Photos by Paul Flessland
There’s no escaping it. For all the complaining over playoff seeding (Jacksonville State, whose conference is as rough and tumble as day-old string cheese), for the cries that North Dakota State drew a much easier road to Frisco than, say, No. 1 overall seed James Madison (welcome to the weekly life in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, Dukies), to the “I don’t get no respect” crowd (Sam Houston State hasn’t played defense since the days before you could describe their defense using the poop emoji on your iPhone), the only certainty this time of year is as elegant in its simplicity as it is conclusive in its finality. You win, you keep playing. You lose, and Poof!, you’re done.
Games are played and won or lost, on the field. Not even the Fargodome, with as great of a home-field advantage as it provides, is immune. There’s no such thing as a sure thing. Remember last December? Specifically, last December 16, 2016? You can bet NDSU does, and that they’re determined it does not happen again. There are no guarantees in any postseason, the 24-team Football Championship Subdivision bracket included. Especially included. Unlike their counterparts in the FBS, you need to win three games (four games if you play in the first round) just to get to Frisco, Texas, for a shot at the belt. For all the posturing and pontificating, for all the “this is a great bracket” versus “this is the bracket of death, we got screwed,” you win, you keep playing. You lose, break out the eggnog a little bit early while you try to unload tickets and hotel rooms in North Dallas for the first weekend in 2018 (except if you tailgate at Six Flags, where you still go anyways, because, well, because football).
That, friends, is what makes the FCS playoffs so special, and so incredibly hard. Last week, my wife was working late so I flipped on an episode of “The West Wing” on Netflix. “The West Wing” is a great show, one of the few I’ll watch on Netflix. I’ve got all seven seasons on DVD. If there was a tournament for Best Television Show of All-Time, “The West Wing” would be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. In one of the final episodes of the series, America is electing a new president to replace the term-limited president, Jed Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen. Both campaigns are watching the returns come in on election night. It’s television, so quite obviously, the election is a nail-biter, the closest in history, and comes down to the results of two western states, Oregon and Nevada. During the night, with the outcome still undecided, the campaign manager for one of the candidates says with a certain calmness of the inevitable, “eadem nocte cenae omnes,” a Latin phrase meaning, “The same night awaits us all.” Profound stuff, man. Maybe I had a long week, maybe because it was late, maybe whatever. My mind immediately shot to the upcoming FCS playoffs. As a Bison fan, that’s what I do when my wife isn’t home now that I’m married. I sit in the basement, watch “The West Wing,” pour a beverage and contemplate these sorts of things. As in “The West Wing,” so too in the 24-team FCS playoff field. Come January 6, 2018, in Frisco, “eadem nocte cenae omnes” — the same night awaits us all and there’s no hiding from it.
No team or its fan base can escape it. You’ve got to earn it the old-fashioned way, one difficult opponent at a time. That’s the American way. There’s no hiding behind a soft schedule, a weak conference or a high ranking in the polls. If you’ve got a weakness, in the gauntlet that is the FCS playoffs, it will be exposed. The players and coaches are too good. Luck, or the other team having an off day, might get you through one game, but it won’t carry you all the way to the championship stage at Toyota Stadium. The most similar thing to the FCS football playoffs in all of sports is the 68-team NCAA Basketball Championship. Like March Madness, in the FCS football championship, more often than not, the most complete team wins. That’s why teams with “high-flying offenses” that aren’t strong on defense — like Eastern Washington — usually fall short. It’s why a team from a weak conference — like Jacksonville State — is susceptible to flaming out in an early round exit versus a team from a power conference (see JSU’s loss to Youngstown State in the second round last year) that is accustomed to playing tough opponents every week. It’s why NDSU and James Madison, with very strong defenses and special teams, and complimentary offenses, have raised the national championship trophy in recent years.
You may have a tougher road to Frisco than someone else. Any bracket pairing up multiple Missouri Valley Football Conference teams is a prime example. But if you can’t win a second-round game, or a semifinal or even quarterfinal game, home or away, you can’t complain about your seed (or lack thereof) on the Road to Frisco. There is no such thing as an easy Road to Frisco, and the Road to Frisco doesn’t play favorites. By the time you get to the quarterfinals, no matter your seed or who you’re playing, you better bring it because you’re going to be playing a damn good, well-coached football team. Teams that are usual suspects in the playoff field, like NDSU, know this all too well. It’s a lesson James Madison is about to find out, with all due respect. In recent years, the Bison have morphed into the New England Patriots or New York Yankees of the FCS. If you’re not an NDSU fan, chances are you desperately wanted somebody to knock the Bison from their reign atop the championship mountain.
Last December, from Cheney, Washington, and Brookings, South Dakota, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, cheers went up from other FCS hotbeds when James Madison beat the Bison at the Fargodome, ending NDSU’s streak of five consecutive national championships. It really was the Bison versus everybody else at that point. And, to a certain extent, it still is. For as good as James Madison is, they’re nowhere close to NDSU’s sustained dominance — a point they’re surely seeking to make this year. NDSU looks to return to Frisco after a one-year hiatus. Doesn’t it feel like it’s been longer than a year? Funny how winning five straight national championships does that, and funnier how borderline absurd it is to even write that missing a single national championship game in six years feels atypical. But it does. The Bison are itching to get back to Frisco. If you think you want to get back there, just think how the No. 2 seeded team in this year’s playoff bracket feels.
The day after Christmas last year, I wrote a column about that loss to the Dukes not being the end. It wasn’t. Now, I can’t say if this year is about redemption for NDSU. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. I’m not in that locker room with the coaches and players. But I can say this. This team looks ready to make a run at it, and they’re poised to do so. What motivates them is the same thing that has motivated them since they entered this program, freshman through senior. This December is this December, and there’s no place for anyone to hide. While the bracket doesn’t play any favorites, and for all the profound wisdom in eadem nocte cenae omnes, let’s be clear on one thing. The Road to Frisco still runs through Fargo. Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!