With a potential playoff berth at stake in today’s season finale, history is not on the Cal Poly football team’s side.
The No. 17 Mustangs (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky Conference) gained national notoriety for their 7-0 start to the season, but two previous Cal Poly teams have done the same in the program’s Division I history, and each time, the Mustangs were left out of the FCS playoffs.
In his first season, Cal Poly’s fourth since moving up from Division II, Larry Welsh led Cal Poly to a 10-1 record in 1997 that was overlooked. In 2004, Rich Ellerson guided the Mustangs to a 9-2 record after a 7-0 start, and that team, too, was left out of the playoff bracket.
Times have changed some since. In those days, the FCS allowed only 16 teams into the postseason. The number is up to 20 and increases to 24 next season.
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Cal Poly is also in the Big Sky Conference, which awards its champion an automatic berth, something that has never afforded Cal Poly in its time as an independent or as a member of the Great West Conference.
The Mustangs currently sit in a four-way tie for first and are still alive for the automatic berth. They need to beat Northern Arizona today and have Eastern Washington and Montana State both lose their season regular-season finales.
But even if Cal Poly does not get the help it needs to win the Big Sky outright, many believe the winner between the Mustangs and Lumberjacks is a shoo-in for an at-large berth. So no matter what happens elsewhere, if Cal Poly can win today, it should be on solid ground for its playoff berth since 2008 and the first under fourth-year head coach Tim Walsh.
The only thing standing in the way is Northern Arizona — and more history.
The Mustangs haven’t beaten the Lumberjacks in eight all-time meetings, the first of which came in 1935.
Cal Poly is 0-5 against Northern Arizona since the leap to Division I in 1994, and in the previous meeting, the Lumberjacks handed the Mustangs a 24-7 loss in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2003.
No matter to Walsh.
“I’m not big on streaks that you have against opponents because you’ve got to beat them when you play them,” Walsh said. “And this is 2012. We’ve got to beat them, regardless of whether they’ve beaten us with different players in a different time. Now, it’s their players in ’12 against our players in ’12, and we have to just go play and find out who the better team is.”