Winning national championships is not easy. In fact, it is incredibly hard. So hard, few teams repeat, let alone three-peat. Only one other team besides North Dakota State has notched the four-peat, and no other team, at any level of college or professional football, had won five in a row. Repeating as champions, according to Hall of Fame basketball coach Pat Riley, is the hardest thing to do in sports. NDSU has entered the pantheon of all-time great teams by doing something never before done in winning five consecutive national championships.
What makes this story all the more unique, unbelievable, iconic, fill-in-the-blank with whatever word you choose, as if winning five straight titles was not historic enough, the Bison will open next fall as the consensus No. 1 team in the Football Championship Subdivision. The Bison will be favored to win a sixth consecutive championship in 2016.
NDSU returns 16 of 22 starters and has a bevy of players that gained valuable playing time in 2015, although not in a starting role. Among those starters are preseason Buck Buchanan Award candidate, linebacker Nick DeLuca, and quarterback Easton Stick, who guided the Bison to an 8-0 record while top NFL draft prospect Carson Wentz was sidelined with a broken wrist.
Nobody is betting against the Bison returning to Frisco for the six-pack, which is a change from the last two years when most experts thought NDSU’s run of championships would finally come to an end. What will it take for the Bison to notch the repeat three-peat? Here are five keys to look for when NDSU opens camp next August.
1. The Easton Stick show
We caught a glimpse of how special a player and leader Stick is as he guided NDSU to eight straight wins after a devastating home loss to South Dakota. Not only did the Bison fall to 4-2 after the upset to the Coyotes, they lost Wentz for the next eight games. Many doubted whether NDSU could even win a playoff game, let alone compete for a national championship when Wentz went down.
With the season hanging in the balance, all Stick did was step in and blow the lid off of the FCS with his electric play, navigating the Bison all the way to Frisco, Texas, just like Brock Jensen and Wentz before him. Expectations will be high for the sophomore from Omaha, Neb., and rightfully so. But don’t expect Stick to be intimidated. By all accounts, he’s got the tools, poise and leadership skills possessed by his predecessors at quarterback. For the Bison to continue the dynasty, Stick will need to continue his already high-level of play. I think he will, and then some. Bison fans are well served to make reservations for Frisco early because the 2016 Bison are going to be something special.
2. Next man up
The last five years, NDSU has witnessed a cornucopia of all-time greats go through the program. From quarterbacks Jensen to Wentz, Warren Holloway, Colton Heagle, Christian Dudzik to Grant Olson, Travis Beck and Ryan Smith, Joe Haeg, current NFL players Marcus Williams, Billy Turner, John Crockett and Kyle Emanuel, and even special teamers like kicker Adam Keller, and on, and on, and on. The Bison have been able to recruit and develop guys to step up and fill big shoes in winning five straight championships.
The last two years, we’ve watched the emergence of guys like R.J. Urzendowski, Robbie Grimsley, Greg Menard, and Bruce Anderson, etc., etc., all key contributors to the four and five-peats. For the Bison to continue their championship-winning ways, they’ll need these guys to take on even bigger roles, and for younger players to contribute to fill critical spots at cornerback, depth on the offensive and defensive fronts, and receiving targets for Stick. Next man up is a mantra of NDSU football. To make a run at the six-pack, they’ll need more of the same. Next man up.
3. A key defensive weapon
The Bison have to replace two multi-year starters and more than capable cornerbacks in C.J. Smith and Jordan Champion. NDSU also loses a key defensive weapon that had as much to do with the last four championships as any other player, their punter. Ben LeCompte has consistently pinned opponents deep in their own territory for the last four years. LeCompte was clutch in winning the field position battle. So much so, LeCompte was the Player of the Game in this year’s quarterfinal victory over Northern Iowa because he kept the Panthers backed up in the shadow of their goal line all afternoon. Maybe more so than any other position on the roster, the Bison enter next year with their biggest question mark at punter.
4. Chip on the shoulder
Even after winning three straight championships, culminating with a perfect 15-0 season in a victory over Towson in 2013, many thought the Bison didn’t have enough pieces coming back in 2014 or 2015 to return to Frisco. NDSU proved those doubters wrong, continuing their record-setting streak with the four-peat and five-peat. This year, the Bison will find themselves in a somewhat unfamiliar position – they’ll be the overwhelming favorite to win another championship. There will be no underdog card to play with the likes of Stick, DeLuca, and nearly a full complement of starters returning on the offensive and defensive lines. Whether this NDSU team can handle that hype, wire- to-wire, which may include a return visit from ESPN’s College GameDay, will go a long way in determining whether the Bison repeat the three-peat.
5. Early season tests
There will be no easing into the schedule. The Bison will be tested early and often. In their first six games, the Bison have contests against perennial Big Sky contender Eastern Washington, 2014 national runner-up Illinois State, rival and Top-10 team in South Dakota State, and, of course, what may be NDSU’s most difficult game ever when the Herd travels to Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, to play the Iowa Hawkeyes, who are fresh off a Rose Bowl appearance. Oh, by the way, rumors are swirling that the Bison will open the year in ESPN’s FCS Kickoff again, potentially against another Top 10 FCS team. Even if NDSU can navigate this gauntlet, whether they can do so while remaining healthy will be one of the biggest stories as the team heads into the Missouri Valley Football Conference slate next October.