MSU Football v. Eastern Washington (copy)

Montana State players run onto the field at the start of the game against Eastern Washington on Sept. 29 at Bobcat Stadium.

Montana State’s locker room carried a somber tone after the Bobcats lost to Weber State last year. After leading early on, they felt they had squandered a chance to beat a top-notch opponent.

As the Bobcats continue to improve during his tenure, MSU head coach Jeff Choate has made clear his next goal is earning a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs. In order to do that, the Bobcats would have to be among the top eight teams in the subdivision, meaning they’ll have to earn victories over quality teams.

MSU is embracing that challenge and will bring in more money because of it. The program announced its 2020 schedule and future games as far as 2024 Tuesday morning which includes four FBS opponents, three from Power 5 conferences, in each of the next four seasons. For those games, MSU is guaranteed to receive about $2.3 million, according to the school.

The Bobcats have won three FBS games since they started playing at the Division I level in 1979. Choate is 0-2 against FBS teams going into his fourth season at MSU.

“The internal expectations are that we compete,” Choate said during the 2018 season. “There’s good football teams. Everybody has good players. You’re going to lose some games. We’re not at the point right now where we can say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go run the table.’

“But I think we’re building a good program here. We’ve got a good foundation. We’ve got good young players that are learning how to compete and finish games.”

The Bobcats’ 2020 schedule includes a game at Utah on Sept. 12 for which MSU will be guaranteed $675,000. That alone would make up more than a third of the $1.7 million MSU spent in operating expenses in 2017, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

The Bobcats also scheduled FBS games at Wyoming for their 2021 season opener on Sept. 4 which guarantees $425,000 as well as a contest at Oregon State on Sept. 17, 2022, which will earn MSU $675,000. The Bobcats will also play at Texas Tech on Aug. 31 to kick off the 2019 season, and that will earn MSU $500,000.

MSU will pay $225,000 to host Southeast Missouri this season and in 2020 will pay $275,000 to host Long Island for its season opener on Sept. 5.

After the Utah game, the Bobcats will pay $80,000 to host Dixie State on Sept. 19, 2020, as part of a three-game series. The Trailblazers, who will play their first season in the FCS as independent program next year, will also play at MSU in its season open on Sept. 2, 2023. Dixie will host the Bobcats in their season opener on Aug. 31, 2024.

Also on Tuesday, the Big Sky assigned Montana and Northern Colorado as MSU’s “rivals” which means the Bobcats will play both of those teams every year from 2020-23.

In 2020, the Bobcats play at Portland State (Sept. 26), Northern Colorado (Oct. 3), Cal Poly (Oct. 10), at Weber State (Oct. 17), Idaho State (Oct. 24), then they’ll have a bye Oct. 31 before closing the season at Eastern Washington (Nov. 7), at home against Idaho (Nov. 14) and at Montana (Nov. 21).

In 2021, the Bobcats have open dates on Sept. 11, Sept. 18 and Oct. 2 with their only nonconference game scheduled being Wyoming. In its Big Sky slate, MSU plays at Southern Utah (Sept. 25), Eastern Washington (Oct. 9), at Sacramento State (Oct. 16), Northern Arizona (Oct. 23), UC Davis (Oct. 30), at Idaho (Nov. 6), at Northern Colorado (Nov. 13) and Montana (Nov. 20).

The Bobcats open 2022 with a home game against Morehead (Kentucky) State on Sept. 3, for which MSU will pay $250,000, with a date currently open on Sept. 10 before playing at Oregon State. In its Big Sky schedule, MSU will play Portland State (Sept. 24), at Idaho State (Oct. 1), at UC Davis (Oct. 8), Weber State (Oct. 15), Cal Poly (Oct. 22), at Northern Arizona (Oct. 29) with another open date on Nov. 5 before games against Northern Colorado (Nov. 12) and at Montana (Nov. 19).

Dixie is the Bobcats’ only nonconference opponent scheduled in 2023, their season opener on Sept. 2, and their only game scheduled at all in 2024, again their season opener on Aug. 31 in Utah. MSU’s 2023 Big Sky schedule includes games against Southern Utah (Sept. 23), at Eastern Washington (Oct. 7), Idaho State (Oct. 14), at Cal Poly (Oct. 21), at Northern Colorado (Oct. 28), Sacramento State (Nov. 4), at Idaho (Nov. 11) and Montana (Nov. 18) with an open date on Sept. 30.

During the 2018 season, Choate hoped the Bobcats would soon begin to play at the caliber of Eastern Washington and Weber State, perennially two of the best teams in the Big Sky. Both beat MSU during the regular season and earned byes during the playoffs in 2018 with EWU eventually earning an FCS national championship berth.

“I think we’re ready to go measure ourselves against an excellent team within our league, and then we’ll see,” Choate said during the 2018 season while preparing to play Eastern Washington. “We can’t say that about ourselves right now. So we’ve got to find out where we stack up against the best in this league.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.