The bye week may have come at just the right time for the Cal Poly football team.
The Mustangs, who lost 47-30 at Northern Illinois on Saturday, opened the season with one of the toughest schedules for any FCS team in the country. In fact, according to the strength-of-schedule ratings compiled by USA Today, Cal Poly’s opening four-game stretch was the 11th-most difficult first month in the nation at its level.
Record-wise, it has led to the worst start for Cal Poly (1-3) since 2002, when the Mustangs went 0-5 out of the gate under then-second-year coach Rich Ellerson.
“It’s not like we’ve played John Muir Junior High School,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said after the loss in DeKalb, Ill. “That’s for sure.”
After a 49-21 season-opening loss at San Diego State (3-1), Cal Poly lost 37-23 at then-15th-ranked FCS power Montana (2-2) before beating South Dakota State (1-3) last week, 48-14.
The Mustangs will host Division II-level Central Oklahoma at 4:05 p.m. Oct. 8 in Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The only game on Cal Poly’s schedule that isn’t against a Division I opponent, it will not count toward the Mustangs’ FCS playoff eligibility. And in order to be eligible for an at-large berth, teams need to finish with at least seven wins against Division I competition.
Therefore, if Cal Poly wants to qualify for the postseason, it now has to win all of its remaining seven games (as a loss to Central Oklahoma would be costly in the eyes of the selection committee).
Saturday’s loss was something of a reversal from the Mustangs’ two previous defeats.
Against Northern Illinois, Cal Poly trailed 34-7 at halftime before fighting back in the second half. By contrast, the Mustangs only trailed San Diego State 21-14 at one point in the first half, and then led Montana 17-14 at halftime before allowing the lead to slip away.
“Our problem is (not always) executing what we do,” Cal Poly cornerback Asa Jackson said. “It’s just putting a full 60 minutes together, which has been our problem all season. We’ve got a bye week coming up, and hopefully we can continue to improve and (have) a string of eight games in a row where we put a full 60 minutes together, and then good things are going to happen.”
Four of Cal Poly’s next six games are in San Luis Obispo.
While the initial four-game gauntlet may prove to be the most-loaded stretch on the schedule, there are plenty of potential pitfalls left.
Southern Utah (scheduled for Oct. 15), the defending Great West Conference champion, raised eyebrows late Saturday night by throttling UNLV 41-16.
UC Davis (on Nov. 5) handed Cal Poly a heartbreaking, 22-21 loss on the Central Coast last year in a regular-season finale that served to knock the Mustangs out of an almost-assured playoff spot.
Eastern Washington (Nov. 12), albeit off to a surprising 0-4 start, won the FCS national championship last year. And South Alabama (Nov. 19) hadn’t lost a game over the past two years before falling to North Carolina State, 35-13, and Kent State, 33-25, over the past two weeks.
“I’ve said all along, we don’t have a (guaranteed) win on our schedule,” Walsh said. “But if we go out and play as hard as we did in the second half (Saturday), we’ll win our share.
“The goal is going to be to get through the bye week, get healthy, and get ready. And I can guarantee we’re going to come out and play extremely hard on Oct. 8, and we’ll see what kind of string we can put together.”