Returning to the conferences of old may seem like a downgrade in competition from the Western Athletic Conference but that shouldn’t be the case for the 2014-15 Vandal teams. Instead, it will be a challenge.
Idaho returns to the Sun Belt for football and the Big Sky for all other sports this year. The Sun Belt hasn’t seen the Vandals since 2004 and Idaho returns to the Big Sky for the first time in 18 years — before many of this year’s incoming freshman were even born.
But moving back isn’t quite what it seems. Idaho is leaving a WAC that is much different than the one it joined in 2005. The Vandals may have won the 2013-14 WAC Commissioner’s Cup, but long gone were the Boise States, Nevadas, Fresno States and Hawaiis from conference competition.
In their place are Grand Canyon, Chicago State, Texas Pan-American and Utah Valley among other teams. In fact, the WAC in 2014 is almost completely revamped from the 2005 WAC, only New Mexico State remains. The competition level was not up to past standards for Idaho’s 2013 schedule.
On the football side, Idaho was independent in 2013. While the new Sun Belt schedule may be easier than the tough independent slate that featured the likes of Florida State, new competitors like Arkansas State and Louisiana Lafayette won’t be walkovers. In the recent Sun Belt coaches’ poll, the Vandals were picked to finish ninth out of the 11 teams.
Though Idaho is joining arguably tougher conferences it doesn’t mean the teams won’t have success. Idaho’s teams went 12-10 against Big Sky teams across all the sports last season, although some teams enjoyed more success than others. Idaho Coach, Jeff Beaman’s men’s and women’s tennis squads went a combined 8-1 against Big Sky competition.
Other teams found less success with women’s basketball and soccer going a combined 0-5 against their future opponents. Men’s basketball went 2-2.
Although the competition will be stiffer, the move to the Sun Belt and Big Sky conferences should be looked at as a positive for Idaho. A conference home provides stability for Coach, Paul Petrino’s football program while the Big Sky features much more regional completion. The Vandals will travel across the state borders to Montana and Washington for many games instead of trekking to Illinois, Arizona and Missouri.
The new conferences are an upgrade for Idaho’s competition level but it shouldn’t be too much to handle. We’ll have a better picture of where Idaho ranks in the conferences in 2015 but for now, the Vandals can’t take their new opponents lightly.
Stephan Wiebe can be reached at email@example.com