MONMOUTH — It’s a game-changer for Western Oregon football.
Literally, the Wolves’ schedule will change dramatically. And there are bound to be changes in how WOU plays, coaches and recruits.
All of which has Wolves coach Arne Ferguson’s attention, and his approval.
“This is really exciting for us,” Ferguson said of last week’s announcement that the three football teams from the Great Northwest Athletic Conference — WOU, Central Washington and Simon Fraser — have joined the Lone Star Conference, starting next season.
Western Oregon will play nine conference games out of its 11 total every year. The Wolves will meet five teams from Texas and two from New Mexico, along with CWU and FSU, on an annual basis.
“This changes the landscape of (NCAA) Division-II football in the West,” Ferguson said.
The Wolves’ 2022 schedule is expected to be released soon, and it will include two non-league games to start the season, with at least one “money game” still planned against a D-I opponent to help with the football budget at Western Oregon.
The nine weeks of conference football will be both a challenge and a proving ground for the three newcomers from the GNAC.
“We know what it takes to compete at this level – we’ve played almost all of the (Lone Star) teams before – and this is one of the best D-II conferences,” Ferguson said.
The football Western Oregon will face on a regular basis will demand certain things athletically from the Wolves.
“The level of speed and physical-ness is different,” Ferguson said. “It will test our team. There are extremely good skill guys in the Lone Star Conference. There’s a ton of skill.”
The Lone Star schools from Texas for 2022 are Midwestern State, Angelo State, West Texas A&M, Texas A&M-Kingsville and UT Permian Basin. The other conference foes are Eastern New Mexico and Western New Mexico.
Midwestern State, Angelo State and West Texas A&M have had three of the best programs in the conference. In the 2021 season, WOU defeated West Texas A&M 41-38 at Monmouth and lost 24-10 at Texas A&M Kingsville. In 2019, Angelo State beat visiting Western Oregon 45-20, but the Wolves won at Kingsville 26-14 and at home over Midwestern State 37-22 before falling at home to Eastern New Mexico 35-27.
To be highly competitive against the Lone Star teams week in and week out, the Wolves might have to tweak and up their game in recruiting, looking for more speed along with physical players and more depth. The Wolves probably will need to substitute more often, or at least be able to do so without a major drop in efficiency.
“We’ve got to have the speed and be able to be physical enough to hold up with that type of schedule,” Ferguson said. “It will really test not just your first-teamers but your second- and third-team guys.”
The handful of trips to Texas and New Mexico every year could open a new world for WOU recruiting. Can the Wolves successfully pitch the idea and advantages of going west and experiencing Oregon to promising high school football players in Texas?
“Cost is always a factor in recruiting, but there are a lot of players in Texas,” Ferguson said, “and we do think we’re a viable option for them. The teams that have come here always talk about how they can’t believe how things look in the West.
“But if we are going to recruit there, it will take time to develop that,” Ferguson added.
Another big plus to joining the Lone Star is that the conference champion gets an automatic bid to the 28-team national playoffs. And with seven teams from each region in the field, the Lone Star is likely to get at least one at-large tournament invitee as well.
The new affiliation for Western Oregon means the team will be traveling a lot – airplanes to major cities and buses to the campuses. But what else is new?
“If you play football in the West, you’re going to travel, and the university is very supportive of that,” Ferguson said. “These games will be good experiences for our players.”