When the Frontier Conference announced that it was adding Dickinson State and Southern Oregon to its stable of football programs, just shy of two years ago, everyone knew things would never be the same again.
But I’m not sure anyone saw such a drastic first year of expansion coming – like the one we just witnessed this fall.
Southern Oregon has always been a highly-respected football NAIA football program, but the Red Raiders blew through the Frontier, wreaking havoc as if they were the Tasmanian Devil himself. Picked to finish fifth by the league’s coaches back in August, the Raiders finished the regular season by winning six straight games and tying Montana Tech for the Frontier championship.
And as far as how SOU did it, it would take me more than one column to list all the staggering stats that offense put up this season. So let’s just leave it at, SOU had one of the most dominating season’s offensively in the history of the league.
Dickinson State however, was a different story all together. A decade ago, maybe even five years ago, had the Blue Hawks entered the Frontier, we may be talking about how they drastically changed the Frontier landscape too. But DSU is trying to rebuild right now and the Blue Hawks struggled to just one league win this season.
Still, DSU’s presence alone made things different this season. The schedule was also a new experience, and it certainly had a profound effect on how the league took shape. The round-robin scheduling wasn’t completely abandoned with the expansion, as teams were split up into two divisions, with divisional opponents still playing each other twice. Cross-divisional games were played once, and will alternate home and away each year.
And who did that schedule affect the most in the first year? Undoubtedly it was Carroll College. The Fighting Saints didn’t win the Frontier, or make the NAIA playoffs for the first time in over a decade, and they lost four games in a season for the first time in longer than anyone can remember.
A big factor in that was Carroll’s schedule. It wasn’t the only factor as Carroll was soundly beaten by Montana Tech and Rocky Mountain College this season, and those teams deserve all the credit for that. But the Saints lost cross-division games in Butte and at SOU, and had no chance to even the score with the new schedule. Carroll also opened its season with three straight road games and went 1-2 in that stretch, including a loss at Big Sky Conference power Portland State. Mid-season, the Saints ripped off a nice run of impressive wins, but they were never really the Saints we’ve come to expect.
In fact, little about the Frontier was what we expected this season.
Carroll and MSU-Northern were picked to finish 1-2 at the start of the year, yet the Saints and Lights’ combined conference record was just 10-10. Carroll wound up finishing third, while the Lights placed seventh at season’s end.
And then there’s Tech. What a year the Orediggers had. At one point, Tech rattled off eight straight wins, and that came on the heels of a 3-8 season a year ago. The Diggers’ turned things around as quickly as any team has in quite some time, and they shared the Frontier title for the first time in 10 years.
In the end, the Diggers’ and Red Raiders both reached the NAIA playoffs before both were ousted by Morningside, which played for the NAIA title Thursday night in Rome, Ga. It’s been a while since the Frontier got two teams in the playoffs, and no one would have guessed the next time that it happened, Carroll wouldn’t be a part of it.
Change was certainly the order of the day in the Frontier this past season, and the changes were drastic.
It was a year of Frontier football no one will soon forget. From all of the great games, the amazing offenses, from the shocking seasons at Carroll and Tech, to Southern Oregon’s inaugural whirlwind tour through the league, 2012 just wasn’t the Frontier we were used to seeing.
And what’s really interesting is, the Frontier’s future could be even more drastic.
The 2013 season will be interesting considering the Raiders return star quarterback Austin Dodge, while the Diggers’ return most of the key players from their magical season. On the flip side, as much as Carroll and Northern struggled in 2012, both teams lose quality senior classes and will have to re-load to get back in the race next fall.
And even more change is coming.
The College of Idaho will begin competing in the Frontier in 2014, and there’s still talk about Jamestown College being added to the mix. There’s also rumors swirling about Carroll eventually moving to NCAA Division II and the Great Northwest Conference, and speculation that SOU has its sights set on landing there someday too.
It seemed like adding two teams to the Frontier was a big change, and with how the 2012 season played it out certainly was. But from now until next season, and with more expansion still looming, if 2012 was the season of drastic change in the Frontier, it appears it was the only the beginning.