing minutes of last week’s game at Montana State means the native Hawaiian likely will finish his career tied with EWU’s Matt Nichols and former Griz standout Dave Dickinson atop the Big Sky Conference career passing list with 96 touchdown passes. Higgins, who was conference player of the year as a sophomore and threw 30 touchdown passes as a junior, has thrown just 13 this season as Weber State has gone to a run-first offensive philosophy.

A certain reporter crossed paths with a Weber State assistant coach as both were leaving the press box at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday.

“Too bad about Higgins not being able to get the record,” the reporter said.

“A lot of it’s on him,” the coach responded. “He had plenty of chances to get it done earlier in the year.”

Ouch!

Hoops on the horizon

While football has dominated the headlines for the better part of the last three months, Big Sky men’s and women’s basketball teams open regular-season play this weekend. Check this week’s editions of the Independent Record for a look at the Montana and Montana State teams.

Mark Vinson: 447-4070 or mark.vinson@helenair.com

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