Does FCS football have a North Dakota State problem?

(Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images) /

After another dominating run to a national title, is North Dakota State football becoming bad for the FCS?

As the confetti is proverbially cleared away after another North Dakota State football national championship in Frisco, Tex. last week, it’s time to ask the question: is the Bison’s dominance bad for FCS football?

The Bison are fresh off a 38-10 victory against Montana State, further cementing a decade of dominance against FCS foes. North Dakota State has now won nine national titles in the past 11 seasons in a stretch beginning in 2011.

North Dakota State led 35-0 in the third quarter before the Bobcats put their first points on the board, hardly signifying a competitive title game. The Bison ended four of their five first-half possessions with a rushing touchdown and outgained the Bobcats on the ground by 224 rushing yards (380 to 156).

It’s worth noting, of course, that James Madison lost only 20-14 to North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals several weeks before. Aside from actually winning the 2016 national championship, the Dukes have consistently kept things close with North Dakota State, losing 17-13 in the 2017 title game and losing 28-20 in the 2019 title game.

The Bison’s dominance has been unparalleled in the last decade at the FCS level. Aside from a spring 2021 run-through that counted toward the 2020 season, the Bison have finished only two seasons since 2011 with more than one loss. They’ve also gone undefeated three times since 2011, and six of their title-game wins have come by two possessions or more.

Eight North Dakota State players have been selected in the NFL Draft since 2014, including first-round selections of quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Trey Lance.

In comparison, eight players combined from some of the FCS’s four best other programs have been drafted in that same time span: two from James Madison, one from Montana State, three from Eastern Washington, and two from Sam Houston State. Two of those programs, the Dukes and Bearkats, are poised to make the jump to the FBS level.

North Dakota State’s rapid ascension took place fairly recently, with the team joining Division I as recently as 2004. After several years of being ineligible for the postseason, the Bison lost in the FCS Quarterfinals before beginning the run of championships — including winning five in a row from 2011 to 2015.

In 2021, the Bison defense ranked third in overall defense in the FCS (allowing 264 yards per game) and first in points allowed (11.1) per game. In the Bison’s 14-1 season, 10 of those wins came by at least 20 points.

How the Bison can make the FCS better

(Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images) /

With a sustained level of dominance at any level of sports, it’s natural to ask the question of whether one team’s success is bad for the game. It could be the Celtics, the Yankees, the Bulls, the Lakers, or the Patriots — with more wins and consecutive titles, is it boring to watch?

Even though North Dakota State is dominating the FCS in an unprecedented way, it could ultimately be a good thing for college football. Strong teams like Eastern Washington, Montana, Youngstown State, including newly ascendant programs such as Kennesaw State, are not making the jump (yet) to the FBS level. If they want to beat the best, they have to raise the bar.

The Bison have raised that standard for FCS football.

FCS and FBS (previously Division I-AA and I-A) split levels in Division I beginning in 1978. Of the six wins by FCS programs against Top 25 FBS teams, three have occurred since 2013 alone, including a 2016 win by North Dakota State against No. 13 Iowa.

In fact, 12 FCS teams beat FBS opponents in 2021 — the second-highest number of wins for FCS teams since 1989.

In the NFL Drafts between 2011 and 2019, between 15 to 21 FCS players were selected each year. That number declined sharply in 2020 and 2021, however (a combined 11 players drafted in those two years).

Like the FBS level, FCS football programs have to contend with the arms race of newer and shinier facilities, new name, image, and likeness deals that players can individually manage, and the open transfer portal rules. Money is scarcer for FCS programs compared with their FBS counterparts. Just consider attendance figures alone: only 10 schools averaged more than 15,000 fans per game during the 2019 football season.

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If the dominance of North Dakota State means something, then other, strong FCS programs will be pushed to learn how to emulate its success in order to keep up with the Bison. And besides, if the Bison keep winning, the rooting interest for the average fan can come into play — can anyone knock off the Bison in 2022, for example?