San Diego’s visit to Flagstaff to face Northern Arizona University on Saturday was the Toreros’ fourth FCS (Div. 1-AA) playoff game in program history. Three of the four games have been on the road against Big Sky Conference teams – Montana, Cal Poly, and Northern Arizona. The Toreros dominate their Pioneer Football League on a yearly basis, and have recently shown the ability to compete with Big Sky teams, so should USD be looking to change conferences?
On the surface, the move makes sense.
Better opponents mean better (more competitive) football games, which means more excitement for USD fans. Over the past decade, San Diego has played 16 games (including Saturday’s visit to Northern Arizona) against Big Sky opposition, including regional rivals Cal Poly and UC Davis. The Big Sky is a much friendlier conference regionally. San Diego is the only school west of the Rockies in the Pioneer League – which has contributed to their perennial dominance. USD would be the fourth Californian school in the Big Sky (the FCS’s de facto equivalent to the FBS’s Mountain West Conference), joining Cal Poly, UC Davis, and Sacramento State. San Diego lacks a serious rivalry game in the Pioneer League as there are no regional bragging rights available in the conference. In the Big Sky, regional rivalry games against Cal Poly, Davis, or even Northern Arizona could become a part of USD’s annual conference schedule. What are currently early-season non-conference games would become end-of-season games of consequence if the Toreros joined the Big Sky.
Not only would a move to the Big Sky mean better games for the team, but it would bring about a more enjoyable fan experience at home games for San Diego. Currently, every Torero home game kicks off at 2 p.m. – the middle of the afternoon. The heat is hard to avoid, especially in Torero Stadium – which provides little to no shade. Why the mid-afternoon kickoff? The prevailing idea is to allow visiting teams to make it back home to the east coast on Saturday night instead of Sunday morning. With Big Sky opposition hailing from no farther east than Bozeman, Montana, visitors will be able to leave later and still make it home Saturday night. This is not to suggest that the Toreros will switch to playing every game under the lights, but kickoff times can be adjusted to suit the fans (and beat the heat).
To hit on the rivalry point again, fans get excited about rivalry games. Currently, the atmosphere at Torero Stadium is anything but electric. Blame the heat or the lack of good competition– either way Big Sky football offers a solution. A move to the Big Sky also brings with it the hope of something San Diego has never had – a home playoff game. The Pioneer League is a weak conference within the FCS, so despite consistent dominant seasons, San Diego continuously receives low seeding for the FCS playoffs. All four of the Toreros’ playoff games have been on the road, and the three first-round games have all had Big Sky hosts. If the Toreros were to make the playoffs as a Big Sky team, it would be reasonable to assume that they would be a host, not the visitor.
Unfortunately, a move to the Big Sky is mostly a fantasy for San Diego. The Big Sky has an even 12 teams, so there is no obvious slot for the Toreros to slip into. However, the biggest issue is San Diego’s inability to compete. Before Torero fans get their hopes up, it should be noted that recent playoff success is the exception, not the rule. Earlier this year, the Toreros were soundly beaten 35-7 by a UC Davis team that finished 5-6 and was not even in the top half of the Big Sky conference. In their 16 games against Big Sky teams, the Toreros are 4-12, and have only two playoff wins, defeating Cal Poly 35-7 in 2016 as well as the 41-10 domination of Northern Arizona on Saturday.
The Pioneer League is a non-scholarship conference, which suits the Toreros nicely, as they can recruit Pioneer League-caliber players from all along the west coast without having to compete with conference rivals. In the Big Sky, San Diego would not only be competing with five schools – UC Davis, Cal Poly, Sacramento State, Northern Arizona, and even Southern Utah – for recruits, but they would have to do it without scholarships. The scholarship issue stems from Title IX restrictions – USD does not have the monetary freedom to add scholarships for football, and there is no obvious way to skirt this issue.
For the foreseeable future, San Diego football will stay right where it is – a Pioneer League powerhouse and perennial playoff dark horse. While the Big Sky Conference offers more competitive football, a possible home playoff game, and regional rivalry games, there is a certain appeal to the Toreros’ current mid-afternoon domination, even on the hottest Saturdays. Additionally, San Diego has managed its own sort of playoff magic, even as a consistent underdog. The Toreros’ first playoff appearance ever was a surreal visit to the University of Montana. At kickoff, it was a clear but chilly day, and by halftime, the grounds crew was shoveling snow off the field. San Diego’s second trip to the playoffs was highlighted by a statement-making victory over Cal Poly – a regional rival. So far, this year’s playoff run has not disappointed, Justin Priest’s highlight-reel one-handed touchdown catch and a dominant defensive performance highlighting the first-round victory over Northern Arizona. The Toreros will look to continue the playoff magic during their visit to Fargo to play North Dakota State on Saturday at 12:30. No matter the outcome of that game, there is certainly plenty for USD football fans to enjoy right now.