Published November 20, 2014
The list of FCS programs that are moving up to the FBS, or studying the idea, has become unwieldy considering some schools aren't cut out for it even as they stick their chest out and thump it.
There's never been an FBS program that changed course and reclassified down to the FCS, but the University of Idaho might find the idea too enticing in the next year.
The Western Athletic Conference, of which Idaho is a member, is moving toward football extinction following its many defections from member schools. It's seemingly left Idaho's best option to be a return to the Big Sky Conference.
That's the FCS conference the Vandals called home for 31 years before it began to roam across the FBS in 1996, first in the Big West, then the Sun Belt and, since 2005, the WAC.
If you didn't know Idaho already is in its third FBS conference, you're not alone because it's been easy to overlook the Vandals at this level - aside from the cool nickname.
They have had four winning seasons out of 16 since leaving the Big Sky. Clearly, it wasn't what the school or its alumni and boosters envisioned when the program moved into the FBS with a head of steam.
In their final 14 seasons on the FCS level - then known as Division I-AA - the Vandals were both a Big Sky and national power, never failing to post a winning record, winning at least nine games in nine of those seasons and featuring two Walter Payton Award winners (quarterbacks John Friesz and Doug Nussmeier).
What now makes the Big Sky attractive again - and some have been calling for a return for a while now - is that the WAC has been raided from all directions - Conference USA, the Sun Belt Conference and, most of all, the Mountain West Conference.
The WAC's latest reported losses of San Jose State and Utah State to the Mountain West Conference by the 2013 season would leave Idaho and New Mexico State as the only football-playing members, alongside newcomers Denver, Seattle, Texas-Arlington and Boise State, the latter of which is joining for sports other than football.
Unless the WAC, behind harried interim commissioner Jeff Hurd, is presented a new plan from David Copperfield, Idaho and New Mexico State should both be looking elsewhere for football.
Going independent doesn't make sense for either struggling program, especially with fewer home games a distinct possibility. The Mountain West hasn't targeted either school, so that scenario seems unrealistic as well.
New Mexico State, which classified to the FBS for the 1983 season, right after the split in Division I, will probably be dialing the Sun Belt commish again real soon.
Idaho has that option, too, although its Pacific Northwest campus isn't nearly as geographically aligned with the Sun Belt as New Mexico State's (not that it hardly matters in today's FBS landscape).
The option staring Idaho in the face is the return to the Big Sky.
The Big Sky is a dynamite conference that does it right on the FBS level, from rivalries, to drawing crowds, to marketing, to media exposure, to the style of play. Even better for Idaho, the conference would embrace its return in all sports.
The addition of Cal Poly, UC Davis, North Dakota and Southern Utah this year is bringing the Big Sky's football membership to 13. An even 14 is coveted, but there's no other logical prospect for the FCS' biggest conference to get to that number.
Idaho is the answer. The Vandals would have to shed some scholarships, but they could become a winning program again in the Big Sky, one capable of advancing to the national playoffs. It would have rivalries again with Idaho State, Weber State, Eastern Washington (which the Vandals are playing this season), Montana and Montana State. The buzz alone from restarting such rivalries could keep attendance near the 12,000 that it was at the Kibbie Dome this past season.
One of the hard sells on this idea, though, is that a return to the Big Sky admits failure at the FBS level. What Boise State has accomplished downstate has perhaps made it even harder for Idaho to cut the cord.
But it's time for Idaho to stop fooling itself and to move beyond that issue. When it comes to football, the gap between Boise, Idaho, and Moscow, Idaho, is larger than Boise, Idaho, and Moscow, Russia.
If the University of Idaho wants its program to become relevant again, it should realize a return to the Big Sky Conference is better than following its fleeting FBS options. It would be a step forward, not backward, for the Vandals.