FARGO — For the first time, North Dakota State has been mentioned in a national publication as being a possible addition to a Football Bowl Subdivision conference.
In a story posted Thursday, Sept. 23, in The Athletic, national college football writer Chris Vannini reported that Mountain West athletic directors met this week to discuss how FBS conference realignment is affecting their league and to put together contingency plans in case the MWC loses teams.
The discussions included "the value of staying together, potential conference additions or even staying at 10 football-playing schools should two leave," Vannini reported.
"Some people in the MWC have pointed to North Texas, Rice and UTSA as potential additions if the conference wants to reach into Texas, while also pointing to North Dakota State if on-field football success is more important. Unlike the AAC, there are not many options within the current footprint out west," Vannini reported.
As the FBS conference realignment pieces continue to fall, the MWC might lose two teams to the AAC, which itself lost three teams to the Big 12 Conference, which had to restock after losing Texas and Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference.
What it means is that if the MWC loses, say Colorado State and Air Force to the AAC, the MWC might be seeking to add two programs to maintain its football membership at 12.
That's where NDSU could enter the picture. There are some in the athletic department who would like to see NDSU explore leaving the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision for the FBS, possibly only in a football-only scenario. How realistic that is remains to be seen, but there was frustration in the department over how FCS and the Missouri Valley Football Conference handled the COVID-affected fall 2020 season and the subsequent spring 2021 schedule.
There is also the belief among some that the Bison football program, which won eight FCS national championships in nine years between 2011-19 and have had winning streaks of 39 and 32 games, can't accomplish anything more at its current level. Some donors are hesitant to give, asking, "Why should I give more money when you win every game anyway?"
A move up to FBS would be a major hurdle.
If an invitation from the Mountain West did come, it would likely have to be for football only — and that might be a deal-breaker for the conference. It's unlikely NDSU could afford to move all of its sports to the Mountain West because of exorbitant travel costs.
As I wrote in a column in December urging NDSU to explore an FBS move, such a jump — even if only for football — would also cost significantly more money. There are 22 more scholarships (63 in FCS, 85 in FBS), a bigger recruiting budget, higher coaching salaries, more staff — but there are opportunities for more revenue.
The Mountain West signed a six-year, $270 million national TV deal this year from which NDSU would take a cut.
Nonconference "guarantee" games, in which big schools pay smaller schools to play, would generate more money in FBS than the Bison currently receive in FCS (Wyoming will be paid $1.85 million to play at Texas in 2023; NDSU was guaranteed $650,000 to play at Oregon in a 2020 game that was canceled).
Donor money would likely increase, perhaps substantially, with a switch to playing at a higher level. There would be a boost in interest, and a will to succeed, if NDSU pushes forward.
The conference realignment chaos isn't over, and it's possible NDSU's name will become more prominent in MWC discussions if the expected happens and the league loses two teams to the AAC. There is then the possibility the Big 12 raids the MWC for more teams, as well, meaning NDSU will almost certainly become a regular mention as a possible addition to the league.