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WAYNE NELSON: UND's second year in the Big Sky has been a mixed bag

ND recently completed its second year in the Big Sky Conference, the league that offered North Dakota a place for its Division I athletic programs at a crucial time in the school’s history.

After Year 2, UND’s performance in the Big Sky has been a mixed bag. In the marquee sports — men’s and women’s basketball, specifically — UND has added value to the league.

In football, it’s been a struggle.

And in the so-called non-revenue sports, UND’s report card isn’t one that will be framed at home.

Regardless of UND’s performance, the Big Sky continues to be the perfect fit for North Dakota athletics.

And the league is doing well, despite the continual change in the makeup of today’s college landscape.

Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton was in Grand Forks last week for the league’s spring meeting. And he’s pleased in the direction the league is headed.

“The Big Sky is in a great place,” he said. “Everything we do and the way we do business — there isn’t a better FCS league in America. Even the FBS folks at the next level understand who we are.”

In football, the Big Sky is one of the top FCS leagues in the country. In fact, Eastern Washington of the Big Sky heads one preseason FCS poll, even though three-time champion North Dakota State — despite a new head coach — returns enough talent to make another title run in 2014.

Football, for the most part, drives college athletics.

And it’s worth noting that the Big Sky may be at the forefront of another potential shift in the college football landscape.

If the so-called Power 5 conferences — Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 — gain more autonomy and continue to distance themselves from the existing FBS ranks, a reconfiguration for the rest of college football may be in the works.

And the Big Sky ultimately could find itself at the top of the next level, joining ranks with the secondary FBS leagues — the Mountain West, the American Athletic Conference, the MAC, C-USA and Sun Belt.

The jump wouldn’t be that great.

“The top quadrant of the FCS schools already spends more on athletics than the bottom quadrant of FBS schools right now,” Fullerton said. “We’ve already passed them.”

The potential break of the Power 5 conferences could be a good thing for the Big Sky and other top FCS leagues.

With the Power 5 basically playing in a world of its own, the secondary division of football could turn out to be a strong alliance of the top of the FCS world — including UND and the Big Sky — and already strong existing FBS programs, the schools unable or unwilling to compete with the Auburns and Alabamas of the college world.

That potential alliance could also have a playoff structure, which definitely should exist in college football.

That scenario, which isn’t all that far-fetched, leads to this possibility: Big Sky expansion.

Fullerton said the league is always considering expansion for the 12-team league (13 for football).

“There are some schools out there that we monitor,” he said. “And if we’re ever able to create that merger piece, I think we might get to 16 schools.”

Well, that leads to this possibility: Would one of those schools be North Dakota State?

The Big Sky turned down NDSU once before. It won’t do it again.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s the only way the football rivalry will resume.

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
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