It's a feeling the Montana Grizzlies are becoming all too familiar with in recent years. The Griz are once again left without an invite to the dance.
As expected, Montana was not among the 24 teams to garner a spot in the 2016 FCS playoff field when the full bracket was released Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after the Grizzlies' 24-17 defeat at the hands of the rival Montana State Bobcats.
Following a stretch of 17 straight seasons that ended in playoff berths, the Griz have now missed the postseason three times in the past seven years. A 6-5 campaign -- one that featured a lackluster 3-5 mark in Big Sky Conference games, a 1-4 record away from Washington-Grizzly Stadium and a 1-4 skid to end the regular season -- was responsible for the latest exclusion.
"Our seniors have done a fantastic job of buying into where we want to go. That's what hurts so bad," Griz second-year head coach Bob Stitt said after Saturday's loss. "We couldn't have come through enough times for them to be able to move on and be in the playoffs and be an 8-3 football team. ... We're not a 6-5 football team."
But the Griz are, and a day after many of their fellow playoff bubble teams also fell, opening the door for UM's invite to the postseason with a win, the Big Sky placed four teams from outside Montana in the postseason field. It's the first time neither the Cats nor Griz are on the playoff docket since 1992. Sunday also marked the first time since the middle of the 2012 season that UM was not included in the FCS top 25 poll.
Among the Big Sky qualifiers were two top-eight seeds that will earn first-round byes this weekend. Eastern Washington (10-1) and North Dakota (9-2) shared the league title with perfect 8-0 records against conference foes and both have the luxury of a week off. EWU, back in the postseason after missing out last year, drew the No. 2 seed and possible home-field advantage until the title game while UND pulled the seventh seed.
It's North Dakota's first playoff berth since joining Division I in 2008.
Cal Poly (7-4) and Weber State (7-4) became at-large bids. It's the Mustangs' first playoff berth since 2012, their first year in the Big Sky, while Weber hadn't made the field since 2009.
"It's nice to have teams that excel year in and year out, but you also want to see other programs come on and be hot," Big Sky commissioner Andrea Williams said Saturday ahead of the playoff selection. "That's important for building the brand and the strength within a conference that will create great parity."
The Mustangs will host nearby San Diego (9-1), champion of the non-scholarship Pioneer League, on Saturday at 7 p.m., while Weber must travel to Southern Conference representative Chattanooga (8-3) for a 2 p.m. kickoff that same day.
North Dakota awaits the winner of MEAC runner-up North Carolina A&T (9-2) at Colonial Athletic Association rep Richmond (8-3), while Eastern Washington gets the winner of the Missouri Valley Football Conference's Illinois State (6-5) at Southland runner-up Central Arkansas (9-2). Those second-round games will be Saturday, Dec. 3.
Illinois State is just the second ever 6-5 at-large bid to make the field.
With potential wins, UND and EWU would play each other in the quarterfinals, a date hosted in Cheney, Washington the weekend of Dec. 10 with a chance for a Big Sky team to advance to the semifinals for the first time since EWU in 2013.
"It's important that we schedule well and we schedule strategically," Williams said of Big Sky teams strengthening their playoff résumés and preparing for playoff runs. "It's always important that you win the ones you're supposed to win and then play the ones you're not as tight as possible."
Missouri Valley titlist and five-time defending national champion North Dakota State (10-1) is once again the bracket's No. 1 seed with Ohio Valley Conference champ Jacksonville State (10-1) the No. 3 behind EWU. Then comes Colonial winner James Madison (10-1) and Southland champ Sam Houston State (11-0), the bracket's only unbeaten, before Southern runner-up The Citadel at No. 6 and MVFC co-champion South Dakota State (8-3) at No. 8.
As it has each year since 2010, Frisco, Texas will host the FCS title game with kickoff coming Jan. 7.