FCS Review: NDSU still has to win it

(STATS) - As FCS juggernaut North Dakota State continues to find a way to beat nearly every team and challenge that stands in its way, another national title probably seems like a foregone conclusion.

But the challenge will get tougher. There's great pressure when the feeling of a national title or bust is hanging in the air.

In last week's STATS national rankings, the top-ranked Bison have defeated nine of the next 11 teams since the start of the 2014 season, and the only reason Chattanooga and James Madison probably aren't included on the Bison hit list is that they hadn't played them. The Bison are an absurd 74-5 since beginning their run of five straight national championship seasons in 2011.

Tomorrow isn't promised. Remember that this time last year, nobody suspected a home loss would occur against South Dakota or that a potentially crippling injury like the one suffered by then-quarterback Carson Wentz would threaten the season as well. A lot can go wrong just as so much goes right.

The Bison play in the strongest FCS conference - the Missouri Valley - and their rivals know how to play them better than Charleston Southern, Eastern Washington and Iowa. That may be overlooked after a murderer's row of a nonconference schedule, but coach Chris Klieman's team faces a number of physical, tough games ahead.

Northern Iowa woke up today believing it will beat the Bison next month. Western Illinois must think it has a shot. Illinois State, well, the Redbirds are two-time defending conference co-champs as well and are up next on Oct. 1.

Over the long regular season, NDSU appears to be the best team again. But the FCS playoffs don't provide a second chance and the Bison can be beaten in a one-game situation. An opposing team just has to find the right day against the greatest dynasty in FCS history.

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SECOND AND 10=

Ten more observations from the FCS weekend:

1.) After having FCS co-games of the week, co-teams of the week make sense. What Stony Brook did to No. 2 Richmond - posting a 42-14 win - was even more surprising than No. 1 North Dakota State's 23-21 upset at No. 13 Iowa. Offense has been at a premium at Stony Brook, but quarterback Joe Carbone, running back Stacey Bedell and wide receiver Ray Bolen provided excellent balance. NDSU was the more physical team than the Hawkeyes - posting a 239-34 advantage in rushing yards - to push its amazing FBS win streak to six.

2.) With Richmond's loss, Sam Houston State appears poised to move up one spot to No. 2 following a 44-31 road victory over Lamar in the Southland Conference. But consider Jacksonville State, which was fourth last week, thrashed Sam Houston 62-10 in last year's national semifinals. And Eastern Washington, which was too low at No. 8 last week, has wins over Washington State and Northern Iowa and only an overtime loss to North Dakota State. Clearly, the debate over No. 2 is strong.

3.) Terrific decision by the Eastern Washington coaches in the Big Sky team's 34-30 win against No. 10 Northern Iowa. Sophomore Gage Gubrud was all-world in the Eagles' first two games (60 of 80, 924 yards, nine touchdowns), but he simply didn't have it during the home opener and they went to Reilly Hennessey in the second half. The redshirt sophomore completed 21 of 29 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner on a fake field goal in the final minute.

4.) Ivy League teams opened their season to a rousing 5-3 start. Dartmouth rallied to a 22-21 win over No. 22 New Hampshire, ending a streak of 13 straight losses and 20 games without a win (18 losses, two ties) against its intrastate rival. Harvard routed Rhode Island 51-21 and two of the three 2015 champs won, with Penn lacking defensive answers in a 49-28 loss to Lehigh. Brown, Princeton and Cornell also earned victories.

5.) Taking the Ivy League out of the equation, 14 teams are unbeaten through two or three games. Six of them - Albany (CAA), East Tennessee State (Southern), Georgetown (Patriot), Missouri State (Missouri Valley), Tennessee State (Ohio Valley) and Wagner (Northeast) - are coming off losing seasons.

6.) Speaking of East Tennessee State, the Buccaneers averaged 7,128 at home games when they returned to football last year after a 12-year hiatus, so drawing a school-record 13,863 to Bristol Motor Speedway for the Western Carolina matchup was significant. Even better for the Bucs (2-0), they gained a 34-31 Southern Conference win. Coach Carl Torbush continued to watch the maturation of sophomore QB Austin Herink, who threw for three touchdowns.

7.) An FCS team has scored at least 80 points in each of the first three full weeks of the season. James Madison beat Morehead State 80-7, Fordham ripped Division II Elizabeth City State 83-21 and UT Martin became the latest in destroying NAIA Bacone 84-6 even though the second half was shortened to two 10-minute quarters. Last year, the FCS season high was Southern Illinois' 73 points against Missouri State.

8.) Eight FCS teams have beaten FBS programs, but South Carolina State isn't one of them despite having three attempts this season. Coach Buddy Pough's MEAC power was shut out by UCF and Clemson and fell to Louisiana Tech by a combined 150-24. Everybody has dreams of an upset, but financially strapped athletic programs, especially those from the historically black schools, are usually only scheduling losses.

9.) As good as Saturday's action was in the FCS, don't overlook that the week opened Thursday night with Arkansas-Pine Bluff stunning Alcorn State 45-43 in three overtimes. UAPB went 2-9 overall and 1-8 in the SWAC last season and was coming off a loss to Division II Panhandle State, but two-time defending conference champ Alcorn State got caught overlooking the Golden Lions. The Braves surrendered just 121 passing yards per game last year, yet Brandon Duncan riddled them for an FCS-season high 505 yards as well as four touchdowns. In the second OT, he had a game-tying 25-yard TD to Willie Young and then connected with John Hawkins for a winning two-point conversion.

10.) The ultimate weapon in the FCS might be one of the smallest. Southern fifth-year senior Willie Quinn was at it again in a 64-6 trouncing of Alabama State, totaling 290 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns, including a 73-yard punt return which gave him 10 TD returns in his career. Oh yes, the 5-foot-5 dynamo, the FCS leader in all-purpose yards, also threw a 30-yard touchdown.

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A LOOK AHEAD=

Conference games begin to dominate the FCS schedule next weekend, although only four of the 10 teams in Missouri Valley Conference are in action.

The Big Sky schedule gets rolling with marquee games: Eastern Washington at Northern Arizona, Montana at Cal Poly and Portland State at defending champion Southern Utah.

Dayton visits San Diego in a matchup of the last year's Pioneer Football League co-champs, while Alcorn State faces a must-win at Grambling State in a rematch of the 2015 SWAC Championship Game. Also, Samford is at Chattanooga in a key Southern Conference game and Harvard puts a 15-game road winning streak on the line at Ivy League rival Brown.

The nonconference headliners are Jacksonville State at Liberty and Colgate at Richmond. Also, as FCS-FBS matchups continue to dwindle, Western Illinois heads to Northern Illinois and Central Arkansas visits Arkansas State.

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