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UND makes immediate impact in Big Sky Conference

PARK CITY, Utah -- University of North Dakota, Cal Poly, UC Davis and Southern Utah are still considered to be the new kids on the block when it comes to Big Sky Conference football.

However, the four programs -- now set to play their second season in the league -- won't be treated with kid gloves. Far from it.

At the Big Sky Conference Football Kickoff, which concluded Tuesday, coaches from the established programs in the 50-year-old league said the addition of the UND, Cal Poly, UC Davis and Southern Utah had an immediate impact.

Combined, the four teams went 17-15 in league play last season. And Cal Poly tied for the league title with Eastern Washington and Montana State.

"No question, those teams had an impact," said Montana State coach Rob Ash. "North Dakota had wins against Sacramento State and Montana and that impacted the standings in a big way. Cal Poly rose up and tied for the title and Southern Utah had some big wins, too, one that knocked Eastern Washington out of the top spot."

Montana coach Mick Delaney, who has decades of experience in the Big Sky, said he wasn't surprised by the play of the four teams. And he doesn't buy the assumption that it's hard to prepare for the new conference teams, either.

"It's not hard at all when they beat your butt the year before," said Delaney, referring to UND's record-setting 40-34 win last season over the Griz. "All you have to do is turn on the tape and you'll see that UND has a fine football team.

"They've improved in each of the last three or four years. But the fortunate thing for us is that we get to go back to Grand Forks this season. It's a good football atmosphere; the fans are excited about UND football. And playing in a dome is always exciting.

"It's an opportunity for us to go back and play a little better on defense than we did last year."

Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh, who previously spent 14 seasons in the Big Sky, knew the additions of the four programs -- all coming from the Great West Conference -- would strengthen the league.

"We do make the league better," said Walsh. "And I think the Big Sky is the best (FCS) conference in the country."

The Big Sky advanced three teams to last season's 20-team FCS playoffs. This season, the playoff field expands to 24 teams.

That enhances the chances for more Big Sky teams to reach the playoffs, providing a team is able to survive the eight weeks of league play.

"It'll be a tough league," said Ash. "And I like that because it means nobody else is going to breeze through the league, either."