FARGO-It could be a dogfight when trying to decipher the best team ever in NCAA Division I FCS football. Generally, two candidates emerge from a pool of great teams since the subdivision was formed in the early 1980s: Marshall of 1996 and North Dakota State of 2013.
Both went 15-0, although they did it different fashion. Marshall had wide receiver Randy Moss and a virtually unstoppable offense. NDSU had a relentless defense and probably better overall team balance, including the winningest quarterback in FCS history.
That Bison team produced 11 professional players and a few others who had a shot at it. The defense was so stout that Los Angeles Chargers linebacker and 2014 FCS Buck Buchanan winner Kyle Emanuel rotated at defensive end and finished seventh on the team in tackles.
Statistically, that Bison team gave up 11.3 points per game. Opponents averaged only 91.3 yards rushing and 255.9 total yards per game and they had just a 26-percent success rate on third down.
It's hard to sustain many scoring opportunities when your offense fails on third down three out of four times.
The players? You can start with Emanuel and input cornerbacks Marcus Williams and CJ Smith. All three are on NFL rosters. Williams set the FCS record for most interceptions returned for touchdowns with seven and his 21 career picks set the Bison school mark.
That defense seemingly had it all.
You can make a strong case the 2017 defense was just as good.
This team gave up 11.6 points per game. Opponents averaged 89.5 yards rushing and 237.4 total yards per game and they had just a 25-percent success rate on third down. Three of those figures are better than the 2013 team and the points given up is just a fraction more.
"Where I see the comparison is both teams were good at all three levels," Bison head coach Chris Klieman said of the defensive line, linebackers and secondary. "You talk about the line, we rotated a bunch of guys in both those seasons. That's where you have to be dominant in the FCS is the defensive line and you take both those teams they were dominant on the defensive line."
You don't win an FCS title on defense alone. Or offense alone and certainly not with special teams alone.
NDSU finished the year second in scoring defense in the FCS, a half of a point behind James Madison. The Bison were also dynamite on the other side of the ball, finishing second in scoring offense at 38.7 per game. The normal course of action is you're either highly nationally ranked in one or the other, not both.
This team was a statistical freak of nature.
Defense: Remarkable balance
Some say it's debatable if the term "defense wins championships" is actually a proven fact in college football. At the least, it held true at the FBS level this year: Alabama's 11.9 points per game given up led the subdivision and the Crimson Tide defeated Georgia last week for the College Football Playoff national title.
In 2015 when Alabama won its last championship, it finished third in scoring defense and first in rushing defense.
"Defense should keep you in most games," Klieman said. "It may not win every game but it should keep you in most games."
The Bison defense was remarkable in balance, and also produced a rising star. Freshman linebacker Jabril Cox finished as the team's leading tackler with 75 stops, despite starting eight of 15 games. Cox was inserted into the lineup after injuries to junior linebackers Dan Marlette and Levi Jordheim.
"To be able to give Jabril Cox a role midway through the season was big," Klieman said.
Klieman also lauded senior Chris Board, a player who started his career at strong safety, was moved to the nickel or extra defensive back position before settling on linebacker. Board finished fourth in tackles and was particularly stout in the playoff run, including a critical tackle late in the game against James Madison.
"The last five weeks he played at a really high level," Klieman said.
Certainly, having senior linebacker Nick DeLuca in the middle was the calming force. Other calming forces: all-conference safeties Robbie Grimsley and Tre Dempsey. They combined for 10 interceptions, but more importantly, it was what they did between plays that was perhaps more valuable.
"They made the young guys feel comfortable and protected," Klieman said.
Offense: Methodically superior
The last time the Bison were in Frisco, Texas, quarterback Carson Wentz was running the West Coast offense and one of the biggest factors for the Bison coaching staff was the ability of Wentz to change the play at the line of scrimmage. A fifth-year senior, Wentz was virtually his own offensive coordinator on the field.
That didn't change last week. This year, the offensive coordinator on the field was fourth-year junior Easton Stick-already the owner of his undergraduate degree-and the Bison offensive staff wasn't shy about letting Stick have his say on the best play to run.
Often, Klieman and offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said, the coaches would give Stick two play calls and it was his judgment at the line of scrimmage as to which one to call.
"In the style of system we run, that's probably not that uncommon," Messingham said. "But I think generally it goes back to if the quarterback truly understands the 'why.' Why do we have these two plays together? Why is this the best option for him to go to? The more comfortable you are that the quarterback understands the why, the more at ease you are of giving him more latitude."
In essence, that was the case in Stick's most important throw in the title game-a 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Darrius Shepherd on third-and-17. In this case, it was the fact Stick didn't change the call at the line of scrimmage.
Klieman said Stick recognized the coverage he wanted, a look the offense practiced countless times in the three weeks leading up to the game. That play gave the Bison a 14-3 lead with less than five minutes to play in the first half.
That kind of clutch play was common not only throughout the season but particularly effective in the playoffs.
"Just Easton's maturity and how much more comfortable he felt in the offense," Klieman said. "We gave him more freedom and put a lot more things on his plate. It's hard to do that with a young guy. We gave him a lot of responsibility at the line of scrimmage and he was flawless at it. The things he was able to retain with the game plan was remarkable."
Stick finished an efficient 164-of-264 passing for a 62 percent completion percentage, close to the target for a West Coast quarterback. He had 28 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
Three of those picks came against South Dakota State in early November. But in the six games after that, the only interception was a meaningless fourth quarter pick against Sam Houston State.
All the while, the Bison running game was at its best. NDSU finished fourth in the FCS in yards per game at 272.2 per game.
A wall of a defense. An opportunistic and at times explosive offense with a crunching running game. Put those two together and you're tough to beat.
In the end, NDSU was.