Even though Louisville was taking it to Florida State in a major upset over on network television, I couldn’t help but keep most of my attention on our favorite dynasty, the North Dakota State Bison, as they battled the Iowa Hawkeyes on the road.
It was a pretty fascinating game on a macro level, even if it just played out live as two hard-nosed teams grinding away until one came out on top. If I’d told you that a Power 5 program that played for a Big 10 championship last year battled an FCS champion in week three and the winner succeeded in physically imposing their will on the football game, I’m guessing most people would have assumed that the Big 10 contender was the winner.
Next I tell you that the winner outrushed the loser 239-34, suggesting supremacy in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and now you’re surely assuming that the Big 10 team won. Well they didn’t, so what do we takeaway from that fact?
Well I’ve got three big takeways from this game and what it affirmed or confirmed about college football and its popular narratives.
Conclusion 1: Talent advantages in college football are very marginal
North Dakota State has 63 full scholarships they can give out to their players, many of which are divided into partial scholarships although the number of players on their roster receiving some kind of scholarship benefit cannot exceed 85. Iowa has 85 full scholarships to give away.
The Bison depth chart has very few players that even garnered ratings from the recruiting service industry and those that did usually got two-star designations with the exception of DE Greg Menard, an undersized former three-star who had a sack in the game.
Now it’s dangerous to assume too much about the Bison talent level because that school’s success has made it a popular destination even for players with scholarship offers to FBS mid-major programs. After all, would you rather play in the Sun Belt, for the Sun Belt title, and get your head kicked in a couple times per year by a Power 5 program? Or would you rather go FCS, play for a national championship, and beat the hell out of a Power 5 program as part of your program’s annual tradition?
That said, North Dakota State is 3-0 this season but their first two opponents (FCS programs) both took them to overtime and their average margin of victory on the year is only five points. So while they are clearly a very strong program, they aren’t necessarily overpowering the best FCS programs with sheer talent.
So what do we make of the fact that one of the more talented FCS teams was able to come into Iowa City, impose their will on the game with power football and hard nosed defense, and beat a Big 10 title contender?
I suggest that the difference in talent between the average non-blue chip recruiting prospect is actually quite marginal. After all, Iowa regularly beats teams with higher rated talent so what’s their secret?
Here’s a glimpse at Iowa’s recruiting rankings over the last five years vs those of North Dakota State:
From these rankings you’d observe that Iowa doesn’t recruit very highly rated talent compared to other Power 5 programs, even within their own conference. The first adjustment you’d need to make is accounting for how Iowa has been able to go 27-13 (17-4 in B1G play) over the last three years with this kind of talent.
The most logical conclusion is that Iowa is good at finding players that respond well to development and then deploy them in sound, hard-nosed schemes that they can go execute with enough precision to beat opponents that make more mistakes. Evidently you can do that well enough to win more than you lose despite consistently recruiting lower ranked players.
But then they got mashed at home by a team with less than half their talent? It doesn’t quite add up.
You’re left with the conclusion that truly elite talent that transcends scheme, fit, coaching, and development is fairly rare and that the differences between the majority of the 2-4 star rated players out there is often quite marginal. If we assume that to be the case then it’s easier to understand why so many FCS, mid-major, or non-blueblood programs are able to compete at a higher level than their rankings would suggest.
We have to conclude that the differences in talent are marginal enough to be superseded by their strategies or development. Clearly the culture, strategies, and development at North Dakota State are truly excellent. They seem able to produce role players and star players from their talent pool that are every bit as good as those that Iowa churns out.
Elite talent is truly elite and most teams have far less of it than you would assume from the rankings.
Conclusion 2: North Dakota State could compete in a power 5 conference
After seeing them grind Iowa’s defensive front down and absorb the Hawkeye offense is there much remaining doubt that North Dakota State is on par with most of the FBS level of college football?
Before this game I’d have guessed that North Dakota State was just a notch above “Power 5 creampuff” since those were the programs they usually took down. However, they’ve now won some road games against teams like Iowa and Kansas State that went on to be very competitive in their own conferences.
What’s interesting is that both Iowa and Kansas State follow similar pathways to greatness as do the Bison. They grab a lot of local, midwestern talent that other programs overlook and they make heavy use of their walk-on program to bring in more talent to choose from. They foster cultures where kids work and study hard and there’s no preferential treatment based on how well regarded you were coming out of high school. Their strategies all hinge on soundness and mistake-free, physical play on defense and skills development on offense.
All three of these programs run very different schemes but those big picture themes are constant. I’ve seen this approach garner results in both the Big 10 and Big 12 conferences so I’ve little doubt that North Dakota State’s approach could see them competing in a Power 5 conference as well. Especially if they had 85 full scholarships although perhaps they could even manage without that.
They beat down Iowa in the 4th quarter with their overall physicality and conditioning, which is exactly how playoff team Michigan State had to do it last year, and they did it on the road after playing consecutive overtime games. You can only assume that getting 23 additional scholarships would only bolster their strength in attrition warfare.
The top 25 rankings are pretty meaningless other than for public perception but it’d be fun to see North Dakota State included in those ranks so we could have a national conversation on these themes and what they mean.
Conclusion 3: Maybe more teams should consider “total football” strategies
The most standard strategy in football today is to make things as simple as possible and use “division of labor” to get specialized athletes on the field and go wreck shop. Everyone loves quarters defense right now for the way in which it allows defenses to do that. Gary Patterson’s brand of quarters at TCU was revolutionary for the way it used split field coverages to create more complexity with greater simplicity for the players, and he’s always been able to get overlooked athletes to play fast in his scheme.
But what if you can’t get the fastest athletes on your team? How do you stand out as a program if your defenders can’t all run a 4.7 or faster? What if you don’t have receivers that opponents struggle to stay on top of when they run down the field?
I’m not a historian of the world’s version of football (soccer) but I’ve always been struck by the Dutch concept of “total football” that defined Oranje play in the 1970’s. The basic idea was to develop players that could play multiple roles or positions and then to make hay with their versatility. Similarly, basketball is currently being dominated by “small ball” tactics in which teams are realizing that well-rounded wings are some of the best players in the game and getting as many of them on the court together as possible is a winning strategy.
So what’s the equivalent of a basketball wing in football? That’d probably be your fullback/tight end on offense or your linebacker on defense. The guys that can run some, can catch, can block, can beat blocks, can tackle, basically guys that are just pure football players.
North Dakota State has lots of guys that are pretty good in a lot of roles and the fact that they tend to redshirt many of them and coach them for four or five years allows them to teach them a lot of different skills and tactics.
The Bison regularly run out players like Chase Morlock, a 6’0” 221 pound senior from Minnesota, who can throw blocks, run the ball, or run routes and it allows them to go empty with five wideouts or big with tight ends and fullbacks without substituting personnel.
On defense they have safeties like Robbie Grimsley, a 6’0” 181 pound sophomore also from Minnesota, who are capable of dropping down in the box, playing a deep zone, or even playing some man coverage. That allows them to mix in man coverage, tons of blitzes, a few varieties of quarters coverage, and a few varieties of Tampa-2. They aren’t flooding the field with matchup proof athletes but the guys they do have out there are very capable of moving around and ganging up on what you do best while disguising their own weaknesses.
Perhaps the best way to compete with teams that can recruit elite athletes is to recruit well rounded players that lack elite attributes but can execute lots of different concepts. Maybe that kind of versatility is an overlooked attribute, a market inefficiency in the recruiting rankings that explains the otherwise inexplicable success of North Dakota State.
It probably also helps if they are tough as hell and willing to throw punches with Big 10 teams for four quarters until they make their opponent quit.