After zero regular-season meetings with historically black colleges and universities in the long history of Montana football, the Griz have invited one of the southern-based programs to Missoula for a second straight year.
This fall Montana will host Savannah State, an FCS program that competes in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, to fill the final vacancy in the Grizzlies' 2017 schedule.
The UM athletic department announced the scheduling move Monday evening, as well as the finalization of a home-and-home series with Western Illinois in 2019 and '21.
Savannah State's trip from the Georgia coast to Missoula, which is scheduled Sept. 16, follows last year's Griz game against Mississippi Valley State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Montana won that encounter 67-7. The only other meeting with a HBCU for the Griz came in the 1989 playoffs when UM topped Jackson State.
Montana scheduled Savannah State as a guarantee game, UM assistant athletic director Ryan Martin said, meaning Montana will pay SSU a guaranteed sum to offset travel costs for the visitors' long journey north.
"The North Dakota States, the Northern Iowas and Western Illinois -- they're not gonna come here and just play a money game," explained Martin, who handles UM athletics' business operations and football scheduling. "They want a home-and-home. ... You've got to look elsewhere."
And the Griz got creative in adding the southern program that went 3-7 a year ago, its most wins since a 5-7 campaign in 2008. It'll cost UM roughly $235,000 to bring in the Tigers, though that number is significantly lower than the $300,000 it took to get Mississippi Valley State booked.
The Griz will make that back with ease in ticket sales that Saturday in September as Montana's second home game of the 2017 season. That's a number the Griz always want to reach, Martin said, and SSU checks a lot of boxes getting there. Montana is trying to walk the line of a compelling home schedule -- which this first-time clash helps provide -- while easing what could be a brutal start to the season.
Savannah State is slotted between Montana's visit Sept. 9 to Washington, a 2016 FBS College Football Playoff semifinalist, and the opening of Big Sky Conference play Sept. 23 at home against Eastern Washington, an FCS semifinalist.
"You want to have a good counterbalance," Martin said. "... You're going against a top-five in the nation team in U-Dub and then a really important conference game against Eastern. You can't fill that with Northern Iowa. Well you could, but you're setting yourself up for failure there."
Montana opens the year against Valparaiso on Sept. 2 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium -- another first-time encounter-- before visiting the Huskies for the first of two trips to Seattle.
Rumors circulated late last year as Washington shot up the national rankings that the Huskies may attempt to buy out their game against Montana for strength-of-schedule reasons, though Martin assured there has been no talk of such a move.
Not that it would be all bad for the Griz. UW, which is paying Montana $625,000 for the guarantee game, would be on the hook for $975,000 to break the contract.
Though UM has now completed its 2017 slate just eight months before it kicks off, Montana already has a great start on its nonconference calendar for down the road. In fact, all of 2021's slots are already filled.
On Sept. 11, 2021, the Griz will host Western Illinois, a top-25 caliber FCS program from the Missouri Valley Football Conference. It's a return trip from Montana's scheduled trip to Macomb, Illinois, on Aug. 31, 2019.
UM and WIU will trade no money to offset travel costs during those years, per the programs' agreement. The Griz are 1-2 all-time against WIU, winning a regular season game at home in 1964 and losing in the first round of the playoffs on the road in 1998 and at home in 2003.
"We love Missouri Valley Conference schools. It's as regional as it gets for a nonconference opponent," Martin said. "And they're good, which is something our fans want -- good quality opponents."
Montana has another MVFC home-and-home series on the books already. The Griz host Missouri State in 2021 a year after going on the road to play the Bears in Springfield, Missouri.
The Griz also have nonconference matchups scheduled in 2018 against Drake and MVFC school Northern Iowa in 2018 -- the second half of a home-and-home that sent UM to Cedar Falls, Iowa in '16. The Griz visit FBS Oregon in 2019, with another Pac-12 date against Washington in 2021. A game with Morehead State is also on the 2020 schedule.
All are Division I opponents, a goal for those in Montana's scheduling room. The Griz are also close to filling the final holes in 2018 and '19, including a home-and-home against a top-25 FCS program from back east.