The Division I newcomers meet ahead of the relaunch of a conference vital to shaping college football
Nine years after TV-driven conference realignment ended Western Athletic Conference football — in a season that, befitting its history, produced three different Top 25 teams — the WAC returns in the 2021 season as a Football Championship Subdivision league.
The members are different than the incarnations of the past, including two newcomers to the Division I scene. Those FCS-transitional programs — Dixie State and Tarleton State — play the first of two games during the subdivision's spring season in St. George, Utah, on Saturday afternoon.
This isn't just notable because the WAC is returning to Division I college football. WAC football shaped the entire sport. In 1984, it became the last non-power conference to produce a national championship. Six years later, it fostered the last non-power league player to win the Heisman Trophy.
Today's potent passing offenses took root in the WAC, with coaches LaVell Edwards of BYU and Joe Tiller of Wyoming. Without the WAC, we may have never had a Fiesta Bowl — Arizona State's dominance in the 1970s under legendary Frank Kush prompted the launch of the game as a showcase for budding powerhouses frozen out of the traditional postseason.
To that end, it's only fitting the WAC provided the most memorable moment from the Fiesta Bowl's history.
The conference's significance on the football landscape gains renewed life for another generation — a generation including players like Tarleton State quarterback Cameron Burston.
"All this is new to me, so it's a learning process," Burston said of getting familiarized with the WAC. "I'm ready to learn all that comes with it."
Burston gets to learn the history while also making some.
Feb. 27, 2021 marks another important milestone in the illustrious backstory of the Western Athletic Conference. While Saturday's Dixie State-Tarleton State matchup is not an official Western Athletic Conference game — the league does not resume football until the fall — the matchup will set the tone for the future of a history-rich conference.
"We were both ready to go be independents as we were going to start our journey," Tarleton State head coach Todd Whitten said of the inaugural matchup with Dixie State. "Now that we have a conference, that's going to be really huge for both of us."
"It's fun for both teams," said Dixie State head coach Paul Peterson. "It appears both of us are ready for this jump."
Indeed, Tarleton State showed just how ready it is for Division I membership when it ushered in the spring season in a thriller against McNeese State. The Texans led much of the way before losing a heartbreaker in overtime to the Southland Conference contenders, quarterbacked by Ed Orgeron's son, Cody.
But there was no sweating it out in Tarleton State's second game, a 43-17 rout of FBS member and former WAC program New Mexico State. Burston passed for 252 yards, rushed for another 79, and scored four combined touchdowns in the rout.
Two impressive showings to begin its Division I membership continues the standard Whitten and Co. set in Division II. In the previous two seasons, the Texans went 10-0 and 11-1.
Its track record for success and growth potential appealed to Burston during his recruitment out of Contra Costa College in California.
"The opportunity to build. I could have gone to a couple of different schools," Burston said. "But I felt like Tarleton was a good place where I could excel at, and I could grow. I'd seen the history the past couple of years before I got here, [and] my junior college coach called me and told me about the situation.
"It was a good opportunity for me to get in and play," he added.
Burston may be learning about the WAC's history, but has some indirect ties. He signed with the Texans while also garnering offers from Fresno State and New Mexico, both of which formerly played in the WAC. Burston initially committed to San Jose State in March 2014, just a year after the Spartans completed a Top 25 finish in the final year of WAC football's existence.
Burston coming into Tarleton State from a JUCO outside of Texas borders isn't new; Whitten said he has in the past recruited players from Snow College, located in the center of Utah. Among Snow's many alumni to flourish elsewhere around the sport is Dixie State's Peterson, who quarterbacked the Badgers before two years at Boston College under Tom O'Brien.
Peterson coached with O'Brien at NC State not long after, a step in a career that has Peterson leading Dixie State to new milestones.
"TOB is the man. He's a Navy officer and ran his program like that, very organized, very disciplined," Peterson said. "Everywhere I've been, I grabbed [ideas for running a program]: [O'Brien], Bronco Mendenhall [former BYU coach now at Virginia, Ed Lamb at Southern Utah University, Jody Sears and Marshall Sperbeck [both at Sacramento State]."
Peterson's extensive background also includes some ties to the WAC's past; his brother, Charlie, played for the WAC legend and Hall of Famer Edwards at BYU in the '90s.
After an 8-3 finish in his first season as head coach, Peterson has the Trailblazers poised to live up to their nickname in embarking on this Division I move. The change in competition brings with it a change in geographical settings that present some opportunities to blaze new recruiting grounds.
Joining the WAC alongside Dixie State and Tarleton State are Southern Utah from the Big Sky, and Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston, and Stephen F. Austin from the Southland. That heavy Texas involvement is a potential boon into a state where high school football reigns supreme.
"It's going to open up our recruiting base to bring a different type of athlete in here on top of the already really good football here in Utah," Peterson said. "The cool thing I've noticed with this WAC announcement, we've received an uptick in interest from kids from Texas, knowing we're going to be down there and playing.
"I imagine we're going to have some opportunities to recruit more down there, which is pretty exciting for me," Peterson added.
#F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; flex-grow: 0; height: 40px; margin-right: 14px; width: 40px;">#F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; margin-bottom: 6px; width: 100px;">#F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; width: 60px;">#F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; height: 12.5px; width: 12.5px; transform: translateX(0px) translateY(7px);">#F4F4F4; height: 12.5px; transform: rotate(-45deg) translateX(3px) translateY(1px); width: 12.5px; flex-grow: 0; margin-right: 14px; margin-left: 2px;">#F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; height: 12.5px; width: 12.5px; transform: translateX(9px) translateY(-18px);">#F4F4F4; border-radius: 50%; flex-grow: 0; height: 20px; width: 20px;">#F4F4F4; flex-grow: 0; height: 12px; width: 16px; transform: translateY(-4px);">#F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; margin-bottom: 6px; width: 224px;">#F4F4F4; border-radius: 4px; flex-grow: 0; height: 14px; width: 144px;">
Those recruiting roads run both ways. Whitten cited Tarleton State's new-found exposure, particularly in sharing a conference with Utah-based Dixie State and Utah State. Utah has become a beehive of recruiting activity, supplementing the success of local programs like perennial Pac-12 contender Utah, BYU, FCS championship hopeful Weber State and now, the growth of Dixie State.
What's more, Whitten cited, the presence of 22 Division I programs in Texas plus the emphasis other states have placed on recruiting the Lone Star State puts a premium on growing the recruiting base. In addition to Utah's increased importance on the recruiting scene, membership in the WAC gives Tarleton State a presence in Las Vegas.
Vegas is a short drive from both Cedar City (Southern Utah) and St. George (Dixie State).
Future recruiting battles and annual meetings only add to what Whitten called a potential "really good rival" for Tarleton State in its new conference. But, the Division I newcomers have some rugged company to also consider once WAC football begins.
The five programs moving to the WAC that were already at the FCS level combine for at least shares of seven conference championships in their current leagues over the past 10 years.
Sam Houston reached two National Championship Games in the 2010s thanks to an innovative offensive approach that combined Bob DeBesse's triple-option savvy with modern spread passing concepts. Willie Fritz's replacement, national championship winner K.C. Keeler, implemented a pass-heavy offense that cultivated the Walter Payton Award-winning seasons of Jeremiah Briscoe and has made the Bearkats one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation year-after-year.
"You're going to see, really quick, it's going to be one of the best FCS conferences in the country," Whitten said. "I can just assure you, real quality football programs are coming... It's going to be really good football, and I think moving forward, the representative of WAC football will do really well on the national stage."
Where exactly the WAC goes as it moves forward could prove just as exciting as the brand of football it will play. Developments from the conference office have come fast in the offseason.
The same week that Dixie State and Tarleton State unofficially kick off this new era, the WAC announced a partnership with the fledgling Atlantic Sun. The two leagues will form a scheduling alliance in pursuit of a fall 2021 FCS Playoffs bid.
And, as it had in the past, the future version of the WAC could dramatically shake up the entire college football landscape.
"In the future, if the plan is to grow to FBS, I think we have the caliber of university to do that," Peterson said.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.