With a 37-10 shellacking of Jacksonville State, the North Dakota State Bison won their fifth consecutive national championship and established themselves as arguably the most underrated dynasty in all of football, if not American sports.
While playing at a level of competition that is obviously less than that of the SEC West, North Dakota State is in the difficult Missouri Valley conference which includes other FCS powers such as Northern Iowa, Youngstown State, and rapidly emerging South Dakota State. What's more, the path to a FCS title is a challenging one that requires four playoff victories and a neutral site title game, much like the NFL's playoff format.
North Dakota State rolled through that challenge in 2015 while posting the following scores in their postseason run: 37-6, 23-13, 33-7, and of course 37-10.
Many of the FCS level powerhouse programs are the ones up north in "flyover country" where populations are too sparse to support major state institutions and so most of the public universities compete at the lower level. North Dakota, for instance, has fewer than one million people living within the state and it's a safe bet that more people have heard of the town of Fargo because of the Coen brothers film than any other factor. It's the perfect place to hide a football dynasty.
But perhaps you aren't convinced that an FCS level team competing at a lower level of competition should get that much attention, so let's examine the context and circumstances of this achievement.
The historical context
Previously the most impressive run of dominance at the FCS level was that of Georgia Southern, who won six championships with two other appearances in the title game over 16 seasons (from 1985-2000), a brilliant run that finally came to an end after head coach Paul Johnson was hired away by Navy. But within that stretch, Georgia Southern was never able to win more than two championships in a row and most of their titles came in different eras under Erk Russell in the late 80s or Paul Johnson in the late 90s with a less successful run sandwiched in between.
Meanwhile, the Bison's run over the last five years paint a picture of a stunning successful program and culture much bigger than any one person, including both HC Chris Klieman and current QB and future 1st round draft choice Carson Wentz, neither of whom were running the show for the first three titles.
It's worth noting that Klieman's arrival as DC initiated the run of championships and Klieman took over in 2014 for the departing Craig Bohl, who has struggled to build a similar culture in Laramie, and maintained the same approach to offense and defense that had won the first three titles. At this point the program is clearly up, running, and self-sustaining for at least as long as Klieman is there.
If you're going to give Nick Saban and Alabama GOAT status for winning four championships in seven seasons at a non-professional level with a hundred million dollar budget you have to at least concede that North Dakota State's run of five championships in five seasons with a roster half-comprised of walk-ons and a head coach paid less than any of Alabama's assistants is worthy of consideration amongst the greatest college football programs.
Then there's the adversity this team overcame just in the 2015 season in order to win the crown.
The 2015 season: A jewel on the crown
Amongst the more impressive aspects of their most recent title includes the fact that they were without their star QB, Wentz, for eight games, including every single playoff game save for the final. In his stead, redshirt freshman Easton Stick took over. A former two-star recruit from Omaha, NE, Stick threw 145 passes for 1144 yards, good for 7.8 yards per attempt, with 13 TDs and only three INTs. He also contributed to the Bison run game with 85 carries for another 550 yards (5.9 ypc) and five TDs.
Wentz is a phenomenal talent, but it seems that the program is at no risk of going off a cliff when he moves on to the NFL and is much more than a single player.
The Bison also had to overcome the introduction of a potent Air Raid attack to the FCS level when Bob Stitt took over at Montana and won a stunning initial victory over ND St to begin the season (38-35). They were able to bring this problem under heel as well when they faced off a second time in the playoffs and stomped Stitt's team 37-6.
In the FCS final they faced the Jacksonville State Gamecocks, who were 13-1 heading into the final with their only loss coming in overtime against the Auburn Tigers in a game played in Auburn. In that game, J'Ville State had more yardage than Auburn, turned the Tigers over three times, and were a better FG kicker away from winning the game in regulation.
The Gamecocks were a tough final challenge for the Bison thanks to a FBS-sized DL as well as a loaded offensive backfield featuring QB Eli Jenkins and RB Troymaine Pope. These two explosive runners ran for 1161 yards (6 ypc, 15 TDs) and 1788 yards (8.2 ypc, 19 TDs) respectively and represented the other type of extremely dangerous spread offense, the kind that can run you over and has brought championships to Florida and Ohio State.
In their title game match-up, the Bison defense held the Gamecocks to 204 total yards and turned them over four times in a completely dominating performance in which Jacksonville State never even seemed competitive.
Alabama is still struggling to find ways to shut down spread offenses at their level but North Dakota State has demonstrated the ability to quiet spread offenses of different types all in the same season.
The Bison began to beef up their roster in the late 2000's thanks in part due to a strategic error from a local heavyweight. The Minnesota Gophers determined to attempt that awful strategy that just got Paul Rhoads fired from Iowa State and hired recruiting guru Tim Brewster to load up their program with Texas, Florida, and Californian kids in order to compete for Big 10 championships.
The worst kept secret in the area is that North Dakota State loved the Tim Brewster era and took the opportunity to grab several exceptionally talented Minnesota players while Brewster was trying to convince Florida kids to come lose in the Big 10 and endure sub-zero Minneapolis winter weather rather than playing in the SEC.
Of course Brewster didn't last long, but now the pipelines are established and North Dakota State regularly gets walk-ons and recruits from Minnesota and other surrounding areas due to the pedigree of the program. Of the 29 main contributors on the 2015 depth chart, eight were from Minnesota, four from Nebraska, four from Wisconsin, four from North or South Dakota, and the rest from various places across the country (including three from Florida). This is primarily a regional program.
While Alabama has finished first in the country in recruiting rankings for the last five years in a row, North Dakota State has finished with the following ranked classes over their championship stretch per 247:
|2011||132nd nationally||3rd in conference|
|2012||177th nationally||4th in conference|
|2013||207th nationally||7th in conference|
|2014||148th nationally||4th in conference|
|2015||131st nationally||1st in conference|
Of course, like Tim Brewster, recruiting services rarely make it a point to heavily scout FCS teams or flyover states and despite their players' lack of major recognition going into school their are seven former Bison currently in the NFL with likely at least one more likely to join them in the upcoming draft.
Carson Wentz is a fun test case of this process, a mult-sport athlete from Bismark, ND who sprouted several inches in his junior and senior years and didn't even start at QB in high school until he was a senior. Already the type that most miss on, naturally Wentz grew up within the Bison state.
Overall this staff has been able to find some real athletes to play for them despite the lower level and their 2015 offensive line averaged 6'5" 304 pounds. These aren't all just over-achieving Midwestern kids, of which there are many across their league, this program actually fields big, physical teams that regularly over power FBS-level opponents.
North Dakota State has a system for getting the most out of the talent they find. As is the case with most college dynasties including Georgia Southern (which was built on triple-option football), or their similarly stunning peers Alabama and Division 3 legends Mount Union (both built primarily around inside zone), the Bison also have a philosophy and identity, that of classic, Power-O run blocking.
Indeed, their offense is of the Harbaugh "power-coast" variety with a west-coast passing attack included in a playbook that makes heavy usage of the fullback and under-center formations. Of course they are multiple and will mix in the shotgun, pistol, and diamond formations as part of their apparent attempt to find "one million ways to run power."
The passing game benefits most from a strong-armed QB that can throw curl routes and play-action off their running game but since they've been able to draw some big, powerful athletes like Wentz and Stick to play QB who also bring some mobility they've consequently added "power-read" to the playbook. Indeed, while Jacksonville State was able to bottle up their backs, Wentz torched them with 79 yards on nine carries in the FCS final.
Defensively the Bison are committed to a two-deep safety approach. They were established on classic Tampa-2 defense but have evolved to include a lot of cover 4 as well and a wide array of stunts and blitzes they'll call on to end drives.
Almost every player on the roster, either on offense or defense, gets a redshirt and a few years to absorb the culture and receive physical and mental development before being plugged into the system.
Next season the Bison will return seven starters on offense (I'm including back-up QB Easton Stick since he started eight games including three in the playoffs) and nine on defense. They're going to keep plugging away and are probably the favorites to win again in 2016, which would be their 6th consecutive championship. There are some impressive dynasties at work in the world of sports with the Patriots in the NFL, the Spurs in the NBA, Mount Union in Division 3, and Nick Saban's Alabama, but let's be sure to give due to what might be the most successful program of them all, the North Dakota State Bison.