(STATS) - The Big Sky Conference is losing North Dakota, but the way the Fighting Hawks helped it become the largest FCS conference has been rewarding.
North Dakota was one of the four schools that joined the Big Sky in 2012 after football was disbanded in the Great West Conference. UND, Cal Poly, Southern Utah and UC Davis have helped raise the athletic and academic profile of the Big Sky, which rose to 13 teams.
UND's exit after six years is a bit odd because the Fighting Hawks will be considered an FCS independent for the next two seasons, but their games against Big Sky teams will count in the standings for the other teams. While UND won't join the Missouri Valley Football Conference until 2020, it can have an impact on the Big Sky race, just as all the former Great West members have been doing.
Conveniently, the four teams are a combined .500 in Big Sky games - 96-96 - with at least a share of the last three conference titles and six playoff appearances. Southern Utah has been the most successful and perhaps even underappreciated program, considering it is 31-17 with two titles - outright in 2015 and shared last year - and three playoff appearances (2013, '15 and '17).
Cal Poly was the first program to thrive in the Big Sky, with 9-3 overall and 7-1 conference records in 2012. Overall, the Mustangs are 26-22 in conference games - a record hurt by last year's one-win campaign - with playoff bids in 2012 and '16.
North Dakota was 23-25 in its short Big Sky history, earning a share of the 2016 title with Eastern Washington by going 8-0. The Fighting Hawks made their only FCS playoff appearance that season.
UC Davis has posted the least amount of success among the Great West transplants, but this year's veteran team is seeking a breakthrough season. Highlighted by a 5-3 conference mark in 2013, the Aggies are 16-32.
Despite the loss of North Dakota, the Big Sky is remaining at 13 teams because Idaho, one of the founding members of the conference, is rejoining this year after spending 22 seasons on the FBS level.