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Top-ranked NDSU Bison setting the FCS standard
Fargo is the current capital city of the Football Championship Subdivision.
That’s indisputable after ESPN’s College GameDay – the unofficial pregame show of the college football world – took over downtown last week to highlight North Dakota State, a rare trip outside the power conferences.
As if being ranked No. 1, selling out every home game before the opener and winning the last two national championships hadn’t brought enough attention and credibility to the Bison.
What’s more, this NDSU crew might be better than the last two – it’s certainly more experienced – and is bidding to join Appalachian State (2005-07) as the only programs to three-peat. So while this kind of run is not unprecedented in the FCS, it’s the first of its kind in the Upper Midwest.
Still, for all the swagger the Bison (3-0) display on the field they don’t want to talk dynasty – not publicly, not in the first month of this season and not with a showdown at No. 6 South Dakota State (3-1) set for Saturday. NDSU has decided against overtly chasing history.
“Complacency is something we’ve always been guarded against here,” NDSU coach Craig Bohl said. “Not only just recently, but North Dakota State has enjoyed a proud tradition for a long, long time. So we’ve been able to just gravitate back to some of our roots, which is great.”
The Bison had won back-to-back titles twice before (1968-69, 1985-86), but not in NCAA Division I; their post-reclassification repeat is on another level. NDSU is 31-2 – and 13-0 in road and neutral-site games – since losing an overtime decision to eventual national champ Eastern Washington in the 2010 playoffs.
That includes wins over FBS clubs Minnesota, Colorado State and Kansas State – the defending Big 12 champs. Bohl believes beating the Wildcats on national television in Week 1 has boosted NDSU’s already strong reputation and enabled the GameDay visit that is expected to aid recruiting. It’s a snowball of success.
Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. In fact, the Bison were 3-8 in 2009 – the same year that SDSU became the first team from the Dakotas to make the FCS playoffs.
Resumes have been padded over years, not a single season, allowing Bohl last week to set the school record for wins (92), passing D-II legend Rocky Hager.
Quarterback Brock Jensen, a four-year starter, holds NDSU marks for career completions and attempts and is 90 yards shy of the total offense standard.
Cornerback Marcus Williams leads active FCS players in career interceptions, interception return yards and interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Still, it’s not like the roster is bursting with sure-fire pros: Offensive lineman Billy Turner is the only senior – and there are 26 of them – in the top 25 at his position in the CBSSports.com draft rankings. Bison junior defensive end Mike Hardie, one of five former Sioux Falls high school standouts on the team, believes that collective effort matters more.
Bohl thinks that having consistent schemes has helped. There’s also top-tier fan support (more than 12,000 season-ticket holders), facilities (the 19,000-seat Fargodome) and finances ($3.7M spent on football in 2011-12, per the Office of Postsecondary Education).
About the only knock: A series of legal issues that made front-page news in light of the program’s profile. Those, too, have failed to slow the machine.
The Jackrabbits are well aware of the NDSU accomplishments as they’ve coincided with their own marked improvements. Largely an also-ran in the D-II days, SDSU last year made the second round of the playoffs for the first time in school history and this fall is ranked as high as it’s ever been. The program is 15-3 against FCS foes dating back to late 2011. But two of those losses came at the hands of the Bison last season.
And so the Jacks players and coaches on a regular basis are forced to deal with questions about NDSU. The consolation prize is that the state of things in Fargo has been helpful in convincing boosters to contribute to the cause. Construction is underway in Brookings on a $32 million indoor practice facility, and SDSU recently went public with its hopes to have a new $60-65 million stadium in place by the 2016 season.
“It has nothing to do with facilities, it has nothing to do with coaches on staff – you’ve got to beat them on the field,” Jacks coach John Stiegelmeier said, “and you’ve got to do that a number of years to be looked at as the same type of program.”
In other words, somebody has to take the title. That’s how Fargo became the epicenter of the FCS in the first place, the distinction migrating from Statesboro, Ga., to Youngstown, Ohio, to Boone, N.C. before settling in the Red River Valley.
The Bison like their lot too much to get complacent.
“We say, you’re either green and growing or ripe and dying,” Bohl said. “We’re just trying to improve all the time.”
Written by Terry Vandrovec, Argus Leader