FARGO — The move to Division I football meant more than increasing scholarships and finding better players for North Dakota State. The Bison needed a few friends to help them find some games.
And in the Southland Conference, NDSU found several helping hands. Nicholls State (La.) and Northwestern State (La.) both agreed to play the Bison in 2004, the first year of Division I FCS football. Stephen F. Austin (Texas) was added to the 2006 schedule and Sam Houston came to the Fargodome in 2007.
Those were the years when the Bison were in the five-team Great West Football Conference and in need of nonconference games. The Southland obliged. And, of course, the connection became further enhanced when NDSU and Sam Houston played in back-to-back FCS title games in 2011 and 2012, with the Bison winning both of those.
It was the first of eight titles in nine years in a game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, that has been hosted by the Southland.
“For the rivalry to be a true one, we have to win some of those games,” said Southland commissioner Tom Burnett. “They’ve been great for this level of football. Taking off my Southland hat and putting on my FCS hat, I’m proud of what the Bison have done over time and our connection with the championship game. To have that group visit us frequently has been fantastic.”
But starting next fall, the Texas-based conference will look drastically different when Sam Houston, Lamar, Stephen F. Austin and Abilene Christian will join the Western Athletic Conference and Central Arkansas leaves for the Atlantic Sun Conference.
It means NDSU’s trip to Sam Houston this weekend for an FCS quarterfinal matchup at Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas, will be a swan song of sorts for these two programs in their Missouri Valley Football Conference vs. Southland battles. The 2 p.m. Sunday kickoff will be aired by ESPN.
Central Arkansas will join Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State in the ASUN. Kennesaw State (Ga.) and North Alabama will join the league in 2022. At five members, the league hasn’t reached the minimum of six in order to attain automatic qualifier status to the FCS playoffs, but the conjecture is Austin Peay or Chattanooga are considering leaving the Ohio Valley and Southern Conference, respectively, for the ASUN.
The league has a scheduling alliance for next season with the WAC and that’s where the mix gets complicated.
WAC member New Mexico State and ASUN member Liberty will remain Division I FBS independents, while ASUN school Stetson (Fla.) will stay in the non-scholarship Pioneer League. Southern Utah of the Big Sky Conference will join the WAC in 2022. Tarleton State (Texas) and Dixie State of the WAC are still reclassifying to Division I but are part of the schedule.
Burnett did not want to get into the specifics of why the schools left his league, saying he spent a lot of time with the departing members to see if anything could be resolved. A lack of investment in football has reportedly been a dominating reason.
“I think there are a lot of reasons,” said Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler. “I think our whole thing is to figure out what is going to be the best fit for us.”
The result will leave the Southland with six current members: Southeastern Louisiana, Northwestern State (La.), Incarnate Word, Houston Baptist, McNeese State and Nicholls.
“We’re not unlike some other conferences that have had to realign themselves,” Burnett said. “When we’ve done it before, we’ve been able to readjust and put ourselves in a good position competitively and geographically. Our group now that is continuing on is very optimistic we can do that again.”
Burnett said long-term planning that began in January will have more clarity this summer, perhaps in June. That includes possible expansion, although there appear to be no imminent candidates. The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) is the closest FCS league geographically.
“This is a league that whatever changes we’ve gone through, we’ve come out of it in a good spot,” Burnett said. “There’s a lot of confidence we can do it again. Since January, I don’t know if I can recall such a good spirit of cooperation among our ongoing members. That’s been refreshing. What we’re focused on is institutions in our geography. There’s an opportunity to tighten our geography more so than previously. We can find some new members to come in and help lift this conference.”
On a national scale, if the ASUN and WAC achieve automatic qualifier status to the FCS playoffs, that would bring the number of AQs to 13. And it would further cut into the number of at-large entrants in the 24-team field, which based on past history, could affect the Missouri Valley.
There was a time when the WAC was considered a prominent FBS football league. Former member Brigham Young won a national championship in 1984. Other members included San Diego State, Hawaii, Air Force, Utah, Colorado State and Wyoming.
But the ascension of the Mountain West Conference in 1999 essentially started the downfall of the WAC, which dropped football after the 2012 season. Sam Houston is part of the startup next fall.
“I think it’s going to be a great conference, I really do,” Keeler said.
Keeler pointed to the “great” football facilities of the departing Southland members. Sam Houston is in the midst of a $15.6 million renovation of its Mafrige Field House, which will include a new football locker room, meeting rooms and administration complex.
“I think we have some people who are committed to having a great football league,” Keeler said.
There is talk of the WAC eventually going FBS, Keeler said, but that’s a decision for another day. His only concern is another matchup with NDSU. Just like old times.
“I love FCS football, I love anywhere you can win a championship,” he said. “I think it’s the coolest thing in the world. I think the chance to win a national championship in this kind of format is awesome. I think the WAC is going to be good to us.”
What the affected leagues will look like in 2022:
Stephen F. Austin