Can North Dakota State win an unprecedented fifth straight national championship? Sure we can. It seems to be the logical step after four-peating, after all. The expectations are sky-high for a team that has reeled off a videogame like 58-3 record over the last four seasons. Despite losing a bevy of high-profile starters, particularly on the defensive side of the football, the Bison are poised for another championship run, entering 2015 in a familiar place as the top-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision.
But first, before Bison Nation flocks to their winter vacation homes in Frisco and north Dallas starts counting the millions of dollars that kick starts their 2016 economic engine, NDSU has to negotiate the gauntlet that is the Missouri Valley Football Conference – the FCS equivalent of the Southeastern Conference, aka, the SEC. You know, that other league that features Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Georgia, among others. The SEC has eight teams ranked in the FBS preseason Top 25. The MVFC, by comparison, has six teams ranked in preseason FCS Top 25. A record five MVFC teams qualified for the playoffs last season, including national runner-up Illinois State.
The MVFC, top to bottom, could compete, league-to-league, with several FBS conferences, such as the Mid-American Conference, Sun Belt Conference, and Conference USA. In 2014, Indiana State, who tied for fifth in the MVFC, beat Ball State. Ball State finished 4-4 in the MAC, including a win over East Division champions Bowling Green. It’s no exaggeration when Indiana State coach Mike Sanford told Craig Haley, Senior Editor for STATS FCS (formerly known as The Sports Network), that, “Ball State would have a tough time winning our conference.” They’re not alone in that regard. If you think Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is on the hot seat now, wait until Illinois State rolls into Iowa City on September 5.
Not to be outdone, Georgia Southern, who played NDSU in consecutive semifinals in 2011 and 2012, was picked by Sports Illustrated as a team that could crash the New Year’s Six bowl games – meaning the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta or Peach bowl games. For all you Bison fans bemoaning an FBS move that would relegate NDSU to bowls like the Motor City Bowl, think again. Last year, their inaugural season as an FBS member, the Eagles went 8-0 in the Sun Belt Conference, winning the league title. Despite their Sun Belt dominance, the Eagles, too, would have a tough time running the table in the MVFC.
Just how good is the MVFC? All three of NDSU’s losses since 2011 have come against MVFC opponents. Of those losses, two were in the friendly confines of the FargoDome to unranked teams (Youngstown State in 2011 and Indiana State in 2012). The most remarkable fact that gets lost in this record-breaking championship run is that NDSU has won their four consecutive national titles while playing in the most brutal conference in the FCS without being dinged for more than one conference loss in any season. The Drive for Five will start with navigating the treacherous road that is the MVFC.
The Bison have navigated that road with an all-wheel- drive defense. For the first time in recent memory, though, it’s the defense facing the biggest question marks. Gone are seven starters, including the national player of the year, all three starting linebackers, and both starting safeties. While it’s fair to say the NDSU defense is young and untested, talent abounds. What many see as the team’s biggest question mark could be a dominating force by midseason. The unit is chalk full of playmakers with experience like C.J. Smith, Jordan Champion, Nick DeLuca and Brian Schaetz. The schedule sets up nicely for “Code Green” to hit its stride with the Bison not playing their first conference game until an October 3 matchup at South Dakota State. And don’t underestimate the motivation that comes with an offseason where the defense has had to hear how they’re the liability standing in the way of a fifth straight championship. Here’s my bet – don’t bet against Code Green.
The offense, on the other hand, is being touted as a juggernaut with the pieces to contend for most potent in school history behind an offensive line that has a combined 104 starts. Carson Wentz came into his own as one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football late in the regular season and into the playoffs, engineering several game- winning drives, including the epic six play, 78-yard drive against Illinois State that propelled the Bison to a 29-27 title win. How big time is this guy? YouTube his game-winning 12-yard touchdown pass to RJ Urzendowski in the playoff game against SDSU. While Urzendowski made a remarkable catch, there was only one place for Wentz to put the ball, and he tossed a dime. You’ll see that throw on ESPN’s Jon Gruden’s QB Camp next spring. Throws like that are why ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has Wentz pegged as a potential first-round NFL draft pick.
The Bison also have one of the best special teams players in the country in All-American punter Ben LeCompte. LeCompte will be pulling double duty as punter/place kicker. On top of pinning opposing offenses deep inside their own territory, LeCompte had 31 touchbacks on kickoffs last season. NDSU will rely on his powerful leg to win the field position battle – an often-overlooked statistic that looms large in the final score. LeCompte is one of the most valuable players on NDSU’s roster, even if he is a punter. Punting and field position aren’t sexy, but they win football games.
Winning a single national championship is not easy. Winning four consecutive national championships is the product of a program and culture where success breeds success. It’s the sort of program and culture where we can realistically talk of winning a fifth straight. The Bison have all the pieces in place to make another run to Frisco. How far will we go? Well, here’s a hint. I’ve got my weekend booked come January 9, 2016 – and it’s in a place much warmer than Fargo. Everyone up for the kickoff, the march is on!