Status solidified: Iowa upset leaves North Dakota St. with few willing FBS foes, but Bison have no doubt they belong
On Monday at lunchtime, a college coach coming off a win over a top-15 team held a press conference. At the end, he talked briefly about how his former quarterback, now an NFL rookie, would start in primetime that night.
This sounds unremarkable—except, of course, that the coach in question is a man named Chris Klieman. (Ever heard of him?) And the team is the North Dakota State Bison. (If you've paid any attention over the past five years, you've definitely heard of them.) By now you know that Klieman's team beat the 13th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City on Saturday afternoon, giving the Bison a 5–0 record against Power 5 teams over the past seven seasons. (By comparison, the rest of the FCS has gone 16–334 against the Power 5 in that stretch.)
North Dakota State's streak began in 2010 when it beat a Kansas team that went 3–9 that year, and it continued in 2011 against Minnesota (which also finished 3–9), in 2013 against Kansas State (8–5) and in 2014 against Iowa State (2–10). The big difference Saturday is clear: None of North Dakota State's previous five Power 5 victims had been ranked going into their defeats, and only Kansas State finished win a winning record.
The Bison's 23–21 win over Iowa marked the highest moment for the program that's earned a reputation as the best in the FCS—North Dakota State has won the last five FCS national championships—under Klieman and former coach Craig Bohl (who's now at Wyoming). It came in the third game of North Dakota State's first season without No. 2 NFL draft pick Carson Wentz and on the heels of the Bison needing overtime to beat two inferior FCS opponents. These are all facts that, at face value, might have made the team appear weaker than in previous years—but on Saturday, it proved any naysayers wrong.
The easy thing to do here if you're an Iowa fan is to stamp your feet and yell about why on earth your school—or any other FBS team—would pay the Bison to play them anymore. And there's a valid argument there; even back when the Hawkeyes scheduled the game (which entailed a $500,000 payout) in 2013, the Bison had just come off of two consecutive Power 5 wins.
Still, though, the current climate has somewhat rendered that hissy fit irrelevant. In 2015, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany spoke publicly about discouraging FCS nonconference opponents in his league, and so it's worth wondering whether it'll be despite North Dakota State's credentials or because of them that teams avoid scheduling them in the future. (For now, the Bison have Oregon lined up to pay them $650,000 to play in 2020, but they have no FBS opponents in '17, '18 or '19.)
The real question, though, is where North Dakota State goes from here? It's going to take a dip in production to get another Power 5 team—especially one with College Football Playoff aspirations like Iowa had—to schedule the Bison, much less fork over the yearly salary of a member of the one percent to do so. Still, that doesn't mean the team can't capitalize on what it's already done.
Asked on Monday about what kind of recruiting bump the weekend's win might bring, Klieman was blunt. "We're on a national stage—like we have been," the coach said. "Let's be real in this: We're still not beating Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin on recruits. You'd like to think we're in the conversation, but it's still difficult. It's just hard to beat a Big Ten school." Instead, he said, the team needs to focus on competing with high-level mid-majors on the recruiting trail—teams it would no doubt trounce on the field. (Running back King Frazier, who ran for 99 yards against Iowa, was buried on Nebraska's depth chart before transferring north.)
This is about more than just recruiting, though. Everything the Bison have accomplished thus far has been without a cadre of five-star recruits; instead, they focus on regional talent. Of the 112 players listed on their roster, 90 are from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska or Wisconsin. North Dakota State has created a culture where it is a destination in a part of the country that's perhaps not known for creating the highest-ranked high school talent—although the Bison's success makes you wonder what the rest of us are missing.
"It's like looking at Bill Russell's record in playoffs," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said before his team's loss. "It's ridiculous.... They have a lot of good players. They just don't have 85 of them. Their top 40, I would say, probably is as good as anybody's."
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There's a certain awe-shucks quality to the Bison—which players and fans pronounce bye-zun, not even close to how I've said it when ordering bison burgers—that almost obscures their confidence. Linebacker M.J. Stumpf, who was responsible for a pick-six against the Hawkeyes, speaks with an almost Canadian accent, and with his mane of chin-length brown hair, he looks like he should star in some north-of-the-border Richard Linklater project. Asked after Saturday's win about the team's opponents thus far, Stumpf conceded that his team felt better going into the game the week before against Eastern Washington—because of its offense, he added, not, you know, because the Eagles play in the Big Sky Conference rather than the Big freaking Ten. "We don't go into a game thinking we don't have a chance," he added.
That was clear Saturday, when the Bison went for two while down 21–20 with 3:41 remaining in the game. They failed to convert but got a stop and, as time expired, kicked a game-winning field goal. It takes a certain level of confidence to rebound from a missed two-point conversion at the end of the game and another level altogether to do so while staring down the biggest win in program history.
Maybe North Dakota State signed its death warrant Saturday in terms of ending up on future Power 5 schedules. But after receiving 74 points in this week's AP poll voting—the most ever by any FCS program and more than all but 27 FBS programs this week—it has to know it belongs, whether that's at the top of the FCS or as a potential FBS program someday as realignment escalates. It's just a shame the Bison don't have much of a TV market; they could probably beat 80% of the Big 12's current suitors.