CEDAR CITY, Utah — The Cal Poly football team, ranked 13th in the Football Championship Subdivision prior to Saturday’s 20-7 loss at Southern Utah, finally returns for a home game this week after five straight on the road.
It was the first five-game road swing in program history, and the questions going into it have always been two-pronged. What kind of shape would the Mustangs return in? And what kind of reception will they receive when they finally do?
Considering the difficulty of the task, a 4-3 record — which already ties the win total from last season — should be considered progress for a program in its second season under head coach Tim Walsh.
But the team is still road weary.
“Five weeks,” Walsh said. “Show me a team that wouldn’t be. You show me a team that would not be. I’d like to shake their hand. NFL teams can’t do it, and they fly charter jets. I’m sure it’s a factor. I’m not going to use it as an excuse, but it’s probably a factor.”
Cal Poly survived to tell the tale and is still above .500. But the loss to the Thunderbirds (3-4, 2-0 Great West Conference) may have critically damaged the Mustangs’ title hopes as well as their postseason goals.
Just to get the seven Division I victories recommended to qualify for an at-large FCS playoff berth, Cal Poly will have to win the final four games this season, three of which come at Alex G. Spanos Stadium, starting with Saturday’s game against North Dakota (2-4. 0-2).
“Not really worried about,” Walsh said. “I’ve said all along, win the Great West, and we’ll see what happens. I’m still going to say we have to win the Great West. It’s going to be an uphill battle to do it, but that’s what I’m going to stick to.”
Because of the conference’s history of instability within its membership, winning a Great West championship doesn’t guarantee entrance into the FCS playoff bracket, which is being beefed up from 16 to 20 teams this season.
But even if it did, the chance to top the conference is out of the Mustangs’ hands.
Southern Utah can close out a Great West title with victories over South Dakota and defending champion UC Davis in the next two weeks.
“We’re definitely confident,” said Thunderbirds senior receiver Tysson Poots, who had nine catches for 132 yards and a touchdown Saturday. “I don’t know about the team to beat, but we are playing good and it’s the right time of the season to be playing good.”
Southern Utah cannot mathematically get seven Division I wins this season since one of its remaining games is against Dixie State, a Division II team in neighboring St. George, Utah.
The win total is more of a strong suggestion rather than a technical necessity, but it has been strictly enforced.
Cal Poly could have made a strong case for the playoffs had it beaten Southern Utah, gone on to win the remainder of its games and finished with a 9-2 overall record.
Three losses, coupled with a conference finish behind a team with only six Division I victories might make the Mustangs a long-shot for an at-large berth at best.
One of the worries about the road trip was how well the community might support a team it hadn’t seen in a month-and-a-half if it returned with its playoff hopes dwindling.
The last time San Luis Obispo saw Cal Poly play, it was in a stirring comeback upset of Montana, which was ranked No. 1 at the time.
That was before school started and before most of the students moved back to town.
There’s no telling what kind of support will show up when the Mustangs finally do return home, but they are certainly looking forward to ending this grueling stretch.
“We always come ready to play when we come home,” senior safety Scottie Cordier said. “We’re going to take this loss as a learning opportunity to get better. We just have to play every week. That’s the way it is.”