With all the past two week’s headlines of teams moving up to the FBS level, it might get lost that the FCS level has seen a recent influx of some new programs as well. That’s a good thing.
With conferences like the WAC losing the likes of Sam Houston State in the near future, new blood needs to come in somewhere. As you might expect, the FCS does what everyone else as of late has been doing: dip down a level and see who fits the bill to come up. Enter the Dixie State Trailblazers.
Now, Dixie State actually moved up from the Division II ranks last season and have already begun competing in the FCS. In the shortened spring 2021 season, they played five games and so far this fall season they’ve played nine. The move from DII to DI, however, isn’t always an easy one and the Trailblazers have been made painfully aware of that. For just a second, though, we should look past the win-loss record (because it isn’t good) and doing so will tell us that Dixie State will be just fine in the future.
Once hailing from the DII’s Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, the Trailblazers joined the FCS officially as an independent in 2020 for the spring season and they actually won their first game against another former DII school in Tarleton State. Since then, though, it’s been rough. The Trailblazers have gone on to lose 12 of their 13 contests after that opening win, but that isn’t necessarily a shock.
Looking at their schedule, the Trailblazers have been dealt a very, very difficult slate that has featured five nationally ranked teams in 2021 alone. They’ve now officially joined the WAC but are not playing a true WAC schedule due to prior non-conference scheduling obligations. This means that they’ve had to make road trips to places like UC Davis, South Dakota State, Montana and Sam Houston State. All of those opponents were ranked in the Top 15 when Dixie State faced them, so it can be argued that these losses can be forgiven, maybe even expected, of a transitioning program.
It’s not like Dixie State has been blown out in every game they’ve played. Two weeks ago against Delaware, they only lost by a touchdown. In their season opener against a Sacramento State team that’s tied for first in the Big Sky conference, the Trailblazers fell 19-7. They even had a then-No. 6 Montana team on the ropes in Missoula for a while. Don’t get it wrong, second-year head coach Paul Peterson has a team worthy of the FCS. They’ve just been given an extremely hard docket to navigate in 2021.
Even going beyond Dixie State’s own schedule, it’s easy to see that moving up to this level of play is a challenge for most schools. In 2019, the LIU Sharks began FCS play and didn’t win a single game that season, losing by an average margin of nearly 20 points per contest. Four years prior, East Tennessee State, who didn’t even have a program at all, played their first season and only won two games, neither of which were against FCS competition. Fast forward to now and ETSU is a one-loss team that’s in the Top 15 and expects to be in the playoffs in a few weeks.
All of that is good news for the Trailblazers because it shows that they’re right where they’re expected to be. The first few years of playing a new, better competition aren’t easy and, quite frankly, they aren’t supposed to be. There would be no prestige of moving up a level if it was just as simple as it was before. James Madison, Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State will discover that soon enough. Dixie State has been run through a gauntlet in their first full season and it would be easy to be discouraged after an 0-9 start, but they shouldn’t be.
This is a program with potential and talent all over their roster. Running back Drew Kannely-Robles is currently third in the WAC with 491 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 113 carries and while three different receivers all have over 300 receiving yards. Quarterback Kobe Tracy just surpassed the 1,000 yard mark this last week. The makings of a competitive squad are there.
This program simply needs some time to get acclimated to FCS play, and with two more games left this year, its not yet a forgone conclusion that they’ll suffer a winless season. Unfortunately, the future non-conference schedules will also be tough with road trips to places like Weber State, Northern Iowa and Montana State coming up in the next couple of years, but in due time this team will find their footing. The revamped WAC should serve as the perfect place for this program to establish their next chapter especially with the juggernaut Bearkats leaving soon. It’s rough right now, but it won’t be this way forever.